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We arrive seven minutes early, Lauren, Skinner, and I, to scope things out. To let Skinner, our eight-month-old German Shepherd, nose around, get familiar with the space. He’ll also burn off some excess Where-am-I?-What’s-this?-Are-you-talking-to-me?-Because-I’m-totally-not-listening.-Can-I-smell-this-spot-right-here-FOREVER-please? tail-flailing puppy joie de vivre (or the Deutsch equivalent). Plan being: decreased exuberance = increased focus. Important because tonight’s the boy’s first obedience class. Correction: Our first. The three of us. We view this as a family activity. Less doggie boot camp, really, than educational field trip with heavy panting.
But I shouldn’t mislead. Technically, this isn’t the first first class for any of us. My wife, Lauren, and I have done (and nailed) Obedience 101 with our two previous dogs, also German Shepherds, just not at this particular canine academy. Even Skinner has previous classroom experience, having recently graduated from Puppy Kindergarten, a course that emphasizes and improves socialization. (It had such a salutary effect, Lauren suggests I may want to look into Writer Kindergarten.) Point being, we’re ready for this, for tonight and the next 10 weeks.
I scan the premises, a surprisingly cavernous facility, L-shaped, partitioned into three distinct areas by low walls constructed of light, stackable foam rubber blocks the size of ottomans, each encased in heavy plastic hides of bright blue and yellow and green. The largest area contains ramps, tunnels, slides, weave poles, jumps, and seesaws for agility training, plus a supersonic border collie orbiting its zeppelin of an owner. On the other side of the dividing wall is a smaller chunk of open real estate where an Advanced III, off-leash obedience class is underway. (From my vantage point, it appears they’re teaching the dogs how to figure a tip.) Abutting that and beyond the foam blocks in front of us is the 101 training area. The floor is concrete with a rectangle of wide rubber mats defining a perimeter. Within the mats’ frame is an 8-foot-by-25-foot piece of dull cranberry indoor-outdoor carpeting with frayed, unfinished edges. Core message: design aesthetics are a slave to urine.
The minutes tick toward start time. More fellow classmates arrive. Lauren, Skinner, and I edge back farther from the escalating chaos, the expanding klatch of clueless and/or careless owners failing to restrain their pack of undisciplined charges, each jockeying for position to sample the assorted delights of the buffet de derrières aromatiques. Yaps, snaps, yelps, growls, quivers, lunges, dominance mounting, and submissive physical displays ensue. It is, in other words, like an unfiltered cocktail party.
That’s when Wes (not his real name, though it is a real name) appears, abruptly calling us into the training area. “Let’s go! Right here!”
He’s a tall, solidly built man of about 65, 70, with a gray crew cut and cop-like mustache. His manner is unambiguously no-nonsense, his tone suggesting a rolled and brandished newspaper. Strike one.
“I want all of you to line up on that mat, one row, facing me, dog sitting to the left of the handler, leash in both hands, held across the body, held loosely,” Wes directs in a clipped, comma-rich manner. (Lauren and I have pre-decided I’ll be the handler this time; she’s offering pom-pom-less moral support from a seat outside the ring.) We do as we’re told, 11 biped-quadruped pairs falling into what appears to be a bedraggled, benighted kick line, an interspecies blasphemy of the Rockettes.
Wes looks disgusted and it turns out he is. “Make that dog sit!” he tells a young woman with a Husky. “Don’t let him do that!” he insists to the owner of a fidgety beagle. “You have to be in control!” he snaps at the guy next to me, suddenly stepping forward to commandeer the leash and attached Lab in order to demonstrate. Skinner and I exchange a WTF look—though mine is more startled WT...?, his more circumspect F. I break eye contact before Wes can accuse me of anthropomorphizing.
