learning the Language of Love
from Two Dogs Who Share One Brain
The No-No Lady
Per the early-warning conversation I’d had with Tiresias, the lady trainer, I contacted her course leader and assistant for our part of town to enroll in a summer ten-week Good Canine Citizen training course. Two summer ten-week training courses, actually, in classes held back-to-back so that I was training each pup individually.
They would be waiting for my call, I’d been assured, and Tiresias would have prepared her assistant for my regimen of two. I should leave one pup at home and do a dash between classes to exchange dogs. This sounded like a multiple after- school-lesson relay quickly spinning out of control, but I determined to give it a try. If other moms could pull off soccer to music lesson drop-off to soccer to music lesson pick-ups with only a little cursing, surely I could do this quick round-trip thing.
The first evening’s class was entitled Initiation. It was being hosted not by our official course leader but her assistant. I left for it with Caspian while Cimi and girls were to wait at home with a sitter—God bless my mother—for my mad- dash turnaround at 7 p.m. Ten minutes into my drive, as I was pulling up to the half-hour initiation session, my older daughter called to say Cimi hadn’t yet stopped howling and the windows were vibrating with the sound. We decided to tough it out and I continued on. This decision proved as popular as leaving the kids with a non-grandma sitter: In other words, it wasn't welcome, and it wasn't going to happen again, I heard in her reply.
Caspian and I continued listening to the first lecture on how well our dogs would soon behave, as all the initiates sat in hard metal chairs with their dogs wiggling around their feet, listening to the training philosophy. We were then kitted out with silver slip-chain training collars (formerly known as choke-chains, but don't dare call them that here). Then we were treated to a slideshow of dogs trained to do great things, followed by an improbable demonstration of the stout assistant’s miniature dog doing circus dancing tricks at her command. Unfortunately the assistant and the little dog sported matching green sparkling vests and black top hats for this part of the initiation rite, which kind of distracted from the brilliant tricks done by the dog.
Twenty minutes into this spectacle, my daughter called again to say that Cimi was still howling and now refusing water and treats and was panting hard. She was worried about her. The initiation session was over in five minutes with a twenty-minute break before the next show. As we were dismissed, we initiates were advised to go, take a walk with our pulling dogs over the next week, knowing we’d never, ever again, have a walk with such badly behaved dogs. Okay, great, I thought looking at my watch, timing the round trip.
Caspian and I mad-dashed for home. What Fun! A chase to the car! A frenzied Cimi greeted us, smashing through the back screen door, desperate to see and slobber all over her brother. Okay, both into the play pool for a drink, and then back into the car...
But Cimi wouldn’t leave without Caspian coming too. She'd go into the back yard with me, to the car, see that he wasn't coming, and then break away from me to run back into the house, barking loudly as she did. So, with the interval minutes ticking, everyone piled into the wagon, and would sit in the car (with my blessed mom, of course) to wait during the second initiation for Cimi.
But Cimi wouldn’t leave the car once we arrived at the parking lot. She’d been so traumatized by her brother having gone missing just previously, that she was attached to his side, unwilling to leave the open hatch no matter what I said or how I attempted to lift her out. So the next choice was for the whole party to sit, just out of sight with the dog-not-in-class, inside the warehouse lesson venue among the metal folding chairs.
But this would be in the future. Faced with the stalemate of a desperate dog refusing to get out of the car, howling as if being tortured if I lifted her out, I decided I wasn’t going to sit through the entertainment portion of the initiation rite again. I ran in to offer my apologies, took a formerly- known-as-a-choke-chain training collar for Cimi, and we returned home by way of the local hamburger drive-through. We all needed a treat at that point on a warm summer evening in the city. Four shakes and seven burgers to go, hold the onions on every bit of it. "Is this how it's supposed to work?" my mother wondered dryly.
At least the plan to have these lessons become a group-attendance scene would save having to beg child-care for ten weeks and maybe the girls would learn about dog training, I rationalized. Buddy could reign over the cats while we were gone and receive his very own burger for his trouble and double walks to make up for being left behind. He bought the stay-at-home deal without complaint the next week, seeming to appreciate time without two forty-five-pound puppies to boss around, as he took his old favorite place on my daughter’s bed and waited for his hamburger treat on our return.
