What’s a web journal for if not admitting shameful truths? Before we got Gatsby, I was shown Cesar Milan’s show by a friend and fell for the attractive but completely erroneous idea that domestic dogs want “pack leaders” and that the key to successful dog training was all in a tone of voice, a cocked eyebrow, and confidence.
Maybe it’s just a moral failing on my part, or maybe it’s that science has completely discredited that idea, but our experiments in dominance theory dog rearing were blessedly brief. Instead, we turned to the time-honoured approach of positive reinforcement. Then, like most dog owners, we proceeded to slack off and allow our giant dog up on the couch because it’s cute.
Lately, though, I’ve realized that duh, we can’t move to Amman with a mostly-trained giant dog. So we’ve been working on Gatsby’s problem spots – defending the family from strange noises in the hall, and being so! excited! to meet other dogs that he pulls towards them.
After a bit of reading, we decided that clicker training might help us. The idea is that instead of reinforcing your dog’s behaviour with a treat (because it can be hard to shove a treat into their mouth the exact second they do the behaviour), you train them that a clicking noise means that they’ll get a reward, and click every time they do the behaviour. That way, even if Gatsby is far away from me, I can instantly reward him for something by clicking, and then walk over to him and give him a treat. Those few seconds are crucial, because dogs don’t understand consequences the way we do – I could reason with a human child that if they’re good now a treat will follow, but for dogs it has to be immediate.
By the third day of clicker training, workmen came into our apartment and Gatsby didn’t bark. A week in, and people are having drunken conversations outside of our door while Gatsby drools at my feet. He’s not at 100% yet, but I think with continued efforts, he’ll be an acceptable neighbour for our new home.
Pulling is a bit harder to work on, because the other dogs are obviously out of our control – sometimes they’ll meet him halfway, which to Gatsby means that the pulling worked. We’re hoping to borrow a friend’s dog so that one of us can stand still with the lure dog while the other approaches painstakingly slowly with Gatsby ad nauseum.
If I could ever send a message to my past self, I might point out that having a dog is expensive, frustrating, time-consuming, and covers everything you own with surprisingly sharp fur. But this giant adorable creature has somehow really cemented his place as a part of our family, so I want to make sure that he’s the best-behaved that his tiny brain can handle.