Moving back in front of the group, he pulls a sheet of paper from his shirt pocket and asks, “Did everyone here bring the items you were supposed to?” He’s referring to the three things listed on the registration form: six-foot leash, training or prong collar, high value treats. While waiting, Lauren and I had already taken note of—that is, shaken our heads and snorted in disdain at—two harnesses, one leather collar, and a retractable leash (a.k.a. The Buffoon’s Tether). In addition to those obvious offenses, four handlers reluctantly confess to being without a single Snausage, Pup-Peroni, Beggin’ Strip, or other pun-based canine snack. After a withering look, Wes launches into an overlong sidebar on the importance of everyone having all items every week, making such a big deal out of it the wrongdoers may have to be put on suicide watch.
“Let’s get started,” Wes says. Though we don’t. What he actually means is, he’s going to keep talking but on a brand new subject.
“This isn’t a dog training class, it’s a people training class. I’m here to teach you what to do in order to get your dog to do what you want him to.” This isn’t new information. I’ve heard the same thing in every other obedience class I’ve been in, seen it in every training book I’ve ever read. I also know it’s true, that it works. Still, it seems a heady concept to introduce to people unable to master a three-item list.
Fact of the matter is I’m just anxious for the preamble to end and the training portion of the hour to begin. I’m not here for Wes. His crust and bluster and bombast are mere peccadilloes to collect and publicly ridicule somewhere down the road. (Hi, Wes!) I already know how to train a dog; I’ve come here to make sure I do. This class—and past classes—are, for me, an external structure, an outside obligation to ensure follow-through on my higher intention. Screw Wes. I’m here for Skinner. My dog.
See, I kind of owe dogs.
To my mom, animals were utili-tarian, little more than a means to an entrée. She learned this growing up on a farm, she and her sister decapitating chickens for Sunday dinner; her mother skinning rabbits for hasenpfeffer; and every fall, her Fatherland-born father slaughtering a hog for the German equivalent of gourmet eating: feet hacked off and pickled; liver and back fat turned into braunschweiger; blood drained into casings for blood sausage; face and skull contents minced, mixed, gelled, and shaped into cheeseless head cheese. Non-edible animals on the farm as well as in our suburban Cincinnati home were viewed variously as nuisances of potential property damage (infesting rodents, excreting birds), physical harm (spraying skunks, hair-entangling bats), acute creepiness (reptiles and amphibians), and gratuitous labor (pets of any kind).
My dad, on the other hand, was raised in the barn-/coop-/sty-free inner city by a man who was, notably, deathly afraid of dogs. Unless he was drunk—which was often—when he dearly loved them. This contradiction meant my father had rather brief, limited exposure to man’s best friend: Grandpa, stumbling from a bar in the wee hours, would run across a stray mutt, lead him home and tie him up outside until, the next day, his sober self would order his sons to untie it and shoo it away. One such incident ended with the discovery of a great hound hanging, dead, from their high porch stoop at the end of a length of rope. That this story was regularly told by my dad and uncle with laughter and wistfulness at the folly of the old sot rather than the horror of discovering a canine carcass decorating the front of the family home made it clear animals were not a paternal passion, either.
It was this household I was determined to bring a dog into. Because I loved dogs. Had loved them since I was old enough to toddle up to our Zenith console, turn it on, and spend Saturday morning with Rin-Tin-Tin dashing and leaping across 21 inches of black and white western landscape. To me, Rinny was the pinnacle of Dogdom, what all canine companions could and should be—smart, handsome, confident, brave, athletic, a wonder to behold and a loyal friend to the end. (Lassie? She was OK, but even a 5-year-old could tell that coat of hers was a grooming nightmare, that when she wasn’t in a lather over Timmy’s predicament vis-à-vis the well, she was in her dressing room being brushed and fluffed by cloying flunkies.) How could loving parents, beast-averse though they were, resist the idea of and my arguments for such an impressive pet?
Quite successfully, it turned out. Not until I was 13, in the early summer between seventh and eighth grades, was I able to wear down my father’s resistance. A family acquaintance was giving away a litter of pups and he agreed to intercede with my harder-line mother. (The only species of dog Dad would ever in a million years agree to was a canis gratis.) The case he made ultimately failed to convince her to say “Yes,” but, credit where credit is due, he did persuade her not to say “Absolutely not.”
