Telluride Daily Planet, Friday, December 6, 2019
Last time I had an actual puppy in my life, I was 12. All the siblings had already graduated from high school, and it was just me and the ’rents in a big and overly quiet house. I don’t remember much about having Arbie as an 8-week-old, except how ridiculously cute he was getting piles of attention from the gang of kids I hung out with in 1970.
I think we paper trained him in the kitchen and hall, and basically had him on a leash outside unless under close observation. The yard was extensive, but it wasn’t fenced in, and he notoriously would disappear into the woods and down to Seattle’s Lake Washington only to be dragged home by the collar by my dad, covered in burrs or racoon bites, or smelling of dead fish. He was a smart dog with a large vocabulary, and by the time he died at 17, my mother was feeding him toast and a soft boiled egg every day by hand and holding a hose to his mouth for him to drink. They put him down right before my dad passed.
Now nearly 50 years later, another pup has appeared. And, of course, like many big decisions made in life, one hardly knew what one was doing. And then, before one is ready, one is falling in love with a little face and some bright eyes and extreme playfulness and trying to get on board with the endless walkies, the accidents, the barks, the biting and chewing and more chewing and, of course, that renewed intimacy with the darkest hours just before the dawn. Literally.
Suddenly, it was obvious we should have prepared a bit more. It was obvious we knew nothing about training a puppy, and so I quickly started scanning YouTube videos and listening to puppy podcasts and reading articles to see what the experts had to say about crate training and potty training, about biting, and barking and leash-walking, and clickers and high value treats and playpens and how your cat will deal with your dog and everything else under a puppy’s blindingly bright and cheerful sun.
Well, our cat lives on the second floor now. We’ve taken up a majority of the first floor rugs and sealed off a bunch of rooms. We have several collars and several leashes, several kinds of treats, chew toys, several kinds of consequences, several puncture wounds to go with the larger picture of kisses and snuggles. We’re unsure when the biting and barking will stop and how it will happen, or if the neighbors who haven’t seen his cute face can hear his strident voice even if he’s inside. From what we can tell, though, all these things aside, he’s actually doing really well. After all, he’s a Corgi — smart and stubborn and personality heavy. And, as my daughter points out, he’s also a dude!
Somewhere amid all the reading and listening and watching, and trying to play catch-up (after instantly having broken the No. 1 rule of bringing home the puppy: Don’t give him too much freedom too soon), I have a revelation.
I am watching YouTube’s most popular dog trainer, an actual genius of canine orchestration. He has this young puppy doing exactly what he wants with the proper use and timing of treats, moving his arms like a conductor and seemingly hypnotizing the dog into obedient goodness. He is consistent, upbeat and ready with the perpetual positive reinforcement. Most impressive, he is getting the desired results, and the puppies look happy! Not only does he get an email address out of me, he uses some sort of puppy-development algorithm, to shoot me — you guessed it — positive reinforcement, regularly and exactly when I need it.
Take a breather, dog whisperer says, in a targeted email I am sucking down in a gulp. Regroup. Have patience and come back in with positivity. Of course, what becomes clear is that this isn’t about training puppies at all, it’s about training us. I don’t think my parents were ever taught the value of consistent, long-term positive reinforcement, and therefore never had the wherewithal to pass it along. Now, a puppy is teaching me by spelling out the successful effects of a softer voice, consistent coaching and high-value treats. Some days are better than others.
Imagine for a moment that we are all givers and receivers of positive reinforcement. What a beautiful world it would be, where, instead of slouching into the ruts of negativity and doubt, we straighten up and blossom, turning our faces to the sun. Good boy. Good girl. Goodnight.