Jeannette Cooperman just had her first mystery published—A Circumstance of Blood (Endeavour Press, 2015)—and yes, there’s a dog in it. She is a staff writer at St. Louis Magazine, she goes home to a century-old farmhouse in Waterloo, Ill., where she and her husband live with Louie.
Culture: Stories & Lit
Same breed, different dog, new challenge.
March 29 2016
Our first Standard Poodle, Sophie, was everything you assumed when you just read the words “Standard Poodle.” A reincarnated 1920s flapper girl with an apricot coat and long legs, Sophie was always ready for a party, and her prance told you she was well aware of her charms.
Our second Standard Poodle, Buddy, was a black-and-silver puppy-mill rescue with oversized paws splayed from years of standing in metal cages, and all the grace of a goony bird. He had to learn to go on walks, to play with toys, to leap into a car, to accept a treat and feel like he deserved it. After a few weeks of sitting in the yard, somber as a rabbi, staring at the grass, he fell in love with the world. From then on, he woke up happy every morning, practically grinning at the joy of this new freedom and fun.
Two years after we adopted him, he was diagnosed with thoracic lymphoma.
No, I wailed. That is not fair. You don’t spend four years locked in a kennel with broken glass and feces all around you and get only two years to love the world.
With some skilled—and pricey—chemo (we dubbed him Our Little Trip to Greece), we bought him time. I was doing “cancer math,” desperate that he have at least as much joy as he’d had sorrow. He had another wonderful two and a half years, and when the cancer came back, it was merciless but swift.
And then came Louie, our third Standard Poodle.
Raised with cattle dogs, Louie learned their loud bark and rowdy ways. He barged into any situation, barking with such force that he scared away the strangers he was desperate to befriend. When we adopted him (given up because he barked too much … and his person had never really liked the breed anyway, she loved her cattle dogs … it was her partner who bought the Poodle, and a few years later, they broke up …) Louie was already seven and a half. For a year, we waited for him to settle into calmer, older-middle age—just as we were trying to do. But Louie stayed as bouncy as a young kangaroo, excited about everything, without an ounce of prudence.
“For God’s sake, Lou,” I said more than once on each walk. “Settle down, sweetheart.” “No bark.” “Easy.” “Good to be quiet.” “By my side.”
He heard and responded, each time, for approximately three seconds. Then a glint came into his eyes, and he bounded ahead, barking even louder.
Friends were used to my eyes softening whenever they asked about Buddy. “Aw, he’s great,” I’d say. “Sweetest dog on earth. Best dog I’ll ever have.” Was it a self-fulfilling prophecy? Was I still comparing, and did Louie somehow know it?
Well, no. Lou just likes to bark. Not inside, I might add; he stopped that as soon as he was removed from the pack of cattle dogs. Inside, he trotted after us, cuddled close, did whatever was asked. The problem was just stimulus—anything encountered on a walk; any poor souls, God help them, walking past our front yard; anyone ringing our doorbell.
At the 18-month mark, my husband and I admitted that all the hushing in the world wasn’t going to interrupt the electricity flying along those synapses. We needed a new approach. Instead of trying to prepare my dog, I started preparing the humans.
“If he likes you”—flattery always helps—“he’ll bark really loudly. It means he wants to play.” Which was entirely true, and which instantly erased their wariness. Suddenly, the bark was a prize, and the interactions that resulted were delightful. “Well, I’ll play with you,” people teased, bending close, and Louie bounced with joy and barked again, proving his affection. Instead of me slinking away, mortified, dragging a chastened dog who wasn’t sure what he’d done wrong, I walked away waving good-bye, and Louie bounced along at my side, adding another new friend to his roster.
Before dinner parties, I emailed our guests and explained that our dog would be barky and seem, well, insane, for the first 10 minutes, then would settle down and become a good dog. As a result, nobody jumped or stepped back, which had always prompted our confused but eager dog to bounce even closer and bark even louder. “Ahh,” they said instead, “there goes Loud Louie!”
And in about five minutes, instead of 10, he settled down and became a good dog.
None of this is any excuse for poor training, and yes, it was incumbent upon us to teach him to behave better, and yes, we failed and resorted to a sloppy workaround. All true.
