Checking In

Last week Kona went for her annual check up and I thought this would be a good time to write an update on how things are going with our now-15 month old lab.  

She did very well at the vet (she loves going there because she sees people and other dogs).  A bit reluctant when it came time to the vaccinations (who isn’t?) but otherwise fine.  The vet told us she was a bit underweight and could stand to gain a few more pounds with her ideal weight likely being around 52 lbs. 

In terms of training and obedience, things are going fairly well.  I’ve been working on her on-leash manners during our walks, and occasionally in the mornings I can rely on her regular collar instead of the gentle leader. 

She’s loving, and obedient (well as much you can expect from a young lab).  Thanks to her crate training she hasn’t destroyed anything in our house.  But we do have one “problem”…

Our dog is too friendly.  Yes, I know that sounds ridiculous.  But it is the one area that we really need to work with her on.  The “problem” really only becomes an issue when she is off leash.  As soon as she sees another dog, person (adult or child), or other moving animal/bird she is off, racing towards them to say hello. On leash she is pretty good, but if one of her top draws comes into view she will start to pull on the leash, even if she has the gentle leader on. 

And of course, if our doorbell rings, she goes crazy with excitement.  In fact, the doorbell doesn’t have to ring – a few weeks ago my parents knocked softly on our door then walked into our foyer.  As soon as Kona heard their voices it was like the doorbell had rung.  Barking, jumping – it’s a good thing there is a gate to prevent her from reaching the door! 

So what gets her really excited?  Well there is an order of “preference” when it comes to her interest (#1 being the most excitement-inducing)… 

  1. Pippa (Kona’s BFF)
  2. Other labrador retrievers, or golden retrievers. 
  3. Strollers (this is relatively new).  Yes, Kona has figured out that strollers contain little people, which are almost as exciting as labs!
  4. Any other dog breed.  Small, large, friendly or not. 
  5. People.
  6. Cats.
  7. Birds. 

On the plus side, because of her small stature, strangers think she is still a puppy and assume that’s the cause of her bad manners (I’m too embarrassed to correct their mistake).  Also, in all other areas her obedience is very good.  In fact, when we find she’s weak in an area, it only takes a week or so of constant attention and the issue quickly gets resolved. 

We’re working hard to get the doorbell situation under control.  After only one session of watching Peter ring the doorbell, she stopped barking (and running frantically around the house looking for the guests) when she saw him ring it.  Hopefully we can transition to her not barking when the door is closed (and an unknown person rings it).  After that will be working on her reaction when a new voice enters the house.  Baby steps…

We’ve also signed up for an obedience course which will start the second week of June.  Instead of being in a training facility, the classes are held in parks throughout our neighbourhood.  The course description was perfectly suited to all the areas we’d like Kona to improve on:

“Each week, we’ll work on street and leash manners at different locations around the neighbourhood.  We will be working on our motivation skills, keeping our dog’s attention and the application of previously acquired skills such as heel, watch-me, stay and other commands.  

  • Teach your dog to walk politely beside a stroller, work on heeling AND paying attention to you while walking along a busy street with pedestrians, playing children and busy stores and restaurants.
  • Condition your Retriever’s innate desire to flush out the ducks as you walk around a park.
  • Wait patiently while you greet a friend you meet while on your walk AND ignore their dog.”

If we can succeed with that last item, I will be thoroughly impressed!

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Ring My Bell

Last night we started a new project in our house.  Or rather, a new training exercise…

Up until now, Kona’s method to let us know that she needed to go outside consisted of her sitting patiently at the back door and staring at us.  It works well, provided that either myself or P are paying attention.  Unfortunately, if we are in the family room we can’t see the door and sometimes when we are in the kitchen we are busy cooking or cleaning. 

It hasn’t been a big problem, but twice in the past month Kona has had an accident resulting from us not responding quickly enough.  And by accident, I mean she’s given up on waiting and decided to pee inside the house, in front of the back door. 

