Exercising a Dog’s Mind

John Pilley uses old-school psychology to train his border collie in Chaser: Unlocking the Genius of the Dog Who Knows a Thousand Words, co-authored with Hilary Hinzmann. What a coincidence that the methods he uses, based on his experience as a professor of human psychology, look a lot like force-free dog training!

With one exception: Like Ted Kerasote in Merle’s Door, Pilley turns to an aversive method to curb Chaser’s “chase drive.” While Kerasote used a shock collar, Pilley uses a mighty jerk of a long line and a stern “No.” It’s hard for me to say these techniques are wrong, wrong, wrong, because as far as reported, they prevented the dogs from chasing things, and neither Merle nor Chaser developed aggressive or fearful tendencies as a result. I can say that knowing what I now know, I would never use either method on a dog.

Otherwise, the book is a joy to read. I love that this retired professor refers to himself as Chaser’s “Pop Pop” (because that’s what his grandson calls him). Throughout, Pilley emphasizes how much fun it is for Chaser to learn new words. He turns down an offer to let another scientist work with her, which would have meant more academic acclaim, because that would mean having Chaser live with someone else temporarily. Above all, Chaser is a family dog.

When Chaser appears on the Today Show, Pilley feels bad that Chaser doesn’t have a chance to play with her toys after fetching them by name for Matt Lauer. Chaser is supposed to get to play with her toys as her reward for fetching the right toy.

I’ve heard dog trainers brag about how many words their dogs know. How do they really know? I wondered. Beyond their names and basic obedience commands, most dogs know “outside” or “walk” or “dinner,” but how do you keep track of the number of words? Pilley set about it scientifically, by giving each toy a unique name. He has a list of 1,022 different toy names that Chaser understands. He also teaches her categories of words: she knows a racquetball by its name “Blue,” and also knows that it is a “toy” and a “ball.”

Like Wallace: The Underdog Who Conquered a Sport, Saved a Marriage, and Championed Pit Bulls — One Flying Disc at a Time, Chaser is a book about a dog of extraordinary achievement. While both dogs are special, neither would have been a superstar without the devotion of the “handler” (owner…trainer…Pop Pop, whatever you want to call them).

Pilley works with Chaser for hours a day. With that much dedication, I bet any dog of above average intelligence could learn quite a few words.

As I said in my post about Wallace, I wish I’d known about flying disc, or at least been able to turn catching soccer balls into a “job” for Isis. Reading about Chaser makes me wish Leo and Mia had that much enthusiasm about anything. Leo especially. Mia is content to sit in the backyard with her Jolly Ball and bark at us. But Leo’s still young. He needs stimulation. We took him to a nose work class, and he liked it all right, I guess, but not enough for me to keep at it. It seemed like a lot of money and effort to drive to a class where each dog only gets instruction for a few minutes at a time.

I wish Leo were as passionate about play as Isis was. I’m as devoted to my dogs as Wallace’s and Chaser’s people. I would gladly spend hours a day working on something Leo loved as much as Isis loved soccer. Sometimes in the evenings, especially during the winter when it’s cold and dark, I look at restless Leo mouthing the sofa cushion and think, “What? What is it that we can do that would keep us entertained for hours? What would hold your interest, Leo? Tell me!”

Any thoughts, friends? Remember, Leo is leash-reactive, so long walks are challenging, but I think that’s what he enjoys most: excursions. It’s kind of nice on really cold evenings. I take him somewhere well-lit, where no one else is out who will incite his barking and lunging.

Aside from that, he loses interest in fetch fairly quickly. We have agility equipment, but like everything else, he goes over the A-frame once, maybe twice and is done with it. Same with Rally-O. The kid only wants to practice his sits so many times. Then I get a blank stare. Honestly, I don’t think he’s as bright as Chaser, otherwise, I’d start acquiring hundreds of toys.

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Appropriate dog park behavior or party foul?

A miniature German shepherd (that could be a breed) seeks Leo's counsel at the dog park.

A miniature German shepherd (that could be a breed) seeks Leo’s counsel at the dog park.

We haven’t been to the off-leash park in a while, so we thought we’d go Sunday during the Super Bowl, when we’d have it mostly to ourselves.

Our favorite park isn’t fully fenced, but the play area is between a really steep hill and a waste treatment facility. One trail leads down the steep hill, and another leads in from the parking area. None of my dogs have ever tried to escape, although a smitten Leo did try to go home with a couple of pugs once.

Apparently we weren’t the only ones who thought we’d have the place to ourselves. We saw a middle-aged gent walking with a border collie and Australian shepherd. Mia already was off leash, but we usually keep Leo harnessed up until we’re in full view of the play area. I consider it bad dog park manners to let a dog haul ass into the fray before the other people and dogs can see its human companion.

The man and dogs were on their way out the other end of the park, and Rob said, “Should we wait until they’re gone before we unleash Leo?” And I don’t know why, but I said, “Nah, just let him go.”

Possibly, I wanted Leo to have a chance to greet a couple of other dogs, since he hasn’t gotten to hang with any but Mia since last summer. Possibly, I didn’t want to give him the chance to start barking, like he does when he’s on leash and sees another dog. Maybe I thought that guy would be happy to see a couple of German shepherds on this bleak and rainy Super Bowl Sunday at the park.

Whatever, we were in an off-leash dog park, so we let our perfectly friendly 95-pound German shepherd off leash. He loped over to the other dogs to say, “What’s up?”

The border collie tucked her tail between her legs and hid behind a park bench for a second, before bolting away from her owner and toward us on the path, Leo in hot pursuit.

She zipped past us like a bullet and zoomed up the trail back toward the parking area.

“Wow, I’ve never seen that before,” I said, as I weighed the odds of Leo following the dog all the way out of the park, into the street to who knows where. “Leo!” He, of course, ignored me and kept running after the border collie

The man called his dog’s name, but that critter was gone. We could see Leo through the trees on the path. I looked at Rob, “You better go. Run.”

Rob trotted off in Leo’s direction, but perfect angel that he is, our boy realized the error of his ways (or else the border collie was so far gone he forgot what he was chasing), and he came back. The man passed us, looking, I would say, annoyed. Not terrified that his dog had just run away and might get hit by a car, and not overtly hostile toward us for chasing his dog away.

He said, “She’s just a little puppy.” Hmm. Puppy maybe, but not that little. I’ve seen full-grown border collies that size. He said the same thing to Rob, then trudged up the path after his dog. Was that his excuse for lack of voice control over her, or was it his explanation for why she ran screaming from Leo? Perhaps both.

In hindsight, yes, it would have been better to keep Leo leashed until the man and his dogs were out of sight, since they were leaving anyway. But we were at an off-leash dog park. Dogs are supposed to chase each other. How were we supposed to know the border collie would actually leave the park? Even if I had better voice control of Leo and he came right back to me instead of following the border collie up the path, that wouldn’t have kept the border collie from running off. But… she wouldn’t have run off if Leo hadn’t been chasing her.

As usual, my concern is that another dog owner will blame the German shepherd (and me as the negligent owner) for instigating a problem. I worry that this man thinks Leo chased his dog out of the park. In my mind, that’s not what happened, but I’m biased.

So I put it to you, readers, and not just because I want assurance that Leo and I aren’t responsible for this dog running away. Did Leo display normal, appropriate dog park manners? Are we to blame? I mean, even if the guy hoped to be the only one there, it’s reasonable to expect that a dog might come running up to you at the dog park, right?

I really hope that guy caught up to his dog.