But the lessons it took so long to learn with Louie were the same lessons it had taken me too long to learn in marriage: The creature you love is Other. You don’t own his quirks and habits and opinions. They may change over time; they may not. So you love him thoroughly and completely and stop fretting about what people might think.
And sometimes you do a bit of tactful explaining ahead of time.
Wellness: Healthy Living
Tuning in to your senior’s needs.
November 3 2014
There’s something disconcerting about being middle-aged and watching my once-agile dog leap ahead of me into old age. No, not leap—she’s too creaky for that, stiff and slow almost overnight, it seems. She’s suddenly terrified of the kinds of storms she once danced through; she spurns a morning walk to go back to bed, circling awkwardly in an effort to get comfortable. Once down, she’ll lie there for hours on end, chin over the edge like Snoopy at his most dejected.
She’s depressed about getting old, I decide—never dreaming that it’s I who haven’t made the necessary accommodations.
“A lot of old dogs get what I call the ‘shrinking world’ syndrome,” says certified veterinary behaviorist Dr. Lore Haug. “Their owners get in a rut with them; they start walking the dog less” (gulp) “and they don’t train the dog or teach him tricks. The dog doesn’t get as much stimulation and enrichment—maybe they stop taking the dog to the dog park—and there’s a significant decline in mental and physical challenges.” Stung, I mention Sophie’s arthritis. “So maybe she can swim. Or the walks are shorter. Or maybe you just take her into a wooded park, lie down on a blanket and let her look around and sniff.”
It’s the slowing we have trouble with; we expect our dogs to be the same forever. Instead, their senses of sight and smell grow less acute, their joints stiffen, or their legs may splay like Bambi’s on slick hardwood floors. Some develop a canine equivalent of Alzheimer’s: “It’s called cognitive dysfunction syndrome,” Haug explains, “and it shows up with dementia, changes in their sleep-wake cycles—they might pace all night and sleep all day—vocalizing at night, forgetting their training. You say ‘Sit’ and they stare at you blankly.”
Other dogs develop anxiety disorders for the first time, anything from separation anxiety to storm phobias or nocturnal panic attacks. “The dog may be less social, not coming to greet you, or might get clingier with increased anxiety,” Haug says. “Sometimes they’re just disoriented; they go to the back door but poke their nose at the hinge side. Sometimes we see aggression and irritability. But because anxiety is one of the symptoms, the more you keep the dog stretched mentally, the more you are able to control some of those reactions.”
The wonderful paradox is that by working within your dog’s new limits, you can lessen the change in her responses. Choose games she can still play readily, amusements that don’t stress her, and she’ll be as eager as ever.
“Find new ways to connect with your dog,” Haug urges. “Teaching a trick is not only good for the dog’s brain, but it’s a fun, low-pressure way to do something that doesn’t require a lot of physical strength. The trick doesn’t need to be a backflip. They can bow, cover their eyes with their paws, flick their ears…” Grooming is another way to connect; so is hanging out on the porch or at the park.
It’s not just the dog who needs to learn new tricks—we do too.
Easing Their Way
“Older dogs need softer toys,” notes Catherine Frost, brand and product champion for Planet Dog. Her whitemuzzled black Lab, Ollie, is the model for Planet Dog’s line of Old Soul toys, which are made from a compound that’s gentle on dogs with older jaws, sensitive teeth, reduced “snout strength”and weakened muscles and joints. Similarly, Senior Kongs are constructed with softer rubber.
“Their olfactory sense has probably diminished, so stronger scents are good,” Frost adds, “and high-contrast colors are important so they can see the toy clearly. But the notion that they don’t want to play anymore? That’s not true at all! To be able to lie down and just chew helps them relax and keeps them from being bored. You can’t ever assume that your dog doesn’t want to play.”
Even for dogs at their healthiest, transportation can be tough, and older dogs often don’t hop into a back seat the way they used to. Haug suggests creating a surface that “provides stable footing but is not so firm that when the dog lies down, he’s uncomfortable.” For big cars and vans, there are ramps and steps; take breed and body shape into account when making your selection, however. If you have a Dachshund, you don’t want the short, steep steps, which are popular because they take up less space. Make sure the steps’ treads are deep enough for sure footing and wide enough to forgive a misstep.
