Training 101

On October 8, Olga and I purchased a Samoyed from a breeder near Peterborough, Ont. He came with the name, Smirnoff, which we were quick to replace with Odin. This 9 month old puppy was certainly bigger than we anticipated (61 pounds according to our vet) and younger; we had our name on a list for a two year old. The breeder offered a younger one and we accepted, not wanting to miss out.

Cats had always been the pet of choice in our household. Olga had been harboring felines as a child and she had adopted Heidi prior to our marriage. When we eventually had to put down Heidi, Nicholas and Olena were very young; it was our intention to acquire another animal. Olga and I believed a pet would help in their emotional development, particularly their sense of empathy. We had considered a dog but realistically believed a cat (or two) would be easier to manage specifically because we both worked fulltime. A dog would require more daytime attention, something we could not provide given the circumstances; so, we adopted two kittens, brothers, Milo and Otis. Skip forward to 2016, Milo had reached his end and our household has been without a pet since.

Our home was missing a presence especially now that our excursions were few given the limitations of COVID-19. We thought about the long-term benefits of the company a pet would bring along with routines and expectations to provide some structure to the days ahead. Adopting a cat proved problematic (stories for another day) and Olga’s research suggested the temperament of a Samoyed would suit our sensibilities. A chance meeting on the street with a couple walking a female version of the breed cemented the decision to pursue one.

The first few days were bliss. Odin was crate trained and house trained; he was quiet and docile on our first walks, oblivious to other dogs and squirrels; he slept through the night and was completely compliant on our ride to the cottage. We had scored. Issues began to arise during the five days at the lake as walks became increasingly difficult and Odin played rough, nipping and grabbing as if we were his toys. The overstimulation of the environment appeared to have obliterated whatever lessons were learned; bad habits were emerging. Odin needed to be trained systematically in order to get back to square one.

Samoyeds are reported to be smart and willful, with a reputation of being difficult to train. YouTube displays numerous training procedures, all professing the technique to teach even the most irascible canine. The best ones focus on a form of operant conditioning, rewarding the desired behaviour with an endless supply of treats, the most tasty saved for the unusually difficult tasks. The dogs in the videos all respond immediately; success is achieved in a manner never matched by our own efforts. Patience in these matters has never been my strong suit. On one evening Odin had been barking incessantly, something new, eventually defecating on the floor, in two spots, one pile squishing beneath my slippered feet. I lost it. The clean up was a scene of huffing and yelling and fury, a display of temper akin to a pipe bursting under pressure; an embarrassment, really.

The next day, at approximately the same time, just as Olga was preparing supper, Odin’s barking began again; surely a sign of needing to relieve himself so I put on the leash and led him to the backyard. Nothing happened. Odin was only interested in playing, chasing birds and squirrels, finding sticks to carry, frolicking. The events of the previous day girded my resolve to wait him out, my will versus his stubbornness, my insistence of showing who is boss. As I waited Odin kept finding different ways to annoy me. Darkness was setting in, supper was waiting yet all he wanted was to dig up the grass here, there, there and back here. I grew angrier and yanked harder with each new annoyance until the last one when my eyes widened, my teeth gritted, my heart raced and suddenly I saw my Dad, a visceral recollection of him attempting to “train” Duke.

I scared myself.

We had two dogs when I was growing up as a teenager, both named Duke. The first didn’t last, a stray which ran went for a romp in the neighbouring field and never returned. I don’t recall the number of years, five or six, when we had Duke, the second one. And as much as Duke was a fixture, pictures of him are rare. This one was from the summer of 1980 on the front lawn of our Kostis Avenue home, my mother in the background.

Duke was picked up at the Aylmer Sales Arena by Mr. Gooyers who bought and sold pigs there weekly where someone was giving away a litter of pups. Duke’s features suggested he was a cross between a German Sheppard and a St. Bernard. He was a big dog who could easily put his front paws on my shoulders.

I don’t recall precisely all the details of his upbringing except that I was not directly involved; my parents assumed those responsibilities. I have visions of my Dad being the disciplinarian, the one to direct Duke into the correct behaviour utilizing corporal punishment when required. His was also a form of operant conditioning, inflicting some form of physical inducement to modify Duke’s actions. Dad was not cruel; he was administering the lessons as learned through his upbringing, influenced by the acceptable understanding of the time. Pets are not people; they belong outside and your job was to demonstrate yourself as the master. Both my parents would have laughed at the current practice of a treat to reward a positive act; when you wanted the dog to leave something, you tamped on the snout, you spoke angrily, you did not provide a delicious snack to recognize the dog’s restraint. And if the dog did not move, you did not coax him with food; rather, you yanked on the collar and pulled him with the chain until the dog finally got the message. Those are the images which spooked me on that pivotal evening two weeks ago.

Duke was a very good dog for the family. Us four boys rough-housed with him, mimicking our own style of play with each other. Duke enjoyed our company and we his. I remember vigorously ruffling his fur, putting my whole fist in his mouth, feeding him coffee beans to laugh at his attempt to eat them. My Mother grew increasingly attached to Duke, especially for company when she was home alone, letting him stay indoors when Dad worked the night shift.

Duke was also very protective of everyone in the family, a trait which eventually led to his downfall. I remember a close friend stepping into our home, coming to pick me up for a night out. Charlie put his hand on my shoulder to say hello whereby Duke reared up to grab his arm and pull it down, sitting to guard me until we left. Duke flashed a mean streak on occasion, growling if you came too close while he was eating, or snapping from his house where he ensconced himself to ward off discipline for some transgression. The final straw was breaking his chain to lunge at the delivery man for handing mail to my mother. Duke could no longer be trusted with other people so he had to be put down.

Duke’s reaction was the consequence of his “training”; he responded in kind during moments of perceived stress. My difficult evening with Odin conjured up those memories. I wanted my actions with him to be the foundation for a mutual, respectful understanding of each other’s needs. I needed to train myself as much as Odin needed to be trained, properly, with consistency and gentle firmness and love.

Olga is a much more patient person and has spent hours sifting through training videos, seeking advice from on-line Samoyed owner Facebook pages, attempting the different methods to arrive at the most effective approach. She brings the wisdom and affection of a mother along with the knowledge of toddler development. I am endeavouring to train in the same manner and keep myself in check. Odin has responded daily, modifying his behaviour with each repeated lesson as we learn about the most advantageous approach for him and ourselves. Odin’s endearing character shines more frequently as he plays tug with the chew toys, gazes up at you with those puppy eyes, rolls onto his back with feet splayed so we can rub his belly, falls asleep on the ground beside you with his head in our lap, walks proudly alongside you, instep, around the neighbourhood, and greets new people with nose prodding, tail wagging enthusiasm. Odin is our huggable, little polar bear. There are still moments of frustration to which we attempt to address with ideas on what we need to do differently; training 101.

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