[Soundcloud narration]

About 7 weeks ago, this little guy — Bunnu — roughly a month old, followed my dad home. I know, I know. You’re probably thinking to yourself, “Aww so cute! So adorable and playful. So much energy! They look so cute when they sleep with their head between their paws.”

Terrorist? Teacher?

Nope.

I mean, he IS all that but if you ask my folks what they think about him, these are not what come to mind first. To them, (me?), this guy has turned their house has turned into a war zone. There are Lines of Control, sneak attacks, Cold War, confidence building measures. Everything two governments at war do, we have been reduced to doing.

India has a stray problem. Nearly everyone you speak to will have stories of their car or bike being chased by packs of otherwise docile and friendly dogs all barking and nipping at exposed ankles. If you were to meet the same pack during the day, they would, at the most, open one eye to make sure you weren’t a dog catcher in mufti and leave you alone.

The upshot of this fraught relationship most Indians have with strays is that

  1. Very few people know how to behave around dogs; and
  2. As a whole, society has not developed a vernacular to interact with dogs

This post is about how we had to learn a new way of speaking just to communicate with Bunnu.

The first two weeks of his stay with us, Monsieur Bunnu, had free rein of the house. He could go anywhere he pleased except the kitchen and the Puja room (Pinterest). On hindsight, it seems pretty obvious but this was a bad idea. Puppies are like the Mafia or John Le Carre spies. They like to do their business in private. And not just one private area. Like the ideal textbook economic agent — they love having choices. After a morning passed without evidence of his “dealings”, we discovered just how many nooks and crannies of the house had received a visit from him — under beds, behind the TV stand, in one of the balconies beside a pot. Our guy was a proper Pablo Escobar among dealers.

My mother, as nice as she is, put her foot down (gingerly, lest she put her foot in it). We had to have boundaries. Walls. Some dogs might be good but most were not. She channeled her inner Trump and up went a barricade keeping Bunnu in one half of the house, away from the family quarters.

Now, every night, as the time to go to bed approaches, Bunnu and the family have a sort of Wagah border ceremony (Wikipedia). He sits on one side of the Line of Control across from us. We part, promising to be there the next morning, and he cocks his head in acknowledgment. It is all very bittersweet.

The daily border closing (Image courtesy wiki)

When he came to us, his weight was about 1.5 kg (~3.5 lbs). His bite strength was limited and he spent his first couple of days sleeping in his bed, simpering from fear, worms, and being parted from his mom. With time, as he has gained weight and confidence, he has turned into a bundle of fun — for everyone who is currently not at the receiving end of his sneak attacks.

They start off innocently enough. He’ll lick you feet and curl up underfoot. Within a few minutes, he will gently start biting the heel of your foot, just to see if you’re awake. So you’ll tell him to stop and push him away. The minute you do that, it’s game time! He’ll dart in, bite harder. You’ll try to swat him and he’ll run away only to come back behind to chomp again.

The civilian population of the house is in terror of the canine menace.

My father, for instance, has taken to walking around with a cup of water because he discovered that Bunnu does not enjoy being splashed in the face. So this cup of water has become my dad’s personal Bear Spray to ward of the local fauna — namely Bunnu.

After a couple of weeks of yelling at, and occasionally kicking, Bunnu — which didn’t seem to be very effective - we graduated to time outs. No one likes being ignored and ostracized.

Honestly though, timeouts are only fun the first five times when you have to get out of your chair to leave him in the balcony.

They begin to lose their charm the more often you have to give timeouts and they really truly lose their charm when pets start submissive urination (Humane Society) to make amends for their behavior.

Timeouts don’t scale.

Once raised voices and timeouts proved less than effective, we moved on to positive reinforcement. Step one was to buy a bag of treats. Step two was to learn whole new manner of speaking.

Positive reinforcement relies on rewarding and encouraging good behavior instead of interrupting and punishing bad behavior. This style of communication is totally anathema toIndians in general. In general, we’ll seldom thank. There are no TV shows about dogs where spray tanned suburbanites fake an excited voice while talking to their pets. And we certainly don’t give out treats for not behaving like a brat.

Not being difficult is considered par for the course so convincing my folks to try positive reinforcement was tough.

My mother, though, was willing to try it. She fought through her initial awkwardness and learnt to say “Thank you” and speak animatedly to show off emotional range to the mutt. It was all very cute. A sixty seven year old lady learning to say “Good Boy” in a high pitched voice because this 7 week old pup had let go of her sari…

My father, on the other hand, still mutters things like —

“What do you mean we have to thank *him* for not biting at our ankles? What kind of world are we living in under my own roof?!?” AND

“Why are we handing out treats like its Diwali?”

And he still carries his cup of water everywhere he goes. Like they say, you really can’t teach an old dog new tricks or a language.

[Soundcloud narration]

I am the founder of https://moogle.cc which lets you write and post to your blog from Gmail. You can also reach me at sai@ramachandr.in