It’s also a kindness to soften distractions such as sudden loud noises, and to avoid abrupt changes in routine. Older dogs can be more easily startled; as they’re less able to maneuver or defend themselves, they feel more fragile and grow more fearful, reluctant to play with new dogs or children, distressed by chaos and commotion. (Dr. Debra Horowitz, a veterinary behaviorist, notes that dogs’ neurotransmitter functions change with age—oxygen levels go down and brain chemistry is altered.)
Sometimes, the startle or anxiety is just because the dog can’t see or hear as well as he once did. Cataracts can start to form as early as age seven, for example. But overall, sensory declines are rarely as traumatic for dogs as they are for us egoridden humans; often the changes are so gradual that the dog adapts, and you might not even realize he’s blind or deaf, especially if you have other dogs and he’s following their lead. Susan McCullough, author of Senior Dogs for Dummies, says, “If you sense your dog’s hearing is going bad and he or she doesn’t already know hand signals, teach them now. If your dog is blind, now is not the time to change the furniture. Dogs are amazing, though, in their ability to compensate. I had a dog who still responded to vibrations, so I’d clap my hands and she’d come to me. Creativity goes a long way.”
Food for senior dogs isn’t as complicated as the marketers make it, according to Dr. Donna Raditic, a vet certified in alternative therapies and currently a post-grad resident in nutrition at the University of Tennessee. “Older dogs can eat the adult diets. The development of geriatric diets is a bit of marketing, plus some old beliefs that lowering protein levels spares the kidneys. Actually, we now know that older dogs and humans need more protein. The main concern for geriatrics is to watch calories, because they tend to be less active, especially in winter.”
Older dogs should be monitored for dental problems, like bleeding gums or tooth loss. Even bad breath can signal something as simple as tartar buildup or as serious as oral cancer, kidney disease or diabetes mellitus. And when dogs do fall ill, nausea can decrease their appetite. “Often owners think their dogs are being picky—they are not—they don’t feel well!” Raditic exclaims. “It can be very difficult to keep weight and condition on an old dog with a disease that affects the gastrointestinal tract.”
Glucosamine and chondroitin are thought to be beneficial for arthritis, and anti-inflammatory pain meds can help, too. How do you know when your dog’s in pain? According to Haug, the signs are pretty obvious. Look for “restlessness, crankiness, irritability when handled, difficulty getting up or lying down, looking stiff, being unstable, moving very slowly. Sometimes, if they move suddenly, their joints scrape together.” She sighs. “The thing that’s underappreciated, even sometimes by veterinarians, is how much these dogs can benefit from pain medication. Some are restless at night, only because they can’t get comfortable.”
Check Your Assumptions
Ted Kerasote, author of the acclaimed memoir Merle’s Door, is a superb athlete; when his dog Merle couldn’t do the ski runs anymore, it broke Kerasote’s heart. Then it made him examine his own impulses. “The first thing to be clear about is whom you’re indulging. Very often, because we want to run or mountain bike, we delude ourselves into thinking, ‘The dog loves this,’ and we push the dog far beyond where he needs to go. The problem is, dogs age much more quickly than we do. Say you get a dog when you’re 30, you’re now 38 and in fine shape, and the dog is possibly geriatric.”
Kerasote is currently working on a new book, titled Why Dogs Die Young and What We Can Do about It. “Most of the people I’ve spoken with who have really long-lived dogs change their dog’s food periodically, seasonally,” he remarks,“just the way a wild wolf would have different food seasonally, and the way we would.”
The biggest factor of all, though, is real engagement. “We are very self-serving: Many of us live busy urban lives, so we buy a whole passel of toys and leave the dog alone all day,” Kerasote says. “The older the dog gets, and the more he’s been left at home, the more he spirals into this kind of depression. People may need to think about budgeting for a dog walker. Or your dog might even be happier driving to work with you, enjoying the ride, sleeping in the car, going for a few short walks and driving home with you. We tend to think, ‘Oh, that’s just an old dog, he loves just lying around.’ Well, have you given the dog a choice?
“You need to find ways to perk up your dog,” he continues. “I’ve never seen a dog who preferred playing with a toy to two or three friendly peers.” Of course, as the dog gets older, the key is finding other dogs who won’t be rough or over-exuberant. But the results are worth the search.
