Wednesday, December 26, 2012

My Bad Dog

A few months ago, I was walking My Bad Dog in an unfamiliar neighborhood. She was masquerading as a good dog. She does that a lot. In fact, she does it so frequently and so convincingly that I often forget she is My Bad Dog and think of her as My Good Dog.

Here she is, pretending to be My Good Dog:

Here she is, reminding me that she is My Bad Dog:

On the occasion of that particular walk, she trotted calmly by my side, pausing now and again to sniff sedately at a tree trunk. She has not always been one to trot calmly by my side. The evening we returned home from our first walk together, my shirt was damp with sweat from the exertion of restraining a 70-pound beast from following her own barbaric inclinations.

After that first walk, I read all the Cesar Millan books. Feeling unequal to the challenge of remaining calm-assertive with My Bad Dog (or even remaining calm-assertive in general), I also called a trainer, with whom we had two private sessions and one group class. (More on this later.)The results were impressive: My Bad Dog now has a repertoire of tricks and is usually a good walker under ideal circumstances.

These were ideal circumstances, if by "ideal" we mean "absent of cats, bunnies, squirrels, mail carriers, UPS delivery folk, or FedEx drivers," and so My Bad Dog was on her best behavior. Across the street we saw a woman being pulled hither and yon by her high-spirited black lab. The lab leapt and gamboled, rearing up on its hind legs and pawing at the air, then dashing forward to sniff at a tree before zigzagging back to sniff at a fence. The woman called to me, asking how I got my dog to walk so well on a leash.

"I train her," I said.

"This one is beyond training," she called, and then was yanked onward.

How little faith you have in your dog, I thought at the time.
But who am I to talk?

I am sort of kidding when I say that Sophie is My Bad Dog. She is so good, such a loyal and loving dog. She is the best watch dog ever. She sleeps at the foot of my bed until I'm asleep, then she sleeps in the living room, always returning to her post before I wake. She hates to wake me up when I'm sleeping; if she has to go out in the middle of the night, she wakes one of my daughters. She runs through her commands diligently even when she is tired. She waits patiently while I prepare her food, and only eats when I tell her she may. She won't eat if I'm not home. She looks at me as if to ask permission when my daughters take her for a walk. She has excellent manners; whether by nature or by training that occurred before our acquaintance, she is free from objectionable behaviors such as chewing on shoes or furniture, snatching food from tables, face-licking, and jumping up (that is, she never jumps up at me; she will jump up at new people, but she'll stop if you tell her to). She doesn't scratch at doors, whine, or beg.

What leads me to call her My Bad Dog seems to be temporary (though extreme) madness mostly brought on by mail carriers, UPS delivery folk, and FedEx drivers. And small, furry creatures in motion. She's not fond of police officers, either. Basically, she's leery of uniforms. And--though this applies only to how she feels at home and in the car, because she's generally friendly on walks, unless you are a mail carrier--strangers. Nor does she like it when friends arrive unannounced. She expresses her dislike of this practice vigorously and with a great show of teeth.

I have friends who are afraid of My Bad Dog and friends who are not. Of course she seems just a bit more crazy and a bit more bad around the ones who are. Because she once bit an innocent passer-by (we were waiting at a stoplight and all was well with the world until a man passed behind us and My Bad Dog lunged after him, biting him twice before I could get her under control; I still don't know what about that kindly middle-aged man in glasses, a baseball cap, and pleated-front khakis unleashed her fury--maybe he was an off-duty mail carrier), I use a training collar on walks. It's the only way to be sure I can control her, if by "control her" we mean "keep her from biting an innocent passer-by for no reason or from chasing the mail carrier back to his truck and then circling it like a lion preying on a gazelle." (She actually did that. Of all the many blessings I have received in my life, one of the greatest is that the mail carrier got the door shut before My Bad Dog reached him.) The training collar is metal, with prongs. Sometimes people see the collar and give us a wide berth, even when Sophie is masquerading as My Good Dog. If all I ever saw of My Bad Dog was My Bad Dog, I would give us a wide berth, too.

Today we were walking in that neighborhood that is by now familiar. We had an unpleasant moment when a FedEx truck idled at a stop sign in front of us; more unpleasantness ensued when we spied a mail carrier on her route. If we calculated the proportion of pleasantness to unpleasantness on the walk, pleasantness would win in a landslide; we had friendly encounters with an older guy and his yellow lab and with a young guy on a skateboard and his German shepherd. We greeted a basset hound mix and had a nice moment with a small silky dog of indeterminate breed. At the park, we practiced our repertoire of tricks. And yet, the unpleasant moments were so dramatically unpleasant. During the worst of it, she turned back and snapped at me. She didn't hurt me; I had heavy sweatpants on. Still, it was shocking.

I hadn't admitted to myself that I'd given up on My Bad Dog. Not entirely--we do a training session every day, sometimes more than once a day, and sometimes we show off for little kids, because little kids love to see dogs do tricks. But I had accepted that in the matter of her mail-carrier madness, My Bad Dog was incorrigible.

Is she really? There is strong evidence that she is, evidence in the form of a letter written by a previous owner in which the owner reports that My Bad Dog was deemed incorrigible by an experienced trainer. There is also my own experience.

Then again, maybe everyone--including me--just gave up too soon.

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