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Musing: For Whom The Treat Tolls
I’ve created a monster. Every day, he demands more and more. His insatiable appetite grows.
Our early boundaries, so clear and distinct, blurred as time passed. Now they have little meaning and he knows it. I’m not sure where I went wrong or how to get out of the debt, but I need to confess what I’ve done.
I know for whom the treat tolls. It tolls for me.
To explain how I arrived at this point, you need to understand I can’t imagine not having dogs in my life. We’ve been a multi-dog household for over three decades. That’s a lot of muddy paw tracks and tufts of loose fur.
Most of them have been rescues. Anyone who has ever adopted an adult canine can tell you they come with baggage. They can’t help their past, so they lug their fears and misbehaviors into the house.
We humans have an obligation to help them overcome their obstacles. With lots of love and guidance, we help them become a part of our pack.
Over the years, we’ve had some quite challenging cases. Some had lost faith in humans and were wary of our intentions. Others carried a long list of ill-learned traits that they’d never been taught were wrong.
Roscoe was not one of those tough nuts to crack. He got along well with the other dogs from the first day and quickly learned the house rules. He only has a single challenge—his little furry brain disengages when we meet other dogs on trails.
To be clear, he isn’t aggressive. He doesn’t growl, snap, bark, lunge, or do anything else like that. He does, however, leap into the air, twist and turn, and perform an astonishing display of gymnastics. It’s an athletic tour de force, albeit a socially unacceptable one.
And so, we needed to teach him how to remain calm when encountering others. We were ready to help him.
The trick to training behavior is learning what motivates that particular dog. Whatever that is, he gets more of it when he performs properly, and less of it when he doesn’t. For some dogs, that’s attention, a kind word, an ear scratch. Some require effusive praise. Some need a companion canine to show them the ropes.
For Roscoe, his motivator was simple to spot. Food.
You know the old saying that the shortest distance between two points is a straight line? Not to Roscoe. Pick any two spots in our house, and he will tell you the only proper route must go through the kitchen. Just in case.
With the effective bounty identified, getting Roscoe to pass other dogs without an Olympic-worthy acrobatic display became a basic exercise. With a treat bag clipped to my waist, I could reward him as soon as we moved down the trail without incident.
We settled into a new routine. As soon as we spotted a dog during our walk, I extracted a treat and made sure Roscoe knew I had it. With his attention on me, we passed the other dog without incident. Once we had achieved enough distance, Roscoe received his reward. Sometimes that worked better than others, but repetition showed constant improvement.
Once we were consistently achieving this behavior, I waited until we passed the other dog before pulling out a treat. Roscoe knew it was coming, so didn’t need to see it in advance. We had achieved the proper behavior, and I was ready to celebrate.
I should explain here that Roscoe is a Siberian Husky. That creates a slight challenge.
We’ve had only Siberian Huskies for many years. We’re quite familiar with their quirks—and that list is long. The most important is their innate desire to disobey.
Imagine you were an indigenous person living on the Chukchi peninsula of Siberia. You lived with dogs that could pull your sleds over ice and snow, but you wanted them to be smart enough to avoid thin ice. Thus, you wanted a dog who would obey your commands, except when it was in the best interest of your dog—and, therefore, you—to disobey your command.
You’ve created a thinking dog who rationalizes a human command and decides whether it should be followed.
In the wilds of wintry Siberia, that may have a decided advantage. In middle America, however, they’re basically little furry lawyers continually looking for a loophole.
This manifests itself in amazing feats of logic. In Roscoe’s case, he decided our request meant he had to behave when we passed a dog he knew. He can waltz by a familiar one without batting an eye.
But a new canine? The olympic gymnast emerges.
With patience—and numerous treats—we reinforced the rules. We put ourselves into situations where he would meet others just so he could learn the expected behavior. Over time, he dramatically improved.
And, yes, he still gets a treat whenever we pass a dog. As soon as we have moved down the trail, he’s looking at me. Waiting. Knowing it’s coming.
And, since fair is fair, if Roscoe gets a treat, so does everyone else. Basically, he has become their advocate for a treat. I guess he is a furry class-action lawyer.
And he’s working to expand his legal expertise by suggesting broad interpretations of our agreement.
For example, we pass dogs in backyards that border our greenway. Roscoe pleaded his case that it requires as much canine restraint to pass a dog in a yard as it does on a trail. The judge considered the argument and conceded the point. Treat followed.
Then he claimed that if was pass a backyard where a dog lives, even if said dog isn’t outside and barking, that’s still a legitimate debt. He will argue with the extensive Siberian vocabulary of woos and howls until he’s fed.
With these wins, he’s found the pattern. We pass humans with dogs and he receives payment. We pass dogs in yards and the reward is his. We pass yards where dogs live, but they are snoozing inside on a couch, and the graft still comes his way.
Then he upped the ante further. We passed humans without dogs, and Roscoe suggested this should count. When I said that wasn’t the same, he encouraged the others to join him in protest. I collapsed under the chorus of Siberian woos.
One morning, we walked a hundred yards without incident and without seeing anyone else—human or canine. Roscoe argued that he’d behaved and deserved a treat. I refused, and the deepest sighs followed me as we trudged down the path. But I’d held my ground.
The penultimate came just the other day. We were out for our afternoon stroll on a quiet trail. A rotund squirrel waddled up a tree. Roscoe contemplated the disappearing tail—no doubt thinking through the tastiness of squirrel—and then his eyes lit up.
He had seen a challenging creature. He hadn’t misbehaved. That met all the conditions. He turned plaintive eyes toward me.
“Nope. The rule is passing dogs without incident.”
He wooed his Supreme Court worthy argument.
“Not going to happen.”
He sat down on the trail in front of me. The others, figuring out what he was up to, joined him. The result appears in the gratuitous dog photo below.
So, jury, how would you find?
Yeah, they got treats. I can only imagine where this goes next.
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Gratuitous Dog Photo: Pay The Treat Toll
For those of you who scoffed and think I caved too easily, could you resist these faces? Seriously, some of you are trying to give them treats through the screen.
On The Website This Week
Spectacular Vernacular Word of the Week: Bollard—Even if you know the name of these common security devices, do you know where the word comes from?
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Until Next Monday
If a furry creature demands you pay the treat toll, don’t resist. It’s futile.
See you next Monday.
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