February 26, 2008

Spunky doesn’t give a damn: A YEAR IN THE LIFE OF A DOG-TRAINING CLASS

SECOND OF TWO PARTS

Last week, we met the core group of seven participants and their 12 dogs; noted that the course is based on “the whelping box theory,” or how a mother relates to new pups in the first eight weeks; and concluded with Marilyn Llewellyn confessing her misgivings after one of her schnauzers took off running near the Ohio River, causing her a near heart attack. We pick up the story during the August 2007 session, with the temperature above 90 degrees and the Ohio Valley air at its sludgy worst.

The silver duct tape on the pavement forms three successively larger squares. The small one in the center is the sweet spot, where the handler is in charge and your dog should relax at your side. The center square represents the farthest your dog should advance without the green light, and the outer line is the one it should not cross in any circumstance.

 It is our eighth month together, and our trainer is turning the screws. The Ohio Valley’s uncharacteristically mild spring is but a rumor. The heat and humidity are an unwelcome neighbor who can’t take a hint.
One person at a time works in the center. For extra stimuli, a few dog/handler duos surround them. The center dog should ignore everything but you.

My dog Chance and I fall into one such parade behind a visitor from Michigan with a white pit bull. The foster dog seems sweet, but earlier in the day it lunged at us. I think of what our trainer has said about seeing trouble before it starts, and how if something does happen, we should place ourselves between our dog and the other dog. Our dog should stay calm and let us handle it, which seems like a lot to ask when staring at a pit bull.

Sure enough, there’s the look. The dog lunges again, and I reflexively pull Chance away and step in front. The woman restrains the pit without incident. Nominally, I have reacted properly, and yet, it seems like a blackout, all adrenaline. I have a long way to go before achieving anything like actual presence of mind.

•••

Dogs were originally bred for a purpose, like hunting or herding or killing varmints. These facets are hard-wired, and yet most dogs don’t have jobs anymore. Their basic instincts live on, though, and that’s often what gets them sideways with people.

Our trainer, Sam Malatesta, 44, says it is unrealistic to expect dogs to adapt to the human world without our leadership, and he’s seeing increasing problems because of ignorance to that very basic fact. Failing to treat dogs like dogs is not the pathway to health and happiness.

“Why aren’t dogs free like they used to be?” Sam posits. “In a society where we’re so dog-focused, why are so many dogs unhappy? Why are dogs hurting people? Twenty-five or 30 years ago, they weren’t hurting people to (this extent).”

He has theories. He points to a generally more stressful world and says our dogs reflect us. We compensate by spoiling them and it becomes a vicious circle. He says people too easily invoke the “genetic excuse” — chalking up a dog’s problems to genes without understanding its true nature. He hates to see good dogs turned over to shelters because no one worked with them and they acted out. It happens constantly.
The only answer is to spend the time.

Sam has told us repeatedly that it’s important for our dogs look at us. It is a sign of trust. But they’ll only look at us when we’re worth looking at, meaning if we are anxious, angry or fearful, they’ll know it and react accordingly.

Sam also says that by the end of the camp, we’ll be cutting our dogs loose without fear of them running off. I find this unfathomable with regard to Chance, my 6-1/2-year-old male bearded collie whose M.O. is “well-behaved but lazy” and “doesn’t do anything until he wants to do it.” His tendency is to get the hell out of Dodge.

•••

Fall comes late, and the first Saturday in November is translucently gorgeous as the group reconvenes in Old Louisville for our most important class. Today’s exercises will add the final layer. Today is all about our dogs coming to our side, unbidden.

But first, we have fun. Sam’s teaching is built on nothing if not improvisation, and so the jungle gym near the police substation in Central Park becomes an impromptu training tool. Chance is none too thrilled at being coaxed up the steps or across the slinky bridge between the platforms, or about going down the slide for that matter. It is another teachable moment in our quest to lead our dogs through things they (or we) don’t think they can handle.

We head for the tennis courts to get to work, conveniently ignoring the sign that says no dogs allowed. We stand around casually while the dogs are let go. One exercise involves handlers walking around the outside perimeter of the fence while our dogs follow us on the inside.

Sam has told us we can’t wait around for our dogs, and how a prompt reaction can be the difference between them living or dying. We have to be willing to get in the car and drive away if our dogs wander off — and they need to know we mean it.

Sam tells me to wait until Chance is distracted and then saunter away to a bench at the far end. Chance finally notices I’m gone but tries to act casual about it. “Call him,” Sam tells me, and I do. Chance sniffs the air and looks and looks before finally tracing my voice. He comes to me but takes his sweet time. My dog doesn’t mind making me look bad as long as he looks good.

Knowing the dogs are confined inside the fence helps us relax — but Mitzi Lynn, the schnauzer who bolted toward the Ohio River a few months ago, finds a crack, and suddenly — déjà vu — she is on the run along Park Street. Marilyn keeps it together this time, and the little shit is retrieved without incident.

We walk the few blocks to Third Avenue Café for a relaxed lunch outdoors, this curious blend of people and dogs who, Sam notes, could not have done this six months ago.

We practice for our capstone experience, the final exam that will be administered next month. Sam gives us all a copy of the test, and we work on a paved area without fences.

Chance does OK until the dreaded “recall.” I cut him loose. He won’t come. If I call him more than twice, that’s begging. Wrong. He sits stubbornly still, then looks over at my car parked some 60 feet away. I get a good view of his butt as he moves toward it at a slow jaunt.
Once again, he’s made the class laugh hysterically at my expense.

