Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Garbage Day

Every Tuesday I wake up with a bad feeling in the pit of my stomach. It usually takes me a minute to realize why but then I hear the beeping and the slamming of garbage cans outside and I know: It's Garbage Day.

Personally I could care less - I have little trouble falling back asleep if something wakes me up and I enjoy that their is someone willing to take away all the garbage. But Chopper couldn't care more. I think the dog must have been a garbage can in a previous life or was put in a garbage truck as a young puppy. I have no idea. But ever since he came to live with me he has hated garbage trucks.

In the beginning I didn't really notice as he barked at everything that went by - garbage trucks, joggers, joggers with dogs, kids running, the UPS truck, the FedEx truck, buses - you name it he hated it. Since we live on a busy street there was almost always an opportunity to bark at something (for the amount of people that don't use public transportation in LA there a TON of buses.)

As I started to train him and he started to calm down this behavior was almost entirely extinguished. With one little exception - garbage trucks. My initial reaction was to avoid it altogether. I would take him to the dog park and then later to walk on the beach - every Tuesday morning. (I don't even want to mention what would happen if I dared to make an appointment for him to get groomed on a Tuesday.) About eighteen months ago I decided that this was ridiculous and we would have to deal with this issue.

Let me back up a second here because I'm sure by now we are thinking - so the dog barks - big deal. There is, however, not really a term for what Chopper does on garbage day but I will try and describe it. First, he hears the trucks before we even get up for the morning. He then will immediately go to the living room and get on the couch so he can monitor there whereabouts. There is usually at least one barking fit that takes place during this time period. Then once we go outside he is panting and pulling and looking for those garbage trucks. It's actually more like he is hunting. I am not sure if this dog would actually be able to tree a raccoon (what he's bred to do) but if there was a competition for tracking down a garbage truck he would be the winner. I can hear the garbage trucks when they are blocks away and they also echo off the canyons so I can only imagine what those ears of his can hear.

Then when he sees one coming he will stop and stare. The stop and stare can only be compared to that moment when a baby or child is all red and their face is scrunched up and they are taking an big intake of air so they can then let out a huge ear-piercing wail an instant later. Chopper is obviously conserving his energy for his version of a wail. Once the truck is within close proximity the show really starts. He barks his head off and jumps around from side to side. Anyone within six feet of him (the length of his leash) is in danger of getting knocked down as he flailing about. When the truck stops to pick up a garbage can this little scenario increases tenfold.

And this is why we went to the beach.

My major issue with this scenario was that I thought he could hurt me (since no one else was stupid enough to get close to him when this was happening) or his leash or collar malfunctioned and he actually got to the garbage truck. (If Chopper survived that particular confrontation I could only imagine the reaction to garbage trucks in the future.) So I decided to get serious about his garbage day training.

I gathered the necessary tools. First, got myself a treat bag that went around my waist and could stay open for easy access to treats. I couldn't get to treats fast enough if they were in my pocket. Second, Chopper had to wear his Gentle Leader - no questions about it (he hates his Gentle Leader, he has a whole face rub dance he does that drives me batty.) I couldn't control him very well with just a flat collar and he doesn't care about a choke chain or pinch collar (not to mention that to associate pain with this scenario would not work for him). The final piece of the puzzle - better treats. Chopper gets good treats to start with but we needed something better. I started buying red meat on Monday nights and grilling or browning it up for him.

Then as we would walk and we would hear the trucks I would make Chopper sit and he would get these little bits of red meat. Granted it wasn't that easy. Often times to get him to sit I would have to pull up on his Gentle Leader and repeat the command over and over again. Then I could not pause in giving him the treats - one hesitation and he would be jumping around. The garbage men started to notice and one even helped us out for a bit and would throw him treats from the truck. Over time I was able to increase the amount of time between the treats. Then we downgraded to hot dogs and regular dog treats.

In the last few weeks I have added another trick to my arsenal. In order to avoid the stalking behavior I give Chopper something else to do. I will throw a piece of kibble and tell him to go get it. This keeps him distracted from just listening for the garbage trucks and he's looking at me more to wait for the kibble. This seems to be the last piece of the puzzle as he has been doing exceptionally well the last few weeks. (I also think the conditioning in his Obedience Two class helped.) We had three weeks in a row with no outbursts (if we encounter the truck early in the walk he has more trouble). Sometimes I keep walking after the truck passes and sometimes we follow behind it and he gets treats for walking nicely.

This has been a long process - primarily because the garbage collection is only once a week - the whole neighborhood is the same day so we don't have that many opportunities to practice. And I can't control the garbage trucks. I can't make them stop next to us when he's calm or go down another street if he's having a bad day.

But he's getting better (slowly but surely). I do hope that one day he will be able to walk by garbage truck like all the other dogs in my neighborhood (with the exception of one feisty border collie) and not even notice it. Until then I will be ready with yummy treats.

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