Several people have asked lately, “Is Cleo still going to class?” The short answer is, “You betcha!” Our Monday night classes are so much more than obedience training, although that is a fabulous and important aspect of it all, too.
Sometimes I think of these sessions as Mommy and Me time. There is plenty of bonding that goes on as a dog and handler train together. We exchange more eye contact in that forty-five minute session than in an entire class-free day. As we heel—fast, slow and normal—about turn, circle left, circle right, down your dog, stand your dog, step away, figure eight, long distance recall, prolonged sit and stay with handler across the room, and then add any exciting new twist that Pluis, our trainer, decides to throw in to liven things up, we spend a lot of time gazing at each other. When we’re far apart, I adopt a goofy grin that mimics a happy dog (though I keep my tongue in my mouth), just as Pluis taught us humans to do in our first few classes together. Cleo’s expression ranges from concerned to long-suffering to sleepy, depending on what else has gone on in class that evening.
Which takes us to the second benefit of class: the all-important lessons of adaptability and resilience. Cleo almost never has the opportunity to interact at length with other dogs. Once a week she is surrounded by six or eight that she has to co-exist with for an hour. For the most part, it’s a structured environment, and she knows what’s expected of her and of the others. But every now and then, something unpredictable happens, and it’s a good opportunity for her to improvise, to see that she will survive the unexpected and uncontained.
There are a handful of dogs that started with us at the beginner’s level, nearly two years ago. There’s Veronica who is a Norwich Terrier, I’m pretty sure, with a personality far larger than her diminutive stature. Veronica and Cleo earned their Therapy Dog certifications at the same time. Then there is Chance the English Sheepdog. I have cast aspersions on his intelligence in the past, but I want to retract all that now that I’ve gotten to know him better. He is the embodiment of “Keep Calm and Carry On.” It doesn’t matter what happens in class—a dog gets loose and takes a few victory laps around the barnlike interior, applause crackles from the conformation class, a fracas breaks out among the dogs waiting for the eight o’clock group—he merely turns his massive head and regards the offenders with a placid, not to say vacant, gaze, then swivels it back, owl-like, to stare at his mom. We have Prix (Prie?) the Border Collie who is very sweet and totally OCD, just as you’d expect a herding dog to be. As long as he doesn’t lock eyes with another dog, everything is hunky dory. Cleo knows all of these dogs and exactly what to expect from them. It’s the newcomers who require her to dig deep.
Oh, she doesn’t mind Teddy the Shetland Sheepdog with an intermittent bark so shrill and piercing that even his mortified mother winces. I swear, I wouldn’t be surprised to hear that Teddy had been dognapped by the CIA for use during enhanced interrogation. Cleo seems to respect the tiny Border Collie whose name I can’t remember, petite and delicate who, at the age of seven months, is already so beautifully trained that she puts the rest of us to shame. Cleo’s issue is with Luna the black German Shepherd and—Buster? Oh, why can’t I think of his name? Bobby? I think I’ve blocked it. Anyway, a big galoot of a black Lab who has way more energy than sense. At some point in class, one of them will make a break for it and charge the littler dogs. When Pluis is there, she can sense that it’s about to happen and most of the time puts a stop to it, but when we have a sub, it’s a different story. There’s nothing mean about either of these dogs. It’s just that they both should be named Lennie. You can almost hear them saying, “But, George. I was just pettin’ it. I didn’t mean to break it. It was too little, George.” Cleo has been bowled over by each of these dogs at different times. And let’s just say, once bowled, forever shy.
But I want her to know that she has what it takes to deal with these boisterous boys. She really is a tough little dog. Sometimes when she and John are playing, she skids on the hardwood and smacks her head into the hearth or a kitchen cupboard. She barely even pauses to shake it off before she’s back into the game. So it’s not the physical roughhousing that intimidates her; I think it’s the unpredictability and the sheer energy coming her way.
Two weeks ago, the Lab broke from a sit-stay when Pluis was running class. He made a dash at Cleo who scrambled away from him. And where did she scamper? To Mom? No, directly to Pluis and huddled against her left leg. Without moving that leg, Pluis lunged with her right, grabbed the exuberant Lab by the collar, spun him around and handed him to his dad. She looked down at Cleo. “Well, that was exciting, wasn’t it?” she asked her, enthusiastically. Cleo gazed up at her, unsure of how to answer, but trying to be positive. Then Pluis turned to me. “Don’t worry, Mom. I was just the closest port in a storm.” She wasn’t, actually. I was marginally closer. But as Pluis is always fond of asking the dogs, “We all know who the alpha bitch around here is, don’t we?”