Sit. Stay … Really, I Mean It!


Dog Obedience photo

By Annette Hinkle

With temperatures inching down toward the 30s, and a brisk wind picking up, last Saturday morning hardly seemed the ideal day for an outdoor graduation ceremony.

But in the enclosed pen outside the Animal Rescue Fund of the Hamptons it was, in fact, a very big day for ARF’s newest graduates — Cheddar, Razzle, Buddy, Raider, Louie, Lucky, Dixie and Gracie, all of whom took their diplomas and the plummeting temperatures in stride as they sniffed the ground for fallen treats or took part in a game of tag with fellow alumni.

The dogs (and their owners) had just completed Dog Obedience 101, a class offered by ARF’s Gail Murphy that covers all the basics— sit, stay, down, heel and loose leash walking. Over the course of the five weeks, all the students made admirable progress toward becoming good canine citizens, which Murphy cites as the primary goal of the course.

“I’m a huge advocate of taking dogs as many places as possible,” says Murphy. “I want your dog to perform like a guide dog, walking through town at your side, not interacting with dogs, sitting down while you stop to talk to people.”

But Murphy also stresses safety and she feels it’s imperative that dogs learn to come when called and be taught to wait before exiting a car or house. Murphy knows first hand about losing a dog tragically. Five years ago, her own dog, Zephyr, was killed by a hunter’s trap in the Long Pond Greenbelt. As a result, Murphy became actively involved with ARF to get trap laws changed.

“When I got the opportunity to teach these classes I thought it was fantastic,” says Murphy. “It had been 10 years since I had taught obedience and I had always used compulsive training, which is hands on manipulation to correct behavior. Then I was introduced to positive reinforcement which is all about relationship building.”

“With positive reinforcement, the worse thing that will happen is the dog will get an extra cookie, play time or praise,” she says. “In compulsive training, If the dog is not understanding you, you’ll only escalate the strength of your punishment. If your timing is not right, you’ve lost the lesson.”

“Dogs make us live in moment,” she adds. “What better way than to catch the dog just before he does something wrong, redirect him and say great job when he’s doing something right? You always give them some way to be good.”

“It’s changed my life completely,” adds Murphy. “I took a different course because of Zephyr. Though his death was such a tragedy, I don’t regret a moment of anything, because it was through him that I came to this.”

At the first obedience class, the dogs moved tentatively around the space, unsure of themselves and the others. But Murphy, who has something of a sixth sense when it comes to dogs, quickly put it all in perspective, identifying play bows and interpreting the scene from a dog’s point of view, including the nearby vocalizations of ARF’s tenants.

“This is a shelter. Those dogs out there are barking. They’re saying ‘I hear you’re out there. I’ll kick your ass.’ Everyone’s talking trash,” says Murphy.  “This is a distracting environment. There’s a loose cat that loves to patrol right at the edge of the pen and drive the dogs nuts, the train is right here, the airport’s over there and jets fly in over head.”

“If you’re trying to teach new behavior, ideally you want to take away all the distractions. Going outdoors is not a place to start a new technique,” she says.

But outdoors is where the class must be, so Murphy encourages owners to act like a trusted tour guide by getting their dog’s attention and redirecting them away from the surrounding distractions.

The dogs enrolled in the class represent a range of breeds and ages. There are small dogs prone to heel nipping, puppies like Louie the golden doodle who needs focus, and Buddy, a golden retriever with so much energy he’s difficult for his owner to control, and Raider, the 105 pound rottweiler whose previous owner used some undesirable training techniques on him that need to be undone.

Then there’s Gracie, the six month old chow/corgi/shar-pei mix who has become something of the office dog at the Sag Harbor Express. Because Gracie is so young, owner Judy Clempner notes her behaviors are related largely to just being a puppy. Among her issues is a tendency to jump up on people.

“That’s a normal behavior for dogs,” notes Murphy who explains that puppies lick their mother’s mouths in order to get remnants of food. “It’s nice to get the dogs when they’re young. All is new and they’re learning the lay of the land.”

“If it’s an older dog that has been with their person for a long time, usually you’re trying to change the person,” she adds. “It’s like a husband/wife relationship. I want everyone to be a team. It’s also good for people to see this person is having the same doggie problem. It’s like therapy.”

Because she’s still on the small side, Gracie also tends to be intimidated when meeting new dogs. So what’s an owner to do if a dog comes to the class with behavioral issues from an earlier encounter with people or other dogs?

“You rebuild the trust if there’s been a bad association by being diligent and with the right motivation,” says Murphy who notes that it takes just one bad encounter to instill a specific fear in a dog and advises Clempner to become Gracie’s protector.

“If she sees another dog on the street, distract her and say ‘Gracie, good girl, look at me, here’s  a piece of cheese. That dog doesn’t have to come over to bother you, but you get cheese with when you see others dogs.’ It’s positive reinforcement.”

Murphy likens being a good dog owner to being a good boss. Think of the dog as the employee, she says, you pay him in cookies or toys, and you are a benevolent leader. You create trust, motivation and provide feedback.

But in order to take the lessons from the theoretical to the practical, Murphy puts the dogs and owners in a series of hypothetical situations. One such imaginary scenario is the dog friendly concert. In this drill, some of the owners sit in chairs and keep their dogs sitting quietly beside them while another dog and owner must weave around the chairs and prevent their dog from interacting with the others. Other drills include passing a full cup of water while walking the dogs, or shaking hands on the street while keeping the dogs separated and heeled at the side.

Finally, on the last day of class, the graduates and their owners are put through the paces in a timed relay race in which each dog must sit on command at a series of orange cones spread out across the pen. In the end, the winning dog was Louie, the five month old golden doodle owned by Emma Walton Hamilton who came to the class with her son, Sam.

“It’s been a great experience. I’m disappointed it’s ending,” says Hamilton who’s considering enrolling Louie in ARF’s agility class the next time it’s offered. “Louie’s smart and has responded so well. He’s come a long way. I know a huge part of our responsibility is to practice at home.”

“He’s still a baby and very distractible, but I’m pleased with his progress,” she adds. “I wouldn’t say he’s the best student in the class, but he’s not the worst either. He was one of the worst in the beginning.”

And Gracie?

“She’s still young, and the issues still exist, but I feel I have the skills to deal with them,” says Clempner. “I can see a difference in her response to me. Food is king. She gets very excited for treats.”

The next Obedience 101 and Intermediate Dog Obedience classes at ARF will be offered by Gail Murphy in spring. The cost is $125 for five classes ($100 for ARF dogs adopted within the last year). For more information about enrolling, call 537-0400.

Top: Sniffing the camera at the first Obedience 101 class at ARF on November 6, 2010 (Michael Heller photo).