Every morning lately, at about 6:00, I drive to Sawyere’s ‘dormitory’ to take him out for potty, give him his breakfast, and then take him back out to play and work on his training a little. Sometimes I go out to his dorm for his dinner, too. As I get close to it, I find myself getting a little more excited each day. Today I really had the feeling I was going to visit a friend, and I think I can safely say that he feels the same about me. We had a lovely interaction, and I heard he was grand for his afternoon visitors, too. He’s a very good dog, that Sawyere.
His sit is pretty perfect by now, and his down is excellent, too. So today we worked on, ‘Drop your ball’. Up until today, if I bent down to pick up his ball to throw it for him, he’d try to get to the ball first, and occasionally his teeth would touch my hand. This was not on purpose–he never did anything even remotely like biting or nipping. It was just an accidental collision of fast-moving fingers and fast-moving…ivory? What are dogs’ teeth made of, anyway? But I’m sure that Sawyere’s teacher would like to have his teeth totally out of the equation, or, pretty sure, anyway. To my dogs I say, ‘Practice custody of your teeth, now’.
So I began trading him a treat for the ball, and he caught on very fast. But although he understood what we were trying for, he didn’t always want to do it, and he told me so. It went like this: I asked him for a sit (and got one, 100% of the time). I gave him a treat, and then threw the ball (maybe my timing is wrong–I’ll have to ask his teacher). Then I made a big fuss, kneeling down and opening my arms wide and saying how good he was, and he brought the ball back about 95% of the time. When he did, I asked for another sit and gave him a treat. While doing that, I tried to calmly pick up his ball to repeat the process. But he always went for the ball, at that point. I made sure to get it first, and held it near my chest, while I turned my face to the wall and waited. I wish I’d known about this turning to the wall thing, for the last few years. It works, instantly, with no downside that I can see–no hurt feelings, instant cessation of problem behavior. And I should have known, and I’ll tell you why. I just realized, this afternoon.
I’d been thinking, as I drove home from the note factory, how the best training utilizes means of communicating and interacting that the dog already knows. I came into the house, and the dogs were their usual bonkers-happy to see me. We had a nice play, and Simo, who’s starting to be very demonstrative to me (lately he makes me feel like he loves me a lot, even more than before, for some reason) got especially happy, and began running all over the two big rooms of our suite, using the beds and sofas as springboards. Then he did something I’ve seen him do a few times before–he gets himself into a good spot on the sofa, and whirls. Although it’s adorable, I always feel a little bad about this, as I think I’ve read it’s a sign of understimulation, or what I’ve learned recently might be called, ‘environmental poverty’, meaning that there wasn’t enough to think about, and that was certainly the case at his shelter in Mexico. I’m not sure that that’s what the dervish display means. I wish it meant that he was just goofy with happiness.
In any case, he whirled, and I couldn’t help but laugh at how cute he looked. A lot of the other dogs were barking and bouncing at him, excited by his odd motion (none of the rest do that), and it must have been too much for Simo. He stopped whirling, went into the corner of the sofa, sat down with his back to us, and just waited. And then I made the connection–I bet you anything that turning your back and waiting quietly like that is part of a dog’s existing repertoire, and that’s why it works so well! If Sawyere’s teacher reads this, she’ll probably be thinking, “Uh, well, YE-ah, we knew that!” But for me, it was a Eureka! moment, and I’m very grateful that the two things happened on the same day.
Back to our ball game. The wall trick worked every time, and once Sawyere was quiet (it happened almost instantly), I’d ask him for a sit, and then, and only then, throw his ball. Gradually we were able to give up my wall trick, and I began just to trade him a treat for the ball, which he would drop and I’d pick up. He’d start to go for it, but I’d ask for a sit before he could do that.
And that’s when the other really interesting thing happened. Although his sit is great at other times, in this scenario he did not want to sit for me. But you could see his mind working…’She will not throw that ball until I sit, and I don’t want to sit. I want to just jump up and take that ball. But if I do that, she’ll turn her back on me and I’ll end up sitting anyway. I might as well sit right now. Oh, all right, then, here’s your sit–I want you to know I resent this sit!‘ And that last bit was actually audible. It’s only today that I’ve heard him use his voice to ‘talk’ to me. He’s basically a quiet dog, and, now that I think of it, I’m not sure I’ve even heard him bark. But today he made complete querulous sentences for me–part question (‘Are you sure you won’t change your mind?’) and part complaint. I made an especially big fuss over him when he sat even though he really didn’t want to.
I’d brought him a lovely turkey melange, which I’d cooked for my own dogs the night before, to serve with their kibble. He loved it, and, for the first time, ate really eagerly. I petted him while he ate. Halfway through his meal, I picked up the feeling that he was very happy (wagging tail, eager chomping, relaxed body). He was a picture of someone thinking he had it made. At the very moment I thought this, he turned fully around and kissed my face. I can’t tell you how good that made me feel.
I can’t wait to get back out to his dorm tomorrow morning. Honestly, if you’d told me a month ago that I’d be excited to wake up at 5:00 to go out into the frosty winter and drive a half hour in my car-which-has-something-wrong-with-the-heat, I’d never have believed it. But it’s so.
And thanks to the fact that Sawyere’s got other people on his team who love him as much as I do, I’m off duty tonight, and will go to bed at the same time as an elementary school-aged kid, making tomorrow even better than it would be already.
Sweet dreams, Sawyere. Hmm…a strange idea popped into my head when I wrote that. It’s very weird, yet weird as it is, I feel sure it’s true. Somewhere near here, your perfect future owner has just gotten a ‘zing’ from the universe, and started thinking about adopting a dog. He or she will now start the process of what if?, visualizing what a new dog friend might look like, and be like. It’ll take awhile, and while it happens, you’ll be learning. On the exact day when both of you are ready, you’ll find each other.
I’ll miss you then. I call tell that already, after just three days with you. But I’m so very proud and happy to be helping you, my noble and loving friend Sawyere.