In the Beginning – an excerpt

Another teaser from the dog training book that isn’t a dog training book…

In the Beginning

I warned you that this is not a dog training book, and here’s an extended NOT dog training section. You can skip it. I’ll never know and I wouldn’t blame you.

My Dad died when I was five years old. He was diagnosed with melanoma when I was two and he died in October, six months after my fifth birthday. He was 39. He was from Brooklyn, NY (I think just about everyone’s parents or grandparents were from Brooklyn – right?) and his parents still lived there. Maybe six weeks after his death, my Mom took my sister and me to Radio City Music Hall for an evening out with my grandparents. We arrived home to find out home had been robbed.

The sliding glass door was open, November chill invading our playroom. The kitchen door had a glass window in it; broken glass and blood on the kitchen floor told that story. All our dresser drawers were pulled open and ransacked, spent matches were strewn around and dirty smudges decorated all the hallway walls. A camera and some jewelry were missing, but the unsettled sense deep in my gut was much worse than the material loss. We were all pretty shook up.

My grandfather told my mom to get a gun. For Mom, that was unthinkable. Her brother, my Uncle Michael, suggested we adopt his dog, a burly black and white German Shepherd Dog (GSD) named Zorba. Michael didn’t have a lot of time to exercise and play with Zorba and a family setting with young children seemed ideal. Zorba was gorgeous, ridiculously friendly, and a ball-crazy high-drive lunatic. I was six years old when he arrived.


Zorba — that’s me in the red stripes.

Zorba was an adult dog, and required very little from us in terms of formal training. Smart as a whip, and so eager to play ball, Zorba was a breeze to live with. I don’t remember any real challenges, although Mom did coach me to drop the leash and let him go when we walked him in the state park. Squirrels or rabbits plus cliffs and ledges equaled “let him go” for my mom. I guess she had visions of six year old me attempting to hang on while Zorbie flew down the mountain after a bunny. Thankfully nothing of the sort ever happened and Zorba was a good boy right up until he ran headlong into a tree (chasing a ball) and ended up dying from complications.

When Mom told Uncle Michael that Zorba had passed away, Michael offered us another dog. His female GSD, Gypsy, recently had puppies. Michael picked us out a gregarious male and my sister named him Vinnie Barbarino. That was the extent of her involvement with him, though. Vinnie was my project.

I was about ten years old when Vinnie flew into John F. Kennedy Airport in New York City. He promptly escaped from his airline kennel and roamed JFK, all gangly puppy legs and gigantic ears. He was located, and made friends with the airline workers who led him to Mom and me on a length of rope someone found for the purpose, his leash and collar long disappeared. Vinnie was going to be a project.

Although Mom was no stranger to dog ownership, Vinnie was a challenge. He was much drivier than Zorba or any dog my mom’s parents had owned. He was smart, intense, and full of beans. He picked up house breaking without issue, but getting a handle on his chewing and puppy mouthiness was more difficult. After he shredded a blouse the same day my sister bought it at Saks Fifth Avenue, Mom was ready to ask for help.

ancient history 009

We contacted Carol Benjamin and set up private lessons. Mom and I went, and learned from Carol how to harness Vinnie’s intense energy and get him engaged with us in a much more positive way. We signed up for the on leash obedience class at Rockland Community College and that first night Vinnie was a disaster. Distracted, and utterly uninterested in working with me, I lasted about 10 minutes before storming off to cry in the corner. A very bewildered Carol took over for me while my Mom died a thousand deaths of embarrassment.

By the end of the eight or ten week session (or whatever it was) Vinnie was the best in the class. He was a robot (that’s a compliment), performing every command with precision. We took Carol’s off leash obedience class and Vinnie was amazing. He and I had figured it out. Exercising him and training him were my after school “chores.” Vinnie and I hiked and rambled daily, running up Hook Mountain after school and exploring the woods when we didn’t have time to hit the Hook’s summit.

