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LIVING AND ARTS: Teaching new dogs old tricks

May 1st, 2004, 09:10 AM
By Hadley St. John
I&M Staff Writer

Last Saturday, amidst the Daffodil Weekend festivities, a five-foot-tall woman walking a dog drew more stares than many of the brightly-colored decorations and highly-polished antique cars.

The woman, dog-trainer Liz McIsaac, strolled fearlessly down Washington Street with Miles, an 18-month-old, 140-pound Great Dane that almost reached her shoulder in height.

Even more surprising to some of the onlookers than the size comparison was the fact that the Great Dane wasn’t in charge. McIsaac was.

Using mostly positive reinforcement, McIsaac is helping young and old dogs alike learn to obey, and her help couldn’t come at a better time. Puppies and dogs of every shape and breed are popping up all over the island, as many Nantucketers are looking to share the impending summer with a canine companion.

One of the major reasons for the puppy explosion of late on island is the litters that recently arrived at the MSPCA adoption center on Crooked Lane.

Known as the “Mississippi Mutts,” litters of puppies are shipped regularly from a shelter in Mississippi where adoption counselor Jessica Sosebee used to work.

Adoption counselor Stephanie Henke said attitudes toward spaying and neutering down South differ from those up north. “There’s too many puppies and they get put to sleep,” she said, adding that Sosebee’s morning duties often included selecting a few puppies for euthanization. When Sosebee moved to Nantucket, she realized island pet owners typically spay and neuter their pets, leaving a puppy void on the island. Now puppies are shipped up to Nantucket once Sosebee thinks there’s enough demand on the island.

The last batch of Mississippi mutts, 17 lab mixes from three litters, were gone in one week, Henke said. A new shipment of puppies is scheduled to arrive in June before the Walk for Animals, the adoption center’s annual fundraiser.

Of course, an adult dog may make more sense for some people and Henke said there’s two currently in the shelter.

Miles the Great Dane had a problem with children and other animals, but McIsaac said positive and consistent work with him last weekend set a new tone for the dog and his family.

After training dogs for 15 years, McIsaac said she looks back at the traditional training methods with disdain.

“In traditional training, correcting an inappropriate behavior was a physical thing,” she said. “Quite frankly it works but you break a dog’s spirit by doing that.”

Yet the varied training methods used by Nantucket dog owners are in evidence across the island, from Main Street to Tuppancy Links. With hundreds of books and Internet sites now available to them, owners have numerous philosophies to choose from in training Rex, Spike or Lily to sit, lie down or fetch the paper.

Social etiquette, McIsaac said, is even more important than obedience with new puppies.

“The window of opportunity to socialize a dog closes at 16 weeks,” she said. In addition to teaching basic obedience skills, McIsaac plays games in her classes held at the Massachusetts Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (MSPCA) adoption center on Crooked Lane with pets and owners like, “pass the puppy” to encourage positive social skills among dogs and strangers.

“The first year of a dog’s life, nothing is free. They have to work for everything,” McIsaac said. “The owner has to work just as hard as the puppy.”

Michelle Allen said she is rewarding her first puppy Polly, a nine-week-old golden retriever, with praise and treats. One of the tougher challenges Allen has had with training is reminding other people to stay consistent in reinforcing good behavior.

“My father is Don Allen (of Don Allen Ford). He has these hands that are all callused from working on cars so he lets the dogs bite them,” she said. “I have to teach my dad too.”

McIsaac said she’s found something easy and effective to help owners train their dogs – something called “the clicker.”

The clicker system first used in dolphin training rewards dogs with a pleasant, easily recognizable sound they like. McIsaac said dogs hear a lot of different commands and tones throughout the day and the clicker sound sets itself apart from the others.

“It’s a science-based system where the animal is being positively reinforced by telling them this is right. It’s a unique sound. It’s not something they use on a daily basis,” she said.

McIsaac said positive reinforcement doesn’t translate into zero punishment. Non-violent punishments in the form of scolding in a low voice or loud sounds encourage dogs to change behaviors.

“I can tell you, when dealing with an aggressive dog, the last thing you want to deal with is intimidation,” she said of physical corrections that make matters worse.

Allen said she’s teaching her dog obedience skills using a puppy training book, but she takes Polly out walking through town to improve her socialization.

Former Nantucket resident and author of “Dog Talk,” John Ross writes a column on dog training published in newspapers in three cities. He said socialization is interpreted in different ways.

The latest trend in dog socialization hours at big box pet stores aren’t helping dogs learn good behavior, Ross said, since puppies are allowed to attack one another and play freely.

“What the puppies learn is every dog they are around they are supposed to wrestle,” he said. Instead, Ross recommends encouraging good behaviors with dogs, children and people out in the open or in a controlled obedience class.

Ross made a name for himself in the dog training world by asking pet owners to act in much the same way as dogs. By growling at your dog when they do something wrong or just before they do something wrong, you are acting much like the dog’s mother – or what Ross refers to as the “pack leader.”

“Canine pack leaders are always consistent, and unless ill or dying, they always defend their leadership position,” Ross said in a handout distributed in his obedience class.

Firmness is something Patricia Stolte said she is lacking with her two-year-old Chesapeake Bay retriever Tinker Blue Barnacle.

After training her last Chesapeake Bay retriever Barnacle Stolte said she let some things slide this time around with “Blue.”

“He’s trained me that he’s allowed to sleep on the couch,” she said, laughing.

Like many other dog lovers on Nantucket, Stolte’s affection for her dogs blurs the lines between children and animals.

Both Barnacle and Blue have baby books.

“Barnacle’s (book) has everything – his baby teeth, his first vaccination papers,” she said. Blue’s book even contains the stitches from his hernia operation.

Although Blue’s other nickname is Freshy, given his attitude, Stolte said he has a knack for learning tricks – like jumping up five feet in the air to hit the wind chimes on the house.

Puppy classes are meant to help the owners as much as the canines, McIsaac said.

“They leave there feeling relieved,” she said.

Kris Kinsley Hancock said her five-month-old miniature dachshund has matured by leaps and bounds since she started McIsaac’s class. “She asks to go outside and she hasn’t had an accident for weeks and she stopped biting us. She stays and comes inside, which for a puppy her age is pretty good,” she said.

Hancock said she and her husband Pat are taking socializing into their own hands. “Because so many people have gotten puppies lately, we have been calling them up and getting them together,” she said. Despite the fact that Nantucket was rated the number-two most dog friendly destination in the United States and Canada this year by, McIsaac said owners need to do more than take their dogs on runs and spend time with them.

One common mistake owners make, she said is believing their dogs think the same way they do. Owners who believe dogs are doing things to get back at them are misguided, she said. Using an example of an owner who takes her dog running for 45 minutes and then wonders why the dog went to the bathroom inside afterward, McIsaac said dogs are simply distracted easily and need to be shown where to go to the bathroom.

“Your punishment is you were not acknowledging their time table,” she said.

Yelling at the dog in this case is not the answer. “Yelling causes the dog to be desensitized. I immediately drop my voice and make a guttural noise,” she said.

Whatever the case may be, effective training is based on a simple principle. “With positive reinforcement, you don’t wait for the bad behavior, McIsaac said. “You encourage the better behavior with a positive treat.”

From the The Inquirer and Mirror Nantucket