Do you remember Cato Fong, the sidekick to inspector Jacques Clouseau played by Peter Sellers in the Pink Panther movies?
Cato would spring on the screen from seemingly nowhere, arms swinging and legs twirling in a karate attack that sent Clouseau spinning at the most inopportune times. “Not now Cato,” Sellers would protest lamely. After all, it was Clouseau who had instructed Cato to attack at the least suspected moment. And furthermore this was all in the name of fun.
We have a four-legged Cato.
His name is Ollie and he’s far faster than Cato.
His attacks also come when you’re least prepared, in fact, even in the early morning before the glow of the sun brightens the horizon and you’re still in bed thinking of what the day will bring.
It starts with a sneeze and the sound of shaking from the adjoining room. (Ollie is no dope. While he started the night in his bed in our room, at some time he will have made the transition to the comforter and pillows of the guest room bed.)
We’ll lie as quietly as possible, hoping to get a few minutes before the routine of his breakfast, followed by Carol’s sunrise excursion to one of several spots she takes him walking. Actually, it’s more of a trot and sniff than a walk. Ollie is a coonhound. And once he’s caught a scent, he’s locked in like a heat-seeking missile. Be prepared to get pulled where he wants to go.
We’ve worked at controlling him, and he’s improved, thanks to the advice of Bob Midwood and veterinarian Barbara Korry. Bob helped us establish who was really in control, although it seems Ollie is running our lives rather than the other way around.
Barbara called after reading an account in this column of how Ollie had progressed to what I considered a turning point when he left food placed in front of him untouched – albeit for about 5 seconds – before I gave him the command “OK.” For me, as she points out, the turning point was when Ollie looked at me, instead of the morsel of chicken, to see if he had the go-ahead.
Barbara came over with a hand-held clicker and a fanny pack filled with doggie treats. In a couple of hours, she had Ollie not only leaving food untouched until the command, but also responding to our calls and waiting patiently, instead of bolting out the door the instant it opened. The training uses food as the incentive. The clicker is used to mark the desired behavior, which is closely followed by the food. The click predicts the reward.
To imprint the connection on Ollie, she started by clicking and handing him a tidbit in rapid succession over and over. He loved the handout, watching her every move, anxious for the clicker. She had his attention.
The next step was to reward preferred behavior. She started with “Sit,” a command Ollie follows, especially when he knows there’s food around. He loved it; all he had to do was sit, get the click and then the food.
Barbara then moved on to food on the floor. Ollie figured this was easy pickings, but as soon as he went for it, Barbara covered the chicken chunk with her foot. He got the message pretty quickly. He sat back and waited. Barbara clicked the clicker and handed him a treat from her goodie bag. She later picked up the chicken from the floor and gave it to him.
I was surprised how quickly Ollie was learning the ropes. It gave me hope Ollie would actually come when called and might be dissuaded from howling every time we passed a dog or a pedestrian. Food was the key to learning.
But I have also found that fun can be a motivator. Ollie has three toys – Squeaky, Pullie and Pinkie. Squeaky is a hand-sized, wooly doll that squeaks when squeezed. It’s his least favorite of the three, although he likes chewing it occasionally. Pullie is a tennis ball with a rope knotted through it. The game here is a tug-of-war, accompanied by playful growling and gleeful dashing and tossing Pullie, once he’s got it from you.
Unquestionably, Pinkie is his favorite. It’s a stuffed pink panther that he loves biting and pulling on. Could Pinkie be used as a reward, just like food?
I gave it a try.
Holding Pinkie, I told him to sit. Ollie obliged instantly.
“Stay,” I commanded, and dropped Pinkie to the floor. He stayed. I picked it up and handed it to him. He was delighted. I repeated the process, throwing Pinkie further and further away and extending the wait.
I was thrilled with his progress.
But how was I to know what was to come next?
His attack was stealth-like. As I said, there was a sneeze and we could hear him shaking. He was up. Then he sprang into the room and onto the bed. He had Pinkie. The stuffed animal was being tossed and shaken. Ollie was up and ready to play.
“Not now,” I protested, but he persisted.
He rolled on the bed. We scratched his tummy. He likes that, too, but he prefers Pinkie. There was no point trying to go back to sleep. Pinkie was being tossed around the room.
That night we hid Pinkie. It didn’t make any difference. At 5:30 Ollie leapt on the bed, grabbed the corner of the blanket and started shaking it. I told him to stop. He did, to my amazement. I said he was a good boy, but that really didn’t cut it. Finally, I got Pinkie from his hiding place.
Somehow I have gotten off the training track. As Barbara would certainly tell me, I was reinforcing undesirable behavior.
I haven’t found the remedy.
In the meantime, Ollie’s playful attack is likely to come at any moment. Inspector Clouseau would understand.