Old Trainer

August 23, 2014

The Old Trainer: Winter coat triggered by change in sun’s arc

Dogs grow winter coats as an involuntary reflex triggered by the lower arc of the sun after the summer solstice.

D ear Old Trainer: T-Bar is a 10-month-old malamute/Samoyed mix. He had short hair when we got him last December, but is suddenly growing a thick undercoat and long outer coat and it is only August. Since he is only a puppy, did he get confused and start growing his winter coat early?

Darrin, Sun Valley, Idaho

A: T-Bar did not decide to grow his winter coat. No dog does. It’s an involuntary reflex triggered by the lower arc of the sun after the summer solstice. Beginning in late June, each day is shorter than the one before.

Days remain warm, and the variation so slight that most humans don’t notice the new position of the sun.

T-Bar didn’t either, but something inside him did. His DNA measured the change in the sun’s reflection off the trout streams, sensed the shadows getting longer and the days getting shorter, and told T-Bar to prepare for the time when, in Bob Dylan’s words, “the rivers freeze and the summer ends.”

The elevation of Sun Valley is also a factor. Winter comes early to the high country because the dip of the sun to its winter path is more pronounced at high altitudes. Dogs get the signal in midsummer that winds from the north are on the way.

Even the worst Sun Valley winter won’t bother T-Bar, though. His ancestors were bred for cold weather. Once that coat grows out, winter will be just one big frolic for him no matter how cold it gets.

Dear Old Trainer: I had some success training Arnie, my 18-month-old Belgian/Labrador mix, using your techniques. He learned sit and stay, but that’s all. He does those two commands then starts playing and barking when I try to teach him more. What am I doing wrong?

Ryan, Carmel

A: When a trainer makes a little progress with a dog, then stalls, it’s best to remember the wisdom of Sun Tzu: “If words of command to the troops are not obeyed, the general is to blame.”

You made a good start, now you have to improve. Arnie will keep goofing off unless you outsmart him, and it’s not easy to outsmart a dog with his bloodlines. You have to convince him learning is as much fun as playing.

One way to do that is to train him to focus on you on command instead of just when he feels like it. Order him into the sit position, then tell him, “Look at me.” Grasp his muzzle and turn his head to make him look at you if you have to.

When he does it for five seconds, pet him and praise him, take him out the sit position, then do it all over again. Repeat the exercise five times each session. Hold five sessions a day with play time and rest between sessions.

Be patient – Arnie is still a kid – but be relentless. Each time he sits and concentrates on nothing but you, pet and praise him. When he has that down, add new commands to the routine. If he loses concentration, go back to “sit” and start over.

Remember, the petting and praising is the important part.

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