We have had Carson the McNab herding dog for almost six months now. Neither Robert or I have raised a puppy before, so training him to be a civilized and useful member of the farmstead has been a learning experience for all. There’s nothing like teaching something you don’t know, to loosely quote from one of my favorite books of all time.
At almost eight months old, Carson knows his basics: sit, stay, lie down, here, heel, leave it. He rings a bell to ask to go out, and pees on command (extremely useful before going in the car). He knows how to shake with one paw then the other, roll over, crawl on his belly and to back up. He can take a bow. This week, he’s learning to give a “high five”, and we are working on “find” various objects and eventually people. We’ve made a game out of picking up his toys and putting them in a basket. The hardest thing we are working on is to lie down on an object I throw down and stay-a friend trained her dog to lie on her jacket wherever she put it, and wait there until she came back.
He’s still a puppy, and not very good at impulse control, and his recall is anything but bullet-proof. He’s had a few brilliant moments on recall, and more than one antic involving the turkeys that remind us we are still working toward a perfect “here.” He’s got to have that to be a good trail dog, and he loves to go on hikes. The deer we see on our walks in town are giving him many opportunities to practice not being an idiot.
Carson is finally starting to settle down around the cat, Slate. If Slate had only used his claws once to explain who was in charge when Carson was little, we would all be past this nonsense. 90% of the time, I can get Carson to lie down while Slate goes in or out the door. Slate taunts Carson and, when the dog responds by wiggling and poking the cat with his nose, has a really hissy fit. Some days I feel my mother’s pain for what it was like raising four girls. In the last month, the two of them actually fell asleep on the same rug, so we hold out hope for more peace in the future.
Crate-training is a godsend. We don’t use it for punishment, but sometimes he needs a puppy time out to compose his mind, or a safe place to be while we are in the middle of something. As a high energy dog, he has a great fear of missing out, and he eats better if put in his crate where there are no distractions. Any extra goodies appear only his crate, and it is his happy place.
I think we are making decent progress. I won’t sugar coat it: sometimes the training regime is more than I bargained for, but it has a lot of life lessons for the trainers as well:
- Consistency counts My nature is anything but consistent, but Carson needs constancy to become the dog he deserves to be. There were days that every sentence began with “no” or “good.” “Good sit, no bite, good wait, no cat” and on and on. Skipping a single walk has consequences in his behavior, even if we wear him out playing.
- Use any opportunity to train Carson needs to learn to stay in his lie down even when he can’t see me. The training opportunity: Carson wants to play with Slate; Slate wants the dog to disappear. Carson also would vacuum up all of Slate’s food if he could. So we feed Slate in our bathroom, and Carson is supposed to stay out. When Slate comes home from his mousing adventures, I will give him some of his treats. If Carson follows us, I put the dog in a lie down in the hallway while I go around the corner to treat Slate. If he stays there, I bring him some of Slate’s treats. If he follows, he has to go back and lie down again. He really wants the treats and believes they are coming, so he’s making decent progress in staying when I’m out of sight.
- Give many chances to succeed and celebrate over-enthusiastically Robert jokes that my program sounds like “yay, Carson sat, let’s have a parade,” but Carson responds quickly to excited praise. If I give him the feedback that he’s done something really good, he tries hard to figure out what and do it again. Who doesn’t?
- Direct toward the desired behavior I’m no good at playing the “bring me a rock” game, and why would a puppy be any better at it? Giving him a correction “no pull” when he jerks the leash doesn’t tell him what I want him to do instead, and how is he supposed to figure it out? I taught him the command “slack” and praise it as often as I can. He still hears “no pull,” especially when acting up if a deer crosses our path, but he knows the desired behavior is to keep the leash slack.
- Clarity is more important than nice Carson is a working dog, and he was bred to be kicked in the head by a cow and keep on going. We rely on treats and praise, but there have been a few times where he needed the absolute clarity of who were the alphas in his pack, and that it wasn’t him. I’m not talking about beating or hurting him, but I have had him pinned down on the ground, making growling noises and baring teeth like a she-wolf until my point was clear. It wasn’t pretty, but neither is the life of a dog that is locked up, abandoned or worse because no one teaches it to control itself. There are hard limits: he can’t chase or hurt our birds, he can’t bite people even during play, he can’t chase cars, horses, or the neighbors’ llamas. Those are things that will get a good dog killed around here, and I have no problem teaching him those things in his pack language. There are times in my own life I would have appreciated clarity over someone trying to be nice about it. Dog language has no such subtleties, and Carson doesn’t speak human.
We’ve made some mistakes: I wish we’d started with a release command. Learning “stand” would have been easier to teach early on too. We had to reinforce his recall with a “here” because he decided “come” was optional. He knows the names for Slate, his toys, leash and “geese”, “turkeys” and “goats, but we recently realized he doesn’t know our names. Since we want him to be able to “find Robert” or “find Ann,” we have got to teach that now.
What’s next for Carson? I’d like to take him to someone who can teach him basic herding. It’s in his nature and we could use the help. For now, we are keeping him busy with the basics, loads of walks and loads of play with his indestructible ball,. He loves puppy play dates. In the spring we might bring in some agility training props, just to keep him on his toes. He learns tricks in a couple days, so I’m constantly scouring the internet for new things to teach him. If you see something cool he can learn, send it my way. It’s a long time until spring.