Old Yeller Comes Home

Part Five of Five

And so in anticipation of these prolonged agonizing escaped-convict chases, we’d take two leashes, two walkie-talkies, and two containers of useless treats, knowing we might be at the task for far more time than we wanted, generating way more angst than was fitting for our once-bucolic lives in the era of Gandy, Tsuga or Buster. 

And in the end, one of two things would happen. One, he’d surprisingly show up in the vicinity of one of us, after we had split up to go different directions that the dog might go. Rarely, after as little as ten minutes, he would let us leash him and get him back home. Or the more likely second outcome, he would be totally missing for an hour; then appear over by the barn or down in Yucca Flats; or be walking down the road and out of sight; or heard barking from the neighbor’s house. That was the last straw–when he began to go bother the neighbors. We couldn’t have that.

When he was in full escape mode, the only thing that worked was to leave the front and side doors open. And after an average of an  hour and fifteen minutes (depending on the heat) he would reach a level of sheer exhaustion and walk in the door like nothing had happened. We wanted to wring his neck!

I used to joke that the likelihood of him giving up his freedom was directly proportional to the length of his tongue. The longer it drooped as he panted, the closer he was to surrendering to the authorities.

Except that is the point: WE were not the authorities. He had no allegiance or obligation or desire to please us when he was in his feral state. He acted as if he could not hear or smell or see us at all. We ceased to be a part of his consciousness, even as he ran in front of a passing truck while we waited helplessly for this tedious episode to end–until it was repeated just the same way the next day. 

Why? What made him so affectionate indoors but bolt and then totally fail to listen or care the instant he was off-leash? My theory was that, in his first life, the only time he was free-ranging was when he escaped. And when he was recaptured, he was NOT praised for coming back but punished for the aggravation he’d caused. We tried very hard NOT express our true feelings when the dog finally drug his sorry self through the open doors after a tense and fretful hour or more of being on the loose.

And it was at this point that I began writing the emails to shelters explaining why we must reluctantly “rehome” Scout. But there was one last thing to try.

I still had a “stim collar” (or e-collar) I had purchased for Dingo, a blue heeler who we reluctantly took in back last fall when he showed up and would not take no for an answer.  He was probably the smartest dog I’ve ever attempted to train–indoors. But he was freaked at passing cars. He actually was run over once, front to back of a passing truck full of good ole boys, and only lost a little fur. But the e-collar was my desperate hope to break Dingo of his car-chasing habit. The collar arrived a week before he bit me, unprovoked, the second time, just before the grandkids were coming. With great reluctance, we decided we could no longer keep him. 

So, this frowned-upon training tool was my last hope. I probably spent an entire work-week watching training videos for how to use an e-collar correctly. This was another training tool that could be and had been misused, and so there are a lot of haters–for prong collars and e-collars. And I understand that. But the point was made again that used properly, the stim collar was to be a means of communication, not punishment. And what I liked about the current crop of devices was that they offered a variety of modes of communication, with a hundred levels for vibration and electrical stimulation. 

And yet I worried that unless this negative reinforcement was applied at just the right time and with just the right cues and then positive rewards, it could make the dog want to run AWAY from us to get away from the tingle. I put it off as long as I could, knowing this was Scout’s last chance to succeed. Frankly, I was not hopeful.

I combined the retractable leash with the stim collar over a month or more, mostly using mid-range vibration (like a smartphone vibration that signals information without making you wet your pants) or very low stim levels (less than 20 out of 100). Over and over, Scout would be walking ahead almost to the full extent of the leash. I’d call COME! and press and hold the Vibration button until the instant he turned and looked my way and started in my direction. At that point, I’d gently pull him my direction, even walking quickly backwards to let him cover more ground until he reached me. I’d offer a treat, but he generally preferred GOOD BOY! And a pat on the head.

In early November, the moment of truth had come. We took the dog–with no small dread–to the end of the pasture. We allowed him sit calmly for a minute. I unclasped the leash as gently as possible so he couldn’t even tell at first the he was free to bolt. But he bolted. He ran–in big sweeping, joyful circles around us, then back and forth between Nameless Creek and the New Road, and then back to us for approval. We wanted to cry. He understood. He heard us. He wanted to follow. Leading is a lot of work, and it’s lonely at the top.

Scout is now a member–and not the leader–of the pack!

There have been the occasional lapses requiring more than verbal commands while he still wears the orange collar with the black box on it. But in late January, a typical day includes a half-dozen outings off leash–sometimes over short distances even without the stim collar. I will make a video hopefully to include with this final story–final for now at least. 

And what you’ll see is that Scout looks up frequently from his mousing to see where we are. “This way!” I tell him and he knows we’re changing direction. “Let’s go home” and he knows play time is over. “Let’s go to the garden” and he goes to the gait and waits for us to open it. 

What remains is the weakest link–a critical and absolutely necessary lesson yet to come. We (I) have to train him to NOT chase cars or trucks; bicycles or motorcycles; horses or people walking down the road. Never. Ever. I used to tell Ann, who was less worried about his great escapes than I was: “If he’s loose we’re liable.”

So this will be a challenge. And the opportunities to train him to not chase cars is made more difficult by the fact that we have very few cars, and they come at unpredictable times each day; and fewer horses or cyclists. But they will come, more and more as the weather moderates. And I will have to somehow reinforce SIT-STAY no matter what it is that you want to do, pup.

Our other dogs have learned this, more or less. But of course they were with us from 8 weeks on. If we succeed here, coming from where we were in the summer, it will seem miraculous. We came so close to giving up, to losing hope, to sending this dog back into a crate, waiting for one more chance to fit in.

1-Outside of a Dog 
2-Finding Old Yeller
3-And I Am Not The Alpha Male
4- Old Yeller Comes Home

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Fred First holds masters degrees in Vertebrate Zoology and physical therapy, and has been a biology teacher and physical therapist by profession. He moved to southwest Virginia in 1975 and to Floyd County in 1997. He maintains a daily photo-blog, broadcasts essays on the Roanoke NPR station, and contributes regular columns for the Floyd Press and Roanoke's Star Sentinel. His two non-fiction books, Slow Road Home and his recent What We Hold in Our Hands, celebrate the riches that we possess in our families and communities, our natural bounty, social capital and Appalachian cultures old and new. He has served on the Jacksonville Center Board of Directors and is newly active in the Sustain Floyd organization. He lives in northeastern Floyd County on the headwaters of the Roanoke River.

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  1. Boy, what impressive persistence!! Very proud of you and so glad for Scout. Using that e-collar so intelligently, with so much training and thought, made all the difference. Best wishes for the training with cars, but if you need to use a leash until Scout is well away from a road, so be it. A 16 foot leash still gives a dog a lot of fun.