My first Alaskan malamute, Cody, was not a complex soul at all; at least not according to the trainer I hired to help me with him. I’d hired him because, walking around town visibly pregnant and accompanied by Cody, a 90 lb, not entirely sweet Alaskan malamute, I’d heard every dog eats baby story there was. If I hadn’t seen the writing on the wall when Cody’s breeder whacked a six foot metal pipe on a picnic table as she walked into her dog yard, there was little other hope for me.
The trainer I hired to work with him told me he was “Like a guy in a bar who likes to start fights, enjoys them.” That sort of direct violent encounter is not the way an American Jewish Princess learns to negotiate the wild. Cody and his primitive instincts were foreign to me; I had nothing in my suburban tool box to work with him. He was entirely unlike my first dog, one of those “one size fits all” animals who blended with my life with little official training and no more than the basic effort on my part.
Learning to live with Cody in an urban household with young children taught me the “training game”, the “game face” of calm confidence and the more than occasional “hockey mom” voice I needed to control my dog and my household. I was a slow learner, but in the end learned it well enough to make it a way of life. In my 20 years of training dogs, teaching dog training, and counseling owners with recalcitrant puppies and dogs, some from my own breeding, I’m sure I’ve taught or helped to teach 100’s of dogs and puppies.
Most of them, I can teach to “lie down” in under 3 minutes. I am familiar with the owner in my Beginner class that says “He can sit. He really knows sit. I can never make him ‘down’” They are certain their young dog will never be able to lie down at their feet in a public place. Certainly they have leaping Labradors and solemn Rottweilers, who deign to move in the direction their owners request only with serious altering of their world views. I am way too condescending when I go, take the leash and show them how to get their: Shih Tzu, Great Dane, Pomeranian, German Shepherd, St. Bernard , Pit Bull, Chihuahua or combination of all of the above to lie down, usually in less than 3 minutes. I’d forgotten it was a game, posture, bluff, and one player teaching another “the game.” Thus I was sent Bootstrap.
There is so much to teach young puppies. I love it all. Puppies will not learn well the language of their own species if pulled too soon from the lessons of their pack, especially if they are destined for a home without other dogs, or with dogs that have themselves been pulled early from their nests. That is why, even after the pups had homes to go to, when they were 7 or 8 weeks old, I still had them all and was trying to do some training with them. I wanted them to have the benefit of their relationships with their pack mates during their first weeks. Watching the interactions of my adult pack with the puppies, I am certain that it is good for the pups to stay with me until they are nine or ten weeks old. By the time my pups are starting solid food they are supervised to run loose with all the older dogs.
For Bootstrap and his littermates, this meant they had their great grandmother, Sister, their great aunt Lia, and their grandfather, Atka, to play with and learn from. Their mother, Aura, was much more willing to supervise them when she had back up from no nonsense Lia. Grandpa Atka loved to “show” the pups stuff. He’d start a hole in the yard, all the pups gathered at his haunches. Pups would scatter, dodging his large flying paws hurling chunks of rock and dirt. Their fascination was evident. They’d quickly return to their positions. The bolder ones joined in He’d stop for a moment and wait as pups crawled beneath him to inspect his hole and dig themselves, before resuming his project.
Atka would “rough house” with the pups, allowing them to crawl over his back, and swatting at them playfully as they tumbled over him. Lia was the “play police”. She’d lie beside the action, and if anyone squealed or cried, she’d be on her feet in a heartbeat, inspecting the trouble, nabbing offenders gently with her teeth and pulling them off. For the most part, squabbles were between littermates. Lia would also object if she judged Atka or even Aura as being too rough. Lia was only a mother once, but the best one I’ve had here. Aura and Lia together tried to keep the pups from wandering off, an almost hopeless task. The two of them watched the pups as dogs do sheep, running and nosing them back to where they thought they belonged.
I wanted them to have the benefit of their relationships with their pack mates during their first weeks. Training to live in the human world was my job. I had taught them a “group sit” for their meals. That was a sight, six furry butts sliding on the kitchen floor simultaneously, none staying for even the seconds it took me to put their food dish down. At seven weeks, it was time to take them aside and do some individual work with them. Six pups was not a big litter, but it was big enough, especially if I wanted to do one on one work with the pups, which I did. Training for anything but a mass recall and “sit” for dinner, had to be done on an individual basis, just me and the pup. I knew with absolute certainty that young puppies can be taught to sit and lie down, that young puppies SHOULD be taught to do these things. So I began taking each of Bootstrap’s littermates to my neighbor’s driveway, away from the tumult of my household and their pack, for some training.
Bootstrap was not the first pup I selected for driveway training. First was his sister, Sage. Sage, slightly more solemn than the other pups, was smart, energetic and focused. She was a thinker, a problem solver. She was the first one out of the whelping box, and was using the dog door within seconds of being put in the yard. She was smart. She also had the bad habit, as did some of the other pups of trying to eat every plant in the yard, but that is yet another story. Teaching Sage to “down” was a textbook case.
