Archive for January 30th, 2007

There came a time in our young lives when we finally decided to take a vacation, actually leave Alaska and visit the Lower 48.   By the time we decided we needed to take a trip, in addition to a house, we had acquired 2 cats, 2 dogs, and a houseplant.  We were going Outside for Christmas.

Leaving a place that has no automatic heating source in the dead of winter is a little complicated.  You have to find someone who understands the care and feeding of a woodstove and is willing to make the commitment to do that job, otherwise your place will freeze up.  We figured that one really good fire a day, stoked fully and damped down to keep for several hours would create enough heat to keep the water tank from freezing.   But just in case, we made sure that it was nearly empty before we left.

We farmed the cats out to a friend for the fortnight, and she was also good enough to take over the care and feeding of my spider plant.  I knew it was going to become too cold in our house for its continued good health.  She was not willing to take on our large, energetic, and enthusiastic malemutes as well.

We kind of scratched our heads over the stove and dogs issue, and finally approached SL,our neighbor across the road.  She was completely willing to take on the task of building a fire every day, and feeding our dogs while we were gone.   If we didn’t mind, she said, it would be a lot easier for her if she could just move them down onto the line with her sled dog team.   She had a couple of extra dog houses anyway.  So that is what we did.

We went off on our adventure, and had a wonderful time.  We went to Delaware, and visited Longwood Gardens — a most beautiful estate in Pennsylvania.  Since we were there at the Christmas season, the big draw was supposed to be the outrageous display of poinsettias and orchids in the conservatory.   That was quite wonderful, but for me, the single most amazing thing there was the 100+ year old wisteria vine, which covered almost one entire end of one of the brick buildings, and had a trunk that was 16″ in diameter.  There is something compelling about truly old plants.

Well, actually, there was one other really cool thing at Longwood Gardens — there was a pile of leaves.  We were walking back towards the Conservatory having visited the wisteria, when we came across a leaf pile that had been stashed off in an unobtrusive corner.   It was like everything else at Longwood Gardens, bigger and better and more extensive than it seemed possible.   Here was a leaf pile that represented the accumulation of oak and maple and ash leaves from several hundred acres of trees.  It was long, and wide, and very tall.  Suddenly, I felt a need to jump into the pile — and before my embarrassed in-laws or mortified husband could stop me, that is exactly what I did.  It was fun, exhilirating, unauthorized.  Apparently, it was shocking behavior for a twenty-four year old as well.  I didn’t care.   I did it, and was glad, despite the murmurings and moues of disapprobation.

I proved myself a complete rube in other ways as well.   My urbane sister-in-law took me shopping in New York City.  I was under-impressed by the offerings at Saks.  My fashion sense has been forever warped by my sojourn in interior Alaska.  If it won’t look good with a set of long johns underneath, then it probably isn’t a very useful outfit.  I still look at things and wonder if they will keep the bugs off. 

Anyway, my huge sin on the shopping expedition was to abandon my purse on a chair in the shoe department while we walked around picking which pair of completely impractical and COLD shoes to try on.  She about had a conniption fit about that one.   Shoot, in Fairbanks I left my entire wallet with over a hundred dollars in it at Safeway one day, and it was returned completely intact the next.  No big deal.  What was the big deal about a purse on a chair?

Okay, so I was naive and un-urbanized.   I grew up in the Colorado mountains and had just spent the next 6 years in the Alaska frontier.  I prefer a culture where you can trust your neighbor, actually.  I didn’t take well to paranoia then, and still don’t.  Well, I have gotten better at purse monitoring.

Anyway, we finally returned home, late at night, and arrived to find our house all toasty warm.  SL knew when we were scheduled to arrive, and had made a special effort that day to make sure the home fires were burning brightly when we arrived from the airport. 

The next day we walked down the hill to collect our dogs.  Of course, they were delighted to see us, and bounced around in charming ecstasy at the end of the chains they were staked out on.   We hooked them to our leashes, and stood around for a chat with SL.

“I hope you don’t mind, I taught them not to bark at everything while you were gone,” SL mentioned.  “All you will have to do is tell them to “Be quiet!” if you want them to stop barking.  When you have 14 dogs, it just isn’t good to have dogs that bark uncontrollably.  No matter how well trained your dogs are, if one are two are barking, they all have to join in.”

“We noticed that your dogs seemed awfully quiet, considering how many there are of them

“I have used this method successfully for years.”

She seemed a little embarrassed, for some reason.   I was in awe of the fact that she was able to perform this feat at all, so I immediately wanted to know how she did it.  At first she didn’t really want to divulge the method, but I pressed her for the information.  I figured I might have another dog someday that I wanted to train to not bark.

“Well, it sounds a little cruel, but it doesn’t really hurt the dog,” was her initial disclaimer.

“Come on, S, we promise not to sue,” my husband finally said.

She finally decided to come clean.  “It only takes  a couple of days to really get the dog on the right path.  It is most effective if you are consistent at first, so I usually do this training exercise on the weekend or when I am planning to stay home a couple of days.  What you need is a metal garbage can and a piece of tin by your door.” 

This sounded intriguing, so I listened up.  “The garbage can has to be big enough to hold a dog, and should have a lid.  When the dog starts barking, you go out and bundle the dog into the garbage can and bang the lid down on it.  A dog in the dark, in a confined space, he is already a little cowed and you have his attention.”

I squirmed a little at the idea of keeping a dog in a garbage can.  It just seemed wrong to me.  What if it suffocated?

“Now what you do, is you bang on the garbage can with a piece of wood four or five times.  This makes a heck of a racket, scares the dog, and he will be a quiet dog when you let him out.  While you are banging on the can, you yell “Be quiet!” or whatever command you want him to associate with not barking.”  Here she went into a little aside.

“You will not have to worry about a burglar sneaking up on you without a warning.  A dog that is loyal to you will HAVE to bark when the pack territory is being invaded.   But what you want is a dog that will shut up after he has waked you up, and one that will not just bark because he heard a squirrel climb a tree over there, or hears the dog in the next county barking.”

“Now, as soon as you have finished banging on the garbage can, you let the dog out of it.  He will be quiet, and in awe, at least for a little while.  You praise him, and then you go back in the house.   As soon as he starts barking again, you repeat the process.   It usually doesn’t take that long for the dog to get the idea that barking does not result in a good thing.  After a while, you don’t have to throw him in the can any more.   That is what the piece of tin is for.   After you have used the can a few times, you can go out and bang on the piece of tin and yell “Be quiet” and get the same results.   I have a tin roof that is low by my door, so I just bang on my roof.   After a few days, you don’t even have to do anything except issue the “Be quiet” command.  Eventually you have a dog that won’t bark unless it is a real emergency.”

And she was right.  The method works.  I have used it successfully over and over again.  It is particularly effective when you have a puppy that you want to train.   You nip the habit in the bud, the first time the puppy is sounding off inappropriately, and you end up with a dog that will never annoy the neighbors.   With Ruby, I never had to throw her in the can at all.  I banged on the roof of her doghouse.  She is a very smart dog, we corrected her once, and she has never shown a tendency to bark incessantly ever since.  We do get the warning “Woof!” if someone comes into the house or yard, so the sentry function is still there.  She just doesn’t feel the need to provide commentary on all the neighborhood doings. 

It sounds cruel, but it doesn’t really hurt the dog.

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