Sidecar Sidekick

January 21, 2011 § 3 Comments

Strummer in a Mexican pool.

Chris Larson has been my friend for over twenty years, and while I do not see him often, it is always interesting to hear what he is doing. Chris has a special excitement about life. In preparing this article, and reflecting on my friendship with Chris, I realized that I have never known him to be in a bad mood. This is one of the many qualities that make him such a special dog person. Chris grew up on Capitol Hill in Seattle, and still lives there today. When Chris is not hanging out with his dog, Strummer, or girlfriend, Stephanie, he coaches high school soccer, and is the owner of Chris Larson Construction.

Tell us about your dog. Strummer is a 4.75 yr. old female chocolate lab. She weighs 43 lbs. (Can you say runt?) Whatever, we never wanted a show dog, just a friend! She came from a farm in Enumclaw, WA. We specifically looked at litters with small parents, with the idea that we’d get a small dog!

What is the source of her name? She is named after Joe Strummer, from The Clash. Love of The Clash has been a theme in my relationship with Stephanie, my girlfriend of almost 10 yrs.

Out for a ride on a hot day.

Tell us about your ride; it is very unusual. It’s a 1970 Chang Jiang 750. They were produced by the Chinese military until the late ’90’s. Originally designed by BMW in 1938, then the factory tooling was stolen by the Russians during WWII. The Russians gave the design and factory parts to the Chinese. It was used extensively by the People’s Liberation Army.

How did you train Strummer to ride with you? I started training her for the sidecar about a month before I picked it up. I started by putting my ski goggles on her and not allowing her to take them off. When I got the bike home I brought her out to the garage while I worked on it. When she was comfortable with the sound of the motor and vibration I turned the bike off and put her in the sidecar. I continued to work on the bike with the engine off making sure to jostle the rig as much as possible. Once I felt she was ready I fired the motor and she jumped out. I lead her back into the sidecar and continued doing other things and left the motor running. I then revved the motor and she jumped out again. I led her back into the sidecar and held her collar while I made her watch me operate the throttle then she figured it was me causing all the racket and chilled out.

Strummer in full regalia.

Do you use any special equipment to keep her safe? We bought a harness, and I made a 3 point restraint system for the sidecar. She can’t be bounced out of the chair! After all that I had a motorcycle jacket elbow pad sewn into a child size aviator hat, and the rest is history. She never fusses with the safety gear. There are inherent dangers with motorcycling, so I never allowed it to become an excitement or game.

Where all have you travelled with Strummer? Our longest motorcycle trip was an overnight camping trip to Orcas Island, We took her to Vashon Island, but mostly it is just around town or day trip/picnics with Mama Stephanie. We have taken her to Mexico twice and Whbistler, but not on the bike. Commuting to the job sites with her on the bike is a blast!

Atop Mt. Consitution on Orcas Island.

Can you tell if she likes riding in the sidecar? She’s pretty used to it, and sometimes just goes to sleep! She’s had her picture taken so many times she just ignores it now. It doesn’t matter what we do, as long as are all together, Strummer is having a blast! She stays in the sidecar when we go in restaurants and stores and such. I unhook her and take off her gear a she just chills. I’ll also toss my coat down for her outside just about anywhere and she’ll use it as a bed.

The family that plays together...

Does Strummer have other training? As far as training is concerned, she does all the command stuff and is rarely on a leash. I have Steph to thank for that; she’s a natural dog trainer. The only actual trick Strummer does is high five.

Chris, Stephanie, and Strummer in Mexico.

What other activities do you enjoy with Strummer? We run (w/ Mama almost every day, and me less so), hike, fetch (she can’t get enough of the tennis ball. She has them stashed all over Capitol Hill), swim (webbed toes you know), swim and fetch together… and she loves traveling to Whistler and Mexico with us. I can’t imagine my life without my girls: Stephanie, Strummer and Chloe (the cat). I am richer because of them!

A happy trio.


Out for a Walk, or Off to War?

December 29, 2010 § 3 Comments

This video is meant to illustrate one way to learn a behavior called “loose-leash walking”. There are many ways to learn this — if you have a method that is already working well for you, and doesn’t involve hurting your dog in any way, then cheers! I call the game that we play to teach this “leash dancing”. We enjoy giving our dogs some treats, and find it makes teaching easier and faster, but if you are opposed to this, then substitute affection or tug-time or whatever your dog’s assigned currency might be. While playing the leash dance game, it is important not to yank on the lash or get into a pulling contest – leash dancing is a team sport, not a contest of individual will power.