The next week pups and roadies showed up for our first real lesson in Good Dog Citizenship. The warehouse was located in a light industrial area near a railroad track, embedded in a dilapidated neighborhood just west of our home. There were ten steep steps leading up to the empty huge space. There was also a well-used patch (literally five by six feet of yellow grass and poo) at the side of the parking lot that bordered the busy four-lane street, and we’d been encouraged to use it before entering the training sessions. As I led the pups together out of the car to the grass patch, I suddenly remembered: Caspian never marked other territory and this was going to be a long evening. With the scent of hundreds of other dogs I thought he might change his mind, but no. Well, Lesson One was upon him.
The pups, dragging me, excitedly charged up the steps and the glass door I opened with an accidental bang. Other owners-in-training looked at me skeptically. The pups were eager to see all those other kindred doggies, I smiled. My girls followed up with pink and purple backpacks and drawing supplies for the two-hour wait of two individual classes back-to-back, along with piles of treats for the not-in-class dog.
As we plowed through the door, an elderly woman of petite stature, blue-grey hair, and immense presence glowered at the puppies and me slamming the door open. I lamely smiled a breezy hello and we found our way to the waiting- observation area, a part of the main empty space. If the girls and spare dog sat a few rows back among the metal chairs, they could all keep occupied and not pull focus from the warehouse filling with thirty other dogs and owners. Well, at least not too much. Some of the other dogs rubbernecked at Cimi hiding with the girls.
Clearly Caspian would be leading the way of individualized training. So he and I suited up: Off went his bright green collar and on went the chain-slip collar, put on in the shape of a P so the slip portion of the formerly-known-as-choke-collar would indeed slip and not cause any neck damage, we’d been assured the week before. I wondered briefly if he’d pass out before he noticed he was choking, given his ignoring his gagging in his normal collar. But I was willing to become a believer, as these were only “training” collars. We were told they wouldn’t be needed beyond the next sixteen or so weeks, or anytime a refresher session was needed for our about-to-become Model Canine Citizens, complete with certificate after the last session exam was passed. If it was passed... I shoved the thought from my mind.
Caspian and I paraded through the space filling with dogs and adults. Big dogs were directed to the right side and rear, little dogs on the left. Newly adopted mean dogs, or those who hadn’t yet become model citizens and were here for a refresher were put at the far end away from everyone else. I took my place on the floor early, so that I wasn’t pulled to every other dog there. I didn’t want to show our cards yet.
We observed the crowd trickling in and slowly I became uncomfortably aware that each owner looked like his or her dog, or vice-versa. It's a total cliché, but becoming aware one is standing in the midst of one is vaguely dissettling, like a mirror reflecting real-life and wondering which came first, the metaphor or the real-life observation.
There was a tall thirty-something sleek, dark-haired man, wearing a sleek black turtleneck and black jeans, with his sleek black Doberman at his side. They sported the same sharp nose, I noticed with a side-glance. There was a rather weight-challenged man in baggy cargo shorts, a not- so-miniature American Bulldog drooling at his side. They, too, had the same shape and shared a preference for beige, or was it khaki. There was a youthful, red-haired woman with an out-of-control youthful Irish Setter, and a woman of more years with shocking white hair trimmed with bangs being jumped on by her giant puppy, of course an Old English Sheepdog. They twirled in circles as the dog repeatedly jumped up on her. A woman at the end of the group in the “mean dog” area was skinny and scrawny-strong with tattoos showing under the ripped-off arms of her T-shirt, and her dog, equally power-muscled and scrawny, had a tough look in its eye. The latter wore a muzzle.
I shifted nervously, standing with my golden boy at my side. We were both taking it all in. Did Caspian and I look alike? I did have blondish- brownish hair, a breezy attitude, but I quickly reasoned I had two totally different dogs in visual aspect, too. Was my eye makeup smearing while Cimi’s black eye rim never did? I looked down at Caspian and realized we indeed shared the same expression of the moment: a stupid, eager look on our faces and a friendly, if nervous, grin.
I waved stupidly at my girls who were sitting on the metal chairs watching the proceedings, whispering to each other and laughing. Cimi laid comfortably between their legs being soothed and seemed okay, her eyes never leaving Caspian across the enormous warehouse. They had enough treats with them to last through a sudden blizzard. My girls, however, looked hugely bemused at my lame wave and smirked. Then they giggled.
Our time of checking out the class lasted but a moment more. As all settled into turning circles with their dogs pulling them around, or holding onto collars, or patting their standing, laying down, sitting panting creatures, the steely-eyed grandmother walked into the center of the huge oval. The warehouse became quiet.
