Friday, June 15, 2012

Ebon's Training History

My patient, good old Ebon

When I first brought Ebon home, it was an interesting time in my life. He had come to me rather unexpectedly. As I mentioned in the first ever post on this blog, he was given to me by his breeder, free of charge. When his litter was born, I visited and ooh'd and aww'd over them, dreaming of taking one home. I had wanted to get a dog of my own for a long time, but I never thought that I actually would call one of those puppies my own. It hadn't been long since my family had gone through the loss of my grandmother, a mere year after the loss of her husband, and we were still working through it. Though I asked, my mother didn't like the idea of bringing another animal into our, at that time, off-kilter, three-pet home. When the offer came to take the five-month old puppy free of charge, my mother agreed as long as I was the one to take care of him.

When Ebon came home that first day, still responding to the name Calvin, I made a promise to myself that I would be a good dog owner. I didn't want to have a "bad dog" or to be one of "those people" that, due to their own mistakes produced a problematic pet. I wanted him to be well trained. I was only sixteen at the time, so I did some stumbling before I hit a groove and began figuring out how to deal with a young, hyper Ebon. Did I make mistakes? Yes, of course I did. He's the first dog that has been purely my responsibility, and as any first time dog owner will tell you, mistakes will be made. Sure, I did a lot of research into dog care and training before he ever came home with me, but that doesn't mean that I knew how to implement it.

I've had him for over seven years, and it's taken that much time for him to become the dog he is today. He had a number of insecurities as a pup. He didn't bark in front of me until he was two and a half and didn't lift his leg to pee until he was three, for example. He was afraid of small dogs and liked to chase cats and other small non-dogs a bit too much. He freaked out at the smell of dead animals. He even developed a fear of stairs that started after his first encounter with anything more than a couple of steps. He also was rather hyper and had the attention span of a gnat. If he got distracted, it was basically impossible to redirect him since he would zero in on something and basically ignore everything else around him. He's never had problems with loud noises, so at least there's that.

I can't even tell you how many hours I spent working with him, encouraging him to work through his fears and praising him with every step forward. I also worked on correcting his over-excitement around cats, desensitizing him by getting him to do things like focus on my rather than the cat. Or whatever other distraction caught his attention, for that matter. He still gets excited, but it's far easier to control it now. I even trust him off leash, something I definitely couldn't do for the first few years of his life. The stereotype is that Labradors are puppies until they are three, and it really did seem like his third birthday coincided with a marked drop in how easy it was to distract him.

Even last year when I moved into the condo I am currently living in, he was still struggling with some issues that an urban setting has really helped with. One of the biggest of these was his timidness and insecurity. I did so much work with him, but he still would become very reserved in a large crowd. The noise seemed to cause his brain to be a step behind his body. Simple things like walks down busy sidewalks with countless cars driving by combined with a ton of encouragement and praise did wonders. He now seems confident, ready to explore every new area that we go to.

Anyway, when Ebon first came to me he knew a very small number of commands. He had a good Sit and knew how to Shake. He had been taught a Down, but it was rather inconsistent and he would often try to fake me out by only crouching, his elbows not touching the ground. His recall was rough. Though he had been house trained, he had a strict two hour limit before he would wet on the carpet. He had gone through preliminary retrieval training at the age of four months since that was what he was bred to do. So, he knew how to retrieve but it wasn't very refined. I've always thought a dog should know a few basic things, so almost immediately I set to work improving his Down, getting him to recall more consistently, and also teaching commands such as Leave It and Drop It. I also taught him to balance a treat on his nose so that I could work on his self-control.

I got frustrated with him, really quite a bit. I sometimes thought I would never be able to work past some of his issues, particularly how over-excited or distracted he could get when I was trying to train him. I developed ways of relieving my frustration, which mainly involve me sighing and insulting the dog (I don't know how many time I've said, "Come on, Ebon, stop being an idiot" before getting him to re-focus). I also began to learn what training methods he responds best to. This is why he's never learned to sit up and beg. What I would have to do to teach it to him never really worked out.

After Ebon reached a certain age, I began to see him calming down, focusing better, and sometimes impressing me greatly. He now has quite a list of commands that he knows, a significant portion of which are tricks. Many of them took a fair amount of time to train (it took embarrassingly long to teach him to Roll Over). Others took basically no time at all. I was amazed how quickly he picked up things like wiping his paws on command (two twenty minute training sessions), or this:

video

I came up with the idea to teach him to retrieve his leash about two weeks ago. After one training session, he had picked up the word "Leash," and the next session he figured out how to get it when I hung it up somewhere. I also want to teach him to carry his own leash, but this is proving to be far more difficult to teach than I thought it would be. The problem? He wants to drop it whenever he stops or if I ask him to change position. I want him to carry it until I ask him to sit and give it to me, but if I ask him to sit, he spits it out.

He can still impress me, even though I've been working with him for over seven years now. I blame myself for why he doesn't know more. I've taken some rather long breaks from training, mostly due to school, and if it weren't for that I'm sure he would know far more than he already does. I've also never trained him for any sort of regimented doggie sport. He has no titles, even though with a little work I bet he could earn a number of them. I've just never bothered. It's not been my goal. I consider what I have done and continue to do with him to be recreational. A hobby that both he and I enjoy.

It's also somewhat amusing, and also depressing to me how often other people are impressed by how well behaved he is. Even when he was still a rather crazy young dog and he was doing what I knew to be behaviors he used while dealing with his crowds-of-people stress, like walking in circles around me. I've had people ask me if I'm a professional dog trainer, and when I said no, one woman even said, "Oh, so you're just a good owner." Sometimes the pet-owning public confuses me so much.

Ebon still has issues, and the major ones still involve him stressing out. The move we made last year did a number on him. I think he was worried he would lose me because his last move had been when he had been taken from his mother and his breeder's family rather suddenly and placed in a completely new, different place. He's bonded to me perhaps a bit too much since then. I've tried to work on his issues with separation and he does fine while at home. If we go somewhere new, however, and I leave him he gets beside himself with worry. This may be one of the next things I work to get him through. I just need to find some people who are willing to help me out, which is, honestly, the biggest obstacle.

This was a far longer post than I intended it to be, but it's about a journey, and journeys are often long and winding. Ebon has come a long way, but there is still so far to go.

For those who are curious, I've been keeping a running list of Ebon's tricks and other commands over on the page dedicated to him.

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