Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Dickens And The Voice From The Past

About 15 years ago, after training Winzer and getting a CD, I decided I knew enough about dog obedience to teach it. I put some flyers in a local feed store and gave lessons one night a week in a freezing cold barn piled high with bales of hay infested by mice that occasionally made an appearance during a lesson, wreaking havoc among the canine students.

I distilled all I'd been taught by teachers far more experienced than me into a six-week course booklet that I ran off on the laptop as needed and gave to the students. I borrowed--that's the nice word for it--liberally from course material I'd been given, rewording it to fit what I intended to be a breezy style of instruction that amused the human students enough to make them unaware that their dogs weren't learning anything in the classes--the humans were the ones who were benefiting from my very fresh expertise.

A subsequent hard-drive crash erased the documents and I'd thought them lost forever until a week ago when I located a single copy in the old duffel bag I used to take to obedience trials. There, under the dumbbell and the extra leash and the show programs was a thick sheaf of paper, a complete lesson plan from week one to week six.

Lately I've been going through the plan to brush up on my training with Dickens. It's odd to be getting this information from the me of 15 years ago, who seems to have been a lot more confident of his ability to train dogs than the me of today, who is older, less patient, and often doubts he can ever recreate the bond he had with Winzer with this new dog, who has the attention span of a gnat and the stubbornness of a herd of mules.

The younger me had some pretty smart things to say about training dogs, though, and he's been teaching me a trick or two that have made a difference in Dickens already. The first of these is consistency, which I preach but apparently don't always practice. Dickens now gets only one command, followed by a nudge in the direction of what I want him to do if he dawdles.

The next job is to make myself the most relevant thing in his universe. He's still young, and easily distracted, so I've gone back to training him on a lead instead of off-lead. There's a risk of making him leash sensitive so that he'll obey only when he's leashed, but the alternative is him dashing off to investigate every noise in the next yard or gust of wind in the middle of an exercise. The younger me said to find Dickens' motivation, whether food or toys or play. I'm still looking; he's motivated by a lot of things, but never the same thing twice running.

For example, he'll take a dumbbell from me and hold it in his mouth, but he brings back a thrown dumbbell only about half the time. The other half he chases it, picks it up, drops it, and wanders away, even if there's a cookie waiting for him. And yet there are signs the cartoon light bulb over his head is glowing more brightly every day. This evening I told him, "Find the ball," a completely new concept, and he did just that, searching every room in the house until he found it and brought it back to me, proud as can be.

I felt like younger me again.

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