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Opposable Thumbs Don’t Count - by Lori Windsor Mohr

Opposable Thumbs Don’t Count - by Lori Windsor Mohr

“Boy, you must really like this stuff," the grocery clerk says with a grin. He scans five packs of Healthy Choice 97% Fat Free Honey-Roasted and Smoked Turkey Breast.

I smile through clenched jaw. If you only knew the half of it. She'd better like it. The well-trained dog is a happy dog, that's what the Pug book said. Sounds reasonable. Larry and I had raised two well-adjusted kids to adulthood. How hard could it be to train a pug? That’s what I’d thought before my solo attempts went bust. Our local Parks and Recreation offered a course in basic obedience. I enrolled Lucy in a Saturday class.

A quick stop at the pet store and Lucy and I arrive on time at the park. My pocket is stuffed with lamb chews, the store’s best-selling treat. Lucy is a picture of canine compliance in her bubble gum-pink harness. We make our way over and meet the five other participants—a golden Retriever, Border Collie, Lab mix, a sheep dog, and a pair of Jack Russells, who don’t count as little dogs.

Our instructor, a veteran dog trainer named Liz, introduces herself and explains her training approach. First principle: we use only positive reinforcement, The clicker method consists of training through reinforcement of desired behavior using rewards. Treats. "No, no, bad dog!” is not in The Clicker Coach's vocabulary, nor would it be in ours. The key to successful training is finding the right reward. Liz promises once we achieve mastery of basic obedience we can have a well-behaved dog. We will have laid the groundwork for a rich and satisfying relationship. A happy, secure dog is one who knows what’s expected of him. The coach’s pedigree included training working dogs, hunting dogs, and service dogs. Happy dogs because they know what their owners expect of them. Pugs are innately happy because they already know what's expected of them—companionship. A lap. And they’re secure because with a face like that, no one can resist giving in to a pug.

Liz will assess each dog/owner pair on mastery of the most important command, the sine qua non for all further training: "Come. Without this essential command, there's no point in teaching anything else. It's about safety, but it's also about establishing who's in charge. The owner trains the dog, not the other way around. If your dog is doing something wrong, it’s because you’ve failed in training him.”

It's confirmed. She doesn't know pugs.

"So in class and practice at home, I don't want you to show any treats. This is about rewards, not bribery."

My stomach sinks. The one weapon in my arsenal, banned. I don't think of treats as bribery, more as incentive. Motivation. The carrot without the stick. The other dog parents finish demonstrating their skill levels with Come. Their dogsdid respond to the command, some faster than others. It's our turn. I tug Lucy’s leash.

"Okay, Lori, go ahead and let your dog...Lucy is it?...off leash." Liz steps back. All eyes are on us. I disconnect the leash. Lucy trots about fifty feet away. She stops to sniff. “Go ahead and call her now. And don't let her know what's in your pocket."

“Lucy, come!” She ignores me. I call again, louder.

Lucy glances in my direction. She doesn’t come. I look at Liz with a forced chuckle. "I don't know why she isn't coming. My husband and I practice this at home using a rope, like the training book says, with Lucy at one end, us at the other with bits of steak.” What I didn't tell her was that as long as we had the goods, Lucy delivered. She would come to us right on cue. When the treats ran out, as they invariably did, Lucy’s obedience flagged. It became a contest of wills, with Lucy as victor. Larry and I persisted until Lucy's escalating weight and our diminishing patience made clear that two of us working with one pug wasn’t fair—we’d need more help if we had any hope of mastering obedience with Lucy.

I knew what Liz would say next.

"Let me guess. As long as Lucy knew you had treats, she came."

I’d been set up. And fell right in. I walk over and get Lucy.

“That’s okay, that’s why we’re here.” Coach Liz turns to the group, one arm extended toward me and Lucy. "What you’re seeing is the result of bribery. Lucy has no reason to obey the command. She doesn’t see what’s in it for her because she hasn’t seen a treat. Textbook example of why bribery doesn’t work in training. As long as the dog knows she'll get a treat, she'll do whatever you want."

Whatever? Hardly.
Liz continues. "That's how you get a fat dog. Bribery works short term. But what happens when you’re in a situation where you need her to come and you have no treat? You’re no longer in control of your dog. The dog has trained you to bring treats if you want her to obey.”

Should I tell her that's my plan?

“The trained dog understands what’s expected and that she’ll get a reward after she obeys. That's reinforcement. See the difference? I'll show you." She scoops Lucy in her arms and walks away from me.

Great. We’re now a test case demonstrating right vs. wrong, bribery versus reinforcement. I'm in third grade again, standing in front of the class, the teacher using my erroneous math computation as an example of what happens when you don’t follow the steps.

Failure is imminent. I know my pug.

"Lucy, Come!" I watch with bated breath. She looks around at the sound of her name. I’ve got her attention. She spots something sticking up in the grass. A six-inch weed beckons her. When Lucy relieves herself she likes to first brush against a leaf or plant. This one had a number of offshoots to choose from. We're cooked.

A golden Retriever breaks free from the group and runs toward Liz. As she lunges for the leash, her attention is diverted. I seize the moment. In a high-pitched voice sweet enough to draw a humpback whale to shore, I call to Lucy. "Mama got treats!”

She stops, turns to me, ears perked, no doubt weighing the veracity of my offer. I lean forward, hand thrashing in my pocket. Liz hands the Retriever off to its owner and resumes focus on Lucy in time to watch her race across the grass in a stunning display of athleticism, her bug eyes black with adrenalin. She hurls herself against my thigh, sniffing the pocket.

Liz calls out. "Click and treat, Lori. Let's make sure she connects the reward with the behavior. Nicely done."

Oh yeah, I’ve got complete control of this dog. Lucy inspects the lamb treat. A food critic assigning Michelin stars at a greasy spoon would be hard pressed to come up with such a look of disdain. Liz approaches Lucy with an offer of string cheese. Lucy gives her the same look.

"Keep trying, Lori, you'll find something that works. Then she'll be putty in your hands."

Right. I'll be a sculptor chiseling Lucy into a model of compliance. Why, some day I could trot alongside her at Westminster.

Mercifully, the hour ends. I bask in relief on the drive home. We have survived the first class. Then it hits me. Next week is "Sit."


Next Time: Will Lori train Lucy to sit, establish dominance over the pug, or decide she and Lucy will be happy without formal training?


Lori Windsor Mohr, a native Californian, taught nursing for Cal State Dominguez Hills after earning her master’s degree from UCLA. While raising a family she continued writing. At Pug Talk Magazine, two-time winner of the American Breed Writer's Award, she was a featured author with dozens of stories published. Lori also wrote for the National Disaster Search Dog Foundation during her years of service. Her debut novel, THE ROAD AT MY DOOR, follows a Southern California family in 1960's suburbia in pursuit of the American Dream as deep-held secrets threaten to destroy them. Published by Alfiedog Fiction in the UK, it is available on Amazon in paperback and Kindle, and soon on audible.com. The mother of two grown children, Lori lives in Ojai with her husband and three dogs.