•••

The nearly yearlong class is about to wrap, and so far we’ve visited a half-dozen parks, freaked out passersby on Frankfort Avenue, watched videos about wolves, heard the spiel about overfeeding (“a fat dog is an insecure dog”), learned that people make decisions, not dogs, and that there’s hope for most anyone with difficult dog issues. We have become friends.

But it has not been without mishaps. A teen boy who came to a few classes has his face shredded as he waits in the family SUV while his parents are inside buying take-out. The dog has bitten before, and the family has been advised to crate it. These are more than academic arguments.

Another morning, Sam tells us how one of his traveling shepherds is sneaky and unreliable because she was mauled at nine months old. Later, as if to prove him right (always wanting to please dad), she nails me on the leg during a demonstration.

Near the end of the camp, Mary Beth Greene’s white Shepherd, Alaska, suffers a mysterious kidney failure. Beth leaves class one Saturday to have her four-year-old dog put down.
Through it all, our group of dogs and handlers has grown and changed for the better, but Chance and I still lag. A month before finals I consult with Sam on the phone. He blows a hole in my perfectionist’s alibi and tells me to get to work working my dog into my life.

“Today’s society has fallen into the trap of appointments,” he tells me, “so, we have a dog and we look at our planning book and go, ‘OK, between 5 and 5:30, that’s the time I’ve got for the dog. No, that’s not what you do. Your dog is an incorporated part of your life, no different than any other family member, and as you’re going about your daily business, you incorporate your dog in it.”

I go back to the basics, the longe line, back and forth, turning and calling Chance before he reaches the end. Trying to, that is; it’s a rhythm thing, and like a golf swing, it plum evades me. I get pissed off.

Then one day, practicing in the street in front of my house, it clicks. Anytime I get out a leash at home, Chance thinks we’re going for a regular “walk” around the block. But now, instead of pulling and wanting to go-go-go, he turns toward me every time I call him. I finally understand: If I do it right, he will too. This is fantastic.

I start bringing Chance to work and we practice on downtown streets and sidewalks. I tie him to a light pole while ordering coffee inside Java Brewing Co. and he waits patiently. We work the longe line in the alley at lunchtime. One day I forget the leash (he gets in the car on his own now) and I turn my laptop strap into an improvised two-footer for the walk from car to office. As we cross Third Street, through an alley and across a plaza to Fourth Street, I realize this dog will follow me anywhere — as long as I don’t hesitate.
I feel giddy, like I just got my first bicycle.

•••

Final exam day, the weekend before Christmas. Saturday’s weather is crap, heavy sleet and rain. We’re gonna have to work for it.

We hang out in the kitchen of Mary Beth Greene’s Floyds Knobs home, chatting and grubbing and waiting for a couple class members who are driving in from out of town.

Marilyn Llewellyn won’t make it today; she is stuck in Boonville with a dental situation and holiday ennui and will take her test another time. Vicki Bradley and her bulldogs arrive from Newburgh. Etta Ruth Kepp troupes in from Lexington with her Aussie mix and a bottle of Woodford Reserve for the communal nerves.

The yard is soup; a torrent flows at its back edge. Working outdoors is out of the question. We head to Beth’s garage, a challenging but tenable test course. One by one, handlers work their dogs while classmates get in the way for distraction. Sam holds a clipboard, taking notes and keeping score.

Chance needs a 10-point improvement over the practice test, and the garage setting works to our advantage — he won’t be heading to the car this time. The moment of truth — I turn him loose and he comes when I call. He passes with points to spare.
Amen.

Saturday’s precipitation yields to Sunday’s arctic blast, dry, bone-chilling wind on the ninth day before Christmas. Vicki’s home in Newburgh with her brood, and Etta in Lexington. The locals — Lauren Howard, Mary Beth Greene, Erin Truelsen and I — meet Sam at PetSmart for a wrap-up. It’s a great place to train, with endless stimuli in the aisles and constant dogs passing through.

It has been an amazing year. We’ve borne witness as dogs and owners have become calmer and more confident. A year ago, Vicki’s female bulldogs Bonnie and Star wanted to kill each other. Now they walk side by side. (Her male, Spunky, is perfect, of course, which explains why he doesn’t give a damn.) Marilyn’s schnauzer Maggie Moo, who needed to be sedated just to be groomed, now gets her nails done while she’s wide awake. A year ago, Chance had a licking problem known as granuloma, an obsessive condition that can lead to nearly incurable sores. He doesn’t do that now, because he has a job in my life.

This is just the beginning. As Sam says, I’ll spend the rest of Chance’s time making him better, and the same goes for all of us. All good things take time. The easier, softer way is the road to trouble.
We spend a couple hours in PetSmart, and then it’s over. The forecast up north calls for two feet of snow, and Sam has a long drive to Beeton, Ontario.

•••

Postscript: Of the 12 dogs that started the camp in early 2007, seven passed the test and one failed (his mom’s a busy CPA and his dad’s a busy minister, so they missed several classes). Three dogs could not make the final exam and will make up the test during Sam Malatesta’s next Louisville-area seminar on March 1. One dog passed away.

Read Part 1 of “Spunky doesn’t give a damn” at www.leoweekly.com. For more information on Sam Malatesta, go to www.whosthedog.net. Contact the writer at cstemle@leoweekly.com