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Casey goes walkabout!

August 23, 2009

Getting the old man outdoors first thing in the morning is a challenge. Often it’s a mad rush, hoping I’ll beat his full bladder to emptying without riling it up too much in the race to the grass just outside the back door.

Casey on the hill, 2006

Casey on the hill, 2006

I gear up, and stuff my pockets with poop baggies and treats. Then I collar Casey while he’s still crated, hold his crate door closed as I open M’s crate, and with the spotted princess on my hip I encourage the old man to race me to the back door. Nature and habit and my whistle can usually keep his eyes on the prize–as long as no detours captivate him in the 25 feet between his crate and the yard.

On days when I’ve slept in, I’ll skip his e-collar and let the dogs out of crates armed with my home-rigged Flexi(TM), the one with the climbing carabiner and slip lead attached to the handle. The rig lets me walk two dogs on one leash ‘handle.’ I scoop M. out of her upper crate, open Casey’s crate door and incite the mad dash. Outside, Casey immediately finds a spot to pee, and M. sits while I drop the slip lead over her head. Then I snap the Flexi to Casey’s collar as he’s irrigating the first post of the patio fence. Have you ever watched an old dog pee first thing in the morning? I’ve usually got plenty of time to catch up.

This morning, as I slipped the lead over M’s head (no challenge to get the princess to wait patiently when the grass is wet!), Casey followed his nose past his usual stopping point and decided to go walkabout, relieving himself along the way. He’s 14+, but he can stil move faster than I move first thing in the morning. Before I could get to him, he’d made it down the grass to the last townhouse in our row and was busy play-bowing with Wils, my neighbor’s 3 y.o. golden retriever. Dementia in dogs — every day is full of brand new friends. Casey was playing with Wils as if he’d just met his new BFF.

At 6 a.m. on a Sunday morning, loudly calling “CASEY!” to get his attention wasn’t an option — all of my neighbors’ windows were wide open. Besides, I have to be pretty loud and practically on top of him to make any kind of vocal impression on my hard-of-hearing viejo. At least Wils has always been a quiet dog, and he was happily occupying the old man without making a sound. With Wils to distract him and keep him close by, I was able to get close enough to Casey to remind him that we were walking TOGETHER, thank you. I clipped him to the Flexi(TM) and we continued our walk as if I was actually organizing the course.

Casey wouldn’t have gone walkabout if he’d been wearing his e-collar. Unfortunately, it was still in the car from our trip to the park the day before Even though he’s grown up on an e-collar, I can’t rely on his training to keep him under walking control now that dementia plays into our days. Our Sunday morning walk snafu reminded me how versatile a properly used e-collar can be in a dog trainer’s toolbox, and how many options it opens to a dog throughout his life.

Now and then on Twitter I have a repeat of a discussion I’ve had a thousand times since the mid-80s — the discussion I call ‘The Collar Chronicles.’ Pinch or prong collars and e-collars have always been the evil-doers in these conversations; lately, even the poor slip collar (aka, the dreaded ‘choke’ collar) is also in the evil-doer equipment classification. When I’m asked why I choose to use all three of these tools, I’m often tempted to repeat what professional trainer and kennel owner Joel Prouty once said to me about using an e-collar: I use [it] because dog training shouldn’t be so hard that no one does it.

Maybe I should just take Joel’s direct approach, because I’ll be the first to admit that I’m all about saving time in dog training. Note: ‘saving time’ doesn’t and shouldn’t equal ‘cutting corners.’ You still have to cover all of the bases, and solid training over a lifetime relies on strong foundations. But the right equipment can save time by making or helping your communication with the dog more direct.

Many people still call them ‘shock collars.’ My pet peeve? It’s a remote training collar, people! Remote training collars can and do encompass several kinds of feedback, including vibration, tones, odor/sprays – and yes, an electric shock. I use Innotek FS-25A e-collars, which provide 7 stimulation levels (yes, those are the shocks) and a tone-only option.

