By Ann Fowler, Oak Hill Gazette
Last year my sister and I adopted a senior dog from Austin Pets Alive (APA). We had lost a beloved dog six months earlier, and while I had resolved not to get another dog, my sister missed having a canine greeter at the door.
I relented, and so we found GiGi, a German Shepherd mix who was nothing like our previous dog. At nine years of age, GiGi needing rescuing three times in the span of a few weeks: first by the city—who removed her from neglectful and possibly abusive owners who left her in the backyard despite freezing cold temperatures, and noncontagious mange, which had stripped her of most of her fur—then by Austin Pets Alive, who rescued her from the city’s euthanasia list, and then by my sister and I, who wanted to give this scared, funny-looking dog a happy home.
It is clear that GiGi was not loved all her life. She did not understand basic commands (sit, stay, down), and she came to us with a variety of fears. She feared being touched. She feared other dogs. She feared rain. And she feared she would not get fed every day.
Shari Elkins of The Canine Center for Training and Behavior (TCCTB) in Oak Hill evaluated her, determining that despite her discomfort around other dogs, GiGi had appropriate communication skills and would benefit from classes such as Confidence Building and Hiking. Elkins was right.
When we heard about the 3-day Canine Camp TCCTB was holding at the Lazy Hills Ranch in Ingram, my sister and I decided to let GiGi go to camp. This old dog deserved some fun, and it would give us an opportunity to learn how to train her.
GiGi seldom — in fact never — relaxed in a new environment, so we were surprised when she immediately and continually felt comfortable enough to lie down at the Ranch. Trainer Jane Del Re said the environment was peaceful and calming for dogs, so was not surprised to hear that GiGi felt relaxed at Camp.
After our first class, GiGi headed to the pond to take a quick drink. As she waded through the water, it suddenly deepened and she found herself swimming. She never panicked. Instead, she headed toward deeper water, ready to enjoy the water. Who knew we had a water dog? For the remainder of the weekend, we allowed time before and after classes for a swim.
All classes were guaranteed to be fun and therefore enjoyable for both dog and handler. Most of the classes we chose centered around basic commands (Come, Come with Distractions) and her beloved Hiking.
We did try the Lure class, in which a white plastic bag tied to a mechanism whips around a course, allowing dogs to give chase. GiGi was one of the few dogs that would not engage. We knew going in that she does not chase cats or squirrels. And now we know she does not chase white plastic bags either.
The Tricks class seemed the most challenging — for her and for me. The other dogs in the class all knew several tricks at the start. Not GiGi. It had taken her nearly a year to understand that the sounds we made at her – our words – had meaning to her. We called it her Helen Keller moment. So far, all she knew to do was sit on command.
I told trainer Jane Del Re we had hoped to teach her “down,” but that was not to be. Del Re said typically you teach a dog to lie down by holding a treat down by the front paws, then gently sweeping toward the dog. Most dogs lie down. Mine cautiously backed away.
Teaching GiGi to “shake” was not feasible during the class because she never paws our arms for a treat. (She does it on occasion when we stop petting her.) Meanwhile, the other dogs were showing off their abilities to roll over or play dead.
Finally, with Del Re’s help, I was able to use a treat to lure her around in a circle: Spin! Okay, so it was not as impressive as the others, but it was success on a novice level.
Camper Dyanne Kerr took the Tricks class with Pepper, her Border Collie/Blue Heeler mix. She said later of watching GiGi and me in class, “I watched a woman teach her 10-year-old dog to do a new trick! It was the first trick the dog had ever done. It wasn’t a complicated trick and it took nearly an hour to get it done. It required lots of patience, but you could see the pleasure it gave both dog and owner to complete the trick. Sometimes the little things are the most important breakthroughs in the relationship between dog and human.”
At the end of the Camp weekend, certificates were presented for each class. Surprisingly, GiGi was given the award for Tricks – not because she learned the best trick, but because she worked so hard for what she did learn.
Since that weekend, GiGi has started to learn the “down” command based on techniques we learned at camp. This morning she did it by verbal command only. Was the weekend worth it? You bet. And, it only goes to prove – you can teach an old dog new tricks.