Before leaving the house, before getting fed, before getting a rub-down or anything else really good, the rule with my dogs is that they must be calm. There is no correction, no rebuke, no real negative consequence to exhibiting excitement – they just don’t get the good thing they know could be theirs with a more appropriate demeanor.  A little excitement is fine — what I object to is out of control behavior: jumping up, barking, spinning, or running around the house. If the dog does this kind of thing, just relax and wait by the door, leash in hand. Relax. Break out a book. Take long, exaggerated breaths. It may take awhile at first, but soon the dog will come to you and be relatively calm. Reward them by putting on the leash, and giving them a little treat.  I don’t require the dogs to sit at this stage; I just require them to be more or less stationary. Iggy taught himself within a couple weeks to sit down and look up when he sees the walking collar come out.  Ten months in, and Frankie comes up calmly, but doesn’t sit. That is all right with me – it is the calmness I really want.

A sidewalk will work, but a running track, a parking lot, or a field is best because there is more room and fewer distractions. After working on the leash dance game for a while – maybe 5 minutes (more if it is going well, or less if it is not) — walk the dog a couple hundred feet and let it sniff/pee/snuffle, whatever. Then go back to the leash dance for another session. Alternate 5-minute leash dancing sessions with sniffing opportunities for 30 or so minutes, but only so long as it remains fun for you and the dog.

Wait for Me, or Stay There!

December 22, 2010 § 1 Comment

Separating the two cues wait and stay is not an absolute necessity, of course. Many will just have one standard stay cue to mean “remain where you are and in that position until I release you or tell you to do something else.” This is an adequate way of doing things, but separating the two concepts will usually make each much stronger. 

After a quick display of the dogs playing on cue, this video shows a solid stay, then demonstrates wait as a cue to remain at the current location, in the current position, and with attention on the handler.  If the dog is standing, then it is all right for them to sit or lie down, but if already prone or semi-prone, then they should remain in that position.  Further, wait may be broken or modified by a recall or position- change (such as from sit to lie down) cue from a distance. Wait is different from stay in that stay will only ever be released or transitioned from within touching distance. When on stay, the dog’s attention may wander from the handler, as the dog may learn through repetition that they will be staying put until the handler is within touching distance. When on wait, the dog’s attention should remain on the handler, as a cue or release will be coming soon.

A good way to teach these is to begin with wait. Put the dog in a sit or down position, then turn your hand parallel to the ground with the forefinger and middle finger extended and give the cue wait.  When first teaching this, over-enunciate, and lengthen the vowel sound, “Waaaaaiiiiiiiit.” As in all training, speak clearly but gently and with a positive tone.  The first threshold is just one second and one step backward, then two seconds and two steps, then five, ten, etc. It is helpful to randomly alternate between returning to the dog and clicking and treating or calling the dog to the handler. Once the dog can maintain the wait steadily for a few seconds while the handler is a several feet away, increase the challenge by walking around the dog halfway, then returning to the dog’s front. Once this can be done reliably, walk a full circle around the dog. Gradually extend the distance between the handler and the dog, alternating between calling the dog and returning to the dog.

Learn stay in much the same way, but only use stay for longer periods (like a minute or more, and building up to 30+ minutes), only release or transition the dog from within touching distance. The hand signal is an open hand, palm forward, like a traffic-cop’s “STOP” signal.

Examples: cue the dog to wait when preparing to open a car door, or when feeding, or any time the dog may be called to the handler. Cue the dog stay only when the handler will be returning to the dog, and for longer periods, or when the handler will be out of sight from the dog. 

Preceding the stay and wait demonstrations, this video shows the handler cueing the dogs to play.  We didn’t really teach this in a formal way, it is just a gesture and a word that we said again and again when the dogs were encouraged to run around and be crazy – now they know the gesture and the word as a signal to start frolicking. This is a good way to help them burn off some energy, as many dogs won’t really exercise unless prompted to (which is why leaving a dog in a backyard, even a big yard, is not an adequate way to get the dog exercise).

Lassie, Maslow, Timmy, and, Well, a Well

December 20, 2010 § Leave a comment

Abraham Maslow proposed a way of organizing human needs into a hierarchy, a sort of if/then logic ladder, and this way of thinking can be  illuminating when considering a dog’s needs and potentials. The levels in this hierarchy of Maslow’s are as follows: the necessary physiological components for survival; the assurance of one’s immediate safety; positive feelings of family and belonging; self- esteem and perceived respect from others; and, finally, self-actualization, or a feeling of reaching one’s potential.

In Maslow’s hierarchy, each level needs to be achieved before the next can be begun, the reasoning being that people (or in this case, dogs) don’t worry about whether they are meeting their potential in life if that life is in immediate danger from a fire, nor do they concern themselves with acceptance in a family structure if they are starving to death.

Applying this hierarchy when considering the needs of dogs can help us to understand dogs better, and can help us to communicate in a way that makes it easier for them to understand us as well. Imagine the classic TV show Lassie, and the now cliché scenes in which Lassie would alert her family that something had happened to Timmy (In fact, no episode ever featured Lassie telling her family that Timmy had fallen in a well). The joke for most of us is how absurd that a barking dog could express so much complicated information in a way discernible by the people; but when the dialogue is broken down into the hierarchical steps, it begins to make a sort of sense.

