Thursday, October 13, 2011

Hi ho, hi ho, it's off to work we go...

I have known that I wanted an Australian shepherd from the first time that I took my brother's Aussie out for a run. Since that day, and before making the move to adopt one of my own, I have spent countless hours on the Internet researching the breed so that I knew what I would be getting myself into.

I have to be honest - the Australian shepherd is a bit of an intimidating breed (which may explain why it took me so long to actually adopt one...). Here are just some of the traits that describe the esteemed Aussie, according to any number Google hits:
  • Aussies are dominant and pushy, necessary characteristics for a dog bred to control livestock;
  • Aussies require constant, lifelong training and discipline - not just a six week obedience class - because of their more dominant personalities;
  • Aussies are highly energetic and need lots of exercise. Rigorous exercise. Strolling is not enough;
  • Aussies are reserved and may develop behavioural issues (such as aggression) if not properly socialized;
  • Aussies are intense and hyper-focused;
  • Aussies bark. Sometimes a lot. It's a herding thing;
  • Aussies shed. And not just a little. So you'd better get a damn good vacuum cleaner if you don't already have one, or just learn to live with dog hair EVERYWHERE. IN. THE. HOUSE. (including places you didn't even think your dog could get into...)

As you can see, it's a l-l-l-l-o-o-o-o-n-n-n-n-g-g-g-g list. Some on-line Aussie enthusiasts have even stated that they spend more time trying to talk people out of getting an Aussie then they do trying to convince them to adopt one. Rescuers repeat story after story of the Aussies in their care, adopted by families who fell in love with this gorgeous breed but who soon found that they could not keep up with their new high-energy and super smart dog. Which explains why rescue organizations ask for a very detailed and full accounting of your lifestyle before you can adopt an abandoned Aussie.

Well, hey. What can I say. I like a challenge. And since the Beast demonstrates every single trait listed above - and a few more for good measure - I have my work cut out for me (as chronicled in this very blog).

The good news is that these many intimidating and challenging Aussie traits can be tamed. The trick, according to many experts - breeders, rescue organizations, and trainers or behaviourists who specialize in Australian shepherds - is to give the dog a "job" to do. It took me a while to understand what was meant by this. Indeed, I had to Google "what does it mean to give an Australian Shepherd a job?" because I couldn't stop thinking that I had to buy a flock of sheep and let them graze in the backyard (which is a problem since I have no grass back there...). Thankfully, I discovered that "job" need not be so literal. It is merely anything that will appeal to the Aussie's strong work ethic, that will focus his attention on one specific task, and that will stimulate his uber-intelligent mind. Examples range from the obvious (sheep-herding, which this dog was bred for) to the fun (agility training or fly-ball) to the more mundane (following simple rules and commands).

And so, hubby and I have found ourselves searching for the perfect "job" to give our Beast, to help quiet his hyper-focused and slightly obsessive compulsive mind. So far, we've come up with a few:
  • He must sit before he exits or enters the house, whether its to go outside for a bathroom break or to go for a long stroll;
  • He must lie on his bed while we eat;
  • He must sit and stay when I let him off the leash at the dog park, until I say "break";
  • He must walk (or run) nicely beside me, focused on me and the direction that I want to lead him in. He is not to be out front, sniffing everywhere he wants to sniff, impolitely shoving his nose at every doggy or human passer-by;
  • On days when he is particularly jacked up, he must carry a backpack which is stuffed with his portable water dish and his own water bottles.

But by far, his most favourite job is on garbage day.

In our neighbourhood, garbage day is on Mondays, which is also one of our morning jog days. So every Monday morning, the Beast and I set off in whichever of the four directions strikes our fancy and put a few kilometres under our leash. Then we head off to the dog park to run around with other neighbourhood dogs or to play fetch. And then we get to work. Taking out the garbage.

First we go through the house together and collect all of the garbage bags - from the bathrooms, the kitchen and the backyard. Then we go outside to the carport, throw the bags into the large garbage bin, and we take it to the curb. We then go back inside and grab the wet recycling from the kitchen, which we deposit in the green bin and drag to the curb. Finally, we go back into the house together to sort the recycling, bring the appropriate batch outside to the appropriately coloured recycle bin, and carry the recycling to the curb. At the end of the day, when I get home from work, I bring the Beast outside with me and we collect the bins together and bring them back to the carport.

I have never seen the Beast so focused on one single task as he is when he helps me take the garbage out and bring the bins back in. He focuses solely on me and on the task at hand, happily prancing by my side with his head up, his ears back, and a big, proud smile on his muzzle. It is the one time that he does not get distracted by every single thing that is happening around him. Kids can be playing outside, other dogs can be running around, and my neighbour - who he adores and who he will never pass by without an enthusiastic greeting (usually in the form of a loud bark and vigorous bum wiggle) - can be out on her morning jog, but he notices none of them. All he seems to care about is escorting me back and forth from the carport to the curb as we put out or bring in each of the garbage bins, one-by-one. It is a sight to see.

Garbage day is not something that most people look forward to. Indeed, I used to happily sit back and let hubby take care of this task pre-Beast. But I gotta admit that I kind of enjoy taking the garbage out now. Silly, I know, but if you could see the absolute pride on the Beast's face when he helps me, you'd understand. Heck, he makes it look so fun that you might even like to take my garbage out!

But you can't. That job is taken. By the best worker in town.