By Nancy Carlson • Columnist • 

Carlson: Zoom adds zip to pandemic-era training

Since I got my first basset hound puppy back in the 90’s I have had only one ambition for my dogs — to get them certified as therapy dogs. Back in those days I was working as a school counselor with a teaching staff who shared my idea that having a gentle, safe dog at school would enhance a child’s school experience.  And indeed, I believe that my dogs did just that.

Happy Tails

Nancy Carlson has an enduring interest in the bond between humans and animals.

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Certification to be a therapy dog is not a canine version of rocket science, but it has a it’s challenges.  The Pet Partners evaluation requires your dog to sit, stay, down, come on command and to walk on a loose leash, which are pretty much what any self-respecting dog can do within a few weeks of enrolling in a dog training class.  The challenges come when loose leash walking requires going through a crowd of people and walking by another dog.  The sit challenge for the test is that your dog has to sit while someone approaches to pet her.  And the dog has to happily submit to rough petting,stay more or less unflappable during noise and commotion, and know how to ‘leave it’ when walking by an object that could potentially be enticing.

To be a responsible therapy dog handler you are required to re-certify your pooch every two years.  Even though I am retired, I do still enjoy volunteering  with the dogs at school, so I keep their certifications current.  With multiple dogs this mean I pretty much have to be training or refreshing their training often.  After retiring, I became a regular at My Dogs Gym inSalem, which specializes in training and certifying therapy dogs among other doggie activities, like agility and rally.

Training your dog is a lovely way to help Pooch to do what you tell him, at least most of the time.  But more importantly it is an excellent means to build a bond with your dog.  I am speaking of positive training, of course.  Most dogs love it, and in your dogs' eyes you become the center of their universe from which all good things come.  Attention, praise, and, of course, treats, all from their beloved owners. What’s not to like?

But back to dog training: As I’ve described, it’s been pretty much ongoing for me and my pooches for a few years now.  And driving to Salem once a week was well worth the enjoyment my dogs got from the classes and I enjoyed the company of people who were as crazy — some even crazier —about dogs as I am.

But that was then, this is now.  When the shut-down order came in March, in-person dog training ended also.  Within a few weeks the instructors at My Dogs Gym had figured out how to do Zoom dog training. It has its frustrations, but it’s a lot  better than nothing. Obviously, the socialization benefit of in-person dog training doesn’t happen, and I do miss that. 

But let’s look at the upside, which is, it doesn’t take long on Zoom to complete the available obedience repertoire.  There’s only so many times you can ask Pooch to ’sit’, and ’down’ and ’stay’ before you are both about ready to bark with boredom. 

Which leaves time for many more creative and fun things to earn.  Beau Dacious, for example has now completed his list of tricks to qualify for the AKC Beginners' Trick Dog certificate. Sure, it wasn’t necessarily something I had ever wanted for him or any other dog I’ve owned, but once we got started we both had fun.  And I’m thrilled with how successful he is.

Bassets are earthbound critters.  I have owned bassets for some 30 years and I never managed to teach one to shake paws.  I admit I never tried that hard — it seemed like the effort of raising one front foot off the ground would probably result in the whole hound falling over.

 Au contraire!  With the help of my Zoom dog training classes, Beau can now skillfully raise either his right or left front paw to shake hands with me, as well as put two front paws on this large squishy ball I borrowed, get in and out of a box, crawl through a tunnel, and jump over an admittedly low bar.  He’s a genius!

And I would never have known that if it weren’t for Zoom.

Sure, there is a list of acceptable social behaviors, like walking by another dog without barking or pulling on the leash, that he he hasn’t mastered yet.  Hopefully, sometime in the still uncertain future, we can return to in-person dog training classes and he can practice interacting with dogs and people. 

In the meantime we are zooming our way to learning things we didn’t know we wanted to learn and having a lot of fun doing it.  Next week we start Nose Work!!


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