Wednesday, 12 March 2008

Obedience training for mad dogs: do what they know best

My friend T and I took our dogs to the beach last week.

T’s dog, Max, a pure-bred golden retriever with, at age six months, paws large enough to flatten a smallish human being (say, Paris Hilton, why not?), is a darling lollopy creature who rarely stops moving and with ears and a tongue that stream back in the breeze. He knows and loves only three things: food; Sara; and running amok.*

Sara, my own dear wobbly dog, is slightly brain damaged, and often goes into fits of sheer, exuberant joy. Even when relatively calm, she takes the command ‘Down!’ to mean she may feel free to behave as if she’s just had ten thousand volts shot through her.

So the wide-open expanse of a long white beach were just what we needed for our high-spirited animals.

We did not reckon, however, on the presence of a stern man with his two exceptionally well-trained border collies. These two dogs – whose attention was focused solely on their owner; not for them the carefree romping through the waves or snuffling after kelp of normal beach-bounding hounds – responded with frankly bizarre instantaneousness to the man’s commands. And, even more bizarrely, the man did not utter one single word: all the commands he gave were purely through hand signals.

T and I and our dogs meandered along the beach in the wake of this man and his über-dogs, admiring his technique. And while having dogs trained to the level of circus animals isn’t really my thing, I must say it was quite something to watch. Using his silent semaphore system, this man caused his dogs to sit, stay, circle around, dash off in tandem, stop at a certain distance, sit again, turn, wait, walk back, go right, go left – everything, practically, but put up an umbrella and pop open a coolbox full of frosties.

In the meantime, of course, Max and Sara caused untold seashore havoc, chasing gulls, wrestling with crabs, being bowled over by rogue waves, digging pointless craters, etc. And T and I, far from being silent signallers, screamed constantly at the tops of our voices. ‘Maaaax!!! Put down that child!’ ‘Sara!!!!! Get off that jellyfish!’ Etc. And, needless to say, we were roundly ignored.

The crunch came when the man, who was walking ahead of us, turned around to walk back along the beach towards us. Suddenly he found himself faced with two dogs who very obviously hadn’t had a second’s training in their lives. So goodness knows what he thought when Sara, simply thrilled to see another human being off whom she could possibly ricochet, pricked up her ears and headed towards him at warp speed.

The man, remaining resolutely silent, did something that made me just wet my pants: he stood stock-still, more or less like a Nazi soldier at inspection time, extended his arm, and held out one unyielding finger towards Sara. His command was clear: ‘Stop! Or I vill make you!’

Sara could not have been more elated if he’d been dangling a steak from that digit. In utter ecstasy, she picked up speed and, tongue lolling out alarmingly, headed for the man with redoubled joy.

Although I was laughing so much I thought I might actually pop some vital organ in my insides, I found enough breath to scream, ‘Saaarrraaaa! Nooooooo!’ (I didn’t know what the man would have done had Sara actually reached him – karate-chop her to death, maybe?)

Somewhere in the slightly miswired depths of Sara’s brain, she must have heard the edge of hysteria in my voice because, thankfully, she slowed, looked back (her tongue practically licking her tail), smiled widely, wiggled her eyebrows (‘What? Huh?’) and then, when I screamed again, jog-trotted to a very obviously reluctant halt.

During these few moments of frenzy, Nazi-man hadn’t moved a muscle: he’d simply stood there, that uncompromising digit raised.

Now, as I called Sara back (‘Sara! Sara! SARA! Come! Come! Come! COME!’), he stared at me with scorching contempt.

Sara, too, stared at me, but her expression said, ‘Aw. Why not? C’mon. Lighten up. I’m only having some fun.’

‘No, Sara!’ I said. ‘Come here IMMEDIATELY!’

Sara didn’t come because I’d ordered her to. I’d love to say she did, but she didn’t. She came because Max chose that moment to find, somewhere at our feet, some unnameable bit of mouldering flotsam with an eye-watering stench which he tried very hard to eat in its entirety while T hauled uselessly on his collar to get him off it, and Sara only wanted to see what was going on.

While T and I, in fits of giggles, held onto our irrepressible hounds, Nazi-man and his two robotic border collies came past us and stalked off into the distance, death-rays of contempt coming off all three.

After T and I, too, had turned, and were making our way back along the beach, we decided we would also try our hands, so to speak, at semaphoring our dogs. ‘Look, it works!’ I screeched, as I pointed towards a gull and said to Sara, ‘Sara, chase gull!’ And she did.

‘It does!’ agreed T, as she gesticulated wildly towards the ocean and shrieked, ‘Maxi, in the sea!’ and Max hurled himself bodily through the waves.

We proved this point all the way back. ‘Sara, toss that shell mindlessly into the air!’ I instructed my dog (with relevant hand signals), and she did. ‘Max, trot like a Lippizzaner!’ T told her dog (with appropriate hand signals), and he did. (Max walks like this whenever he’s weary, but still). ‘Sara, bound in a dilly way all over the beach,’ I instructed, with hand signals, and she did. ‘Max, run over to that pile of stinky sea-excrement and try to eat it all frantically within five seconds,’ T instructed (with hand signals), and he did.

Which just goes to show: if you stick to what your dog knows, it will reward you with instant and otherwise utterly uncharacteristic obedience.

* Maxi also loves T but, like all teenagers (which is more or less how old Max is now, in dog time), only when he absolutely has to. This concerns T, who recently asked me, ‘Do you think Maxi’s entered teenagehood, because he’s giving me a bad vibe?’ Pressed to explain, she said, ‘Well, he’ll come into a room, then just stand there and stare at me. Accusingly.’ After I stopped laughing, I told her she’d get used to it. Teenagers are just like that.

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