Thank You, Pavlov

This summer, Oscar became a problem child. It wasn’t the first time.

If you’ve known me (or Oscar) since before I started this blog and before I met my Paul, you’ll know that, while he’s always been lovable, he’s also always been quirky (there’s a shocker–my dog? quirky?) and sometimes downright difficult. I think it’s safe to surmise that he spent his first three years in a crate, and that in none of those three years did anyone bother to try to house train him. Or play with him. Or just generally let him be a dog. Which, I guess–well, why would you, if you’re never going to let your dog out of his crate except to make more dogs? (I do know that about him, little ladies’ man that he is.)

Having done some research recently, I have learned that dogs are in need of pretty set schedules, but I think Oscar is in a little more need of them than most. Like Tock, the Watch Dog in the children’s classic, The Phantom Tollbooth, he seems to have a clock built right into the middle of him–although Oscar’s is invisible. Anyway, sometime at the beginning of the summer, the schedule of the two usual humans in the house changed to incorporate pontoon rides at supper time, and right around the same time, Oscar seems finally to have realised that the Cottage is our home now and we aren’t going anywhere and what’s more he doesn’t get to sleep on my bed anymore because my Paul sleeps there now.

This conjunction of events resulted in behaviours which we first took to be passive aggressive.

photo by Jennwith2ns 2012

You aren’t going to let me out in the middle of the night? Fine. I’ll pee on the carpet.
You didn’t get up right at 5.30 a.m.? That’s okay. I’ll pee on the carpet.
I have to wait to eat until after your boat ride? Sure, but just so you know, I’m gonna pee on the carpet.

This impression was compounded by the fact that sometimes we’d let him out before doing whatever we were going to do that was cutting into his perception of The Schedule, and he’d still find some way to pee on the carpet. Copious internet research and episodes of The Dog Whisperer have assured us, however, that dogs don’t get passive aggressive. What they do get is anxious.

Well, that wasn’t a stretch. Oscar is much better than he was when I first got him, but he is an anxious little fellow, easily intimidated, put off, spooked, cowed. (Feel free to add other synonyms. They’ll fit.) In fact, the knowledge that some dogs “soil” when they’re worried fit right in with some of his earlier behaviour shortly after I adopted him. So we decided to take steps to make our lives, his life, and the condition of our house a little more satisfactory.

The first step included reinstituting the crate. Don’t think we’re monsters for re-crating a dog who was never uncrated in his earliest years. I used to crate him regularly but for limited periods of time when I lived on my own, and, barring a couple of occasions, he always seemed quite content in there. It was a safe, small, dark, quiet place, and he likes those places. Lacking a crate, he’ll seek them out for himself. Like the coat closet, for instance. So we put his crate in the coat closet and decided that at night, that was where he’d sleep.

Only by this time, he wasn’t used to sleeping in the crate. Although he had almost always slept through the night before we became a “pack” with my Paul and Shemp, by now he was used to getting up and going outside when Paul or I would get up at around two in the morning. When we didn’t let him out at two in the morning and he was in his crate, he became very concerned. He began a little concerned dance in the crate, rocking it back and forth and clicking his nails on the plastic bottom. He did this for a very. long. time. You wouldn’t have thought concern could be quite so energetic, but his was.

Now he wasn’t peeing on the carpet, but though it got closer to 4 a.m. than 2 a.m., every morning he would do his little worried dance. Sometimes he would sing along with yips. Oscar doesn’t yip. Nighttime was becoming miserable. Nobody was getting any sleep. It was like having an infant with no hope of its growing up. I was afraid my Paul was going to say we had to take him to a shelter, because although technically both our dogs are both our dogs, let’s face it–we each do and probably always will prefer the dog we started out with. My Paul was getting growly and I was getting anxious like my problem doggie, and I was wracking my brain trying to think of how to help Oscar not to be anxious, and not to think that he was the pack leader, and how not to encourage his bad behaviour.

One or two nights when he started making noise, I went downstairs and slept on the couch, and every time he even moved, I’d tch at him like the Dog Whisperer. That worked, except it occurred to me that for him at this point, that was probably the equivalent of his sleeping on my bed, and meanwhile, I wasn’t sleeping on my bed or with my husband, and I didn’t want Oscar to get used to that. Then my parents gave us some scraps of carpet and I put that in there. I’m sure it’s much more comfortable for him that way, but, as I was pretty sure he would, he figured out a way to shove or fold the carpet so he still had enough plastic to tap his nails on.

And then I remembered Pavlov. I don’t remember what he was trying to prove or establish, but I do remember that he rang a bell and dogs associated it with food and salivated. I also remembered that earlier this year I would set the alarm on my cell phone and when it went off in the morning, the dogs would wake up and shake and jingle their collars. I hadn’t been using my alarm in a while. I discussed this with Paul and we agreed I’d set one alarm for 6.30 a.m. so the dogs would know when it was time to get up, and another one (so they wouldn’t think they got fed immediately upon waking) at 7.00 for their breakfast.

And you know what? It totally didn’t work.

At first.

Now, occasionally, Oscar will wake 15 minutes early and start rattling his cage, but most of the time he’s quiet until the alarm. And although this morning both dogs were raring to get breakfast, most of the time, although eager, they both sit in the living room and wait quietly until the second alarm goes off. Clever dogs. And clever Pavlov. I’m so glad I didn’t totally have to come up with that by myself.

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