Needless to say we aren’t pleased and we decided to train her to use a different signal.  While she does bark on command (our girl knows her “speak” and “quiet” very well) we didn’t want her to think she should bark when she wants something.  We’ve heard of dogs ringing bells to let owners know they need to go out and we decided to go this route.

My initial thought was “why didn’t we think of this a month ago?” as I wasn’t sure how many places stock bells this time of year.  Luckily, I discovered that bells are a favourite bird toy (and inexpensive – bonus!) so I picked up this one from Petsmart.  It’s not that loud, so I’m not sure whether we’ll keep this in the long run, but its good enough to get us started. 

There are lots of websites with instructions on how to train your dog to ring a bell if they need to go out (look here and here for some examples).  We’re sort of winging it.  Kona already learned the “touch” command in her manners class last summer.  P started by getting Kona to “touch” his hand a few times, then progressed to telling her “touch” and pointing to the bell.  She got it on the first try. 

Next step was to hang the bell on our back door.  The chain it came on made this step uber-easy!

The next time Kona needed to go out, P pointed to the bell and said “touch”.  She touched / rang the bell with her nose, and P immediately praised her as he opened the door and told her to “go pee”. 

This morning was the first time I had a chance to try this out with Kona and it went really well. 

There was no hesitation at all when I told her to “touch the bell”.  She went straight for it. 

We’ll have to wait and see how long it takes her to figure out the routine.  We’re making a point of only using the bell when we are 100% certain she needs a bathroom break.  The last thing we want is the bell ringing anytime she wants to go out and play.  Fingers crossed all goes well!

(my apologies on the fuzzy photos – my own lazy fault for relying on my phone instead of our SLR)

Easiest Training Ever

Kona, like every other dog, is a creature of habit.  Since she came to live with us we have given her stuffed kongs when she is crated.  First it was loose kibble with a bit of peanut butter to get her used to the crate and to like being in there.  As she got older we began soaking the kibble and then freezing it in the kong (a kongsicle) so that it would last longer. 

I’m not sure when we started, but for as far back as I can remember we give Kona a kongsicle while P and I are eating dinner.  It keeps her occupied, quiet and ensures there is no begging at the table. 

Normally, we tell her to “go to bed” when we want her in her crate, including at dinner when she gets her kongsicle.  A few weeks ago I noticed that when I was ready to serve dinner she would look at me, then walk to the crate on her own without anyone telling her to.  I’m still not sure what signal she is picking up on – removing a dish from the oven?  P joining us in the kitchen?  Grabbing plates from the cabinet?  But whatever it is we no longer tell her to go to bed at dinnertime because she goes there on her own. 

Then we noticed that we didn’t need to lock her in the crate.  In fact, the crate door can be left wide open and she will stay in there until the kong is empty.  Only once did she pick up the filled kong to bring it outside the crate but she promptly returned there when told to go to bed. 

A few nights ago we decided to try something different.  Instead of bringing the kong to her, P called her over to join him by the fridge.  She wasn’t sure what to do at first – anytime we do something slightly different from her routine she acts as if we are testing her.  But since he was holding the kong and telling her to “come” she eventually left the crate and joined him.  P put the kong on the floor and told Kona to “take it”, then to “go to bed”.  She didn’t get it at first, she kept looking at the kong then at P wondering what she was supposed to do.  It took some repeating, but eventually she picked up the kong and went to her crate. 

The second night the experience was repeated and this time she tried to chew the kong in the kitchen at first, before relenting and going into her crate. 

The third night she took the kong and went straight to her crate, without being told. 

We’re pretty impressed.  This is by far the easiest thing we have ever trained her to do, but then, it is based on months of routine!

My What Sharp Teeth You Have

So it seems that I wrote this post a while back (before Kona had her adult teeth) and then promptly forgot to post it.  After much delay, here’s a little Kona-ism that we discovered while working on Kona’s bite inhibition as a young pup. 

Until they’ve spent time around a puppy, most people (myself included) have no idea that all puppies nip. It is the way they interact with their littermates and it is an important part of play, because they teach one another when bites are too strong.

