The Dolphin Divide

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How to train your neighbors' dog—on the sly

You’ve got to respect the work ethic of a guard dog who’s never off duty. Problem is, how do you unplug such a dedicated guardian of homeland security when you want a little shut-eye?

Or even a little peace and quiet during the day because the potentially vicious canine with the hair-trigger response I’m talking about not only isn’t mine, he is also seemingly set-off by such innocuous events as gentle breezes and passing sparrows. And we’re talking deep growl and loud barking for stretches lasting as long as 20 minutes at a time. Gets on your nerves, especially when most of your work days are spent at home, as mine are.

So, how far am I prepared to go for a little peace and quiet? Well, I’ll tell you a dirty little secret.

Shh, don’t tell:

I’m training my neighbors’ dog – on the sly.

Sure, there are risks. Like I don’t really know my neighbors, but I get the impression that they’re kind of tight with Fido and wouldn’t really be all that open to my infringing in any way on his right to free speech.

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Plus, there are challenges. Fido looks like he could rip my arm off. And when his teeth are bared, which is often, it looks like he wants to. Lucky for me, there’s a sturdy chain-link fence separating my precious limbs from Fido’s lips.

But how does one train behavioral restraint under such conditions? Actually, professional animal trainers have been doing it for decades.

The scenario in which Fido and I found ourselves some weeks ago is what trainers call one of “protected contact,” a situation in which trainer and trainee need not occupy the same environmental enclosure at the same time. Dolphin trainers routinely work under just such conditions, meeting their animal training partners not in the water, but at its

shimmering surface. For both animal and trainer, the waterline serves – psychologically and physically – as a protective barrier, one in which contact is possible, but on a limited basis.

In the beginning of our training sessions, Fido seemed grateful for the protection of the chain-link fence between us. I know I was.

Recognizing Fido’s barking as a fright reaction to anything not intimately familiar to him, I realized that our initial interactions were likely to be highly uncomfortable for Fido. My heart went out to him. I wanted, ultimately, to become friends – but I knew my good intentions would necessarily go unrecognized by Fido for some time. In fact, the nature of our relationship, tentative as it was, was about to take a dramatic turn for the worse.

Our working relationship began simply enough. When I heard Fido barking, I stepped out into the yard and through the shrubbery surrounding the fence so I would be in plain view.

Fido, of course, went ballistic, taking his display of aggression to new heights. His resonant bark became a wailing howl. His upright posture elongated as he stretched his neck in my direction, head low to the ground, ready to defend but equally ready to attack. His pointy ears flattened against his head and he bared his teeth menacingly.

My job was to note each separate behavioral component in the overall threat display and respond to each with a gradual notching up of my own physical presence. Fido growled, I waived. Fido extended his neck, I called out in greeting. Fido flattened his ears, I whistled. Fido barked, I moved toward him.

I kept my tone light and my manner friendly. But in those moments, my presence and my behaviors were negatively reinforcing – or punishing – the dog’s aggression, urging him to abandon his threat display.

At first, Fido was quite dedicated to demonstrating his ferocity. Our initial sessions were sometimes 20 or 30 minutes long. But such displays use up a great deal of energy, so I knew Fido would tire eventually. When he did, his barking subsided. In response, I withdrew behind the hedges away from the fence line. This generally caused Fido to renew his barking. Which prompted my immediate return until the barking stopped again. And so the dance went, several times a day in the beginning.

In the short-term, what Fido eventually learned was that the fastest way to get what he wanted, my physical removal, was to stop barking as soon as he saw me.

While his threat displays became shorter and shorter in duration, he was simultaneously hearing my voice reassuring him that everything was okay, that he was fine, and that eventually we would become friends. I’m not claiming that Fido understood my words, only that he was learning to recognize my voice and associate it with the desirability of not barking.

Not long ago, Fido decided to test his vocal range at three-thirty in the morning. I didn’t really feel like bundling up and trudging out into the yard, so I took a gamble on Fido’s associative learning and cracked open the bedroom window. “It’s okay, pup,” I called out to him. “Everything’s fine. You’re all right. Go back to sleep.” The barking stopped.

The fence line between us may not be going anywhere, but the need for protected contact between Fido and me seems to be rapidly fading. I’ve even looked up a few times recently to find Fido sitting silently at the fence, looking toward me with a quiet, contemplative gaze. It may be time to break out the doggie treats. I think we just might become neighborly.

Copyright © Seth Slater, 2013

Seth Slater, M.F.A., is a former dolphin trainer for the U.S. Navy and currently teaches creative writing at Cuyamaca College.

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