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Monday, February 25, 2008

The Yorkie Experiment

(Look closely....Puddin is the little one, next to her big friends Kosmo and Atlas.)
This is the story of one of the MOST GRATIFYING & SIGNIFICANT EXPERIENCES I ever had as a dog trainer.

Pam Brooks called me at home one day. "Do you still take dogs into your home for kenneling and training?" she asked.

"Not for a long time," I replied. Years earlier we'd done that on occasion, but it got out of hand. Our own dogs were elderly now and didn't appreciate the antics of young visitors. "But how can I help you, Pam?"

She explained she was going to Hawaii for 10 days and needed a good place for her four-month-old Yorkshire Terrier puppy to stay. She was hesitant about leaving such a small puppy in a commercial kennel, plus she hoped she could get some "training" for the puppy while she was gone.

My first impulse was to say no. I wasn't a little-dog person, and Yorkies were about as "little-dog" as you could get. In class they were usually quivering little packages of delicate bones, always in perpetual motion, very reactive, not very thinking, and often neurotic.
BUT....they were dogs, and I was in the height of my Cesar Millan ("The Dog Whisperer") infatuation. Cesar would say that Yorkies should be considered animals first, dogs second, Yorkshire Terriers third, and individual personalities fourth. According to Cesar's philosophy, a Yorkie was just as much a dog as a Rottweiler or Great Dane. That meant they had the same needs: exercise, discipline and affection, in that order.

Here was my chance to prove it TO MYSELF. If I could successfully work with a Yorkie the same way I worked with a "big dog," I could validate the entire theory of pack leadership training. I said yes to Pam. I'd take "Puddin" into my life for 10 days.

Pam was elated. She brought Puddin to me Manning Dog Training one Wednesday night at 5:00. Puddin arrived in her crate, with all her leashes, toys and food in a tote bag. Pam set the crate down on the floor (with Puddin still in it) bid me aloha and left. The experiment began.

Okay, what's the first thing you do with a cute little dog? Pick it up and cuddle it, right? If I did that, I'd IMMEDIATELY violate Cesar's rules of "exercise first" and "affection last." So without ceremony, I opened the crate, pulled her out, snapped a lead on her, and out the door we went for her first "potty." She balked a bit at the leash, but soon got the idea that I was going, and she'd better move her legs to keep up with me.

I brought her to the designated potty spot in the grass and gave her the "command," over and over, until I saw her squat. "Good potty!" I said. That's ALL I said. We marched right back inside.

Leadership Class would start in about 45 minutes, so I wanted to exercise her first, so she'd rest quietly in her crate during class. We walked into the classroom and started doing LAPS.

NO talk, NO touch, NO eye contact. Those, too, were Cesar's rules about how to act like a new pack leader with an excited dog. So we marched in big, purposeful circles, around and around the classroom, as if we were really going somewhere. My strides were confident, my cadence was even. I held the leash just short enough that I could fully extend my left arm and keep Puddin fairly close to my feet. Puddin skidded a few times, did a couple impromptu somersaults, got tangled around my feet, bounced around a bit, and finally caught on to the drill. She was to walk with me, not against me, and no amount of antics was going to force me stop and pick her up, even though she was used to that.

After about 10 big circles, I started talking to her, encouraging her and accustoming her to my voice. I started doing a little "Leadership Game" work with her. My goal wasn't to get her to look up, but to teach her to stay out from under feet--a real problem for many Yorkies. Her attention was phenomenal. I attributed it to her "survival instinct." She WAS a dog, after all, and she was figuring out what to do to safely get through this transitional time with a new leader.
That workout lasted about 20 minutes. With nothing more than a kindly pat on her shoulder, I placed her back into her crate (on the floor), and moved her to a quiet area while I taught Leadership Class for the next two hours.

Puddin's next couple days followed pretty much the same pattern, but they happened in our home. EXERCISE--DISCIPLINE--AFFECTION. I followed the formula to a "tee." First thing in the morning after pottying, she and I were out the door for an energetic leash-walk down our country road. No stopping, no sniffing daisies, no nothing except the "migration of the pack," as Cesar would call it. The terrain was rough for her...long, wet grass, gravel roads, clumps of dirt...but she managed because she had to. I spoke little to her, and kept the leash short enough that she was close to my side the whole way.

