Tuesday, June 19, 2012

'Meow' is a four-letter word

Other titles for today’s post could have been “The training session from hell” or “A malinois, a kitten and an obedience trainer walk into a bar . . .”

Phoenix and I didn’t go out to train until nearly 8 p.m. last night because of the bloody heat. By then it was “only” about 85 and the howling wind had dropped to a gusty breeze. Even with high humidity, it wasn’t too bad. I didn’t plan to do much, given the heat, but had an agenda for a fast, focused session. We did some hand-touches and chase games, then I started a little heeling.

I’d taken no more than five steps when I heard “Meow?” Phoenix and I spun together (it would have been an awesome glove turn) to see four little kittens marching across the lawn toward us. They were shoulder to shoulder, tails in the air, like little soldiers mounting an assault. My first reaction was pretty much “HOLY SH*T!” for several reasons:  A) These kittens literally came out of the blue and B) Phoenix was going to eat them.

Cats in general push his buttons. All joking aside, Phoenix’s “love” for kitties is a very real problem. Small, furry, scurrying kittens escalated him over threshold in the blink of an eye. He began pouncing and snapping. The kittens, obviously offended, began leaping and spitting.

To his credit, he had plenty of opportunities to bite to kill but he didn’t. The kittens, clearly tame and friendly souls, were spinning around my feet in total panic.

I snagged Phoenix’s collar and drug him back to the house. I tossed him in the kitchen and yelled, “Don’t let him go through the window” at the Farmer and raced back outside. Looking back, that has to be one of the oddest things I’ve ever said to the Farmer but his reaction - the "Look" - leads me to believe there was nothing particularly special about it.

The kittens were happy to see me again, minus the large angry carnivore. There were three yellow and white ones and a gray one. I figured they belonged to our neighbor across the road. Their farm is Cat Central. The kittens were friendly and obviously used to being handled with no fear of humans.

I went back to the house, got my van keys, scooped up the three yellow kittens (the gray one defied being captured) and stuck them in a crate. Ironically, it was Phoenix’s crate. Then I drove them down the lane and down the road to our neighbor’s. I was trying to figure out what to say . . . um, I think these are yours? If they come over again, they might become a snack? Could you please control the 20 or so unspayed, unneutered cats and kittens running around your place?

Turned out I didn’t need to worry. They didn’t answer their door. Kinda funny, since they had called us earlier to let the Farmer know the bull was out of the pasture north of their house. It seemed to be a night for animals being out of bounds. I knocked a couple of times and waited and waited. Finally, I took the kittens out of the crate and turned them loose. They ran off to join several other kittens of similar age.

I drove home, put the van back in the garage, peeled Phoenix off the kitchen door and decided to try salvaging the remnants of our training session.

The gray kitten was still in the back yard. It had changed its mind about coming to see me. Only it wasn’t totally stupid and didn’t want to come near Phoenix. In the perverse way of cats who are going to do exactly what  you don’t want them to, it ran from one clump of bushes to another, pounced through the flowerbeds and hid behind trees. It looked like a large, slinky rat. It yowled. Phoenix was basically dysfunctional.

I spent about a minute foolishly thinking I could salvage the tatters of my training plans for the evening. It became quickly apparent this was not going to happen. I was not going to beg my dog to work. I was not going to force my dog to work. He could choose to work with me or he could choose to stare at a cat. He was back on leash at this point. Discretion was the better part of valor.

We did some basic focus work and informal recalls. By now, Phoenix was working for his supper. I wasn’t bribing him - he was working for his meal. He wanted his supper. He wanted the cat. For a little while, I was pretty sure he thought they could be one in the same, but turned out he wanted his supper more than the cat.

It was rewarding to watch him choosing to look away from the cat and look at me instead. This was not easy, he was not relaxed. He was not “getting over” the cat  being nearby. But he was willing to quit staring at the cat and stare at me instead. For him, just being able to stare at the cat was rewarding so I pleased that he was willing to give it up.

This was a pretty extreme example of conditioning the “See a distraction, look at Mom, get a reward” sequence. I am pretty sure there will NEVER be a yowling kitten sitting ringside at a trial, so like the turtles in the article pile on the cover of Diane Baumann’s book back in the 1990s, it was a little over the top. I did think briefly about abandoning the whole evening’s training but figured we didn’t have anything to lose and as far as distractions went, a kitten running amuck while we worked was pretty much the big kahuna.

Why didn’t you just go somewhere else to train, the Farmer asked later. Because it wouldn’t have mattered where else on the farm we went, Phoenix had CAT on the brain and he would be seeing them whether they were there or not. And besides, I had his entire supper at my disposal and nothing else to do with my time. It was a good opportunity for me to practice patience. That was probably as important as anything I expected my dog to take away from this session.

We finally managed a tiny bit of successful heeling/play and called it a night. There’s a fine line between legitimately addressing a problem and total overkill. When you’re in the throes of a hard training issue, it can be hard to see that line.

If the kittens return tonight, I probably will go somewhere else to train. Last night’s session was stressful for both of us (in spite of not using any force or compulsion) and I don’t want to set him up for that every time we train. Obedience training cannot be fun for either the dog or handler if it is constantly filled with conflict. Believe me, I’ve learned that first-hand!

The kitten was gone this morning. I suspect he found his way home.


  1. How do you manage all this??? I thought farms were supposed to be peaceful and serene. You manage to get into all sorts of crazy situations! Poor farm dog!!

  2. We once ran into a bird in the middle of our track. And once a rabbit ran across our Schutz field during the Search...

  3. Funny stuff!!!! I can totally imagine this scene playing out! I'm with you once my dogs have C A T on the brain. Or the "S" word! (squirell)

  4. This was so our session yesterday! Our group was set up in the park, it was Proxy's turn to go in to work on Utility, I look down, she is staring up...at a squirrel in a tree RIGHT over our heads. It was the worst Utility run in history, but this is an issue, the issue, we have to keep working on - focus. She is as critter-y as Phoenix is, made worse by the fact she does advanced field work where she gets to "catch" and retrieve birds, so I imagine we'll work on this until she retires.

  5. I'm laughing though I understand why you might be crying. What an excellent end though....