Discipline Returns

(I intended on posting this yesterday, but LiveJournal wasnt working again. I didn’t want to change anything in this post though, so just keep in mind that it was intended for yesterday when you read it).

     Well readers, remember back in January when I wrote an entry for an assistance dog blog carnival on the theme of Decisions? One thing I mentioned in this post was how I could totally relate to those new mothers and their utopian determination that they are going to be perfect and do everything the experts say you are supposed to do, only to discover after a couple days or weeks that perfection is unrealistic. Well, in the midst of my fury about being criticized for not walking Gilbert when the weather was bad, having him sleep in a separate room and forbidding any and all treats and table scraps, I neglected to mention perhaps my most serious deviation from the perfection I was so determined to maintain in my early days with Gilbert. I am speaking of the daily obedience ritual, which so many dog trainers and guide dog handlers say is crucial for bonding between dog and handler, and for preserving the good behavior of the dog in public. I’m not going to make any excuses. Unlike the expectation that I walk Gilbert when the ground is covered in ice, daily discipline is not an unrealistic expectation. It only takes a couple minutes which could have easily been worked in even on the days when I was swamped with homework. But a week after the dog trainer graduated Gilbert and me, I just fell off the wagon.

     My parents tried to help me get back on. My dad would ask “did you do discipline today?” or say “you need to do some discipline with him” whenever he was the slightest bit naughty. But I never could get back on. I would do discipline sporadically over school breaks, or a few days leading up to an outing where Gilbert would see other guide dogs and I would be unofficially judged on my competence based on his behavior. I even tried to make it a new year’s resolution! But like a lot of new year’s resolutions, it collapsed by January 3.

     When I started feeling guilty, I would rationalize with myself. “He doesn’t need discipline. When we are in public and I ask him to sit, he obeys me perfectly!” Or “discipline doesn’t have anything to do with behavior. When we are out in public, I am constantly showered with complements by strangers about how calm and well-behaved he is, just lying at my feet.” Or “even when I was doing discipline, he would still go crazy at the sight of another dog, so daily discipline wouldn’t help this behavior.”

     But what better time is there than the start of a new school year, and my final school year at that (I will graduate college in May with a Bachelor’s degree in journalism and a minor in political science), to try and turn over a new leaf and do daily obedience again?

     A couple other factors played a role in this decision as well. Last week, I took Gilbert to our state fair, thinking that since he is approaching midlife (he will be five in January), that maybe he would have an easier time keeping a cool head while walking me slowly and carefully through the large crowds. Well, I was wrong. My parents ended up having to do sighted guide most of the time because he got so overwhelmed by the crowds, walking too fast for conditions and bumping me in to people. And then when we walked past a toy mechanical cat in the exposition hall and when he saw another dog in an exhibit outside, you would have thought he was a puppy! I mentioned that even when I did daily discipline, he would still go crazy when he saw another dog. But I got to thinking maybe that was because we were such a new team at that time that we hadn’t bonded enough to apply the philosophy behind this daily obedience ritual, the fact that I am the boss, the leader of the pack, to the rest of the day. But now that we have been together three years, maybe this discipline will be more effective and we will both remember the purpose of this ritual when faced with high-distraction environments.

     But another reason that I have been motivated to return discipline to our routine is that I have noticed that this summer, I have been so wrapped up in my internship and my dreams of being a writer that I haven’t spent enough quality time with him. I do take him on walks of course, but my parents don’t feel comfortable with me going by myself because our neighborhood has no sidewalks, and with them following close behind me, these walks are not the private bonding affairs I had dreamed of when applying for a guide dog. The same story is true when working him in places other than my college campus.

