Monday, May 04, 2015

That's The Way It Should Be

Over the weekend, our family adopted a new puppy who we named Stella. Her paperwork says she's a one-year-old stray, probably a chow-golden or maybe chow-shepard mix. So far she's been an incredibly easy-going companion, not showing any signs that she was traumatized or abused. She must have spent some time with a caring person because she seems to be completely house trained and understood the "sit" command right away. In the past 36 hours, we've learned that she loves other dogs, is friendly to people, mouths us gingerly, and tends to jump up a little, but very gently, sort of standing on her hind legs waiting for permission to put her paws on you, and even then it's a light touch. She drops right to the ground if you say, "Off." She likes to cuddle in the bed with my wife, which thrills them both, but has chosen to spend her first two nights sleeping her dog bed, and hasn't been waking us early. 

Stella is here to fill the empty place that has been left during the past year by the passing of our standard poodle Athena and, more recently, her golden retriever sister Waffle. Those two dogs were in our lives to fill the space left by our chow chow Vincent.

As brand new dog people, we took training seriously. Vincent and I took numerous classes and we drilled daily. It was a frustrating experience for me in many ways because neither of us were really that into obedience. He loved me, but chows have a well-deserved reputation for being cat-like in their aversion for being told what to do. Sure, he sometimes attempted to please me, for instance sitting when I called "Come," as if to say, I'd rather not do that, but how about this? He could be motivated by treats, but despite our best efforts, he just never got to the point that he responded consistently to commands. 

Vincent was an alert dog, who liked other people in small doses. When we had house guests he would greet them politely, then, after about an hour, camp out near the front door as if to say, "This is the way out." Taking a walk with him required zen-like patience: if left entirely to his own devices he would take a half hour to go a block, stopping to sniff every square inch of ground, often backtracking, and if it was warm out he would sometimes just drop to the ground, panting, and have to be carried home. He once ran away (i.e., wandered off) and we found him a day later sleeping on our next door neighbor's back porch as if he was just waiting for us to find him. He didn't get the point of chasing balls, loved snow, hated water, and assumed the role of watchdog wherever we went. In other words, he was a character, a dog unlike any other, a member of our family.

Athena, like most standards, was a very smart dog. We started by trying to train her in the conventional way, but it didn't seem necessary. Within a few weeks, she was responding to regular conversation and I found myself talking to her the way one talks to a two or three-year-old. If Vincent had left me feeling like an inept dog trainer, Athena made me feel like a genius: she pretty much did whatever I wanted with very little fuss, cooperating more than obeying. She was super flirty with people, but something of a smart alec with other dogs, often teasing them until they chased her. In other words, she was a character, a dog unlike any other, a member of our family.

Waffle was a classic canine pleaser, not always "behaving," but always in favor of behaving. She was so big and lurch-y that we felt compelled to get her well-trained, a project that just never really happened the way one might have liked despite our best efforts. And while she often struggled to understand what we wanted from her, once she figured it out, she never forgot. On the other hand, she was a master communicator. Unlike our previous dogs who would often try to let us know what they wanted by such subtleties like staring at us pointedly, if Waffle wanted something, she would get our attention by hitting us with her paw or nose. If we didn't respond, she would do it again and again and again, even if we growled at her to stop, until we stood up. Then she would run to the door or the water dish or wherever, making her desires crystal clear. I often imagined her thinking, "I love these people, but man can they be dense."

As I've contemplated the advent of Stella, the whole idea of employing the classic obedience techniques doesn't seem like that high of a priority. Yes, we will teach her to be safe in the city, to come when called, to treat our non-dog guests with decent manners, and she already knows how to sit, but it's not something that motivates me. I really have no interest in a dog that does everything I want it to do, to obey, just has I have no interest in children that do everything I want them to do. What motivates me is helping others achieve their potential, to become the best them they can be, and while that may require cooperation, it doesn't require obedience. Obedience comes from commands: cooperation comes through connection.

So what I'll be doing with Stella is what I do with the kids, working on creating our relationship, loving her, and helping her become herself. She will not obey, but, like every dog I've ever lived with, she will be ready to agree, to cooperate, and that's the way it should be.

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