McCullough has one final reminder: Don’t write everything off to aging. A single imperious diva bark to summon you might not be a sign of reduced mobility or altered brain chemistry; it might just be a single imperious diva bark because it’s fun to summon you. Refusal to eat or mobility issues could be signs of other problems, not age-related at all.
There’s one thing age can’t affect, she emphasizes, and that’s the bond you’ve already forged with your dog. “With a puppy, you’re still building that bond,” McCullough points out. “With an older dog, the history’s been created; all you have to do is celebrate it. Revel in it. And when you’re uncertain what to do, let love be your guide.”
A round-up of fictional detective sidekicks
October 18 2012
Sherlock Holmes left his hound on the moors; any closer and the baying might have disturbed an opium dream. Lord Peter Wimsey never once dangled a full plastic bag from his long elegant fingers and looked anxiously about for a dumpster.
But in many a mystery, it’s the dog who sets the tone. Bluesy southern dawgs, stylish Schnauzers, bird dogs in Scotland, Poodles in Connecticut. The loyal mutt who plays sidekick to the detective. A mysterious yellow or black dog seen near the murder scene, icon of a stranger’s presence. Dogs are as useful as weather in creating a mood. They’re also handy at turning up bodies, alerting to danger or providing comic relief. And, in the hands of authors who understand them, they become far more than convenient clue-bearers. They become characters in their own right, with distinct skills and personalities, significant roles to play, and revealing relationships with the humans.
These are not dogs who type out lists of suspects or chat with the cat in English, cozy dog mysteries that anthropomorphize endlessly, with besotted fans who delight in every dogged pun. An increasing number of serious mysteries include dogs either as family members or working partners. Their authors rely on an old paradox: Dogs reveal human nature. Better yet, they improve upon it.
Had Holmes allowed the hound inside, he might have risked a chewed pipe stem, but he’d have taken himself less seriously. Wimsey might have winced at pawprints on his velvet smoking jacket, but routine walks would have grounded his flightiness. And Chief Inspector Morse would surely have drunk less with a Greyhound curled at his feet.
Keeping It Real
In Bones, when Irene is sitting in the doorway of her tent, frightened and claustrophobic, an expedition anthropologist sends his search dog Bingle to her with a quiet command: “Sleep with her.” Dubious, Irene lies down inside the tent. Bingle enters, circles, settles down and rests his head on her shoulder. Both fall asleep. In Liar, when Irene’s long-estranged cousin is overcome by grief, her own dogs are braver than she is about physically approaching to comfort him. “They pave the path,” says Burke, “and she realizes this is no time to stay aloof.”
Burke also uses dogs’ responses to reveal and develop other characters. “You cannot lie to a dog,” she points out. “You are being read. And they see things in us that observers, who are distracted by speech, perhaps can’t.”
On the Dark Side
She made her name as a dog trainer and writer. Then, one summer in the early ’90s, she went on a “dog vacation” in Vermont. “We’d watch the dogs run, and then [we’d] sit around reading,” she explains. “We brought an L.L. Bean bag stuffed with books, and there were mysteries in it. It was an instant addiction. They are great escape and such fun, and they have this wonderful moral conclusion where justice is served. Unlike real life.”
Benjamin decided she’d write a mystery herself. Hard-boiled, not cozy. But with a dog in it.
“I wanted a real working dog, like the dog in my life,” she says. “I did obedience, won silver bowls and plates and hated every minute of it, and so did my dog. What I liked was solving problems, and finding ways for the dog to use inbred skills.”
Dashiell, the Pit Bull in her mystery series, tracks by scent. He also protects; does therapy at nursing homes; and provides company, cover and foil for Rachel, a smart, solitary detective with a caustic sense of humor. He is modeled on Benjamin’s dog Dexter, a rescued Bull Terrier who took it upon himself to become her service dog, easing the pain of a chronic illness. “Dexter did solve a mystery,” she points out. “He figured out where the pain was and how to help.”
Benjamin was determined to keep Dash a real dog and not fall into the “dog mystery” trap. By the third book in the series, however, she felt secure enough to set the story at a dog trainers’ symposium, killing off each victim by his or her training method. “People e-mailed me for weeks,” she laughs, “saying, ‘You forgot to kill so-and-so.’”
