I have a friend who wrote a popular dog-training book called Imagine Life with a Well-Behaved Dog. This title has stuck with me from the first moment I heard it, I think because the well-behaved dog I imagined always seemed more fiction than reality. Take Buck from The Call of the Wild who lies around adoringly staring at his master, eschewing the C of the W until his master dies and frees him to explore the tundra. Or Pilot, the faithful dog who trots around after Mr. Rochester all over Derbyshire and who is the first to recognize Jane Eyre when she returns from her self-imposed exile. And speaking of recognizing, let’s not forget Argos who, after twenty years, is the only being to spot the disguised Odysseus returning from the Trojan War. That is one long-lived dog! And what about Toto who seems to understand (and do) everything Dorothy says to him?
In real life, though, a dog that would actually listen to me seemed too much to hope for. And then I met Cleo. Listen, I’m not going to suggest that this all happened magically. We’ve put two solid years into obedience classes. I pretend we continue to go only because the camaraderie is such fun for both of us, but we’re still learning an awful lot each week. Sometimes on our walks, we meet people whose dogs are pulling and tugging and darting around like out-of-control kites with legs. “What a well-behaved dog,” they say with wonder and admiration. John and I let Cleo take all the credit. She works hard; she deserves it.
But you know, In the last couple of months, it really does seem as if the dominoes are clicking into place for her. She learns new commands faster, responds to known commands more accurately and is just more tuned in overall. In class last week, Pluis introduced two new hand signals, one for heel and one for stand. The first two times we tried them, we combined the signal and the verbal command. Cleo was initially confused by the gesture for heel because it turns out it’s the same one I’ve been using as a release from heeling. Oops. Gotta retrain myself and her on that one. She got the gesture for stand on the second try. I was so amazed I said, “Wow!” instead of “Good.” Cleo was busy checking out the Parson Russell who joined class just last week, so she didn’t seem to notice.
This isn’t the only example of her wondrous brilliance, though. Over spring vacation, my school provided me with a Dutch door to replace the baby gate I’ve been using for the past two years. This baby gate was one of the swanky ones with a swinging pass-through for people, but the mechanism to open the little door baffled most visitors. Parents, students, colleagues would stand staring at the top of the gate in utter befuddlement as I scampered around my desk to let them in, all the while calling out encouraging instructions like “Lift up on the little—no, not that, the other—the grey—never mind.” On the way out, seven visitors out of ten would catch a toe on the metal railing at the bottom of the gate and nearly go flying into the nearby computer monitor. So I was pretty excited to hear that the Dutch door had been approved and would be installed in early March. It really is a thing of wonder. Students, teachers, visitors have exclaimed over it. Cleo’s friend Betsy took it as a challenge. It is she, you may remember, who has been teaching Cleo tricks like High Five, Hop, Army Crawl, Look Pretty, and Close the Door. A couple of weeks ago, Betsy was visiting Cleo and filling me in on her life of late. As usual, the bottom half of the Dutch door was closed, the top half was three-quarters open. Suddenly, Betsy jumped up from the couch and exclaimed, “I wonder what Cleo will do if I tell her to close the door!” She ran to the door and called Cleo to come. The puppy positioned herself in front of Betsy and looked at her expectantly. “Close the door,” Betsy chirped, standing perfectly still. Cleo looked at the closed bottom half, then turned back to Betsy. “Close the door,” she urged again. Cleo looked up, then leapt, extending her arms towards the top half of the door and giving it a swat with both paws. It swung about half-way closed. Before she had fully landed, we were both exclaiming, “Good dog! You are so brilliant!” Betsy looked at me, her eyes shining. “That was amazing!” she crowed. Okay, so maybe she didn’t get the door all the way closed, but sometimes, just the attempt is an awesome accomplishment.
Last weekend, I had a delightful email from Cleo’s Auntie Kim. All it said was, “Remind me to tell you how brilliant your dog was on Friday.” Kim had taken Cleo with her to the wilderness area to change batteries in the critter cams that dot the hundred acres. The two of them often go over there together because it affords Cleo the chance to run around during the school day and they both enjoy the company. This time, Kim took an unaccustomed route. Cleo ran ahead, but each time she came to a fork, she stopped and looked back for instructions on which path to take. Kim (being a scientist both by nature and training) decided to do an experiment. At the first fork, she simply said, “Left.” Cleo headed down the left path, turning back for confirmation. “Yes,” said Kim, nodding. Off they went. At each subsequent fork, Kim gave her instructions, including once, where three paths met, “Straight.” If Cleo took the wrong route, Kim said, “Stop,” then repeated the direction, but this time with an arm extended for clarification. Once, Cleo was far ahead and Kim called to her, “Wait by the camera.” Cleo looked around, then trotted to a tree and sat down, directly beside the camera attached to the tree’s trunk. Kim is not easily impressed, but her tone, as she told me this story last Monday, made it clear just what she thinks of her brilliant and beautiful four-legged niece.
|Cleo caught on one of the critter cams|
I want to say a brief but heartfelt thank you to the twenty-three of you who bought the e-book of The Educated Dog in its first two weeks of publication. Author notification is more than two months behind actual purchases, so I have only just learned that folks from all over the world responded so quickly in that last half of January. It’s a thrilling feeling!