Thursday, September 4, 2014

Late Bloomers

This is Allister. He doesn't get much blog time by virtue of being almost perfect. What I mean is that he's not quite as awesome as Cannon and Piper, but not nearly as crazy as the pit bulls. He's just kind of . . . stuck in the middle. I've had Allister since he was nine weeks old, and I did a bitchin' job of socializing and training him, if I do say so myself. He's not afraid of anything, behaves at the vet, is polite to strangers, and has an amazing drop on recall. Allister has just one itty-bitty, tiny, little, GINORMOUS flaw.

Allister barks.

He also screams, yodels, whines, howls, and meows (I'm not even kidding). Basically, Allister has Opinions, and like most people with strong opinions, he thinks everyone should hear about them. I've spend most of the last five years trying to get Allister to shut the heck up already. I tried everything: positive reinforcement, negative reinforcement, positive punishment, clickers, bark collars, peanut butter, EVERYTHING. And mostly what I accomplished was to make Allister and I incredibly frustrated - to the point where we wanted nothing to do with each other. Then I had a bit of an epiphany at the beginning of this year:

Allister barks.

It is part of who he is. If it were possible to train him to be quiet, I would have been able to do it because I don't suck that badly at the mechanics of training. It's not in Allister to be silent much in the way it's not in me to be short or stop reading or sit still. This is a behavior I will not be able to stop. Ever. Time to pull myself out of this "make-Allister-stop-barking" rut.

With this new perspective, I went back to my toolbox with the idea of compromise. I could not stop Allister's barking, but neither could I tolerate not being able to hear myself think. I came away with two tools.

The first one was easy: differential reinforcement of a incompatible behavior, a.k.a. The Ball Gag Strategy. You see, Allister loves to fetch and carry and bring me things. So we worked on teaching Allister to carry a ball in his mouth whenever we left the house. It was a little tricky, and it's not perfect yet. Sometimes when he barks, the ball falls out, and I have to remind him to put it back in. The ball definitely doesn't stop him from barking, but it does muffle him enough that I can carry a conversation with someone else. As it turns out, that's mostly what I wanted anyway.

The second step was harder: Allister and I grew up. Allister is a brilliant, driven, wicked sharp dog, and like most geniuses, he can be hard to live with. But over the last year or so, some of Allister's cutting edges have softened. He's more patient, and less likely to fly off the handle and start yelling at me when he doesn't understand what I want. And for my part, I've learned to focus less on the shiney ideals of want and more on what we - this marvelous Allister-Laura dynamic - need. I made the grievous mistake of trying to force my dog to be who I wished instead of focusing on who he is, and we're both ready to forgive and move on.

It's as if I'd spent my life only dealing with SUVs. I love SUVs, their versatility and power, their strength and durability, and I like to think that I'm a pretty decent SUV mechanic. But a few years ago, someone handed me the keys to a sleek Porsche 911, and I started fantasizing about fast curves and races and all the pretty ribbons. But the handling was too sensitive, and the clutch was just plain weird, and I hit the brakes and almost spun out. So I freaked out and threw the car in the garage and hid the keys under the couch and tried to pretend that I'd never had a Porche 911 in the first place. It wasn't my proudest moment. But here's the things about Porsche 911s and little weasel dogs:

They want to be driven.

So I started sneaking my baby out of the garage. Just short trips around the block. Then little jaunts to the park. An easy little dog show, just building up our confidence in each other a scrap at a time. And I'm starting to think that I might actually be able to pull this off. But even if we never make it to the Big Times, I'll tell you what -

It's still a hell of a ride.


  1. Love this blog. Love Allister. Carry on...