This is the day I load up Gaspode and Zsa Zsa and drive an hour and 10 minutes so they can ignore every command I’ve taught them over the past week.
All week, though, they’ve been the standard of canine obedience, responding to every gesture of my hand with speed and enthusiasm. But this afternoon, in front of Corally Burmaster, a trainer I am both intimidated by and respect, they will look at me blankly and lick themselves in embarrassing places.
Zsa Zsa, having completed obedience classes, is learning to do a relatively new American Kennel Club event called Rally. Actually, I think she is indifferent as to what we are doing. All she knows is that I have mozzarella cheese in my bait bag and for one hour she is The Mama’s Only Dog.
I say, “Come!”
She hears: “Cheese!”
I say, “Down!”
She hears: “Cheese!”
The result is that she will do everything I’ve taught her, just not when she’s asked to do it. And sometimes the thought of “Cheese!” just floods her brain and she just stares at me blankly like a frozen up computer. This is the precise time that Corally notices us.
Corally doesn’t say anything, but I know she is disgusted. Or maybe it’s me who is disgusted because I know that under Corally’s command, Zsa Zsa would be dancing
Having flunked basic obedience three times under other trainers, this is ‘Pode’s last chance at being a trusted dog that isn’t confined to his crate whenever we have visitors. ‘Pode is a rescue dog who spent the first two years of his life in a crate for 23 hours a day. When we got him, he’d never socialized with people outside his family and certainly not with other dogs.
When we’re home alone he is a true gentleman. He sits politely, never destroys anything and get along with his brothers and sister. He obeys commands and comes when called.
But when anyone comes into the house, ‘Pode gets so excited he doesn’t hear commands. He gets so excited in new situations that he doesn’t even notice the most succulent treats you offer.
The first day under Corally ‘Pode walked in and practically strangled himself on the leash to take on the other dogs, no matter how big they were or how they reacted to them. He barked savagely whenever someone came within five feet of us. I tried looking apologetic, but I had warned everyone that he’d be a challenge.
Perhaps he somehow noticed that Corally was walking around the room offering treats to well-behaved dogs who greeted her properly. I don’t know what did it, but when Corally approached ‘Pode, he first strained toward her. She said quietly, “Can you sit for me?”
‘Pode dropped like a rock in front of her.
Corally doesn’t say anything, just moves on. But the point is made: it’s not the dog, it’s the training (and the trainer…).
The next week I’m told to bring a spray bottle of water and every time ‘Pode barks unnecessarily or tries to approach another dog aggressively he gets a squirt.
By the end of the session he is soaking wet. But he walks happily to a Weimaraner and they touch noses and sniff butts like regular dogs. Like regular dogs.
So now we’re working on the finer points of obedience training like the down (lying down) and the stay. Teaching the down to a small dog is significantly different from teaching it to a large dog. You have to sit on the floor and lure the little dog under an arch created by your leg. Then you rise to your knees and thank God that you don’t have a Dachshund.
‘Pode has trouble with this. Rather, I have trouble teaching it to ‘Pode. Maybe it’s because I’m just so tickled that I’m sitting with him in a room full of dogs and he’s actually focused on me and the treat, rather than the Standard Poodle three feet away.