Tuesday, September 16, 2014

I Took My Porsche Off-Roading

I've spent a big chuck of my life hearing my dad talk about how much he wishes he could do a solo wilderness camping trip - no one but him and the woods. So when I wound up with a few spare days this summer, I decided to take a solo hiking trip of my own. And since dogs don't count as people, I decided to take Allister along. I was pretty sure he'd enjoy it, and if he got loud, well, the only person he'd be annoying would be me.

For our trip, I picked a twenty-three miles section of the Superior Hiking Trail just north of Grand Mirais, Minnesota. The first day was spent driving and arriving at our drop-off point, which was an adventure in and of itself. We parked our van at the end of our trail and took a shuttle to the start. The shuttle driver took one look at Allister's stumpy little legs and started telling me horror stories about people who's dog's weren't able to keep up with them on the trails. And I laughed and laughed.

This dog could run circles around me any day of the week,
and I'm not exactly a wimp.
Knowing that we wouldn't get to our drop off point until mid-afternoon, I picked a campsite that was close. We hiked around a little to stretch our legs after six hours in the car, and then we settled into camp. And I discovered that while Allister enjoys hiking - yes, hiking is fine - camping is apparently something I failed to address before. It wasn't anything major; Allister was just confused about why, having hiked and played ball and picnicked, oh why were we not going back inside the house for a nap?

"Where are the beds, woman?"

Luckily, over the next several days, Allister seemed to settle into this whole "camping" idea, and it turned into an awfully good adventure.

Allister: I dropped my ball gag. Oops?
Me: *facepalm*

I won't go into the spiritual side of wilderness hiking. I'm pretty sure I've beaten that one to death over the past few years (plus I have two more camping trips that I did this year, and I need to have something to write about if I'm going to make you look at my vacation pictures).

Because seriously, how can you not believe you're part of something bigger out here?
But the trip was a good one for us. I don't often take the time to just hang out with Allister because, let's face it, Allister is really hard to just "hang out" with. He - and I - both want to be doing something, and it turns out that this hiking trip was a nice blend between doing and nothing. We had fun together. And when it comes down to it, that's all I really want from my relationship with my dogs anyway.

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.