Behavior Modification 101

March 13, 2012

When I was 6 a traumatic incident occurred on the way to school that had a lasting impact on my sister and I; and were it not for some savvy parental intervention, the trauma threatened to escalate into a lasting fear of dogs on my sister’s part. 

 OwnerInDenial: “REALLY – he’s just being FRIENDLY….”

                                    “Oh LOOK:  he wants to PLAY….”

My Mom walked us to school daily – an expedition of some 6 blocks each way (this was in the era before the advent of either women’s lib or the two-car family: we therefore had one car – and Dad got it). It was my sister’s habit to carry her beloved (albeit worn) teddy bear swinging casually by one paw as we walked along. Perhaps it was not entirely the fault of Blackie the Biter that he became tempted by her swinging bear, charged up behind us, and engaged my sister in a vicious tug-of-war that left her screaming and crying, Mom screaming in turn as she heroically pistol-whipped the dog with her handbag-turned-weapon (…who could’ve known mild-mannered Mom was secretly…SUPERWOMAN), and me (“unsupportively”) LMAO at the entire spectacle.

(Sure, I loved my little sister and was more than willing to defend her, normally. But only when a row of teeth larger than my fingers wasn’t involved, and only if the tug ‘o war wasn’t actually a very funny scene.)

Anyway, my sister became deathly afraid of all dogs after that, and a year later my parents decided to address the problem by bringing home our half cocker spaniel/half shepherd puppy Muffin. My sister’s fear waned slowly and reluctantly but wane it did as Muffin’s nighttime yipping and crying dissolved into the early months of what Dad expertly called ‘Puppy Training’ (he had grown up with dogs, which made him the Resident Expert…)

As usual I was determined to have a hand in the process and Dad willingly taught me the ‘reward for behavior’ approach, demonstrating the power of Milk Bones in reinforcing such simple commands as ‘sit’ and ‘stay’.

As a precocious child I put two and two together and realized those itty bitty cookie treats scattered seemingly randomly over my short lifespan had in fact held sinister underlying connections to MY personal behavior modification program; so naturally I felt cheated and plotted revenge. I mean, think of it: ALL those cookies I’d related to unconditional love and what were they??? Merely the deceptive tools of early obedience training!

I proposed to Dad that I teach the new puppy a few tricks of my own, and Dad willingly (and naively) handed over a goodly supply of Puppy Milk Bones with the admonition to ‘go to it’ or some such thing. (Obviously he was not NEAR as savvy as my mother, not having had the 24/7 challenges she experienced during my upbringing.)

Knowing my mother’s uncanny ability to nose out trouble before it had much of a chance to blossom and bear fruit, I made my unsuspecting father swear to “not tell Mother” until I could properly roll out my puppy training results and amaze them both.

Muffin’s training began the next day, in secret basement sessions timed perfectly to coincide with Mom’s one afternoon vice, TV’s ‘Twilight Zone’. (From past experience I knew JUST HOW MUCH could be achieved during a 1-hour TV show.)

Armed with Milk Bones and a big glass of water, I commanded my puppy to “Pee!” and then puddled water under her. Happily she lapped up the water offering, only to experience a sharp “BAD dog” and no reward. Repeat process. 10x later, terrified at the increasing sharpness of a frustrated 7-year-old’s “BADBADBAD dog!”, she wet herself.

Praise and Milk Bones were immediately offered as reward reinforcements per Dad’s prior helpful instructions.

Over the days Muffin slowly got the message and “pee on demand” was ingrained into her small brain along with the (more mundane) commands my father was separately working on (i.e. “sit”, “stay”, and “heel”.)

Weeks later it was Prime Time, as Dad was sick of controlling his curiosity about the results of MY training efforts and made a convincing case for the fact that HIS efforts were obviously bearing fruit, so mine should be demonstrable too.

I was instructed to bring Muffin into the kitchen despite my protests that the garage was a MUCH better demo spot for this particular trick.

All I can say is: I was not only ASKED; it was DEMANDED that I make the dog pee on the linoleum floor Mom had JUST washed an hour earlier.                                              

                                  Muffin: “You lookin’ at ME pee???”

It wasn’t MY fault that (a) Dad didn’t know the exact trick I had chosen and (b) Muffin became so terrified at the ensuing uproar that she wound up producing (and I quote) an “impossible amount of pee” after the initial demo and (c) that in a gallant effort to insure the successful outcome of my training, I had pumped Muffin chock full of her favorite beverage, fruit juice; of which she had enthusiastically consumed about a gallon only 20 minutes prior to Prime Time. So the simple command “Pee!” assumed Frankensteinian proportions as the floodgates released time and again (and everyone knows you can’t make the water dry up when the ‘damn’ lets go…so to speak.)

It ALSO was not my fault that I learned my training lesson well from Dad and made sure Muffin responded immediately to only one simple word (in this case, “Pee!”). Which happened to sound frighteningly close to ‘heel’, if Puppy responded too quickly upon hearing the “hee” part. Dad.

Thus is the superpower of Puppy: to consume and house an incredible volume of liquid and therefore to produce pee apparently far in excess of body weight.

And never let it be said I didn’t learn from Dad. Whenever Mom screamed (unfair) accusations each time Muffin subsequently peed in the house, certain that I somehow had had a magic hand in the duration, direction and event, I’d lovingly advise her to ‘just chill’ and hand her a chocolate chip cookie.


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