Including Dash in the story presents Benjamin with only one dilemma: Her books are funny in spots, but overall, they’re darker than readers, relieved by the dog’s presence, might realize. “I don’t think murder is a puzzle, I think it’s a tragedy,” she says quietly. “But people have these Disneyish expectations of dogs, as though they are in the world in the same way that Mickey Mouse is. So they read my very dark stories and say, ‘I love your mysteries, they are so funny!’”
Beneath the surface, however, mysteries are dark. They deal with deliberate, unnatural violence—evil, for want of a better word. And dogs, unless they are made vicious, are free of such impulses. When evil shatters the façade of normalcy and throws people’s assumptions about one another into chaos, dogs remain trustworthy. Unlike humans, they are generally knowable and controllable and loyal, and can be reliably trained. They bear no grudges. They are the only character in the mystery that we don’t have to suspect, the only creature whose impulses we can trust.
“Dogs are the stability in the storm,” says child psychologist and mystery writer Stephen White. “Their affection is predictable, their routines are predictable. At the same time, they are playful, they are spontaneous in the way that children are.” White says that if his detective, child psychologist Alan Gregory, didn’t have a dog, he’d get one. “His dogs fit into the stories the same way dogs fit into my life. It’s a cliché, but dogs are family. They provide an emotional anchor.”
When he began writing, White didn’t realize the fictional purposes a dog might serve. He doesn’t outline or strategize, so Emily, the loyal Bouvier, and Anvil, a mischievous Miniature Poodle, just show up in the story whenever it feels natural. But he does realize that their appearance cuts the tension, creating a moment of calm that heightens the suspense when it begins to build again.
A little projection might take place too: Emily and Anvil need to be fed and petted and played with, and that usually happens at tense junctures, when the reader is also feeling a need for comfort. If Anvil’s antics prompt an involuntary smile, all the better. “Anvil—Nate, in real life—is that kind of dog,” White explains. “The dogs are the only characters in my books I don’t make up. They have no fictional traits.” Authors can stick their favorite dogs into their books without fear of lawsuit or severed relationships, which may be one reason dogs add a note of naturalness to mysteries’ elaborate, necessarily contrived plots.
In White’s newest, Blinded (due out February 2004), there’s a moment when Alan is deeply worried. “Emily comes in, and with her beard totally soaked from the water dish, she lays her head in his lap,” says White, “as if to say, ‘Everything is going to be fine.’ Which is something Bouviers do. It’s not something I made up, it’s something I learned from my dog.”
Don’t Shoot the Dog
“Doing something to innocence takes a different level of explaining,” he says slowly. “I think the same thing would happen if you developed a child’s character over time, and then the child got hurt. With a dog, though, people connect immediately.”
After the book came out, the calls and letters bombarded him, all indignant: “You killed the dog!” “No, I actually didn’t,” he says. “But I didn’t have the heart to tell them the real story. I thought, if these people can’t even take a fake dog dying, I’m not going to burden them with what happened. There is sufficient misery in the air already. “The dog that is Emily in the books actually died a year ago,” he adds, “but she’ll never die in the books. If this series continues, Emily is going to be the oldest dog in the history of the planet.”
Susan Conant understands White’s experience from both sides. “You can murder humans by the millions with nary a complaint from the reader,” she says, “but if the slightest harm should come to a dog, you will never be forgiven.” She avoids this peril in her own series, which features a magazine-writer detective and her Malamutes. But she also avoids reading such books. “I tried Cynthia Alwyn’s A Scent for Murder,” she confides. “Alwyn’s a very good writer; she introduced this wonderful dog and I was prepared to love both the dog and the series—and then the dog died. I couldn’t keep reading.”
Asked to introduce three Rex Stout novellas, Conant felt a wary tingle: one was entitled Die Like a Dog. She was convinced that her favorite character, “probably a German Shepherd, would rapidly and gruesomely perish.” Instead, she found a charming Labrador Retriever, “perhaps the most fleshed-out non-series character Stout ever created.” He was not anthropomorphized, she wrote; nor was he reduced, as so many dogs in mysteries are, to “what psychoanalysts might call a ‘part object,’ a nose that sniffs or jaws that menace; or an apparently lifeless possession, a sort of fuzzy umbrella meant to suggest the owner’s personality.” Too often, added Conant, dogs in books sit around like “woofy cuckoo clocks.” In Stout’s novella, the Lab “permits a rare glimpse of an emotional Nero Wolfe and of the boy he once was.”