Once you bring your puppy home, away from its littermates, that nipping gets directed towards you and any other human that might be around. In fact, most greetings of new people involve some form of nipping. For people like me, who are not at ease with the concept of sharp teeth on your skin, it can be a bit intimidating. The key is to get over that fear. It is important that your puppy learn early on the strength behind his / her bite and the level of strength that is acceptable. Puppy teeth are razor-sharp, but at that early age they do not have the strength in their jaw. As they grow up and gain strength they lose their puppy teeth and replace them with monstrous adult teeth.

The key is to teach them bite inhibition before they gain that strength. Part of the reason behind this is to avoid a dangerous bite being directed towards a human in the event of a future incident where an adult dog is frightened or startled. This is accomplished by allowing the puppy to chew / nibble on you when they are not overly excited. If the bite is too hard, you let out a loud yelp, just like another puppy would. 

I had to force myself to let Kona nibble on me, as my natural instinct is to avoid it. Once I did though, I found I not only became a lot more comfortable around Kona but also around dogs in general.  I’m completely at ease with young nipping puppies now which makes playing with them a lot more fun!

There was a cute quirk we discovered in all of this nipping. Kona would often respond to our yelp with an apologetic lick. But that’s not the cutest part… Kona would stop her nipping, look at us, look at her paw and bite it, then look back at us. It seemed to us that she was testing out her bite to see how strong it really was and thinking, “Seriously? They think this is too hard?!?”

All of this nipping and chewing was well worth the effort on our parts. Kona has developed excellent soft mouth and it is rare that one of us has cause to yelp. In fact, we didn’t even notice the change until my family commented in July that Kona was no longer nipping. It’s something that just disappeared seemingly overnight.

Obedience Classes

Last week we would have completed the second set of puppy classes with Kona.  Unfortunately, we had to miss the last class as Kona was ill

Between the two courses, we have spent the past 3 months at weekly 1 hour lessons where Kona has had a chance to socialize with puppies of various breeds, as well as practice obedience amidst the tempting distractions of other people and dogs.  

Overall it has been a great experience.  P and I probably got more out of it than Kona did, as we are learning how to train dogs while we train Kona.  There are many simple things to do when training a dog, but they are not necessarily things that come naturally or intuitively because, well, we’re humans and not dogs!

Practicing waits and recalls in Puppy Kindergarten (back when she was wee)

The greatest value we got out of these classes was in having a trainer whom we could ask unlimited questions as the need arose.  There are several places offering obedience classes within a 5 km radius of our home.  We chose the one that had a start date as close as possible to the date that Kona was allowed to meet other dogs (12 weeks as per our vet).  In the end, that meant training at Canine Campus, under the direction of the owner Lucinda Glenny.  We really lucked out in working with Lucinda.  We probably sent her on average of 1 email a week with questions on our latest puppy issue or dilemma.  She always replied the same day with extremely helpful suggestions and guidance. 

Lucinda has more dog knowledge in her pinky finger than most people do in their entire bodies!  It is unbelievable to see her with animals.  Your puppy may be acting unruly and unresponsive with you and with a quick gesture or word from Lucinda, the puppy is eating out of her hand so to speak.  Just incredible. 

A perfect example of this is Kona’s enthusiasm in greeting people.  Normally we have to force Kona to wait or keep a firm grip on her collar when a person (known or unknown) walks by.  One day we got to class early and Kona was alone in the classroom with P.  Lucinda entered and told P he could let Kona off leash.  Kona, true to her nature, went charging towards Lucinda with great enthusiasm as P began to warn Lucinda of Kona’s jumping tendencies.  As Kona approached, Lucinda put out her hand above Kona’s head and Kona sat down.  P could not believe it! 

Kona’s first class was Puppy Kindergarten, with 8 other puppies.  Her favourite friend there was Jasper, an English bulldog.  The two of them had lots of fun wrestling each other during play time.  Other favourites of ours included Herbie (Aussie Shepherd), Coco (Toy Poodle), Bella (Maltese) and Cowen (a rescue of unknown origin but some definite Rhodesian Ridgeback genes). 

