Misbehavior and The Second Puppyhood of Old Age

We often refer to old age in people as a second childhood, and my 13-year-old dog Cheyenne’s old age is turning out to be a bit of a second puppyhood, complete with some basic retraining. Time has not been kind to Cheyenne. She has arthritis in her hips and back, cataracts, and hearing loss. None of those ever seemed to slow her down much, but she was recently diagnosed with degenerative myelopathy (DM): an autoimmune disease that has her slowly losing control of her hind end. Most people would expect obedience to be very near the bottom of one’s list of concerns with a dog in this condition. Most people have never lived with Cheyenne.

I met Cheyenne and brought her home when she was 4-months-old, afraid of everything, and already had 3 or 4 bites to her credit. I had a little training experience, but was in way over my head. Somehow in our first year together I helped Cheyenne to overcome her fear and aggression and actually learn to adore people. I also allowed her to become a holy terror.

I pampered Cheyenne in a misguided effort to compensate for her terrible start in life. I was terribly inconsistent. I also lived in a house with 3 male twenty-something roommates. It was an ideal situation for training obnoxious behavior in any dog, and Cheyenne isn’t just any dog. She’s a catahoula bred for the grit and persistence necessary to work rank livestock and big game. I’ve lived with several, and Cheyenne’s persistence is exceptional even by catahoula standards. She just does not quit. She is capable of both relentless effort and tremendous patience in pursuit of her desires. My bad habits only encouraged her. By the time she was a year old I had a door-opening, fence-climbing, tunnel-digging, barrier dismantling, attention-seeking, game-running, counter surfing little delinquent on my hands.

At that point, I finally dedicated myself to teaching her some manners. We solved most of her behavior problems, training bombproof recall, stay, and place commands. She became a real joy to take everywhere with me. Still, our relationship always felt qualitatively different than those I’ve had with any dog before or since. I’ve always delighted in her exceptional wildness and willfulness and it seems more accurate to say that we came to a series of understandings than to say that I trained her. Seeing her now, that feels truer than ever.

As Cheyenne’s health declines, she is reliving her juvenile delinquent period. It started with her failure to respond to occasional recalls in the woods as she began to lose her hearing. Remedial training solved the problem, but it was quite a surprise to have it in the first place. Her hearing continues to decline, and her response to “leave it” (never her most reliable command) has recently deteriorated along with it. Neither the recall nor “leave-it,” however, is our biggest problems. The DM has robbed me of the bedrock commands: sit, down, and stay/place.

DM makes sitting and lying down difficult. On all but her best days, each involves Cheyenne lowering her hips towards the ground into what she hopes will be the right position and then letting them fall those last few inches with little control over where they land. This obviously makes me very reluctant to insist on compliance, which has led to all sorts of trouble. Suddenly, the dog who for 12 years went straight to her mat when the dinner dishes came out is begging at the table. Instead of automatically sitting at every cross street and awaiting an invitation to cross, she’s charging ahead. Instead of sending her to her place when she plants her head on the thighs of visitors who fail to understand that they are there to pet her, I wickedly just pretend not to notice and hope she succeeds in getting them to see the light.

I’m responsible for the difficulty of implementing new rules. I’m a lazy dog trainer and don’t tend to do a lot of training with my adult dogs beyond enforcing the behaviors that make them good pets and reliable off-leash hiking companions. That’s especially true of Cheyenne, who I initially trained with different methods than I tend to use now. Until recently, it had been a long time since I had taught her anything new. As a result, I’m struggling more than I should with her new misbehavior.

I’ve learned a lesson about the importance of continuing to train new things throughout a dog’s life, and that’s probably what I should be blogging about. Honestly, though, I’m not bothered by Cheyenne’s misbehavior. Quite the opposite. Her first puppyhood frustrated me and I had no idea how to fix her problems. I know how to fix her misbehavior now, and - far more importantly – I take comfort and joy in seeing that the failing of her body has not dampened that indomitable spirit a bit.

I know that all too soon I will have to begin preparing myself to say goodbye to the dear friend who has been the only constant of my daily life over the last 13 years. DM has no cure. Treatment – at best – can only slow the progress of the disease. Cheyenne will eventually lose her ability to walk, but it could take 6 months or 2 years. For now, every time that I have to send her away from hovering at the table, grab her as she dashes towards the cat food in spite of my “leave it,” or remind her to stop at every cross street brings both a welcome memory of Cheyenne as a puppy and a reassurance that she will not go gentle into that good night. Every instance of misbehavior reminds me of just how much fight there is in this dog. If force of will has any impact on it at all, Cheyenne will keep going longer than anyone expects. Who ever thought that doggie disobedience could be such a joy?

Are you a dog trainer? Sign up for the Professional Dog Trainer Program – Free on Dunbar Academy