Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Playing with River

River has fully recovered from his respiratory infection and now is back to his good old self.  

He's got a lot of energy. It’s obvious that he needs a lot of exercise. If he doesn’t expend all the energy that’s coursing through his body, he becomes frustrated and takes it out on those around him.  Not in an unhappy or aggressive way, but he’ll jump and play and challenge you to a wrestling match.  He doesn’t bark, but he does sometimes use his mouth and play-bite.  He’s basically just a big, dopey guy.  And while his jumping doesn’t necessarily hurt me, it’s not a good practice and it could easily hurt someone smaller than me.
Clearly this is not something you want a full grown, muscle-bound pit bull getting into the habit of, so the answer is to give him lots of exercise and to train him that using his mouth when playing with humans is not acceptable. 
For the first week I had him, he was recovering from his neutering surgery and I was told he couldn’t do any exercise for a week, or he could tear his wound open.  So that week, while he was healing, was a rough one.  He didn’t know what to do with all of his pent-up energy.
To his credit, he actually did very well considering he knew nothing about the rules of this house and I knew nothing about him and how his life was before he was discovered tied to that stairwell downtown.  And without the ability to expend his energy, he was definitely wound up.  So we had to forgive him for being rambunctious and just keep telling ourselves, once he can exercise, we’ll have a much better-behaved dog.
During this week of healing, I was able to observe that he definitely wants to run and he loves it. Even during his recovery, I was unable to keep him from running. I mean, of course, I could have prevented him or given him no opportunities to run, but what I mean is I wasn’t into completely stifling all of his energy.  I was struggling with my own desire to let him run versus the advice of the doctor to keep him mellow. Partially because I want him to have all the joys of living a happy, fulfilled life, and partly because I knew if I brought him back into the house without running some of his energy, he’d be a little terror all night. 
But after a few days, I started to run him for about half a block at a time. I kept an eye on his wound and it seemed fine.  Day by day I added a bit more running.  I started a little game called “Go! Stop!” that goes like this:

We’d be walking along, and I’d give him the signal to stop walking, which he obeys beautifully. And then I’d have him wait for a bit so he was relaxed.  And when he was calmly looking around, I’d say to him, “river...” which got his attention, and then “GO!” and as soon as I said go, I’d take off running down the sidewalk.  He would follow. I would only go a few yards and then I’d powerfully shout “STOP!” and I’d immediately stop running and stand perfectly still.   It took him two tries to get the idea.  The first two times, I had to signal with the leash for him to stop, but after those two, he was stopping when I said “STOP.”  And then he would look at me for instructions on what was next. 
There was an upside and a downside to this game. A couple of upsides, actually:  First, he was able to get some exercise, which is good. And the other good news is that he has learned the command, “STOP” which I can now apply to anything he’s doing. (I just command “STOP” and he freezes in his tracks.) But the downside of this game was that he began to misinterpret it.  The running sessions slowly started to morph into him trying to catch me.  He would start nipping at my hands and legs as we were running, and then after doing it a few times, he’d be so excited that even after we had stopped he’d jump around and nip at me.  He was playing, but just playing too rough for my tastes.
It got worse and worse and finally escalated to the point where he was no longer just nipping, but biting and holding onto my hands and drawing blood from my fingers. At that point I tried to ignore him which sends the signal, “if you play this way, I’m not playing.”  But, whereas, that usually will work when he’s less excited, he didn’t relent this time. He just kept going for my hands and the leash.  In the end, I had to pull him down to the ground and hold him down until he fully relaxed. I reassured him the whole time that I wasn’t intending to hurt him and I was pointing out how he was in no danger or discomfort, but that I was simply controlling him.  He relaxed very quickly and we walked home peacefully, albeit with one of us injured.
So I knew I’d have to come up with a new game.

