Gail Fisher's Dog Tracks: Chinook is one smart puppy when it comes to opening doors

GAIL FISHER December 14. 2013 1:06AM

When it came time to choose a title for my last book, I fought for the title, "The Thinking Dog." This title expresses one of the biggest advantages to the method of training we use that encourages the dog to figure out his own best behavior without coercion or force. Marker training uses rewards so the dog thinks about what he should (or shouldn't) do, and to voluntarily engage in that "right" behavior.

Larry, our Chinook puppy, has been raised with this approach even before we adopted him. His breeder introduced the puppies to the philosophy of marker training when they were small. Add to that the fact that Larry is extremely clever and bright (I think of him as "gifted" . of course!).

Having a bright, clever dog isn't necessarily always a good thing. It means that as clever as he is at learning things I want him to know, Larry is just as clever at figuring out how to do things that he wants to do, but may not be to my advantage. On the other hand, I just love watching a bright dog figure things out - watching the wheels turn, and seeing him figure something out.

So my dilemma is between being an interested (sometimes fascinated) observer of a clever, quick-learning puppy, or, predicting where an undesirable behavior is ultimately going to lead, heading it off before he learns it.

A case in point happened this week during a meeting in our conference room. First, some background. We have lever door handles on the doors to our fenced-in back yard at home. You know the type - you simply push down on the handle to engage it rather than having to grasp and turn a doorknob. The doors open inward from the yard.

Larry is the first dog we've ever had that, when he wants to come inside, jumps up against the handle, engages it, and opens the door.

The first few times he did it, it was purely accidental, and since the door is often locked so it doesn't open, I thought he must think it was serendipity when it does open for him. That is until this week.

On Wednesday, Larry was with me in our conference room for a short meeting. I knew it would be fast, and this was his first time joining us, so I thought it would be a good opportunity to get him used to being in a meeting. It didn't occur to me that he might try the doors - which have lever handles. The door to the lobby opens out, and sure enough, Larry jumped on the door, pushing down on the lever, and left the conference room to visit his friends at the front desk.

For the rest of that short meeting, I kept him on leash so he didn't go to the door. But then next day, I saw evidence of exactly how bright Larry is.

I brought him to another meeting in the conference room. This time I moved a chair in front of the door to the lobby so he couldn't jump on the door lever. This didn't stop Larry. He climbed onto the chair, sat and calmly looked over the back of the chair at the lever, then very deliberately pushed the handle down with his paw.

So much for my theory that he didn't know how the door opens! I was both thrilled and dismayed. My puppy is brilliant, and on the other hand he's still a brainless adolescent.

Not a good combination for easy rearing . but what fun! I do love watching a bright dog figure things out, even if it means I have to struggle to stay one step ahead of him so he doesn't learn too many things that are problematic for me.

Worst case scenario, I'll be spending more time teaching him things to compensate for the things he already knows. Like my next challenge: teaching him to close the outside door after he comes in. After all, it's winter!

Gail Fisher, author of "The Thinking Dog," runs All Dogs Gym & Inn® near Manchester-Boston Regional Airport. To suggest a topic for this column, email or write c/o All Dogs Gym, 505 Sheffield Rd., Manchester, NH 03104.

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