My success with Vinnie was big news in our small community, partly because I was a petite kid and he was a big boy. Passersby would ask me if I wanted a saddle for my pony, yuk yuk yuk. By the time I was about 12, I had my first ever paying job: training a neighbor’s GSD – a young male named Detlef, imported from Germany. Detlef was a piece of work. He had destroyed his owner’s kitchen, tearing all the sheetrock off the walls and consuming rather a lot of it. His owner didn’t have time to run up Hook Mountain with him… so he was pretty frustrated and bored.

I failed miserably with Detlef, but I understood why. He didn’t need training. He needed play and exercise and hiking and bones to chew. He wasn’t a lunatic or a bad dog; he was a good dog that wasn’t getting his basic needs met. Asking him to be a good boy while his owner was at work all day was like asking him to do trigonometric equations. He was just too pent up to focus.

Success with Vinnie and failure with Detlef: early childhood experiences are referred to as formative, and in this case my most basic approach to dogs was indeed formed by “working” with these two GSD pups. Not unlike humans, I come from the school of thought that all living beings learn and “perform” best when their needs are met. Don’t ask me to braid your hair or give you a ride to the mall when I’m hungry or haven’t slept; similarly, you can’t ask a GSD puppy to be a good boy when his needs for chewing, running, etc. have not been met.

Most of the dog training books I read stressed this as well. Both Donaldson and Behan discuss basic dog needs: running/chasing and gripping/chewing. They stress the need to satisfy dogs, to provide opportunities for them to experience satiation of these predatory urges. They talk about ways to do this, such as playing fetch and tug, and doing things that simulate the hunt. I just say “let dogs be dogs.” While much easier said than done, I have set up my life and my training (meager as it is) around finding ways to allow my dogs to be dogs, as safely as possible. My “program” if one could call it that (one friend calls it doggie boot camp!), is that simple. I make sure my dogs are enabled to be dogs and fully express their dogness every day. I still don’t know why they trade their agenda for mine even in the midst of practicing this “being dogs” thing we do. But they do, reliably and completely.

Except when they don’t. The exceptions stand out in high relief against the backdrop of cooperation and compliance. I can say “well, they are dogs, not robots,” but the truth is if a military working dog failed to do his or her job just once, soldiers would die. Search and rescue dogs fail to do their job? People die. Livestock guardian dogs fail at their job? Livestock losses are the result. Working dogs are trained much more consistently and much more effectively than anything I do with my rag tag bunch of miscreant fools, and the dogs are much closer to perfect than mine could ever dream to be. 

If my guys fail to obey me? Not much by way of consequences most of the time. Once Mica bit a hiker in a parking area (she had no teeth, so it was wasn’t exactly a bite – more of a “gum”); once Vinnie tossed a yorkie around like it was a chew toy (that yorkie was fine – no injuries). A few times Hawk barked at a hiker on a trail. And most of my dogs, past and present, have been quilled by porcupines. Ok, some of my dogs have been quilled by porcupines a lot of times. One of my dogs (cough Peeka cough) has been quilled while I hollered and attempted to jump in between her and the porcupine, bellowing commands right and left, diving for her and generally enacting a slapstick comedy routine in the middle of the woods – a situation that led me to consider buying a clicker. Not for the dog. For the porcupine. Pretty sure the porkies of Bramley Mountain are more trainable and cooperative than Peeka.

I think being able to tolerate a certain amount of failure is what separates pet homes from working homes. Or at least it should. Working dogs should work – consistently and predictably. I write more about failure later on, but for me and my dogs, failure is tolerated as a stepping stone – a way to grow and learn and improve. I know I’ll never have an impeccably trained, blue ribbon dog, but my goal is to stay out of the emergency room and keep the peace. The rest is gravy.

Peeka Butt

Peeka hard at work. Porcupine or chipmunk, she crawled under the ledge until I decided enough was enough and dragged her out. She dove back in as soon as I let go of her.


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