Thursday, November 20, 2008

Training Bootstrap Part 1: One small thing

Bootstrap, you have big paw prints to fill. It is not even fair that I challenge you to fill them. Even if you might run in them someday there is no possible way to do so now. Just the long, silky drape of your coat makes it harder to "take you seriously". You are the "blonde" in the world of Alaskan Malamutes, too cute and fluffy to look beyond the fuzz. And you are a puppy, just seven months on the earth. Atka has been here over 500X as long as you have.

You are learning. Just last week, I ran you in lead with Atka on the rig. You cannot even begin to do that yourself. I want him to train you in ways I cannot. He has a determined love for the trail, quick and strong. The girls are there too. All of us will try and teach you what we will, Bootstrap. If we do it well, you will come to rely on yourself.

Not sure how to negotiate the rig, the woods with a trace of snow on the ground, too much for the wheels, too little for the sled, I tried to train you, Bootstrap, to do the "silly stuff" today. We found our challenge in class last night. Though you seemed to learn easily to run for a cookie and "hit the deck" in a comical down across the room, you could not negotiate a simple down behind a stick barrier. Maybe I encountered this problem before and solved it by not using one. I think I recall relying on my "Malamute training methods", known from here on out as the MTM #1, or the technique of the primitive and frustrated.
The goal is a simple one, to teach the dog to follow simple commands, but to do so at a distance from the handler. Bootstrap knows the command, "sit". Now I want him to sit ten, fifteen, thirty feet away from me. Bootstrap knows, "down." And so it goes. A couple of month's back, when this idea was first discussed in class, a "barrier" was introduced. The idea is to teach the dog to do stuff behind a small barrier, like a pole or wooden board. I remember trying it then.

I laid my stick, a fairly substantial one, retrieved from the pile of jumping equipment in the corner of the room, on the ground between eager Bootstrap and myself. I threw a small piece of cheese so that it landed a few feet behind Bootstrap, who was already behind the stick. He's agile for one so large and young. Though he has a loping prowl when casually looking for trouble, seeing even a pin sized food like substance fly behind him, he can turn and spin, a dart of flying fuzz. . He grabs the treat. "Down", I say. As most pups do on this exercise the first time, he comes racing back, plowing the useless stick out of the way to down at my feet.

Since that is not the object of the exercise, we try again. This time I push the stick at him as he comes plowing back. He behaves as if it is not there. Though I like to believe I am capable of patience, I do not always act that way. Why bother with the stick, I thought. If the object is to get him to down, ten or so feet away, let's just get him to do that. The stick, is after all, a means to an end, and didn't seem to be working. I abandoned the stick and resorted to MTM (Malamute Training Method) #1, my foot. As Bootstrap came flying back on our third attempt at this exercise, I too completely ignored the stick and stuck my foot out to catch Bootstrap squarely in the chest as he came flying back. Kick my dog??? Naw, I don't think so. Let's just say he "ran into my foot." In fact, he did. He seemed only mildly disturbed that his forward motion was halted. "Down." I said. He downed at one short leg's length from me.

This dubious method seemed to work at creating distance between Bootstrap and me for his down where the stick did not. After a few more cookie tosses and a few running starts in Bootstrap's direction as he was headed back, to me, foot still extended, we had a dead on "hit the deck" drop, almost as many feet away as we'd like. Remember please, I am not advocating this training method. There are very few of us who choose to train Alaskan Malamutes for formal obedience exercises. I have been certain for along time there are good reasons that this is so.

We rested on our "distance down" laurels for a while. It's a neat trick that was sure to impress my puppy class students. Conveniently forgetting my own recent advice to others, I left things as they were and did not take the next step or expect more from my fuzz ball. Bootstrap, when performing this exercise, as he rocketed towards the thrown cookie, looked like an airborne fudge swirl. That combined with his thumping flat landing bear rug style "down" made higher education hard to consider.

Last night I felt the result of our complacence full on. We were in Adele's "Manuevers" class. "Manuevers", for any who do not have the privilege of training with Adele, is the "class of all classes." It teaches the foundation, of all the formal obedience exercises by breaking it all down into: Manuevers. I have probably taken one version or another of this class with six or maybe even seven Alaskan Malamutes that I have trained before Bootstrap.