Cracking a Hard Case
Nevada Barr’s detective, National Park Service ranger Anna Pigeon, starts the series as a restless loner wary of commitment. As she matures, she grudgingly adopts a dog, Taco. Eventually, he saves her life, losing his leg in the process. And in one of the books’ most romantic moments, it is the sheriff’s tender care for the injured dog that convinces Anna that the man’s worth loving. Later, Anna brings Taco along with her on patrols and realizes that his presence disarms hostile motorists: “It was almost as if they didn’t want to appear to be total assholes in front of the dog.”
Dogs like us; we don’t want to disappoint them. They also ground us in everyday, physical reality. Jonathan Kellerman gave his child psychologist detective, Alex Delaware, a drooly French Bulldog named Spike simply as one more way to avoid the usual L.A. clichés. Spike doesn’t track cadavers underwater or bite through rope, he just hangs out at home. Yet throughout the series, his cheerful, frankly needy presence and his recurring need for walks and takeout add notes of domesticity that makes Delaware far more likeable.
Mystery writer Laurien Berenson found that caring for a couple of Standard Poodles added a note of authenticity to her detective’s life. “I get fan mail from people who are amazed: ‘Your dogs actually go out to pee, and they eat on time,’” she says. “The dogs give a structure to Melanie’s life, they keep her busy, they make her more real.” Dogs aren’t just useful literary devices, warns Berenson. As in life, they must be handled with love and knowledge. “If you are not absolutely through-and-through a dog person, don’t just slap a dog into your book because dogs are hot right now,” she says. If you’re sincere, fine, include the dog, “but remember that dogs are dogs. And write the dog as well as you write the person, with actual traits,” she finishes sternly. “Black with a nice nose doesn’t do it.”
The dog’s a character.
And he knows things the humans can’t even guess.
Skyhorse Publishing, 240 pp., 2009; $14.95
Randy Grim, founder of Stray Rescue of St. Louis (strayrescue.org), started his canine-focused career by driving around East St. Louis every morning before work, searching for feral dogs and spending weeks taming them. From those early years came an acclaimed book, The Man Who Talks to Dogs, coauthored with writer Melinda Roth.
Now Grim and Roth have collaborated on another book—one that sent them into gales of laughter every time they sat down to write. It’s called Don’t Dump the Dog, and it’s Grim’s answer to every lamebrained excuse he’s ever heard from people returning dogs to his shelter.
He wrote it to convince his therapist he wasn’t the crazy one.
Every week at therapy, Grim would throw himself on the couch and rail against human idiocy. For the dogs, he had nothing but sympathy. But for the woman who wanted to dump her dog because her boyfriend didn’t like him? Or the one who wanted to trade her senior dog for a puppy because he was getting gray around the muzzle and bumping into things? Or the guy who wanted to exchange a high-energy dog for a couch potato who’d watch TV? Only exasperated fury.
Some of Grim’s answers need no more than a line: “Dump the boyfriend.” But between these “Quick Fixes,” he inserts hysterically funny chapters laced with the most practical dog-behavior advice around. His favorite trick is teaching a dog to relax; his favorite training tool is hot dogs.He’s endearingly neurotic himself (he’ll let dog throw-up sit for days because he has “avoidance issues,” and he resorts to vodka or Xanax as needed).As a result, the book’s never preachy—but it’s immensely instructive.Grim’s expertise with ferals yields solutions for abused, timid, aggressive or hyper dogs.
What he can’t solve are the people. People return dogs because they bark— “Did they expect them to sing Handel’s ‘Hallelujah’ chorus at the door?” They return dogs because they’re moving, or having a baby—“That, I just don’t get at all.” He says he left out some of the best—like the guy who complained that the dog was lazy, or the woman with white furniture who wanted to exchange a white puppy because his fur darkened in adulthood.
He was afraid nobody would believe him.
Good Dog: Behavior & Training
Building trust is the first step
For 30 years, Marilyn Pona, founder of Assistance Dogs for Living, has been training dogs: rescued, traumatized mutts; show dogs; obedience-school dropouts; neurotic dogs in danger of exile from their families; and service dogs of every kind.
“There’s one thing nearly every trainer does too soon,” she confides. “Train.”
