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Opie bounces his way out of obedience

December 04, 2007|By TIM ROWLAND

Opie Goes to Obedience School
A Personal Journey
Part II

There's a Far Side cartoon that shows a dude in hell pushing a wheelbarrow of coal through the flames, whistling and having a grand old time. One devil looks at another and says, "You know, we're just not reaching that guy."

That's how I feel about the bouvier des Flandres named Opie. There's a smart dog in there somewhere, I know it. But his genius is tainted by youthful cackling and exuberance to the point that his skills become progressively more difficult to recognize.

I'm sure Mozart had days like that, too.

To date, Opie has learned "sit," "down," "touch" (where he plants his nose on your hand wherever you hold it - for reasons that are at the moment foggy), "leave it" and, if he's in the mood, "shake."

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Well and good. Thing is, he knows he will get a treat if he performs one of these stunts, and little it matters to him which it is. So I take him out to the back porch to train him and he - as soon as he sees the treats and knows what's up - will go through the whole salad bar, knowing that something will be bound to trigger a hit.

I say, "Opie, sit." He proceeds to sit, lie down, touch my hand, picks up a toy and drops it and offers his paw. In his tiny little brain, he knows "sit" must mean one of these things, and even if he's not sure which, he wants to "cover his bases" in the name of a piece of cheese.

It's kind of being like a union member. Adhere to the "work rules" and you will get the benefit, whether you've earned it or not.

So do I give him the treat? Technically, he did sit. And for all I know, he is actually Edgar Cayce coming back as a hound, and he's successfully anticipated all the things I'm going to ask in the future, so he's just saving me the work - in which case, in theory, I should give him five treats and be done with the lesson.

Or not. Usually, it is the animal, not the trainer, who is supposed to be confused, but with Opie it doesn't work that way.

And frankly, getting the BDF to do something has never been the problem. Getting him to STOP doing things is the greater issue. They don't call them "Bouncing Bouviers" for nothing, and he thinks it's great fun to leap up repeatedly, grabbing a chunk of sweater or ear or whatever is handy, with each bounce.

Back in the days when he was only 50 pounds, this was rather cute. Now, I can't walk out to the barn without feeling as if I'm getting hit with a bag of cement with every step. A bag of cement with teeth.

Our training program stresses "positive reinforcement" and last week we were given a white paper outlining the negative aspects of punishment as a training tool. Dogs that are hit can become dull and listless, the paper says.

Dull? I dream of dull. Listless? I wish. Punishment doesn't work with Opie, because for him, there is no such thing as punishment. He thinks getting clubbed in the melon with a water bottle is the greatest game ever. Nothing makes him happier than to get smacked in the puss with a corn cob, mid-leap. He dances, runs in circles and then launches himself right back at you with pure canine joy.

I have one of these Fat-T-Boy reclining lounge chairs. Last night, I sank heavily into it, not realizing that one, the dog was at that time walking in front of the chair and two, that the footrest was not in its locked, down position.

The footrest snapped up like a catapult, catching Opie in the midsection and launching him airborne across the room, where he crash-landed into the TV stand. I was sure I'd killed him, or at least broken three or four ribs.

He gave me one disbelieving look before flying back at the chair with twice the velocity at which he had been ejected, with the look of "WOW, that was FUN, let's do it AGAIN!"

You get the picture of why this is a challenging animal to train.

Tim Rowland is a Herald-Mail columnist. He can be reached at 301-733-5131, ext. 2324, or via e-mail at timr@herald-mail.com. You can listen to his podcast, The Rowland Rant, on www.antpod.com.

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