The pups had all been “leash tested” with the Mel Fishback Lead Dog Training test, just days before our foray into my neighbor’s driveway. This was the only other time they’d had a leash on. Some had done better than others, hence the “test”. Sage had done fairly well, and came along willingly on the light pink nylon leash I have for young puppies. A tiny piece of cheese placed just before her nose and lowered to the concrete driveway just between her forepaws produced the desired result. Sage was lying down. I gave her the piece of cheese, told her she was a “good pup.” We did this a few times. She got it and fast. When I returned Sage to the backyard with her watching pack, we were happy.
Diesel was my next experiment. He was the biggest pup, and most cooperative of the bunch. Diesel would look me directly in the eye and follow me around, something I love in a young pup. He liked to stick his big head in cardboard boxes that had once had food in them. He’d get it stuck there, reminiscent of his mother Aura. He too benefited form my driveway puppy training class.
Puppies are always learning, whatever we do and whatever we don’t do. This little driveway training game meant much more than teaching them to lie down. It was to teach them to work with me as an individual and to learn to learn. It was to teach them that the training game was a special time with me, or their owner to be. I was trying to create pathways for a relationship to develop between species, a working relationship. The beginnings may be small, but they mark the trail to follow. Overall, I believe that we expect far too little of our dogs. Most dogs are not happiest as ornaments and breathing stuffed toys for our daily comfort. Most were bred to work with us and for us. Sage and Diesel had looked right at me. They played my game well. I could forget about my game face. It was Bootstrap’s turn.
I’m ready with my “happy puppy” voice. I believe in it all until Bootstrap’s spinning spirit that slips through my pudgy peasant hands has called my bluff. The neighbor’s driveway, to a six week old pup, is another world after all. There is grass poking out of the cracks in the driveway. There are twigs sprouting behind me from the bushes nest to the house. There are hopping Robins and my neighbor’s cat of nineteen years, who knows when it’s safe to sun himself. Nineteen years, next to a dog yard of Alaskan malamutes, he’s a wise old cat, indeed.
In trying to recall exactly what Bootstrap did, I mostly recall what he did not do: He did not lie down. He also did not sit and look at me at all. He did not do any of those things in our first three minutes in my neighbor’s driveway. He was seven weeks old. Trying to catch his attention for one “a ha” moment was an exercise in catching flitting fireflies, bits of brilliance flying everywhere, but rarely landing
Bootstrap would surely be dead if he were born a wild thing. Hesitation was not his game. Bootstrap springs at this, scraps at that. He pounced at the grass grabbing whatever small stones lay hidden there. Before I could try and distract him from the grass, he leaped at the Robin, barely lighted a few feet away. “Puppy puppy”, I said in a high voice, the voice I use to call the pups to their meals, the football coach version for puppies. He turned briefly, but I wasn’t quick enough. He sprang at the twigs on the bushes behind me, nabbing instead the fuzzy ponytail I have in Spring.
Finally, I take the cheese I brought with me to tempt him to my agenda and put it in front of his nose. I abandon trying to get him to do almost anything first; it’s enough for him to focus on me, to even eat the cheese seems to be enough. These are far lower criteria than I like to use. I want him to at least look in my direction before turning into a cheese and chicken dispenser. After trashing sticks, chasing Robins, and tearing grass, he turns to my sandals. We have certainly been in my neighbor’s driveway for more than five minutes. Bootstrap is not lying down.
On the way to the sandals he grabs the cheese. I jam some more cheese between his nose and my toes. He eats it too fast to grab the millisecond of training opportunity. There is none visible to me. I’ve lost track of the time. It’s hot on this mid-May afternoon. I am not happy. There is plenty to do in my neighbor’s driveway and now there is cheese. Since there is now cheese on my toe that is his next target.
Bootstrap is small enough to grab and hold. I get hold of his little collar. Kneeling on the curb, I place him firmly between my knees. With my palm flat at his side, briefly he is still. He is not lying down, but still enough to catch a brain wave, a first step. I am too slow, though. Producing the chicken or cheese I have in my pocket is my only prayer in getting him to move in the direction I desire, which throws all hope of any training, along with his flying spirit, to the wind. Bootstrap was still not lying down. I had learned one thing.
I learned that in the direct presence of food, Bootstrap had the same ability to think as a shark in a feeding frenzy. I had taken ten minutes to figure that out. I confess to being near tears of frustration. This was MY pup, destined to be a lead dog, I hoped, an agility dog, an obedience dog. He was to collect ribbons and prizes someday for his joyful accomplishment of some silly task on my agenda. Our driveway training session was not encouraging. My best game face and signature puppy training moves had failed me. What was I getting myself into? It wasn’t too late to find another home for him.
Yes, I chose Bootstrap from a litter of six pups with lofty goals in mind. That choice reminds me just how I came to play the games I do with my dogs. When I brought Oreo, my first dog, home from the Humane Society I only wanted a walking companion, to accompany me on long walks around town. We walked miles and miles until one lovely Winter on a German mountain side, I discovered that Oreo could pull me on cross country skis. He loved to pull. In harness, Oreo was no longer an aimless creature. He had purpose and together, before his back legs became partially paralyzed, we glided along hundreds of forest trails. I found dog sledding and ski-joring. I bought my second dog because I loved that experience and wanted another sled dog. Thus I found Cody, an Alaskan Malamute, who would not pull anything if he could help it. Cody was often a nasty piece of work, and with all the training we did just to live in our urban household, we found competition obedience.
