Friday, April 24, 2009

intermediate's mind

After reviewing the options--agility (no), flyball (no), rally (no)--LB and I began our new freestyle dance class with our dogs Mac and Stella today. To use the word humbling is to sound downright boastful about it. This class was nothing short of torment. I cried. No, really, I did.

I have had my girl since August of this year, not long. But prior to that, I'd run my boxer Shea through obedience and his sister Ruby through an advanced dog-dog manners class. I moved on myself to work with countless dogs of all different temperaments (plenty of them naughty, raucous, insolent) for a few years with BAD RAP, first at the East Bay SPCA and then Oakland Animal Services, where I volunteer today. Point is, a lot of dogs, a lot of challenges.

At the time I enrolled Stella in this freestyle class, she already knew sit, down, stay, leave it, drop it, come--all the essentials. She had earned her Canine Good Citizen certification from the American Kennel Club and made a routine of charming people into asking if they might adopt her away from me with disarming regularity. She and I had established what I thought was a common language, both physical and verbal, and we had trained in some form every single day since she'd come to me like a little wiggly dream. But all of this, every shred of work, every moment of accomplishment, has been based at least in minor measure on compulsion. I'm not sure how I didn't realize it. That is, until the time came when I could not use the prong collar.

She's a very strong girl, a little tank of muscle and spunk. It's just what I have used to manage all that energy with all the bully dogs I work. I never looked at my use of it as a dependence. I still consider a prong a fine tool, with its place in the scheme of things, but what if I don't have one at the ready and still need my little devil to behave? No can do, Kennedy. That's what I learned today. I came face to face with the limits of my technique and at first it was desperately discouraging. I didn't really see the lead-up building this week: Stella got poked by a foxtail that managed to work its way into her neck. A painful sore resulted, right where the prong would have gone. But I was not going to back out of class. We had committed to it, there would have been no refund, and most importantly, I felt she needed the socialization and education. So on we went. No problem, I thought; we work together. I (laughably now) didn't think twice about taking the class without a prong after working her exclusively with it on.

To say that she pulled on the leash is much like saying a shooting star moves through the sky or that a forest fire is warm. Every time I bash into the "step up" segment of the learning plateaus, I find myself stunned and hurt yet again that I am not, in fact, the supreme master expert I'd deluded myself into thinking I was. Stella yanked on the leash, panted like a choo-choo, and I stood there, sweating, inching mentally toward quitting. We were instructed to walk this way, turn, shake, do a bunch of fun little moves. For me, this amounted to widen your stance to keep the dog from steamrolling her way to the head of the pack. It was not aggression. It was 100 percent uncorked ebbulience. Stella was, as the kids say, off the hook. She was overwhelmed by the blissful notion that all these dogs and people had come together to thrill her with their presence.

I say all this not to trash my dog. By the end of the class, she was following me rather beautifully, gazing into my eyes in that hopeful way that just breaks a dog handler's heart with its sheer hope and goodness. There's nothing like that bond. But it required a very real walk of fire, the humiliation of knowing that my dog looked wild at the outset. And good god, I'm sure my capabilities were called into question.

So here we are. It was not the glorious, head-of-the-class start I'd hoped for. Stella was a bit of a nutter. But we'll practice in the morning, at lunch, after work, before bed. Any treat Stella gets will only follow a heel. Want dinner? Walk with me. Oh is breakfast late? You must be very hungry. Do not break your look into my eyes. You want me to pet you? Stay right here until I tell you otherwise. Sit, down. Come. Come, walk with me, prove your skills, use your wee Stella brain.

It's time for us to improve our communication. Stella has shown she's willing to work with me. She aced the Canine Good Citizen test without my ever even teaching her a proper, airtight loose-leash walk. I'm glad we got by, but we can do better. She can do this, no problem. So the unknown here is me.

But I think the impossible fits me well enough. The only real way around it is through it. Practice, practice, practice goes the old line. We'll get there.