tala comes home

Everyone is sleeping - Allan in bed, Cody on her mat next to the bed, and Tala in her crate in the middle of the bedroom. But I must have had too much coffee yesterday, 'cause I'm wide awake. What better time to get caught up than 3:15 a.m.

Yesterday was exhausting, but very joyous. I had an early-morning appointment, then we hit the road. Cody was in the back seat, of course.

We were very fortunate with the weather - since we were driving into western New York State, serious snow country, it could have been an issue, but we only saw some flurries, and mostly it was clear. It's about three hours from our place to Churchville, New York.

We met the trainer at the Husky Rescue house, and let Cody and Tala run around in the backyard together. Cody was wary, as she always is with dogs she doesn't know. But it gave them a chance to smell each other and for Cody to feel a tiny bit more comfortable.

The trainer, who has also been Tala's foster mom for three months, demonstrated the commands Tala knows. Tala is obviously intelligent and eager to learn. We just nodded our way through the demonstration, knowing we would soon employ our own methods.

These folks do amazing, life-saving work, rescuing hundreds of dogs from abuse, neglect or certain death in US shelters. They pay for medical care and neutering, they socialize and train the dogs, and they take great care to find each dog a loving, secure home. I admire and appreciate their work tremendously.

We just feel their training methods are unnecessarily harsh. They don't hit and yell - it's not that bad. But their training involves a lot of jerking on a choke chain (which they refer to as a "training collar"), and intimidation and physical dominance to force the dog to obey.

We don't believe any of that is necessary. We've learned extremely effective training techniques that are based on positive reinforcement, love and trust. This philosophy is grounded in the knowledge that a dog is not a machine that can obey every command, every time. When you're working with a dog - especially a young dog, who is really only a child - and the dog loses concentration, you take a break and pick up the training session later.

A sweet, happy, young dog like Tala doesn't need to be bullied into submission. She'll learn her place in the family by example, by the hundreds of things we'll do and she'll observe in her daily life. (And if she did have a dominance or aggression problem, those methods might make it worse - we've seen that, too.)

Based on our first meeting with the Husky Rescue folks, we knew there was no point in discussing any of this. In fact, if we had, we might not have been given Tala. I already had the feeling they're not convinced we can handle her. So we decided to politely watch the demonstration of how to "make" Tala obey, knowing that this would be the last time Tala would have to put up with that.

Up to now, Tala's leash training has involved a lot of pulling and jerking on a choke chain. But waiting for her at home was her brand new "Halti" head collar, the most humane and effective method of walking (and training) a dog I've ever seen. We have sworn by Haltis for nearly 20 years, since they were first invented by a veterinarian and sold only through mail-order. These collars literally changed my life, making it possible for me to walk our very strong, very big Shepherd-Husky mix - the beloved Gypsy - without having my shoulder pulled out of the socket.

Later, at home, Allan tried to remove Tala's choke collar, and it barely fit it over her head. It must have been put on when she was first rescued - and completely emaciated - and they never got her a larger size. There was a raw pink ring around her neck. The choke collar went in the trash, and Tala had her first walk with the new Halti.

So back in Churchville, we waited out the trainer, finished the paperwork, and got ready to go. This was also Tala's foster mom, so I know it must have been sad for her. Fortunately she has seven dogs of her own!

Two weeks ago - in between moving and the Ice Hotel - we went shopping for new-dog supplies, including a barrier for the car. We never needed that in New York City! So Cody kept her comfy spot in the back seat, right behind us, and Tala travelled in the hatch back behind the barrier. Cody is an excellent passenger - you don't even know she's in the car - and it wouldn't be fair or safe to stick both dogs in the back seat together.

Tala's trainer looked at the arrangement and said, "In ten minutes, she'll be in the back seat," and "You know she'll bark the whole way home". Tala spent 95% of the ride looking out the window, fascinated by the trucks going by on the highway. A few times, at the beginning, she tried to put her face through the barrier to check out Cody. After all, she was curious! I said, "Uh-uh, Tala - off," Cody gave her a quick growl and a dirty look, and Tala popped off to look at more trucks. The whole "incident" took five seconds. She never barked once.

Here's something we learned yesterday that really surprised us: Tala had never been inside a house! Ever! Since being rescued, she's lived in a kennel - a lovely, clean, large kennel, but still, never a home. When we pulled onto the driveway yesterday evening, we knew that everything Tala would experience would be new and exciting to her.

She wasn't at all frightened or intimidated. She was happy, eager, excited, hyper-alert. She skittered around smelling everything. When she'd jump up to get a better look at something, we told her a sharp "Off!" and she stopped. Her attention span was shorter than a flea's, her head whipping around at every little noise.

Cody was wary, and intimidated. We had to encourage her to come in the room, to lay on her own mat, to eat dinner. But she also stood up for herself. When Tala was too encroaching, Cody backed her off with a quick growl. I don't know how long it will take for Cody to like Tala and bond with her. I know it will happen, but I don't know when.

It looked like Tala had never seen stairs before. She didn't seem to know how to walk up or down stairs, or even what they were for. She would awkwardly walk up to the landing, walk around in a circle, then walk back down - not realizing the stairs actually went somewhere!

Both dogs had dinner, and ran around in the backyard, then Tala watched with fascination as we heated up our own dinner and ate at the table. She had clearly never seen such a thing before.

Then she had her first walk with her new Halti. Predictably, she shook her head around and pawed at her face a little, annoyed by the strangeness. A moment later, she settled down - and had her first walk without being choked. That device is a little miracle.

Later in the evening, she spent a lot of time staring out of the living room window. We have a big picture window with a clear view to the street, and she was rapt. I'm sorry I was too tired to get the camera, but I have a feeling there'll be plenty of opportunities for that shot.

After another quick out in the backyard, and lots of praise for doing what she was supposed to outside, we introduced Tala to the "treat before bed" ritual. She was totally confused. What is this? Why are you giving it to me? What am I supposed to do with it...?

We had to coax Cody into the bedroom, but I was very relieved that she took her spot next to my side of the bed. That's relatively new for her. Naturally, it used to be Buster's spot, and Cody only claimed it a few months ago. (I hated not having a dog next to me at night!) I was hoping Cody would still sleep next to me, despite Tala's presence. At least last night she did. Tala wasn't overly thrilled about getting in her crate, but she soon settled in and curled up for the night.

This is going to be quite a week.

Now it's 4:20 and I think I can go back to sleep. I hope to blog about non-personal, non-dog subjects again. One day.

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