     Just before Memorial Day, my parents, Gilbert and I went to Indiana to visit my grandma and watch a parade at my aunt’s house. The fact that I felt a cold coming on that weekend and was tired from a long car ride combined to make me irritable that night by the time we got to Grandma’s house. But after dinner at the American Legion, my grandma wanted to visit the cemetery to decorate my grandpa’s grave and look at the Memorial Day decorations. My mom told me this cemetery has a nice paved trail where Gilbert and I could walk, so while my parents and grandma were decorating the grave, Gilbert and I struck out on our own. My irritability melted away almost instantly. It was just getting dark out so it was cool and quiet with the most wonderful breeze and the air smelled fresh. When I realized there were no voices yapping along behind us, I found myself talking to Gilbert, not just praising and encouraging him like the dog trainer said to do, but actually having a one-sided conversation with him, kind of like Mr. Rogers talking to his neighbor. “How are you doing Buddy? Isn’t it the most gorgeous night? I just love the smell of flowers! Can you smell them? I love the peace and quiet of this place.” Just like Mr. Rogers’ interaction with his neighbor, which was anyone watching the show, it didn’t matter that Gilbert couldn’t talk back to me. Though he wasn’t wagging his tail, I could just tell that he was content, so I bet he would agree that when so much of life is loud and busy, resembling the singing dinosaurs and talking moppets that are the mainstay of so many shows, a few moments resembling Mr. Rogers’ more subdued approach and soothing one-way conversational voice is a wonderful treat. And when Gilbert had a brief moment of naughtiness and wanted to veer off the paved trail and explore the grass, I loved having the chance to notice this and correct him all by myself. My parents try not to interfere on walks, but sometimes, they just cannot help themselves, so I never get the full experience of working him on my own and bonding with him that I got to do in this cemetery.

     Gilbert is a difficult dog to play with because generally, unless another dog comes to visit, he is not a playful dog. I have tried playing fetch, but have to do a tun of coaxing to get him to bring the ball back to me, not go hide somewhere to chew on it. So between his laziness and disinterest in bringing the ball back and my lack of patience trying to train him to bring it back, it is a game we both tire of quickly.

     On a hilarious side note though, there is one toy that I discovered fascinates him. Gilbert loves the slinky! One day back in March while I was on spring break, my dad was cleaning and uncovered a slinky I hadn’t seen in years. He had been absently rolling it in his hands while watching television the night before, and the next day when I happened to be home alone, I was looking for something else and discovered the slinky lying on the coffee table. As soon as I felt it, I was overcome by the urge to be a kid again and try to get the slinky to walk down the stairs. (Important practical life skills like getting a slinky to walk down stairs have never been my strong suit, so I ended up cheating a lot, putting one end of the slinky on the top step and the other end three steps down when I’m pretty sure you are supposed to put the whole slinky on one step. But hey, it still made a sound that resembled walking, and I had fun which is all that really matters right?)

     Anyway, as soon as I picked up the slinky and headed for the wooden stairs leading to the basement, Gilbert woke up from his nap and followed me. When I sat down on the first step, he sat behind me watching curiously. He just sat there while I positioned the slinky and gave it a push, but when I heard it reach the basement floor, a rare feat when I was a child as the slinky would never quite make it to the bottom back then, I cheered and clapped! As if that cheer were the sound of a take-off bell for a race, Gilbert was off, almost knocking me down as he shot past me tail smacking me in the face as he passed, ran downstairs, grabbed the slinky in his mouth and brought it back! I was so amazed I had to do it a few more times and show my parents when they got home. But then it occurred to me that I probably shouldn’t let him play with the slinky anymore for fear that since it wasn’t intended to be a dog toy, he could choke on it. But as of yet, it is the only toy he has ever shown that much interest in. So until I find a more dog safe toy that excites him as much as the slinky did, I am not sure how to get him interested in playing.

     Despite the absence of play and discipline, Gilbert hasn’t been ignored by any means. I still bond with him through his daily care and he gets plenty of belly rubs and scratches behind the ears. I work him every chance I get when on errands or vacations with my family. But I want to do something more, something fun in addition to just his physical care for just the two of us with no sighted supervision. Returning daily discipline to the routine, it occurred to me, would be the perfect solution.

     The good news for Gilbert though is that in addition to returning discipline, I have also decided to try returning the daily dog treat as well so that discipline can be something we both look forward to. He looks forward to eating the treat, and I look forward to the adorable way he sniffs my pocket, as if to say, “you cannot fool me. Hand it over!”

