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Mar 1, 2024

The Mischief-Maker

Homer was 7 years old when we met, a short-legged roly-poly terrier mix with coarse grizzled fur, a black nose, and bright dark eyes under bushy brows. He looked like an animated stuffed animal yet behaved at times like a Borgia having a bad hair day. Homer and his owner were very unhappy. She was a single, busy professional at her wits’ end; he was an inquisitive, clever little dog feeling deeply anxious about his favorite human.

The Mischief-Maker

For most of his life Homer’s owner had worked regular office hours with evenings and weekends off, plenty of time for long walks and evenings spent curled up together in front of the TV. While their personality differences did present challenges — she was studious and reserved; he was spirited and willful — over the years they had grown very close, maintaining a circular rhythm that worked for both of them.

It was the late 90s when Google was just a baby, dial-up was a hard-wired phone call, computer hard drives were tiny, and crashes were common. None of this meant anything to Homer until the day his favorite human brought home a laptop computer. And just like that, office work spilled over into evenings and weekends.

As the workload grew, the long walks they enjoyed in companionable silence were reduced to brief pressure campaigns characterized by a faster pace and the occasional “hurry up.” The quicker Homer could deliver the 2s, the sooner they could get back to the house and his owner back to her laptop, by then a permanent fixture on the dining table.


Evenings and weekends were given over to long hours hunched over a keyboard while Homer studied his owner’s movements with the dedication of a monk. He may have been powerless against the demands of technology, but Homer was the world’s leading expert on his favorite human. He would figure out a way to win her attention.

Due to limited battery life and too few conveniently placed wall outlets, Homer noticed his owner handling the power cord at the beginning and end of every laptop session. Removing the plug calmed Homer because it signaled cuddle time with his owner. Connecting the laptop toggled Homer into mischief mode. He would wander around the open layout poking, prodding, or mouthing everything bearing his owner’s scent, zeroing in on objects that prompted the biggest responses. Anything that got his owner out of her chair was a keeper. Eventually Homer achieved proficiency in opening zippered cases, search and seizure of prized possessions, and ejecting music CDs while they were playing.

Homer was still refining his technique for popping cassette tapes on the day he sidled up to a wall outlet and yanked the plug connected to the laptop. Blink. Hours of his owner’s hard work disappeared without a trace.

The next day Homer was signed up for dog day care.

Did you know?

Never underestimate what your dog (or cat) can or will do when they want something badly enough.

Homer wanted his owner’s time and attention and ended up feeling grumpy all the time because his favorite human was exasperated and exhausted by his persistent attempts to get it. The clearly frazzled woman had no idea that every frown, verbal correction, and physical attempt to stop Homer only encouraged her little dog to keep trying.

When the pet initiates interaction, negative feedback has the power to reinforce behavior we may not want. Remember Homer’s story. He always took the initiative, was willing to try, try, try regardless of his owner’s expectations or opinions, resulting in a handful of disturbing new skills she never would have paid a professional to train.

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