Manuevers class is like a magnifying lens, illuminating the strengths and weaknesses of my training, and my dog. Bootstrap's mystery to me so far is that I rarely witness his learning. He keeps it to himself behind his perfect small eyes, slanting just so and deeply dark brown. With most of my dogs, I have watched the wheels turn, understood just when they learned "in", or "close" or "back", just some of the "maneuvers." Not so with Bootstrap. With Bootstrap, I faithfully execute the motions of training an exercise that I more or less know well. He appears clueless and frantic.

Early on I learned that if I want Bootstrap to learn anything there has to be a cookie involved but he must never be able to see it. If Bootstrap actually sees a cookie in my hand, be it for luring a behavior or to reward one, his mind runs to the fuzz behind his ears. Alaskan malamutes, barely a half- century out of needing to survive in an Arctic wild, are hard wired to hone in on any food like substance. Bootstrap's instincts about food are clearly strong ones. He simply has to learn some fantastic behaviors to stalk this prey.

Adele described to us the task at hand. Our dogs and puppies were to, not only "down" behind the barrier, but to "sit" and "stand" as well. Bootstrap has more, and I've come to realize less learned these commands. Yes he will do them if, sitting in front of my knees I guide him through them, offering cookies along the way. He looked stumped when asked to do them even two feet away, and once again, when a barrier was introduced it was just another object to trounce. Not only that, but easily distracted by the many other puppies in the class the old MTM foot method was producing only random sniffing and other avoidance behaviors worthy of a restless school child who "doesn't get it and doesn't really want to." I put him in his crate.

This is now MTM #2 for Bootstrap. When all else fails, lock-up Bootstrap and train his mother. Bootstrap's mother, good Aura, has received from the unknown some extremely non-malamute like tendencies. She is remarkably biddable, good- natured and in our pack at home, everyone's doormat. Once in awhile she'll show her true colors, but more often than not, she listens to me and in class gives me exquisite attention, something Bootstrap will never do.

Bootstrap does not offer himself up for training, willing and unquestioning. I have to find my way under his skin. It's an unmapped trail for me to discover. Cooperation can be elicited by bringing us apart and then together again, by putting him in his crate and taking him out, by touching him firmly until he no longer resists, until he realizes a partnership with me even for the fleeting seconds of our contact.

When Bootstrap comes out of his crate, I hold him, firm. I take him by the collar and place him behind the stick. He's slightly calmer now. I'm careful not to show him the treat in my pocket. "Sit", I say. He sits. "Down" I say. He lies down but pops immediately back up again. Though I imagine I wish for one who will quickly adopt my agenda as his own, I search for ways to enchant Bootstrap, to make him believe playing my game was his idea all along. He is smart, but I've still got my bets on being smarter, at least most of the time.

Now that I have put Bootstrap away, he believes he really wants to play and he tries hard. He tries too hard. I get a rapid- fire display of ups and downs, stick rolling, and paw tapping head ducking. He looks at me expectantly. I see it, the flash of an opening in those dark brown eyes. His head is cocked, paw on the stick, waiting. I gently remove his paw from the stick. "Sit," I say again. He sits. "Stand." He stands, just back from the stick as I had hoped. He keeps his front legs by the stick and raises his rear end. "Good!" I say. We celebrate this small victory. He jumps lightly and rests his growing paws on my shoulders. We dance briefly.

Bootstrap is just a fuzzy seven -month old Alaskan malamute puppy. He is just a puppy. He will always be a fuzz ball. One day ago I saw a post on one of my Alaskan malamute Lists; "Wanted one long coat Alaskan malamute puppy." I looked at it. I thought about the craziness of keeping him. A fur ball he is, but whatever else he becomes will be a lot of my doing. Getting him to sit behind a stick is not a big thing. It is only important if we want to go to dog shows and compete in formal obedience exercises. Maybe we do and maybe we don't want to do that. What I know I want us to do is to work together to explore the trails between our worlds. On those trails, his fuzzy paws will grow. Though they may never fill the ones he follows, they have a path of their own. We've started down it together and I won't turn us back now. .

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