Year of the Dog

Winnie Gets a Crash Course in Behavior From the Dog Whisperer to the Stars


Winnie

Getting another dog was my idea.

After years of jogging outdoors alone, I wanted a running partner. Our two dogs, Evie and Gilda, were in their double-digit years — it probably wasn’t a good idea to drag them along on my every-other-day 5k jog through Memorial and Elmwood parks. And it had been years since we had three dogs. It should be fun.

I went online to find which dogs were the best running partners and discovered the Australian shepherd, a medium-sized dog developed on ranches in the United States, according to Wikipedia. They sort of look like collies but stand higher, and their coats can resemble confetti, a mottled mix of browns and whites. And, of course, they love to run.

But I hadn’t figured I wouldn’t be able to find one anywhere around here. It took months. We finally discovered the closest thing — an Aussiedoodle — a cross between an Australian shepherd and a poodle. The literature described them as super-smart working dogs, shed-free and hypoallergenic. The last two items, and maybe the first, were lies.

I won’t tell you where we found her. For rescue-dog purists, I’ve already said too much. For some, buying a dog instead of taking in a rescue is akin to wearing a mink coat at a PETA convention. While I understand the problems associated with puppy mills and dog peddlers, there is one indisputable fact — if the dog is already alive, doesn’t it still need a home? It cannot be unbirthed.

When we took her home last July, she was eight weeks old and about the size of a loaf of bread — her merle coat a striking combination of browns and grays, her eyes yellow and sharp as daggers. We called her Winifred, or Winnie for short — a girl’s name of Welsh origin meaning “blessed peacemaking.”

I won’t go into detail about potty training. It had been 25 years since I raised a puppy. I’d forgotten about all the peeing and pooping and barking and crying and peeing. No matter how many times you took her outside, puddles mysteriously appeared on our hardwood floors. Thankfully, the pooping (for the most part) occurred outside, though her doo-doo was the consistency and color of butterscotch pudding — impossible to pick up without a spoon.

When Winnie turned 1 this May, she weighed a good 30 pounds. Despite having gone through puppy training at the Nebraska Humane Society, we struggled with two problems — insane barking when encountering other dogs on walks and pulling — and by pulling, I mean yanking my wife’s arm out of its socket.

Solutions seemed dire. There are services that take your dog away for a few months and bring it back … changed. We didn’t want that. I didn’t want to lose that mischievous fire in Winnie’s eyes. People suggested choke collars, shock collars, all kinds of pain-inflicting devices. Growing up in the country, the most common method for training dogs was simply to kick the shit out of them. As tempting as that sounded at times, that wasn’t going to happen.

It was sheer coincidence that we ran into David Codr in line at Jersey Mike’s. I hadn’t seen him since a night eight years ago when he launched musicpage.com, a digital version of his Music Phone Book that promised to be “an online community for the music industry.” After years working as a concert promoter in Santa Barbara, California, booking acts like Sublime, 311, Jack Johnson and Toad the Wet Sprocket, Codr delivered musicpage.com for a last gasp at making a living in a dying music industry.

That same year, 2011, Codr was out walking his dog in Elmwood Park and came across a woman with two dogs trying to kill everyone. “They were big dogs,” he said. “I went over and calmed her dogs and gave her a couple tips, and she seemed good to go. I turned to leave and she said, ‘Wait, I want to hire you to train my dogs. I just spent $2,000 on 10 trainers and none of them did what you did in 60 seconds.’ I said thanks, but I don’t train dogs, and she yelled after me, ‘You’re wasting your gift.'”

But after spending a few weeks at a soul-sucking job he’d taken to pay the bills, Codr placed an ad on Craigslist, offering his dog-training services for $50. Someone took him up on it, and that person told someone else who told someone else. Now, eight years and 4,000 dogs later, Codr is a bona fide dog behaviorist. His company, Dog Gone Problems (doggoneproblems.com), has operations in Omaha and Santa Monica, California, where he’s become a sort of dog whisperer to the stars.

So, we booked a one-on-one morning session.

For three hours, Codr talked nonstop — to us and to Winnie and Gilda. Codr’s methods involve positive reinforcement and passive training.

His first question: What rules do we have for our dogs? After a long silence, it was obvious we had no rules. Our dogs are allowed to sleep on our couches and in our bed. If they could, they’d open the refrigerator and make their own dinners, and we’d be fine with it. Not only were they allowed to jump on me when I got home from work, I encouraged it.

“Without rules, the dog thinks it’s a peer,” Codr said, “and then listening to the guardians becomes optional.” Rules must be established. No sleeping on furniture unless invited, staying at least seven feet away when eating dinner, no more Dino-style jumping on me when I got home.

Then there was “Petting with a Purpose” — a vicious game of playing hard to get. “If a dog nudges your hand, tell it to sit before you pet it. If it doesn’t sit or lie down, no pet. You need to teach the dog it can’t tell you what to do.”

Passive training involves telling the dog what it’s doing as it does it. If it drinks water, say “agua” or some other symbolic word. If it eats, say “Lasagna.” If it sits in its dog bed, say the made-up word for dog bed, in our case, “Matisse.” Soon the dog will identify the word with the action.

Underlying a lot of this, of course, was treats, because “eating is the most important activity for dogs.” Codr had our dogs practically tap dancing … when treats were involved.

The dozens of lessons we heard over that session all made perfect sense, but the most important rule was for the guardians: None of it matters if you don’t follow through. You have to keep it up, constantly.

A month later, Winnie was doing … better. Oh, she still barks at other dogs, she still pulls (which can be advantageous during a run), but at least she knows who’s boss. The rest will come with time, and treats.

Over The Edge is a monthly column by Reader senior contributing writer Tim McMahan focused on culture, society, music, the media and the arts. Email Tim at tim.mcmahan@gmail.com


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