By Bob McMillan
It’s true, I did not time this very well.
It was Indian Summer when I got my Irish wolfhound puppy, Oona. We frolicked in the yard among the butterflies and roses. This month, Old Man Winter’s hung a big “kick me” sign on my Tennessee county. The Arctic chill let up just long enough for it to rain. Again. The yard is either slime or… frozen slime. It’s unfit for either polar bears or mud ducks.
And Oona is a canine juvie now. With cabin fever. A 100-pound six-month old. She’s three inches shorter than Finn, our adult Irish wolfhound. We measured her one night when she came down off the ceiling, where she was living the outlaw life.
I know. I do sound obsessed with this puppy. Actually, it’s survival and mental stability I’m obsessed with. Also, I’d like to maybe keep my nose? At night she affectionately pins me to the couch with her giant paws and rains down the puppy kisses. And then decides, what the heck, and idly nibbles on my nose like a Slim Jim. She’s growing teeth. It makes her feel better. She flutters those long lashes again. Okay, my nose was way too big, anyway.
Train her? You bet I am. Oona began a puppy class the week we brought her home. She’s house-trained and knows all the basics: Sit, Stay, Spit Out The Cat and Leave It. She walks well on a leash. She hasn’t figured out yet that she’s strong enough to jerk me into tomorrow. We’re keeping that our little secret. Trouble is, like humans when they hit their teens, she’s moody and restless. She still remembers all her training. She just doesn’t have the patience for it. Not while she’s riding that dreaaaamy Finn like a jockey to grab his attention. Or playing whack-a-mole with our other two addled dogs.
So, I’m raising a colossal brat? Nooooo. She’s a dark-coated beauty with big black eyes. Oona’s lithe like a dancer or, okay, maybe a cage fighter. She doesn’t lope — she floats. She’s agile like a monkey. She gets her workout in the living room flipping up tennis balls with her nose, catching them on the other side of the room and flipping them back. Because cats won’t hold still long enough. I’m not raising a brat. I’m raising a colossal kung fu fighter. With bratty episodes.
I was recently comparing notes with the owners of Oona’s sibs. A couple were bemoaning that their puppies can now counter surf since their “puppies” are tall enough to look down on the kitchen counters. The world is their oyster. They’ll maybe have some of that roast, too. Eeaaauuu, look, butter! And it began to sink in that at six months, these puppies are bigger than most other dogs, nearly as big as adult wolfhounds. And — get this — they don’t stop growing for four years. I’m going to need a bigger… aircraft hanger.
Thank goodness for cheese. Cheese makes the world right again. Months of early training and a pinch of cheese and Oona snaps right out of her manic whirl and sits at my feet, eyes glittering intently. Here I’ve noticed a difference in our male and female hounds. The guys are the original Good-Time Charlies. Cheese? Sure, let’s snack and then we’ll go dig up the back yard and chase the chickens, yuk, yuk, yuk… Females are all about the payoff. They’re all business. It takes a while to reel the guys in. Oona can be whirling like a twister doing five things at once, but bring out the cheese and — whoosh — she’s ready to talk terms.
Which is why I’m spending so much time this winter training a big girl in a tiny living room. I’m no professional trainer. I’m a desperate pet owner and I celebrate the power of the cheese. The X-pen where she sleeps, hoards her toys and bones and goes to give the cats and other dogs a sanity break, fills up much of the living room. There’s little space to manuever. That’s fine. We’re using targeting and learning to fetch, find the toy and other games to give her a mental workout, learn self control and practice her focus.
Once spring comes, the ground quits sucking down shoes and cattle and the ice sheets pull back to Manitoba, Oona can get back outside taking walks, chasing butterflies and destroying Tokyo. But she’ll have formed the habit of listening to the tiny voice of the old guy with the cheese. She’ll understand many of the words and know what’s required for the payoff. She’ll see that self-restraint is an advantageous option. And, come spring, she’ll be able to zoom like a missile again safely outdoors. Instead of on all four surfaces of the living room. I’m pretty sure we can hang on until then.
As long as the cheese holds out…
If you’re looking for ways to train your dog the force-free way not only in winter but around the year, the Pet Professional Guild is the place to find resources and certified force-free professionals near you. For more information on the PPG and its upcoming inaugural summit, go to https://www.petprofessionalguild.com/Force-free-Summit.