Jasper

Kona and Jasper playing in Puppy Kindergarten

After graduating Puppy Kindergarten, we began Manners I.  This class has much less socialization (play) time(15 min instead of 30 min) and much more training time (45 min instead of 15 min).  There are only 6 dogs in the class, including Coco and Bella from our previous Kindergarten sessions.  There is also a lot more one on one time with Lucinda, which means she has more of a chance to see how we interact with Kona and give us specific guidance on what we can improve on.  I have gotten a lot out of this, as she has shown me how to assert myself when Kona is being uncooperative – something that doesn’t come naturally to me. 

All in all these obedience classes have been well worth the investment of both time and money.  We are already reaping the benefits as her manners have made life with a rambunctious puppy much easier to manage.

Swimming, the Next Frontier

First swim at Musselman's Lake

Like most activities, it is best to expose a puppy to something new before they are 16 months of age.  The experiences a dog has at that early age will affect their behaviour for the rest of their life.  Once Kona was cleared by the vet to meet other dogs, we decided to make swimming a priority.  It was great timing since the weather was beginning to heat up at that time.

Kona's first steps in water, 4 months old

One of the first things people assume when they hear about a labrador retriever is that they are excellent swimmers.  While that is often true, the way the dog is introduced to the water is crucial to how they will take to swimming.  P and I heard multiple stories from different people about labs who became afraid of water because of bad first experiences.  The key it seems, is to make sure the dog has a gradual entrance to the water, such as you would find on a beach or shoreline.  Dogs do not like abrupt entrances to the water, like on a dock or at a pool.

Running in shallow water at Musselman's Lake

There is a shallow lake North of Markham called Musselman’s Lake.  We brought Kona up there on a warm Saturday evening to teach her to swim.  I was the official photographer, and P was responsible for encouraging her to enter the water.

It took 3 tries before she actually started to swim.  The first time in the water she just splashed around, then ran back to the shore.  The second time she got far enough in that she had to swim for just a second, before running back out again.  The third time she kept going and swam a circle around P.  I’m not sure who had more fun on that outing – Kona or us!

Chasing her buddy.

We’ve since taken Kona swimming in Lake Ontario, as well as at my parent’s pool.  She is definitely more comfortable in lakes, as she has a better feel for how deep the water is.  My parent’s pool has a staircase to enter the pool in the shallow end, which is where Kona was trained to enter the pool.

Trying pool stairs for the first time...

... not a fan!

The one thing we discovered by taking her to a pool is that she gets anxious when humans are in the water.  She thinks we are all drowning and wants to rescue us.  She will go to the edge of the pool to try and pull you out of the water.

Convinced that P needs rescuing, Kona tries to pull him out by the arms.

In fact, while she doesn’t like jumping in, she will if someone is in the deep end and she decides that they are in danger (often caused when they go underwater or splash significantly).  This may sound cute, but it is not – eventually she will be 60 lbs or more, and you do not want an animal of that size bearing down on you when you are in the deep end.  In fact, at 40 lbs now it is quite intimidating.

No luck pulling him out, Kona jumps in to rescue P

We had heard from several sources, including the trainer of the obedience class we go to, that some dogs are born this way and it can’t be trained out of them.  This past weekend we went to visit my parents and it was Kona’s third time at the pool.  She is now at ease with people in the shallow end – she seems to understand that we can stand up there.

We made a point of not splashing around too much while we swam.  P also worked with her in the deep end.  She sat outside of the pool, and he would tell her to “sit” and then “wait”.  While she was waiting, he would swim away from her, or go underwater.  Kona would obey the command, and not move, until he resurfaced / returned and told her “okay”.

Swimming after P as part of her rescue mission.

This seems to have had a great effect on her.  By the end of the afternoon, P was able to do the front crawl without Kona freaking out.  It will take repeated practice, but we hope Kona will learn that humans can swim and she won’t be anxious when we are in a pool.  Swimming is a great activity – we all (humans and dogs alike) enjoy cooling off in this hot weather, and there’s nothing like a day at the pool to tire out a puppy.  It’s a win-win activity!