Monday, August 8, 2011

A little place to call all his own...

This week, I'm spending alot of time with my 14-year-old niece. Much has changed since I was her age. The crimping iron (mercifully) has given way to the straightening iron. Long conversations on the phone with your best girlfriend have been replaced by Facebook chatting with all of your BFFs at the same time. And the never-ending antics of the lovable Keaton and Huxtable families have been shoved out of prime time by the reality-talent-show craze of "American Idol" and "So You Think You Can Dance."

But one thing hasn't changed. Teenage girls still spend an inordinate amount of time in their bedrooms. Whether just to hang out, to read girly magazines, or to escape annoying younger siblings, the bedroom remains a universal sanctuary in the life of every teenage girl.

Which is how hubby and I are trying to get the Beast to view his crate. As a place of refuge where he can go to chew on his deer antler and get away from it all. As a peaceful resting place that belongs only to him. As a place where he should want to just hang out.

Yes, we have decided to leave our dog in a crate while we are not in the house. At least until he learns the rules of life chez casa-me-and-hubby - and on the advice of our trainer, this could be a full six months to a year. So he might as well learn to like it in there.

In our naive, first-time-dog-owner minds, this could not be such a difficult feat to accomplish. After all, doggy ancestors sought out shelter, warmth and comfort within the cavernous walls of small, dark dens. That's just like a crate, right? The Beast should feel comfortable in a cozy little corner, right? He should instinctively and naturally take to his crate, right?

Not right. In fact, we are convinced that, like many humans of Australian background, our canine Aussie is descended from those banished to the dog version of the penal colonies. As such, "Beast, crate" translates to him as "Beast, you are going to jail." I have visions of him rattling his deer antler against the bars, whipping out a harmonica, and singing Fulsom Prison Blues when we aren't looking.

Add crate-training to our long list of issues to address with the Beast. For those who have been through the process, I'm sure you can agree with me that it is, well, hellish. Especially if you are having to crate train an older puppy who has never been properly introduced to a crate.

The good news is that getting the Beast into his crate is not the problem. Nor does he have any trouble spending the night in there. No, the trouble begins as soon as he senses that we are leaving for the day and that we have the nerve to leave him behind to rot in that miniature prison cell. (Cue the bluesy harmonica).

Now I have never tortured another living being, but I am pretty sure that the sounds emanating from the Beast when we leave are enough to make any good person consider calling the Humane Society and reporting a case of animal abuse. So loud is his whimpering and barking that he can be heard from outside. What's more, his bark is the exact same pitch as that of glass shattering, which means that he sets off our house alarm. Try explaining that to the alarm company call centre that reaches me on my cell to report a disturbance in the house:

Alarm company (AC): "Ma'am, are you aware that your alarm went off? It is reporting glass shatter in the living room. Is everything alright?"

Me: "Oh. Well, I don't know, actually. I'm on the bus on the way to work. Which window did you say is shattered?"

AC: "The living room window, ma'am."

Me: "Oh, that's gotta be my dog. You see, he hates being left in his crate. I'm sure it's his bark that is setting off the alarm. No need to send the police."

AC: "Ma'am, are you sure about that?"

Me: "Um... no... not 100% sure... But I'm pretty sure. Why? Do you recommend that we dispatch police?"

AC: "We leave it up to you ma'am. If we dispatch the police though, and it turns out to be your, um, dog did you say? Well, then we would charge you for a false alarm. But of course, your safety is the most important thing."

Me: "Yes. I see that. Um, thanks... I think. No police. I'll go home and check."

AC: "Okay ma'am. Just dial 911 if anything looks suspicious as you approach the house."

I've had this conversation three times now.

So how do you crate train a year-old puppy who displays intense separation anxiety whenever you leave the house? Of course, you turn to google, where there is a mountain of information about crate training. The key, many say, is to make sure that he views the crate as a place of tranquility, his own special spot where he can escape from the stresses of the doggy world whenever he needs time to himself. His own special place of sanctuary!

Consequently, we have done everything we can think of to jazz up the crate and make it positively irresistible. It's roomy. It occupies prime real estate right beside our fireplace and under the living room window so that he can get all the natural sunlight that he needs. We leave his all-time favourite tug rope inside of it for him. And it is furnished with hand-made patchwork quilts, sewn for me by my great-grandmother when I was no more than two-feet tall. At the very least, the Beast MUST appreciate the sentimental value of his crate's furnishings, and take great comfort in great-grandmotherly love.

We've also had extensive rounds of practicing relaxation in the crate. The game is that he gets let out once he lies down and relaxes. The goal is to get him to understand that (a) the crate is a place to chill out and (b) he will eventually be let out. And he is actually very good at this game, as long as we don't physically leave the house. It's the moment that we leave the house that all bets are off and he falls into a fit of whiny bark-ridden hysterics.

So in desperation, we turned to bribery. Bribery in the form of food.

I must admit that I am not crazy about using food to train the Beast. For one thing, he is completely and utterly food obsessed (yet another area for us to work on). I kind of feel like getting him to do something for a food reward is like giving a syringe and a belt to a junkie. But I'm really tired of having the above-conversation with my alarm company. And I'm tired of living in fear of my neighbour reporting us to the local SPCA...

So we gave in. We bought him a food puzzle in which we place bits of his kibble, and he has to figure out how to get the kibble out so that he can have a snack. It keeps him busy. Busy enough that we can sneak out without him noticing. By the time he's figured out how to get every last bit of kibble out of that puzzle, he probably doesn't care that we're gone. I can only guess that he settles down and goes to sleep - an assumption based entirely on the fact that I don't get a call from the alarm company.

I'm a little worried that the moral of this story is that the Beast loves food more than he loves hubby and I, since it seems to be the only thing to cure him of his crate-induced separation anxiety. But I'm sure there is a deeper lesson buried within our adventures in crate-training. I'm sure that it has something to do with teaching us that we should not assume that any aspect of dog training will be easy, or that we should be more flexible about some of our rules (such as the no-food-training).

Whatever the lesson, we will keep on working with the Beast to make him feel like the crate is always his special retreat and never a prison cell. In the meantime, I am just relieved that we have found a way to keep the Beast at peace when we leave the house. For the sake of the alarm company, for the sake of the neighbours, but mostly for his own sake.