It was not an invitation, nor an order. It was a fact, stated in a very loud, calm voice.
Every adult in the room dropped to the floor, to sit next to their puzzled, sniffing dogs. Including me.
I watched as the other puzzled dogs nose-kissed their newly equal-level persons. Clearly a power shift was going on. I wondered if anyone else noticed the human floor-drop, but a quick peek at my girls indicated they did. They were now rolling on the floor in laughter as if watching a terribly funny movie. Caspian leaned into me. This was going to be Fun! he slurbbed into my face.
“Yes, I meant the dogs should sit...”
Nervous, embarrassed laughter rippled through the warehouse as the lady's voice echoed in the panting silence.
“But you, too, are welcome to take a moment on the floor.”
The Grandmother Trainer's face exuded authority, but a small smirk escaped from her lips. Did this happen every time, I wondered? The answer was clear in the smirk. Of course it did.
It was quickly explained we were going to work hard, but we would come to the point where our dogs would be working harder and working for us, “as it should be,” she added gravely.
All was going to be right with the world, no matter the pulling on the leashes or jumping up of the moment. First, of course, we had to commit to twenty minutes of home training sessions every day, minimum, and she’d be able to tell if we were working our dogs daily from her week-to-week observations in the warehouse. And the incentive was yet to be seen but was sensed; all the jumping ceased as she spoke. Was there an invisible but energetic threat hanging in the air, I wondered? Why was there nervous laughter again?
The 'Check' was the first order of instruction. We were to stand, and as our dogs stood, we were to command them to Sit. They most likely wouldn’t, so we were to pull the slip collar up—don't ever call it a choke-collar on pain of dirty look from the gray-haired Master and Commander grandmother—and we were to rock our dogs back and forth with the lead, saying low and seriously, “No, no, no, no, no, no, no, no...” We were, if we mastered the move, to give the dog the impression that they had no where else to go and we had nothing else to do but spend all day saying, “No, no, no, no, no...” The collar could be loosed a bit after the dog gave us the attention due or when they did as instructed, but the no-no-ing was to continue for at least another ten times. Calmly. Insistently.
To demonstrate she took the Irish Setter who was still bouncing at the end of its leash, stood next to it and commanded Sit. The setter, of course, tried to bound away but was immediately hung up with the choke-collar and being rocked. It slid like cheese on a pattymelt onto the floor, not having a chance to appeal, or perhaps it had more sense than it appeared to have a moment before.
“Like that.” She handed the puddle of dog back to the owner and strode to the center of the room. “Go.”
I whispered to Caspian, somewhat desperately, “Sit!” I wisely decided to leave the “please” off of it, as the gray-haired lady clearly had the hearing of an owl. I noticed she whipped around to frown at another person who was cajoling a small dog to stop whirling and sit.
"Command them!" she pronounced the first word with care.
To my total surprise, Caspian sat. He did so in a show-off way, I had to admit. He sat there, to attention, grinning, calmly waiting for inspection, his golden fur gleaming in the late evening summer sun pouring through the windows. What a Golden Boy! I grinned, too. The No-No Lady gave us a sidelong look.
“Release,” she commanded. “Not 'okay'. 'Release.' And take a step or two forward without saying anything. Then give them the pat you want to give them.” That was the next order. All the dogs and people breathed a sigh and chaos reigned as pats were made.
Her voice echoed crisply despite the pandemonium.
Thirty leashes pulled up. Various, unwise dogs started to rebel. They were immediately put into a no-no melt. "No, no, no, no, no, no, no...."
“That’s it, lean into him... Lean over her. No, no, no, no, no,...” The Master and Commander moved quickly from rebel to rebel and seemed to enjoy the eventual submission as the beleaguered owners tried to follow her command.
Caspian keenly watched the various goings on and to my surprise, sat again. He did so this time a bit more resigned. “Good dog,” I mumbled. “Good choice.”
We waited with still breath as the No-No Lady walked around us slowly, looking for signs of bribery from me to him, I assumed. It was a moment like in The Sound of Music where the family is hiding behind the stone in the cemetery, and as she walked away Caspian and I both audibly let our breath out.
I grinned stupidly again at the girls. They were reading and coloring and no longer watching. But Cimi was. Her eyes never left us....
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