Lassie: Bark, bark, bark, bark, bark!!!

Timmy’s Mom: Gosh, Lassie, why are you barking at me? Is one or more of your needs not being met? Hmm Letsee… you have been fed, you have access to water, and regular opportunities to relieve yourself.  Your lush, beautiful coat, the spring weather, and the fact you are standing in my kitchen all suggest you are not freezing to death. Your immediate physiological needs are being met, so why are you barking at me, then?

Lassie: Bark, bark, bark, bark!!!

Timmy’s Mom: Our house is not on fire, a tornado is not approaching, and we are not in imminent danger of falling off a cliff. Your need for assurance of immediate safety is being met, so why are you barking at me?

Lassie: Bark, bark, bark, bark, bark!!!

Timmy’s Mom: You sleep in our son’s bed; our whole life revolves around you and your wonderfulness! Your need for family and belonging is being met, so why the hell are you barking at me!? Hey, wait a sec, you sleep in my son’s bed? Where the hell is my son, anyway???

Lassie: Bark, bark, bark, bark!!!

Timmy’s Mom: Everyone knows you are the smartest, best dog in the whole world! You have saved everyone in the whole town from one sort of calamity or another! You have fought off bears and mountain lions! You have not only the respect, but the adulation, of our family, this town, and the whole nation, plus western Canada and most of Great Britain!!! Your need for self-esteem and for respect from others is being met! Why the hell are you barking at me, and where is Timmy???

Lassie: Bark, bark, bark, bark, bark!!!

Timmy’s Mom: The only level of need left is self-actualization, or an innate psychological requirement to feel you are meeting your potential – since you are still barking at me, it must be because you want to be meeting your absolute potential. How could you do that in a way that would also explain where Timmy is? Oh, I see, maybe you want me to follow you so I can save Timmy. Let me call the sheriff, grab a rope, and grab a shotgun. Whether Timmy is being held captive by bandits, is cornered by a mountain lion, or has fallen into that pesky well, we will save him! You did it again, Lassie! You have reached your potential! You have achieved self-actualization! You have saved Timmy!!!

The stakes need not be so high as a missing child, and the signals our dogs give need not be so obvious as barking. Dogs offer us many signals, and most of them are never noticed or looked for. The consideration of their needs will help not just in interpreting barks, meaningful looks, or pleading whines, but also in understanding how best to set up our dogs for success when training, or in the practical application of that training. Just as a hungry child will not do well in school, neither will a hungry dog do well in training; nor will it do well if that dog needs exercise, or needs to relieve itself. Ensuring our dogs’ needs are met will help them to reach their highest potential, and this will make them better housemates and more productive members of our families.

Ten Months

December 8, 2010 § Leave a comment

Two Journal Entries, 10 months Apart

Saturday, February 6th, 2010, evening.

We adopted Frankie on Wednesday, February 3rd, 2010, from the Whatcom Humane Society. Kathleen, Krista, Emily, and Marian all helped us end up with him – I am afraid we were the most careful of adopters. I also asked Angi at Tails  for advice about the Iggy/Frankie dynamic, and found her thought encouraging and reassuring.  His full name is Frankie Doodle. The first night, Iggy was not comfortable having Frankie here, and wanted to inspect and investigate him all night long. By last night, Iggy was comfortable and while he enjoys playing with Frankie, there is no longer anything like obsession. We found a field today that was mostly fenced and practiced some basic, informal recalls on a long line, then let Iggy and Frankie loose. It went very, very well. They investigated and marked separately and together for several minutes, and then Frankie started jumping up and nipping Iggy softly and playfully. Iggy gave in and the dogs played a spirited game of chase for 10 minutes before Iggy gave up and investigated a patch of mud. Frankie took the signal well and the game was over, both dogs were tired and happy. We were very surprised by how high Frankie could jump. He is very, very athletic – not something we expected but it is a welcome development. Pia and I agreed completely that Frankie will fit in well, is already fitting in – and that we are very happy with our choice.                                                                                                                                                                               

Also did a more intensive and thorough assessment of Frankie’s knowledge and temperament. We took both dogs shopping to Petco and Clark’s downtown pet shop. Interestingly, Frankie’s love of car rides seems to make Iggy more comfortable. Also, though Iggy is often stressed being left in the car when Pia goes into a store for a minute, he seemed much more calm when left alone with Frankie in the car.  In the stores we visited, we ran into several dogs, a few puppies, children, and adults. Frankie liked them all, and was gentle and good-natured during our whole day. We purchased a coat for him, and a new leash, a flat collar, and a martingale collar.                                                                                                                    

We spent some time testing to make sure Frankie doesn’t know some things we might have missed. We tried different words for basic cues and different hand signals, but our initial impression proved accurate: Though a good-natured 4-year old dog of above average intelligence, Frankie has not been taught anything, not even ‘sit’. We came home and worked on leash work and sitting, not by precise cue, but in response to general situations, as in when coming up to the handler for affection or a treat. Iggy tried to help… 

 Tuesday, December 7, 2010, Night.

