Dog drill sergeant

Telluride Daily Planet, Friday, February 7, 2020


Where I left off regarding the new puppy was deep in reverie on all the positive feedback we humans never got enough of, and how, if only it had been there every step of the way like it should be for a dog, we might have a greater chance at becoming happier, more well-adjusted adults.

I’m not saying I’m taking that back. There’s always a place for positive feedback.

That being said, Ricky the Corgi, even within the most perky, reward-system-oriented training we could muster was still biting, yanking and jumping up. He seemed to think everything was a game of Snag Clothing, Draw Blood, Run Away or Fake Out (if you can picture that cut-away move herders do instinctively). There were moments of sharp contrast between our baby-cooing “Good boy” and the shrill “Ricky, stop!” Moments of shame, my friends, when one remembers all the bad parenting one did with one’s own children. And now with the dog, too? What were we doing wrong? Not enough positive feedback? Not consistent enough?

Enter a most impressive bit of dog psychologizing, in the form of an area trainer. We are about to receive her hour of free consultation before signing on, hopefully in the form of group lessons. She shows up with a training collar and a stick of pepperoni and gets to work with his initial signature move: jumping up on her with winning exuberance. It’s not winning her over, though.

“You can’t let him jump up,” she says instantly, firmly grabbing his paws until he whimpers, and then says “Off.” I swear to you, she has earned her first merit badge in Ricky’s eyes in about 12 seconds. “It doesn’t hurt him; you don’t squeeze, you just hold.” Then she slips the chain collar on him and watches as he blithely goes through all his “tricks” — chasing the cat, not coming, barking, biting. With the Fake Outs especially — my least favorite behavior — I’m secretly thrilled he’s getting schooled by someone who will get him to stop. There’s no faking her out.

“Dogs are pack animals,” she says. “You just have to show them who’s boss, especially a male.” She looks at me. “You’re going to have the difficulty. Whereas, he,” she looks over at Peter, “is tall and has a naturally lower and louder voice.” No kidding. “You have to use the hard eye,” she continues, narrowing and hardening her blue eyes into a laser beam that says, “I’m not happy right now. And if I were you, little dog, I would figure out what it is this alpha woman standing in front of you wants, and then do it.”

When we go out with the 6-foot leash and the chain collar (that she has to teach us to put on correctly), we get a lesson on keeping him close. Intermittent yanks and no’s serve to remind him to heel, which he does without too much complaining. She peppers it all liberally with praise. When we try, though, it’s as if she’s asked us to rub our stomachs and pat our heads and recite the alphabet backwards all at the same time. I keep forgetting to time the no’s perfectly with the yanks. Peter has a stranglehold on him. “There’s a lot to remember,” she says, removing the leash from his hands and then starting her demo over again.

Back inside, she shows us lots of other tricks of the trade. Putting the leash on in the house to keep track of him, for instance (something I’d read about, but had not built up the strength of character to do). She also talks about getting him toys for his brain, to tire him out. That appeals. She gives him little pepperoni bits (that later give him diarrhea, but who cares?) to make him do every single thing she asks.

We absolutely love, love, love what she’s done with him in such a short period of time. It seems almost surreal that he’s happy to listen and perform. Is he forever changed? Does he get it now? She talks about her group and private rates and when the next puppy class starts, and I’m in. I’m so in.

After she leaves and the Corgi I recognize is back, antics galore, I try to imitate what she’s done. But I don’t have her mojo. I feel deflated, like Mary Poppins has just left, along with her bag and her sparkly whirlwind of magic.

Later that night, when Ricky is sleeping like a soggy angel, I practice the hard eye on him.

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