Although it surprises many people, standard poodles are hunting dogs. Many Labrador and golden retrievers have very little drive compared to Penny. Ducks don’t interest her much; her favourite birds are Canada geese and crows. Like many dogs, Penny has long believed that God created rabbits specifically for her to chase.
Last spring, Penny was determined that she was going to chase the Jericho rabbits. I’ve never allowed her to do it, not only because the Parks board has posted signs telling people not to let their dogs chase the rabbits, but because I like to watch them. Chasing and watching are incompatible behaviours.
Walking in the park with my rabbit-crazed dog had become so difficult that I decided to teach Penny to relax near the rabbits.
De-sensitizing and counter-conditioning
The first day, Penny could sit calmly provided she was at least 150 feet away from where she knew the rabbits would be. It’s not easy to see rabbits from that distance, but we both knew they were there. I rewarded her heavily for staying still and looking in the rabbits’ direction, clicking the clicker as long as she remained calm and feeding her cubes of ham.
Two days later, she was able to sit nicely about 120 feet from the bramble. We stayed about five minutes. Pieces of pepperoni rewarded Penny magnificently for staying calm, not even shifting her front paws on the ground.
A couple of days later, Penny did well about 100 feet away from some rabbits for about a minute, but then the tension was too much: she had to get up and bark at them as they scurried back into the bramble. We backed up about 30 feet and tried again. She calmed down and was rewarded with bits of blue cheese.
Then Penny came into heat and went back to the Paris Poodles mountaintop resort to dally with Tex. She returned home 10 days later, morning sick and weary. She didn’t want to exercise much or walk far. If I’d agreed, she would have stayed at home, on the couch with her head in my lap, for the next seven weeks
By the time we returned to Jericho beach, it had been almost a month since our last visit. Penny was moving more slowly but I knew that she could still charge like a locomotive if she really wanted to. She was able to look at the rabbits from 150 feet, then from 120 feet, and finally from about 80 feet away, all in the same visit. I started saying, “Bunny!” before I clicked the clicker and gave her tiny bits of a cheese cookie she likes.
Three days before her seven perfect puppies were born, Penny sat peacefully 8 feet away while a rabbit hopped around on the lawn outside the bramble, pausing occasionally to nibble on a tussock of grass. We watched the bunny together happily.
A new challenge
I don’t go to dog parks very often but there is one not far from where we live. There are rarely many people there. I took Penny to that park a few days ago. She likes to meet other dogs and I thought she’d enjoy having a chance to play with someone new.
I’d completely forgotten about the Frisbee golf course around the park’s perimeter and that it overlaps the dogs’ off-leash area. If I’d remembered, we might have gone anyway because it was a weekday at 1:45 p.m., not a time when sensible people would be throwing Frisbees around.
I was wrong.
As wonderful as bunnies are, Penny would rather chase a Frisbee than do anything else in the world. When a Frisbee flew out of nowhere, Penny forgot her name, the dog she’d been playing with, my pouch full of cooked bacon–everything. She wanted to chase the Frisbee and that was the only thing on her mind.
I’ll spare you the details, and me the embarrassment, of the story of how difficult it was to get my dog away from the Frisbees and all the way back to the car. I wasn’t happy. I don’t want to be that woman whose beautiful dog is a nuisance in the park.
Frisbees that aren’t there
I talked the problem over with my friend Vicky O’Connor. Vicky can train any animal, anywhere, to do just about anything. I mean: she’s trained grizzly bears, in a zoo, with grapes as rewards. Vicky has taught me more about training than I can say.
There are hundreds of rabbits in the Jericho bramble. Go to the park and there are limitless opportunities to practice ignoring bunnies. But finding people playing Frisbee golf is far less certain. Penny has never been interested in a Frisbee if Isaiah and I throw it. She seems to think it’s not real.
Vicky and I decided that I will teach Penny to look at Frisbees that aren’t there. We’re going to do it so much that she becomes completely bored with them, visible or not.
My project for the winter rainy season: teaching Penny to ignore invisible Frisbees. Wish me luck?