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Eugene Weekly : Coverstory : 8.23.07



Leave It!

How to train a "Greenhill"

by James Johnston

Zella

I get a lot of compliments on my dog. My dog, in fact, gets far more compliments from people than I do. It's quite possible that people like my dog more than they like me.

My dog is good looking and has a charming personality. But what really impresses people is her behavior. She is a very well-trained dog. When I tell her to sit, she sits. Immediately. Ditto "lay down," "roll over," "stay" and "come."

"Gosh," a lady outside the video store told me the other day, "your dog's better behaved than my son." She laughed nervously and bent double in the parking lot, her 8-year-old swinging on her arm, screeching like a drunken sailor.

"Give a command," I told her. "Reward when he does it immediately, or, if not, correct with … " But she let herself get dragged off before I could demonstrate on the lad.

Dogs, like children, are easily trained with patience, firmness and, most of all, consistency. Unlike children, they can also be selected for desired characteristics.

I'm not talking about breeding. Through sheer happenstance, my dog is a purebred Rhodesian Ridgeback — a breed originally developed by the Boers, the same gentle souls who invented concentration camps and apartheid. But her breeding has little to do with her behavior, which would be disruptive if not savage absent a vigorous training regime.

I get a lot of compliments on my dog, who's usually sitting quietly by my side, from people whose own canine child is straining at his leash, snarling at other dogs or, if loose, knocking over furniture, knocking over small children, knocking over large adults, chasing cats and completely ignoring the earnest entreaties of their person to sit still.

Many of these pooches are what I call "Greenhills," a not-quite-AKC-recognized amalgamation of German shepherd, pit bull and lab, always adorable and available for a $97 adoption fee at the Greenhill Humane Society.

Most people select their Greenhill using the same criteria they use to select potential lovers to strike up a conversation with — their looks.

"The dog," they'll tell me, "well, she just picked me (ALTHEA, STOP IT! COME HERE!). She just gave me a look with those big brown eyes, and I knew (ALTHEA, GODDAMN IT, COME HERE)!"

Imagine you're at Max's Tavern. A good-looking guy winks at you, and the next thing you know, you're having drink. Flash forward 15 minutes: The guy has ordered and consumed three beers. He's been hunting around in his pockets for his wallet the whole time, and he hasn't found it yet. You notice an odd facial tic, this strange rash on his neck and a tattoo of a woman's name that looks to be partially obliterated with a dull razor blade.

A month later, are you telling your friends, "Sure, he's got some issues, but you know, he just sort of gave me this look, and I knew"?

We are more nondiscriminating about pet life partners than we are with human life partners. But after much experience with the Greenhill, I can tell you with certainty that 99.5 percent of them can be taught to behave as well as or even better than my dog.

My own dog Zella, as well-behaved as she is, has a couple of obsessions. One is food. If there is food anywhere within a city block, she will find it and want to eat it. The other, I'm embarrassed to admit, is crotch sniffing, a common doggie problem, given that it's a dog's way of saying "Hello! Glad to meet you!"

This is where "Leave it!" comes in. "Leave it" means "don't touch."

Get a bunch of treats. Some should be ordinary treats — kibble or a dog biscuit. The others should extra-yummy. Yummy to dogs is often gross to us. Zella favors hot dogs probably because even all-organic hot dogs are still kinda nasty.

Hide the yummy treats somewhere close but where your dog doesn't notice them Hold the so-so treats in your hand, show them to your dog and then, without letting him get them, close your fingers and wait quietly. The moment the dog stops trying to poke the treats out of your hand, or better yet, looks away, give one of the yummy treats from the hidden pile.

Keep repeating until your dog is reliably ignoring the so-so treats when you present them. Then add the phrase: "Leave it" in a firm quiet voice when you give the yummy treat. Once your dog knows "leave it" with treats in your hand, put the treats on the floor and different places until your dog reliably knows "leave it" means, "Stop poking my nose places where it doesn't belong and get a better treat."

It's pretty easy to train your dog to "leave it" with this method. Unfortunately, it's not yet approved for use at Max's …

 



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