Frankie passed his American Kennel Club Canine Good Citizen  test this evening. We took the test at the NOAH training center. It was the last day of the NOAH CGC class, and the instructor let us take the test with the class in exchange for a small donation. Iggy and Pia came along, and this turned out to be a little troublesome. Frankie was confused about them being there but not being in the room, and then when Pia was in the room, he wanted to be close to her and me at the same time. Though Frankie had completed the walkthroughs in our living room many times, he was so distracted by the environment of the training room that he wouldn’t even sit for me during the warm-up period. It seemed we had no chance at passing – we took the test, but mostly for the practice. Once the instructor announced the test was beginning, Frankie went through a sort of attitudinal transformation. He sat, he focused, he heeled, he watched me, he stayed until called… it was as if he knew when the real work began. Frankie passed. We have a lot of work left to do.

Lie Down and Be Calm for Meals

December 5, 2010 § 4 Comments

Lie Down and be Calm for Meals

This behavior actually incorporates several tricks, and also requires the dog to exhibit a calm demeanor. This was relatively easy to achieve with Iggy, but a little challenging when working with Frankie. Frankie was slightly possessive of his food, generally more excitable than Iggy, and had a hard time focusing when he knew it was meal time. Both dogs were trained and guided for this behavior in the same way, but Iggy did not need some of the steps, so I will describe how it went with Frankie.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                           The first day Frankie came to live with us, following a long, vigorous walk (exercise is critically important for achieving calmness), I fed him by hand. After mixing his dry food with half a teaspoon of  canned pumpkin (helps regularity) and a teaspoon of wet food, I mashed together little bits of it and fed him off the palm of my hand. This prevents accidental nips on the end of one’s fingers, but still associates the person and the person’s hand with food: we become recognized as the provider of something good.

After a couple days of hand-feeding, I divided his meal into four portions and put one in his bowl, then as he finished that, I added more, making sure he was respectful of my hand near his food and mouth. This reinforces that people near his food bowl are the source of good things (more food), not bad things (taking away his food).  In separate sessions, I also started teaching Frankie three specific tricks: sit, wait, and lie down. Training these will be the subject of a different post, but as in everything when teaching a dog, it is helpful to exercise them first, so they are more able to focus and relax. 

As soon as Frankie was comfortable with the general concepts of “sit”, “wait”, and “lie down”, we began working them into meal time. He learned sit before wait, and wait before down, so the progression went like this:  before setting down his bowl, Frankie would sit, and then receive his meal.  After he learned the general concept of “wait”, he was asked to sit, and then asked to wait; his food was put down, but he was required to wait until released, or the process started over again. No correction or punishment was given: the reward was his meal and the consequence for not waiting properly was the delay of his meal.

Frankie was good at lying down and waiting when we practiced as part of our training routine, and he was good at sitting and waiting for his food, but he seemed unable to control himself enough to lie down and wait at mealtime.  The problem turned out to be not the inability to resist the food, but the coldness of our tile floor.  It was October when we were putting all these steps together and the kitchen floor was quite cold. Frankie has very little hair on his underside.  A yoga mat was sacrificed, and Frankie became a very polite diner.

Reward for Elimination

December 4, 2010 § Leave a comment

When my dogs poop I reward them with a single tasty treat. This encourages them to eliminate early in our walk or outing. There is a natural tendency for people to walk a ways and then turn back as soon as our dogs do their business. This is a bad habit to form, because the dogs will pick up on it and postpone going until they have walked a long distance. I make sure that once they go, I reward them with a morsel, and then we keep moving in the direction we were going for at least a block or so (or much longer if they do it early in the outing). It took a few weeks for Iggy to pick up on the connection, but now he goes within a block or two of leaving the house, then sits nicely for his treat and relaxes until I have gotten his mess cleaned up. Frankie still prefers to go in his own backyard, which is also just fine — I reward him there and I expect that over time he will make the connection and then will go on our walks. 

I have also found that a little pumpkin (Tblsp for large dogs, tspn or less for smaller ones) with each meal helps keep them regular and on schedule. They didn’t like it a lot at first, but they got used to it within a couple days and now seem to really enjoy the sweet taste.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                      

A few weeks ago we had very cold weather and snow here, and neither of my dogs revels in the cold — once Iggy went, he would actually turn in the direction of home and request to go back; often this occured within a block of our house. Frankie would go in the back yard and be ready to come back in within 2-3 minutes.

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