Sunday, October 25, 2009

Adventures in Ridgeback training

Someone wrote that Cesar Milan’s programs are not useful for a normal dog. I tend to agree with that. I have watched a number of his programs and every program I’ve seen has been about fixing problem dogs. They are all interesting, but my Ridgeback girls aren’t problem dogs and they don’t need to be fixed.

Someone else defended Cesar and referred to a program in which he evaluated pups in terms of temperament. I haven’t seen that particular program, but it doesn’t surprise me. He is very knowledgeable about dogs and I have great respect for him. I did notice that he always takes dogs out on walks as part of his process. I haven’t done that as part of a conscious training or “fixing” procedure, but I have always enjoyed taking dogs for walks.

Many years ago my father-in-law, who had a small horse-ranch, had two somewhat “sharp” dogs. He had gotten Sport from a horse-trainer. Sport looked like a cross between a Rottweiler and some sort of Shepherd. Sport was a no-nonsense farm dog who would guard or do anything else his owner asked him to do. Chip was his son. He and Sport didn’t get along all that well. Neither dog invited a lot of attention from outsiders; although Sport would let Susan pet him. Susan had seen Sport a lot, but this particular incident occurred before I had a relationship with Sport or Chip.

One evening, I asked if I could take them for a walk. My father in law said “sure.” So I got their leashes and off we went. We were no longer in the house where my father-in-law ruled but out in the countryside where these dogs had to pay attention to me. We were outside in a rural area walking along an interesting road with interesting smells. My father in law didn’t do much walking back then; so perhaps these dogs had never been to the places we walked. Their focus was on the smells they encountered and the things they saw; but when we came to a street crossing with cars passing, and I ordered them to stop, they obeyed me.

When I saw Cesar begin many of his “fixing” procedures by taking dogs for walks I thought of Sport and Chip and of how my relationship with them improved as a result of a walk.

I’ve written often about the outings my girls and I take (off leash) at the river. My girls have never needed “fixing” but the walks have been good for them and would probably be good for any dog, problem dog or no.

I have never “trained” my girls. Sage doesn’t know how to “sit.” Susan thinks I have deprived Sage by not training her to sit, but where is she to sit, I ask? Out where we walk, sitting might put her on an ant hill.

Susan loved training and took Trooper to several training classes. But when we retired to San Jacinto the nearest equivalent was an agility training class. Ginger was very good at doing the exercises, but she was too gregarious, too social. She would complete an exercise and then rush off to visit one of the other dogs. The agility trainer suggested Susan take Ginger through an ordinary training class and then come back. But Susan’s health didn’t permit that.

I recall when Sage was young, Ginger ran down a slope and invited Sage to follow her, but Sage was apprehensive and wouldn’t do it. She wanted to, but she was scared; so Ginger ran up and down again and stood down there looking up at Sage. Ginger repeated this 4 or 5 times before Sage got up the nerve to follow. When she finally did, and learned it was easy, she did it over and over in obvious delight. In this situation, Ginger trained Sage.

On another occasion, when Ginger was a bit older but not fully grown, Ginger and Sage dashed on ahead. We were heading through the brush toward the river service road. Usually no one would be on it, but on occasion we would see a bicyclist using it or someone walking a dog. On this occasion Sage came running back toward me, obviously agitated. She dashed a short way toward the river road and then came back urging me to hurry. I hurried on ahead.

Up on the road was Ginger socializing with a Chesapeake Bay Retriever and a Boxer. Two dogs she had met before. They were being walked by two little old retired, and very absent minded, school teachers who never seemed to remember us. They watched Ginger dancing around their dogs and wore expressions of bewilderment. I reintroduced myself, apologized and called Ginger to follow me off in a different direction. There was no harm done. The Chessy and the Boxer remembered Ginger even if the school teachers didn’t.

That was the first time Sage encountered the School teachers and their two dogs, and I was interested in seeing that when Sage thought there might be some real danger, she didn’t trust Ginger’s decision but came back looking for me. Did I train Sage to do that? No, but something went on during all our walks at the river that taught Sage something, and when the teachers and their dogs showed up, Sage made the decision to come back looking for me.

If we read the books about the early days of the Rhodesian Ridgeback, we learn that they were bred to think for themselves. They ran off in a pack to look for a lion. They were beyond the call of the hunters and on their own. But some sort of learning process had gone on with each one of them. Perhaps to some extent the older dogs taught the younger. In any case, they knew what to do. They didn’t have to be told to do it by the hunter.

I have something like that in mind when I take a new pup down to the river. I am not “training” it in any conventional way. Our first few trips down there will be on leash but once I am confident that she can find her way back to the Jeep, and I have seen no recent evidence of coyotes or feral dogs, I will let her off leash so she can learn to function on her own.

Eventually we will have many outings at the river where I never say a word. I’ll walk through the little trails in the brush and they will range hither and yon looking for rabbits. If they see some they will give chase; then they will come back and check on me and may walk along near me until they see the next rabbit. Then they will be off again.

This is very different from the “sit, stay, come” world of formal training, but I’d like to think that if Cesar were to one day go with us on one of our river outings, he wouldn’t disapprove of what the girls have become.

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