The usual impulse, she explains, is to jump in and try to impose control immediately. Pona learned patience from her work with service dogs: When you’re transferring a dog from his trainer to his new person, you can’t rush it.
What are the signs that tell you it’s time? When ears and tail change position, the body relaxes, breathing slows, and the dog is not hypervigilant or showing any stress signals—that’s when you know the dog’s finally getting a calming message: This is all that’s required of you. Be with me, in this moment. Pona shakes her head ruefully. “People want to go out in their khakis with their whistles and teach their dog tricks. After this kind of quiet moment, they’ll say, ‘But we didn’t do anything.’ Well, if you missed what we did, I don’t even know how to explain it.”
An orthopedic surgeon brought in his dog, who was showing aggression toward other dogs and humans. The dog got right up in Pona’s lap and kissed her. The surgeon said, “I can’t believe this—he’s tried to take down every vet and trainer in town.” She replied calmly, “Well, he’s introduced himself to me.” She’d been seated in her wheelchair when the dog entered the room. “I always relax my breathing when I meet a new dog, and I don’t reach out of my body space,” she says.
She doesn’t even talk directly to the dog; she lets him approach her, circling closer and closer. “If the dog doesn’t look at me and solicit my attention, I wait. If he just stops and looks up, I’ll avert my eyes and keep talking to his person. Then, if he stays near, I might touch him. But here’s my personal rule: One of my fingers or my thumb has to be touching my knee when I touch him. That way, I’m in my body space, not his.
“It’s all about building trust. He’s testing me to see if I’m going to try to push myself on him. Often, when I’m working with a new dog, especially a highly reactive dog, for the first 15 minutes we don’t do anything. This stops that tendency to say, ‘What is going on? What do we do here?’ We do nothing. We have to train dogs to do nothing. Because most of the time, asking the dog to do nothing is the basis for them being under control.”
In the beginning, a dog will resist even a simple request to “Come, stand next to me and be calm.” A dog is another species, and his own language is going to interfere and make him wary. What you’re really doing at this point is taming, Pona says. “Taming is noncommunicative. It’s just sitting next to each other until you feel comfortable. Failure to do this is why rescued dogs are so often returned to shelters, and why people’s relationships with their dogs don’t deepen.”
Often, when someone at wits’ end calls, Pona will say, “Just bring the dog into your body space and stop correcting. Too much correction or cueing can actually be feeding the behavior you are trying to stop. You start to think, ‘God, this dog is not getting it.’ And you’re right: The dog is not getting that you want him to be calm. When you say that and mean it, they understand, and it’s such a joy to watch. Then you can proceed with your training, because now the dog trusts the safety of being in your body space.”
A volunteer at a rescue organization called her recently. There was a problem with a Pit Bull mix trying to fight with the other dogs every time she walked past them. The volunteers there don’t like to use leash corrections, and Pona readily agrees. “It would have been counterproductive anyway, especially with a Pit Bull,” she remarks. “They are so headdriven and body-tough that when they are focusing on something, you could jerk them all day and it would be a mere annoyance. You’re not teaching them anything.”
What she wanted to teach the dog was simply to be quiet and walk near her leg. “Every time she would bristle up or go into an alert, I would have her back close to my leg. Finally, she gave me the eye contact I’d been waiting for. I said, ‘Okay, she’s ready. She understands what I want her to do. But let’s go outside and walk her and sit with her a bit and keep this going.’ We walked for a while and then sat on a stone wall, with her at my knee. I stroked her from the ear down, with one finger only, requiring nothing of her but being in my body space.”
Earlier, Pona had watched the volunteers gush over this Pit mix, and she’d seen the dog flash stress signals. “They were overwhelming her, and she was trying to soothe herself, yawning, licking her lips.We could have bounced a dime off her skin, it was so tight. But after we sat outside with her, just doing nothing, she relaxed. I got her to continue making eye contact, establishing some lines of communication. And then we went in and walked right through the dogs.When a particularly hyper Sheltie mix kept jumping and barking at her, she actually looked the other way and kept walking.”
The volunteer watched in amazement. “I never even saw you correct her,” he said.
Pona shrugged. “There was no need. I’d taught her, ‘Stay by my leg and be quiet.’”
That’s the whole point: Once you relax with each other, you can communicate.
For more on Pona and Assistance Dogs for Living, visit marilynpona.com.
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