The first time I saw an obedience class at a dog show, I thought it was done with mirrors. I was particularly suspicious of the drill in which contestants told their dogs to lie down and then walked out of the exhibition ring. Having been a school teacher during one ill-starred period in my life, I knew what happened when teachers left their charges unattended: mayhem, mugging, attempted rape, and a rash of split infinitives.
When the owners returned, I expected the dogs to spring up joyously, race across the ring, and leap into their arms.The dogs just lay there inert.
The next day I phoned a canine finishing school near me. I enrolled our two-year-old, neutered pug dog, Hans. Eventually, by dint of grade inflation and faithful practice in the back yard, Hans was awarded a diploma at the end of eight weeks.
Sadly, Hans’s progress in obedience school did not make him a better dog at home. No matter how often or how sharply I yelledheelorsit or goddamn it, Hans, I could not make him stop doing whatever it was he wasn’t supposed to be doing.
Hans obviously needed post-graduate work. I enrolled him in a training class taught by a big-name trainer who had written a book or two about training and who charged accordingly for her services. There were seven other dogs and their owners in the class, and I knew as soon as we entered the gymnasium that I was in serious company. The other members of the class were either studiously obese (and looking to get control oversomethingin their lives) or slightly anorexic (and determined to extend their control to their dogs’appetites as well).
Hans acquited himself nicely during the first two sessions, and I began to hope this trainer might reveal the magic link between obedience in a controlled setting and obedience in our house.
My hopes were dealt a mischief in week three during an exercise called front-and-finish. In this routine the owner walks her dog ten paces, turns with the dog, and commands her to sit. The owner then marches ten paces back, turns, and stands facing the dog.
When the trainer says, “Call your dog,”the owner says the dog’s name, followed by the wordcome. The dog bustles right up to the owner, sits down, and at a signal from its owner circles to the owner’s right, reappears at the owner’s left, and sits down neatly.
When it came Hans’s turn to perform the return portion of this exercise, I called him cheerfully. He cheerfully refused to budge. A few seconds passed. When my face was getting red, I walked up to Hans, took him by his collar, and began walking him slowly to the place from which I had called him.
As I was doing so, the trainer said,”Just a minute.”
“What would you do if he had disobeyed you at home?”
“I’d do what I’m doing now,”I replied, as if I was answering a stupid question.
“You’ve got to show more authority,””the trainer said.”Don’t coax him.Takehim to the spot where you want him to go–as if you mean business.”
After I had walked Hans through the rest of the exercise, the trainer asked for another volunteer. A nervous-looking woman stepped up with her border collie. All went well until the woman commanded the dog to quit her sitting position and come to her. The dog was moving along happily until she got to roughly five feet in front of the woman. At that the dog slowed to a cower and crawled with her tail between her legs until she reached her owner.
The trainer told the lady to try the exercise again. Again the dog crawled the last five feet..
The trainer offered to work with the dog, but the dog wasn’t inclined to get too close to that woman either. Looking chagrined, the trainer strode to an office and emerged with a long length of tow rope that looked strong enough to haul the Love Boat, fully loaded, into port.
After the owner had put her dog in thesitposition, the trainer proceeded to affix the rope to the poor dog’s collar. Next the trainer carefully laid thirty or so feet of rope in a straight line. She then instructed the dog’s owner to call the dog again.
The owner did, standing with one foot on either side of the evil-looking rope. When the owner called the dog, she leaped up once again. Meanwhile the trainer, who was lurking twenty feet behind the owner, reeled in the rope as the dog ran. When the dog began to cower as before, the trainer yanked on the rope, nearly lifting the dog off her feet and depositing her in front of her owner.
The members of the class, save Hans and I, mumbled approvingly. I tried to look sternly disapproving while Hans tried to look small. Imagine our surprise, therefore, when the trainer asked me to try the front-and-finish exercise one more time with Hans. I looked down at the little guy. He looked back at me quizzically.
“With or without the rope?”
“Without,”said the trainer.
After commanding Hans to sit, I returned to my original position, turned to face him, and awaited further instruction. At the trainer’s signal, I called Hans. He leaped up and raced toward me eagerly. Trouble was, he veered to my left and ran straight past me to the door of the gymnasium, where he sat expectantly as if he wanted to be let out.
“It’s the rope for you, partner,”I said as I carried Hans back to the “lesson” area. He knew I was kidding, as he probably knew I would ask that he be excused from the rest of the evening’s festivities. He also knew, I’m sure, that he would never see that woman or her damn tow rope again.