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September, 2007

Training Peri - A "Mission Impossible" Work in Progress

by Larry

Asked in the early 2000s what advice he would give 21st Century investors, Warren Buffett said "low expectations." This seems also an apt suggestion for Peri's owners when contemplating the results of her training. Indeed, though both Val and I have had several dogs, often terriers who are notoriously resistant to pedagogy, Periwinkle is a special case and has proven unusually recalcitrant.

"Training" for our best of all possible pets began before she had been weaned, as she was getting used to her original home, with small children, in Killeen, TX. When I drove up there and met Peri, her siblings, her doggy mom and dad, the owners, and their kids, I learned a few things that would prove ominous. The youths had a game they liked to play, for example, that might have been called "toss the pup." They would roll Peri's tiny body up like a ball and throw it back and forth between them across the room while running and trying to avoid its being captured by the other urchin. Sometimes too she would be left on top of a high table, frequently falling to the carpet below. Such wild activity might have permanently scarred a less spirited animal, but Peri evidently was thrilled by and thrived on it. To this day, she is not only the most high energy, heedless of physical hazards canine we have ever had but also loves kids and always strains at her leash to get to and frenetically play with any children she sees on our walks, at family reunions, and so on.

Later, after Peri the bouncing beast had been saved and was being introduced to her new environment in Austin, her first owners called me and asked if I could help them find a new home for her papa too. He was a little smaller than Peri's mama, and it seems the latter was terrorizing daddy, frequently attacking him, even drawing blood. It turned out, ironically with almost no cooperation from the owners, I was able to get the male adopted into a good household, through the intervention of a Texas-wide wire hair fox terrier rescue organization. Not surprisingly, it appears Peri's complex pedigree includes a few genes for snappishness, but happily the behavior only occurs if she is frightened and feels she must defend herself.

She has a stubborn streak as well. And, more than any of our previous animals, she displays attitude. This can take any number of forms, from simply parking herself with as low a center of gravity as practicable when we tell her to "Come!" to throwing a snarly tantrum when not getting her way. Or, ever expressive, she may just give a jaundiced look, as though casting a dark spell upon us for being a bit too slow to provide her with attention or entertainment.

I had brought Peri to our Central Texas home as a surprise birthday present for Val, then visiting her mom in FL. This was still only weeks after we had lost Frisky, a comparatively well-behaved angel who had endeared herself to us for almost 15 years. From the beginning, teaching eight- to ten-week-old Peri certain basics by myself was the biggest dog training challenge I had ever encountered. In fact, a year later Peri was still having an exasperatingly high number of "accidents."

Next, getting her used to a collar had been hard enough, but the first few times I put a leash on her, Peri would cry with great volume and pathos and simply lie down.

Despairing of our ever getting her housebroken and minimally obedient, I was all for an early training class. I would learn that the creatures have to be several months old first. But once that threshold had been reached by our blessed one, I could not wait for the formal schooling to begin. Alas, with Peri the outcomes of official training were as dismal as from her home schooling. She was hysterically funny in class but learned practically nothing. Apparently stimulated by the challenges, Peri would quickly master all the tricks and commands with no problem, then disregard them almost completely.

If the dogs were to sit quietly when a toy or food stimulus were put near them but out of reach, she would instead roll onto on her side and stretch out till barely able to pull it toward her. She was fond of teasing the other dogs too, quietly egging them on when the teacher was trying to get the class back to good order and discipline. Typically, the instructor would be saying something like "Now everyone just ignore Peri!" but she would then repeatedly leap upward, four or more feet off the floor, continuously, so that it was impossible not to pay attention to her.

Thinking the difficulty was just that the first dog trainer (a well-meaning young lady at our close south Austin Pets Mart) was too inexperienced to know how to deal with such a beast, we almost immediately enrolled her in another class, this one taught up in a north Austin park by folks who really knew what they were doing. The result, however, was the same.

Peri did learn at last not to pee or poop in the house, at least the great majority of the time. And she took away from class the ability, if and when she feels like it, to sit and stay for a few seconds each. She will come on command if she suspects there may be a snack, a walk, or a ride in it for her.

With the enticement of offered rawhide treats, we later would train Peri to sit up, spin around, lie down, and roll over, all tasks she learned almost at once. She now will go through the whole routine in one graceless flowing motion that ends in about a second, but she seems incapable of doing just one of these tricks at a time or even of knowing the difference between doing merely the first and all of them together.

Peri began training her owners in the proper way to take her for a walk early on. She never paid any attention to the command to "Heel!" A choke collar was added, and it initially had virtually no effect. Now she would just bound ahead till being strangled by the collar, wheeze alarmingly, and keep pulling with all her might.

After weeks and months of our efforts to rein in Peri, when the occasional intrepid guest comes into our abode, our manic beast as yet must either be closed up in her kennel (or another room) or she goes into a frantic display of greeting behavior so energetic and persistent as to intimidate the most ardent lover of dogs.

No doubt thinking this meant the poor deprived creature had never been given necessary instruction, a recent appalled yet well intentioned older visitor to our home and hearth suggested I take Peri in hand and provide her the proper educating that she so clearly lacks! Hmm.

The latest gambits I shall try with our pooch, or she with me, are lessons in leadership from "The Dog Whisperer." Supposedly, his system is foolproof. But is it also Peri-proof? Wish me luck!

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