I learned something about life recently. It is a lesson that may seem obvious to some people, but one I had never contemplated until the moment I found myself experiencing it firsthand. The life lesson I learned (and which I’m pretty sure is also an ancient Chinese proverb) is this: “It is terribly difficult to make your way across a snow covered yard with a 70 pound pit bull firmly attached to your ankle.” For those of you who haven’t experienced this, I highly suggest you just take my word for it.
How did I end up in this predicament? It started out innocently enough. I brought Gomez out in the back yard so he and I could have some one-on-one playtime. As I don’t need to explain to anybody at this point, this winter has been a brutal one, and Gomez has some energy to expend. I threw a ball for him and he pounced across our modest city back yard after it. We did this a few more times, and the last time I went to throw the ball, it slipped out of my hand and landed in the snow next to me. Gomez saw this and bounded toward me. When he got to my side, I could tell he was pretty amped up. “Get the ball!” I said, pushing it a little with my foot to remind him where it had landed. But instead of getting the ball, he looked at me and went straight for my boot. He latched on and started shaking his head back and forth, growling and generally having what seemed like a really fun time. For him. I was having the opposite kind of time. He had done this once before during back yard play, but it was with a glove I was wearing. Extracting my hand from the glove, I was then able to calmly lead him back in the house and put him in his crate for a much-needed cool down/time out.
But with the boot-in-mouth situation, foot extraction was going to prove tricky and we had the whole yard to traverse before I could lead him into the house. The last thing I wanted to do was reinforce the fun of the situation, but every time I picked up my foot to inch forward, he would gleefully shake his head and throw me completely off balance. Even better, Virginia, the old lady who lives next door, walked by while all this was happening. This is a woman who, when she first met Asha, said to us, “What a beautiful dog!” As she started to pet Asha she asked, “What kind of dog is she?” No sooner had I identified Asha as a pit bull mix, she pulled her hand away and said in a matter-of-fact voice, “She’s gonna turn on you someday.” So she was just the person I wanted to interact with at that moment. “Heeeey, Virginia,” I said nonchalantly like everything was totally normal. She looked at me with a blank stare and went in the house. I’m not fully expecting she’ll be a pit bull convert any time soon.
We finally made it to the back door, with me trying to keep this whole event as bland and unexciting as possible. Of course Gomez was enjoying every (reinforced) second. I yelled for Jamie and when she opened the door I said, “Could you please take him by the collar and calmly put him in his crate? That would be great, thanks.” I find that, when you’re dealing with an absolutely insane situation, communicating requests as if everything is fine prevents other people from freaking out. Jamie looked a little stunned, but did as I requested and did not even come close to freaking out.
Which was important since I was a little freaked out. That’s when I remembered one of the very first pit bulls I had ever met. It was in the early 2000’s while I was working at a small animal hospital. His name was Logan, he was the color of a ginger snap cookie and he was going to board with us for a couple days. My coworker said to me, “He’s a really sweet boy, but when you let him out of his crate, give him a piece of paper towel to carry in his mouth. Otherwise he’ll grab onto your clothes. He gets mouthy when he’s excited.” “That seems… crazy,” I thought to myself. But the next morning, I followed this “paper towel appeasement” protocol. He took it in his mouth and trotted to the door to go outside. As he waited for me to open it, his whole butt wagged as he made this growl/wheeze sound that seemed to say, “I know we don’t know each other, but I am thrilled to see you and am trying my level best not to explode with pure happiness and joy.” It occurs to me now that this dog was indeed displaying an impressive degree of self-control. And that Gomez was going to have to learn to do the same.
One of the things I’ve really started to appreciate about force free training is less about the actual training and more about the mindset. It is a mindset that allows me to be much less frustrated and much more forgiving when Gomez does something seemingly bone-headed or obnoxious. Because, quite literally, he doesn’t know any better. And if he’s doing something I don’t like, I owe it to him to teach him an alternative. I’m not planning to start handing him pieces of paper towel, but different strokes for different folks!
I’ve been working with Gomez on “leave it” and “drop it” (with much more success with the former at this point – but that’s still success) along with slowly increasing duration, distraction and distance with his “waits” and “stays.” My ultimate goal is to teach him structured games (“tug” and “fetch” specifically) with actual rules he understands so he can get amped up and play without me getting any more holes in my clothes/foot wear. We are still a long ways off from being game-ready, but we will get there. And then playtime will be fun for both of us.