     It so happened that on Friday, the day I came to this resolution, Mom and I had to go to my college to pay my tuition, and my college is located near Pet Supplies Plus, the only store in our area that carries Nutrisource, the dog food recommended by the dog trainer. So we decided to run in to the store and buy another bag on the way home. As we were walking past the dog treats, Mom said “remember those treats we used to give him? Would you like to get some of them again?” “You know, why not,” I decided. As I said, it would make discipline more fun and rewarding, and now that the oppressive heat and humidity has released its grip on our area, he is getting regular walks again so I didn’t have to worry as much about him gaining weight.

     We couldn’t find the treats we used to get, but settled on Natural Choice dog biscuits. I don’t like the fact that they are kind of big, probably the size of two milk bones put together. (I wish, for the benefit of blind people, that products could have a tactile picture of the product so I could have a better idea of what I was getting before I had already paid for it, brought it home and opened the box.) If he appears to be gaining weight, I will definitely start breaking them in half. But the package claims they are an all-natural chicken and rice formula so it sounds high quality and reasonably healthy.

     The dog trainer told me he didn’t give Gilbert any treats during training or discipline because he likes dogs to work for praise not food. Instead, he liked to give the dogs their treat as a bedtime snack. I like the philosophy of working for praise, so I don’t give him pieces of the treat during the discipline session. But as a person who finds a treat like a scoop of ice cram especially meaningful if I have earned it after a hard college exam or something, I like the idea of treating Gilbert at the end of every session for a job well done. I am proud to say that I have stuck to the routine for three days now. We haven’t done the discipline session for today yet, but I have no intentions of falling off the wagon now because this new routine has lived up to the fun and rewarding experience I had anticipated.

     So here’s the routine for our discipline sessions these days. I haven’t established a set time of day for discipline. I have heard some people say the best time to do it is first thing in the morning, but I have no ambition first thing in the morning. While some say that designating a set time of the day to do it helps them stick with something, I have found that as soon as something comes up like a new class schedule that interferes with the time I had set, I cannot re-adjust the routine accordingly and my good intentions collapse. So I am going to use the same policy I use to stick to my exercise routine. It doesn’t matter when you do it, as long as it gets done once a day.

     Since we haven’t done discipline in so long, I am starting simple and keeping him on leash, but once we have discipline well mastered again, I am excited about incorporating distractions, like making him sit and stay by me when the doorbell rings, when the car horn honks to announce my dad’s arrival home from work, while I am preparing his food and ultimately my goal is to ask a neighbor to bring their dog to visit and make him sit and stay until I give the command that he can play. But for now, we start by practicing sit and down on leash. He doesn’t ever disobey the command like he did occasionally in the early days of training, but now during discipline, he will anticipate the next command before it is given. So after I have said “Gilbert!” but before I have said “sit!” he is already sitting. So every day, I have had to correct him for this until we have done it three times without anticipation. (He will still twitch a little every time, but as long as he catches himself, I count it as a success). Then I lengthen the leash, walk out in front of him telling him to stay until I call him. Then I call him and once he is sitting in front of me and I have praised him, I tell him to heel and he sits at my heel. And then comes the hardest but most rewarding part of all. I tell him to stay and then I walk further away, his treat still in my pocket. I have decided to do discipline in the downstairs family room of our house and walk upstairs to the foyer with his treat. (Friday and Saturday, I asked my parents to peak downstairs and verify that he wasn’t doing anything sneaky, but when they told me both times he wasn’t, I decided to start trusting him with this exercise yesterday.

     After humming a song, making him wait a short but for him torturous amount of time as I later noticed drool on the carpet where I left him, I say “Gilbert come!” And with absolutely no hesitation, I hear happy paws dashing up the stairs and Gilbert comes to sit in front of me. He has earned his treat!

     I have already noticed small changes in him after just three days of discipline. Most notably, I have noticed that when I call him to me, his obedience is more instant. He would always come, but a lot of times, I would hear him stretching and dragging his feet a bit. Already, our bond is improving, a beautiful realization, especially because it occurred to me that today is the three year anniversary of our graduation and the official start of our life together. If I keep doing discipline every day, just imagine how much stronger our bond will grow in the years to come.

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