My next idea was to take him to a grassy section of the park and throw a tennis ball for him to chase and see if he could be taught to retrieve. That game didn’t work out at all. I would throw the ball and he would run to the end of his leash and be stopped.  Ooops. I know that as a pit bull, he’s not supposed to be off leash.  Ok, so then I would throw the ball and run behind him so he could chase the ball, without being limited by the shortness of the lead, but he was totally distracted by my chasing him and lost interest in the ball. He thought we were reverting back to the old “Attack Jason” game. So I scrapped the ball. 
I had once seen Cesar Millan using a toy that looked like a stuffed animal on a fishing pole, and I thought that might be just the thing. We went to River’s favorite pet supply store and I asked about them. As the clerk was showing them to me, I noticed that River had already chosen which of them he wanted.  He was very interested in the one that looked like a brown weasel, or a ferret, or maybe a squirrel.  But it was some long, thin rodent.
We took that to the park, but I quickly realized the same problem was that my leash was too short.  I had to keep him so close to me, that I was still a integral part of the game in his mind.
Back to the pet store, where I got a 20 foot leash.  Back to the park.  When we got there, I switched his leash for the long one and got out my squirrel. I was careful to let him see the toy in my hands. I held it nearby and shook it a little. But when he tried to go for it, I said ‘no’ and showed him how the toy was mine, not his. He understood.  He laid down and watched me. I set the toy on the grass in front of him and let him smell it.  He stayed relaxed and acted disinterested, though I knew he was very interested. I set him up by saying his name and made sure he was looking at the squirrel when I simultaneously said “CATCH IT!” as I suddenly made the toy spring away. 
He took off after that thing with such vigor! It was easy to keep it just a foot or so in front of him and quickly change directions and make it jump in the air.  He was chasing it and having a ball!  I was delighted to see him playing, using up his energy, and not directly any of it towards me.  The new leash was long enough that he could run freely and yet I was secure in knowing that I had him restrained. 
The toy is actually called a “CHASE IT” but I thought it sounded too much like “JASON” and I didn’t want to create a confusion that might cause him to start running after something whenever someone calls my name.  So I decided that his cue to start playing with the toy is “CATCH IT”
When he did finally catch it, he attempted to kill it. And in fact, if it were a living creature, I’m quite certain it would be dead very quickly. He shook it roughly a few times and then held it between his paws while he chewed on it.  I think we were both surprised when it started squeaking as if protesting every bite he took on it.  It was really a sight. 




Then I thought, “how am I going to end this game?”  I certainly don’t want to get involved with what’s going on by reaching my scab-covered hands into the foray to remove the toy, but I know I have a responsibility to bring the game to an end before he gets tired of it and ends it himself. I knew also, that taking a toy from a dog’s mouth isn’t a good idea.  It doesn’t teach good manners, and it sets up a challenge or a confrontation between what are supposed to be comrades. 
My light bulb moment was when I realized, “this is when I teach him how to DROP”
I walked up to him with a treat in my hand and let him smell the treat.  As he got the scent I started with my command, “DROP it”  “DROP it”  I only got in a few repetitions before he took the treat and as he took it, I casually picked up the toy.  He watched me take it as he chewed his treat.  When it was gone he tried to take the squirrel back from me, but when I told him “NO” he relented. I placed it on the ground in front of me where he could reach it, but I didn’t allow him to take it.  When he relaxed I knew he understood that it was mine, so I waited about another minute and we did the whole game over again.
Using the CATCH IT method of play, he was able to run off a LOT of energy (he was exhausted by the time we were done and very well behaved the rest of the day) and I was able to extract myself from being the focus of the game. My fingers are healing up nicely and he is so happily tired after using his body so much. 
To end the game, after his last successful DROP it, and after, of course, him actively ignoring the squirrel by my request, I let him watch me calmly put it back in the bag to end our play session. I switched his leash back to the short, walking leash, gave him a drink from his water bottle and we made our way back home.
I’m so happy that I was able to discover this game while I still had all my fingers. 

I'm also thinking, now that I have that long leash, maybe i can try the ball again.  I guess we have a plan for tomorrow.
bye for now

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