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  • Maureen Chambley

Turnabout is Fair Play

Updated: 4 days ago

Confident, athletic, and clever, Pepper’s adolescence had been particularly vexing for his owner, a busy corporate executive who desired the companionship of a dog without realizing how trying it can be to raise one. She had adopted Pepper at 6 months wanting to bypass the demands of house training, while hoping they could skip right to evenings of togetherness on the couch. But Pepper needed more than an owner who was very good at “sit” and “stay.” Three months later we would meet when Pepper was registered for dog day care.


headshot of black dog with tan markings and lop ears
Photo: Unsplash.com. As previously reported, decades of pet photos were lost somewhere between my former Philly address and Charlotte NC. Pepper had a similar coat pattern with lop ears and weighed 45 pounds.


On his first day Pepper was a bit overwhelmed, as newbies generally are. He was quiet, withdrawn, and the only dog that ever tried to climb the fence. Day two he joined in the fun and made friends. Day three Pepper entered the facility like he owned the place. The bold character previously described by his owner had arrived.


Dogs entered the main play area through a small enclosure with a gate on either side to enable day care staff to control movement and prevent escape. There the leash was removed and the gate to the play area was opened for the dog to enter. But only if the dog was quiet and controlled. Canine playmates already in the play area never appreciated a dog coming in hot and bothered. Tended to make them snappish. Wasn't fair to them and none of us wanted the drama.


As soon as his leash was removed, Pepper jumped at the gate and barked. I pretended to be deaf. Pepper barked again. I ignored him again. When I heard his paws hit the floor, I looked at him and said “sit.” He barked louder. Sounded like a “no.”


I walked out of the enclosure leaving Pepper behind to ponder his next move. Maybe 40 seconds later I returned to a quiet dog. Before I could say anything, he planted his butt on the floor. Good boy! I opened the gate to the play area. Pepper walked in and as I reached forward to pull the gate closed, he suddenly turned to face me. Opening his mouth wide Pepper let loose a single piercing bark before triumphantly strutting away to join his friends.


I wish there was video. He got me good.


AND HE WASN'T DONE

Owners parked at the curb in front of the facility to collect their pets. When his owner arrived, I walked Pepper to their car where we found the back door open and his owner inside, adjusting a cover over the seat.


I was impressed by Pepper’s composure as he sat on the pavement near her, watching as she smoothed and tucked the fabric. Finally satisfied with her efforts, the owner backed out of the car, turned to her dog and in a happy voice said, “OK, time to go!,” while gesturing toward the back seat.


Without changing position, Pepper glanced up at his owner before looking toward the car. In one smooth movement he grasped the fabric with his teeth, gave it a quick pull, then watched as gravity and polished leather conspired to spill it into the gutter. Pepper looked back at his owner with a tentative tail wag.


The woman’s cheeks flushed with anger and embarrassment as she hissed at her dog, “Why do you do such things?!” Pepper responded by dropping his ears so low on his head he looked like a cocker spaniel. His owner’s slow-boil resentment softened into a smile. She picked up the cover, shook off the debris, and started over. Pepper was blessed to have such a patient owner.


PEPPER'S SKILL RAISES A GOOD QUESTION

If you wanted your dog to strip the cover off a car seat, how would you begin training the behavior?


A little at a time. What I witnessed was undesirable behavior that had been reinforced and refined by countless owner responses to pawing, mouthing, or rumpling the seat cover. From a training standpoint, it was very impressive that Pepper could strip the cover in two small moves.


But he was not interested in the car seat cover. What Pepper wanted was his owner’s attention. And he discovered that messing with the car seat cover was a sure-fire way of getting it. His frazzled owner had unintentionally encouraged her clever dog to keep trying, to build on the behaviors that triggered the biggest responses from her. Practice took care of the rest.


Pepper was like the child who learns to act out to get the attention of a busy parent.


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