I named the new pup Peppy (the equivalent, I now know, of naming a human baby Sleepy or Baldy or Sucky). He was a male, a mutt, 10 or 12 weeks old, with light brown fur full of cowlicky, quasi-poodle-esque waves. He was cute, warm, small enough for me to hold regardless of his feelings on the subject, and mine-all-mine. After waiting so long for this day to come, I immediately set about transforming Peppy from rambunctious pup to devoted, dutiful canine companion.
I pretty much abandoned it immediately, too. Dog training was hard—13-year-old boy hard. Meaning it bore a nasty resemblance to work and the gratification wasn’t of the instant variety. Beyond getting Peppy to intermittently sit and anecdotally crap in the yard, results were essentially nonexistent. Not once did he stay for as long as it took me to say the word “Stay.” Likewise, my countless (roughly half a dozen) attempts to teach him “Come” were consistently interpreted as “Run far away, take evasive measures, humiliate the pursuing boy.”
My failure to readily produce a domesticated wunderhund was discouraging, demotivating. By summer’s end, I’d returned to my natural state of television-induced catatonia and Mad magazine immersion. Except now each was done with a dog laying in the room with me—how cool was that? Meanwhile, my mother’s mood degenerated from bad to worst’s sub-basement. As she’d foretold, I was not taking care of the dog, neither walking nor grooming nor feeding nor picking up after. Leaving her to a) do the tasks herself, or b) yell at me to do them then do them herself. This, too, was a more or less natural state of existence to teen me, and thus life went on. Summer waned. Dog grew. Summer ended. School began.
Two days into the new school year my friend Chris and I were walking home from the bus stop when we spotted something we’d never seen before on our small suburban cul de sac: an SPCA panel truck. It was headed in the opposite direction, out of our subdivision, toward the main road. That the sight of it was purely curious, that no internal alarm sounded, is a tribute to my innocence or ignorance, though that may be redundant.
Yes, Peppy was gone. Taken away at my mother’s request, all arranged and executed while I was out of the house. No warning, no goodbye.
No reprieve, either. My pleas for his return were ignored. My invective at my pleas being ignored was ignored. When my father came home from work, it was apparent he’d known of Mom’s plan and had done nothing to stop it. (In retrospect, not shocking from a man who could laugh at negligent canicide.) He was equally deaf to pleas and invective.
That night, I grieved the dog I’d failed in every way—failed to train, to care for, to protect. I cried and hurt and could not sleep. He was gone, alone, scared. Maybe worse. I cursed his fate and the cause of it—my mother—swearing I’d never speak to her again.
The hot tears and icy silence went on for a week, maybe two. Then, as happens—as time requires—Insufferable Present is relegated to Endurable Past and Mom the Evil Betrayer gets reclassified as Comfort Food Machine/Adult Therapy Topic.
Wes drills us. Instructs us. Walks us in circles like he’s getting paid by the lap. Barks more than a terrier with a meth habit. The school’s nonrefundable tuition policy takes on a more diabolical edge.
For the rest of that first hour and the next nine weeks, Skinner and I work, both in class and daily on our own, repeating and refining the core curriculum: Sit, Stand, Down, Stay, Come, Heel. Combinations, variations, distractions, and misdirections get added to the program as we progress. The two of us settle into an easy groove. Easy because he’s a German Shepherd, the same devoted, high intelligence breed favored by law enforcement, the military, search and rescue crews, the blind, and Roy goddamn Rogers. Easy because he’s sweet and good, eager to please, confident and trusting. Easy because spending time with a dog, my dog, this guy, is my refuge, my respite, a triumph of full dog heart over busy human brain, of the moment over elsewhen.
And this is the beautiful, circular, Zen-ish quality of obedience training: It’s a fulfilling, enriching, even intimate partnership that requires spending more time with my dog; and by doing so, almost as a side benefit, I get a dog I want to spend more time with. It’s foolproof enough that of the three pups Lauren and I have raised together, each has turned into the dog I always wanted. Though, by my count, I’ll always be one short.
Illustration by Ward Sutton
Originally published in the March 2014 issue.