This collar won’t deliver continuous stimulation; it has an automatic cut-out after ten seconds, so if pressed and held, stimulation (or tone) will stop after 10 seconds. The collar is waterproof, rechargeable, and has an approximate range of 250 yards. It’s my workhorse e-collar; I’ve owned five of them since 1994. Casey has one which he’s had for 10 years. M. has one, which I purchased two years ago. Each collar has its own transmitter.

In practice, the stimulation level on an FS-25A set to 1 or 2 is the equivalent of flicking your fingernail against your palm. Yes, I’ve tried it on myself – I test every collar on every setting before I put it into service, and test it daily prior to use, on my palm, and yes, I know exactly how it feels. The collar can also be set on tone + stimulation where the tone sounds, with a few seconds delay before the stimulation. Tone, delay, vibration and stimulation options make an e-collar as versatile as my voice, allowing me to communicate with my dog at a distance, in situations where I can’t make any noise, or with a dog who, like Casey, is being slowly compromised by the issues that afflict senior dogs.

Casey’s can still reliably hear certain whistle tones, although sound at a distance is lost to him. In bright or dim light, his eyes sometimes don’t tell him everything he needs to know. Mix in the complications of dementia: disorientation and confusion. All combine to make it harder for me to keep him safe when he’s further than a couple feet from me. Still, keeping a leash on a 14+ y.0. dog who is partially sense- and sensibility-impaired but otherwise active doesn’t give him all of the physical stimulation he’s used to taking on his own. His legs and nose still work just fine – and the more regular exercise he can get, the healthier I can keep him. So as often as I can, I give him the opportunity to free-exercise off-leash in a safe environment.

I live on eight acres I share with 100 neighbors. Across a low-traffic road that borders the property is another six acres of softball fields and playground. For 11 years, Casey’s had the run of this place. I don’t want to steal that activity from him as long as he still has the physical capacity to enjoy it–but none of the property around me is fenced – so my job is to keep it safe for him to enjoy.

When Casey’s senses and sensibility first began failing, I switched him to a 10′ slip lead attached to the handle of my 16′ Flexi(TM), the same lead set-up I use to exercise a crate-rest dog. I reinforced with treats every time he responded to a whistle, or checked in with me during a walk. It was a stop-gap solution, and in regular everyday use it’s a miserable failure–on bad days Casey can’t seem to remember how to de-tangle his old legs. We both end up frustrated – him at being tangled, me at trying to keep him tangle-free. He does better on the Flexi-portion of my homemade two-dog leash, but it’s still not enough exercise on the days he’s feeling up to a run.

Enter his e-collar, set to tone. At first I was concerned that he wouldn’t be able to hear the tone or that it would startle his slightly addled old-dog brains. I really didn’t need to worry; the foundation of e-collar training from the time he was an adolescent dog kicked in as soon as he understood the tone. I collared him before putting him on the 16-ft. Flexi, and again treated him every time he responded to my whistle, or checked back in with me spontaneously, or when ‘reminded’ to find me by the tone of the e-collar. I’ve set it to tone + delay on a very low stimulation level (1), so that he will feel a vibration after the tone if he doesn’t look for me right away. And at least once every week, I take him ‘back to kindergarten’ — collared and on the Flexi — so that I can ‘remind’ him how important it is for him to stay in touch and stay tuned in to me when we’re walking. Since he’s been e-collar and whistle-trained from puppyhood, I’m relying on behaviors which have been back-chained for years. Reinforcing those foundation behaviors now allows me to continue give the old man some freedom in safe situations.

It’s so much more than a ‘shock collar.’ But as a trainer, you do have to accept your own limitations before you can admit an e-collar’s possibilities for communication.

Or, you can ignore an e-collar’s communication possibilities, and find yourself trying to out-run an old dog at 6 a.m. on a Sunday morning, slipping in wet Crocs on wetter grass, and trying to manage a reluctant princess on the other lead as she whines about getting her feet wet. Like Joel said so long ago, dog training shouldn’t be that hard — and if the way that is also easier preserves for mi viejo some of the freedom he’s enjoyed his whole life, I’ll take that ‘easy’ route. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I need to get Casey’s e-collar out of the car and onto the charger…

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