Now I have Bootstrap. Bootstrap and I were finished for that afternoon, but we came back the next. Bootstrap was not going to lie down just because I wanted him to. His frenzy for food provided motivation for learning, but if he could learn and think with food in front of him, I hadn’t seen evidence of it yet. Somehow, I had to create a millisecond of time, enough to capture a few fleeting moments between neurons where Bootstrap could figure things out. The words “figure things out” are way too long to describe what has to happen. We needed a blip in time that both of us can grasp together.
A truly wild animal would be more cautious, and I might be able to teach a quiet, watchful creature. Bootstrap is a domestic dog, having abandoned caution towards humans thousands of years ago, thousands of years where food and its significance for his own survival, trumps all. How to stop one buzz of the bee, one beat of the heart, just long enough to get it all in edgewise?
I put my chicken away. With most pups, I lure beginning behaviors like “sit” or “down.” I teach them a word or sound that means they will get some chicken when they hear it. I had always thought of these as first steps, but they were not going to work for Bootstrap.
That afternoon in the driveway was short. I put Bootstrap firmly between my knees again. I turned him towards me and cupped his beautiful head, even then, telltale fuzz growing behind his thick ears, in my palms. One hand I placed quietly and firmly at his side. I have a few lessons with Brenda Aloff to thank for this one; I rubbed him all over. When he was still, I let go. When I gave him some chicken the wild child returned, but paid less attention to the passing butterflies, flitting insects, and falling leaves. I tried a bit to lure him “down”. He wouldn’t go down, but we had something going. He jammed his nose at my smelly hands. I was of slightly more interest than the blowing cottonwood.
By day three, I had already taught Bootstrap’s brother, Indy, and another sister, Deja, to lie down. Maybe Bootstrap was brain damaged from birth. He was the pup that got stuck in the birth canal. He was born into my hands lifeless, until revived by a quick shot they give for that sort of thing. A friend of mine suggested this to me, that these shots cause brain damage. It’s not out of the question, I am thinking on the third day of trying to get Bootstrap to lie down.
Bootstrap, when released to his own resources is wild, but when I take him firmly, I can place his head calmly in the cup of my hands. When restrained quietly, I feel him exhale, and his weight leans easily into my own. When released, he explodes in spinning swirls, only to be caught and calmed again. With one hand under his chin and holding his collar, I take the other that only smells like chicken, no chicken insight, and try to lure him once more to the ground. He is still sitting, then standing. I sit on the neighbors stoop, resume our position, this time his head just before my bent knees on the stoop. He lowers it slightly to get to my smelly fingers. I lower my knees He lowers again, and though he does not touch ground, I tell him what a “good pup” he is and reach in my pocket for some chicken.
We did this two more times and there it was: Bootstrap flat down, chin on the ground! It had taken us three days. That first afternoon, when Bootstrap actually lay down, and even when I got him to do it again a couple of times, I did not see that moment I was looking for, when he “got it”. He did get it. He was going down again and again. He’d had “the moment”, but I’d missed it. I have come to learn that” the” moment for Bootstrap is nearly invisible, or is invisible to me, like the footprints of a spirit. I know someone was there, but they are not seen by me. It’s hard to believe it; three days.
With Bootstrap I’ve had to find not the familiar old football coach, or cheerleader, but a laughing wizard, a spirit of sprites. Yes, there is a kind of formula for training dogs, but you can’t start the game until you’ve got the password, the magic word, the link. It’s a beam, narrower than a ray of light, invisible to the eye. While with Malamutes and many dogs, you can lure and cajole cooperation, all it did when trying to work with Bootstrap was to break the connection of that fragile beam.
On days when my game face makes me tired and I wonder why I need it at all, I remember that if I don’t dump my own soul into “the game” with unbridled enthusiasm, my teammates or my opponents will call my bluff. Those best at calling it are the spirits closest to our own. I have my own squirrely screw loose gene, I’m certain. As a young woman I remember dancing all night in nothing but a frenzy of too much loose wired energy for anything tame. Then I longed for a calming lover, to take me in his arms, to channel that flame to productive warmth instead of wild fire. Most, I found, tried to catch my spirit as I have Bootstrap’s. There is no holding it, without touching it first. No story can be told, no game can be played when all is loose and erratic. Bootstrap has settled his head in my palm long enough to learn his own “game face.”
Bootstrap, while I can never rely on him for wise action as I can Atka, at least not yet, is the closest I’ve had in my dog yard to one facet of myself. Like me, Bootstrap is foolish and high spirited and with that ridiculous and beautiful coat, impractical. I have taught him what I’ve learned: you need your game face to play with the world. . He is goofy, but he is smart. He has learned it well.