Following the walk (exercise) came the lessons (discipline). With her excess energy gone, her mind was ready to work. I methodically worked with her in the kitchen and up and down the hallway, teaching her an "automatic sit" each time we stopped. No treats for doing it. The only "reward" given in basic training, after all, is the chance to sleep a few hours. And Puddin was a good recruit. So, following our lesson, I'd shuffle her back to her crate for a nap. A while later we'd start the whole process over again.

Her days were filled with work. Work and sleep, work and sleep. My vocal praise increased so that "work" became her "play" as well. She enjoyed the interaction. After two and a half days, Puddin had learned to enthusiastically "heel" at my side (without needing the command), "curb" at doors (i.e., respect boundaries), do an automatic sit, and do a tremendous "down" and "stay." The down-stay, more than anything, bespoke the trust and confidence she had already placed in me. I was able to down-stay her and walk away a substantial distance...very unusual for a young, tiny dog! This four-month-old Yorkie who'd known nothing before this was doing as well as any "big dog" of any age. I could even drop the light leash and get her to consistently perform the same exercises, which proved to me the lessons had been learned well.

Exercise...discipline....and, oh yes, AFFECTION!! By the end of three days, I was so PROUD of this little gal that the affection came naturally and honestly. I picked her up (boldly), held her high over my head and then quickly brought her down to face level. She snuggled into my arms and up against my chest, and I told her how terrific she was (not how "cute" she was)! This was the FIRST time she'd been picked up and cuddled since Pam dropped her off. For the first time in her life, she'd been treated like a "dog," and she adjusted to the role with flying colors!

As the days went on, I was able to allow her a bit more freedom...a few minutes of solo playtime, and a few minutes of playing with our big, older dogs. Housebreaking was still an issue, so she needed almost constant supervision. When I couldn't give her that, I put her in her crate where I knew she'd be safe and foolproof.

She accompanied me to work each day, and served as my DEMO DOG for several new classes that were starting. People were astonished to learn her age, and to hear the short amount of time I'd been working with her. Puddin was a joy to work with, because she was always ready and eager to learn and please. These are not traits she had demonstrated before her "boot camp," and they aren't traits I generally see in Yorkies. But my "experiment" affirmed my suspicions: that a Yorkie can be every bit as responsive and able to assimilate into a pack as any Lab or Rottweiler.

I had never treated Puddin like a "cute little Yorkie." From the get-go, I'd treated her like a DOG, and offered her the same amount of respect and dignity as I would any other breed. And she appreciated it! I saw her as a dog with Puddin's personality, and not as a "cute little Yorkie."
What thrilled me the most was to see how well adjusted this puppy was. She was confident and sensible. She made good choices. She was happy. How different from most of the other little quivering bundles of bones I'd seen in class over the years. Her boot camp had brought out a Labrador personality!

Pam was thrilled when she returned from Hawaii and saw what progress Puddin had made. Since she's a disciplined equestrian herself, she realized the need for some direction with Puddin, but the size difference between her 1200-pound warmblood and 2-pound Yorkie had her baffled about the approach to take. Here again, Cesar Millan's words ring true: they are both ANIMALS first...then SPECIES, then BREED, then NAME (personality). These are rules of Nature, which are in fact the simplest to understand, except for us humans who like to complicate things!

The formula works for all dogs (kids, too, for that matter). EXERCISE--DISCIPLINE--AFFECTION. If we ALL live our lives with those priorities in mind, we might do as well as that little Yorkie!

1 comment:

Kate said...

Thank you fo such an inspiring article.

I work in a small studio by myself. I want a small dog as a companion. I like the yorkie, but was worried about it's yappiness and anxious tendencies.

I am huge fan of Cesare Milan and his theories and I think I might be able to replicate your results. The dog will be with me nearly all the time and I can keep on top of behaviour issues.

Any tips or suggestions you might have? I'm very anxious about getting a new dog, it's such a long term commitment and I just want to make sure I'm going in the right direction. Reading endless assessments of breeds is so unhelpful as on matters of temperament they seem as specific as star sign readings!

Thanks again.

Kate