Dexter and I had our first training session with Tyler Jones at Purpose Pups the Monday following our first weekend together. We had barely survived the weekend, and I was ready for some help training this high energy husky.
Tyler was waiting for us outside his building when we arrived, and he watched as I struggled to contain Dexter as I exited the vehicle.
He came over to the truck and said, “I will show you how to have him wait for your command before he jumps into and out of your vehicle.” I watched with amazement as he asked Dexter to sit, wait, and make eye contact with Tyler before allowing him to “load up!” Then while Dexter was sitting inside the truck looking out the window, Tyler told him to wait while he opened the door. Only when Dexter made eye contact with him did he then give the dog the “okay” to exit. They practiced this a few times before we continued our lesson inside the building.
Dexter bonded with Tyler immediately and was excited and eager to learn from him. Tyler could make him do anything using a slight gesture, tone of voice, eye contact, and positive reinforcement. It seemed as if Tyler would only have to think the command, and these thoughts would be transmitted to Dexter who would obediently obey. I was spellbound and somewhat envious of this secret communication Tyler had with my dog.
Tyler and I discussed the basic commands I wanted Dexter to know such as sit, down, stay, wait, take it, leave it, the recall command, and how to walk on the leash without pulling. He gave us weekly “homework” to practice before the next session.
Every evening after work, supper, house chores, and shuttling my children to various destinations, I would go out in the garage and practice the commands with Dexter. Even though I kept the lessons shorter than 10 minutes, used treats for positive reinforcement, and always ended sessions with a game of fetch, he began to dread these nightly lessons. It was like teaching a student Algebra when all they really wanted to do was go to the gym.
So as any good teacher would do, I altered my approach and surreptitiously weaved the commands into the fun things he liked to do. For example, on our hikes through the woods, I would intermittently ask him to sit, lie down, stay, or come and reward him with treats as he earned them. I also took him to school with me on the weekends. He loved this! I would play hide and seek with Dexter by asking him to stay while I found a hiding spot and then used the recall command for him to come find me. When he was all worn out, I would bring him to my classroom where he’d take a nap on the rug while I did my school work.
Soon after, I came up with the idea to incorporate Dexter in the after school program by taking a small group of students hiking with us throughout the fall months.
Dexter was a big hit with the students. He basked in the attention and had a way of bringing out the best in everyone who hiked with us. Students who were generally quiet and shy in school became animated and talkative around Dexter, and students who were known as “mischief makers” were on their best behavior because they wanted the opportunity to join us again on an afternoon hike.
Dexter and I took 14 lessons throughout the fall and winter months. In our final few sessions, Tyler and I took Dexter to S.W. Collins as well as Tractor Supply to practice the basic commands in a public setting with lots of distractions. This was the first time I’d ever taken a dog in a public space like this, and I’d never imagined at the beginning that I’d ever dare to take Dexter anywhere in public.
At one point, Tyler asked that I put Dexter in a stay position and walk across the store and then use the recall command. We had practiced this scenario at school and at home, but never in a store setting with a plethora of new smells and people milling around. I trusted Dexter would listen to me and believed in his ability to control his canine impulses. He didn’t let me down as he stayed in his position and didn’t budge until I used the recall command.
This was a proud moment for us. I knew we still had a great deal to learn together, but we had come a long way since I first brought him home.
Lee-Rae Jordan-Oliver is an educator and author who lives in Hodgdon with her husband Matt and children Wyatt, Anna and Walker. Her column will appear on a semi-regular basis in The Houlton Pioneer Times.