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Dogs have always played an important role in my life. My earliest memory is of me astride our small German Shepherd/Husky mix, dog-back riding. No saddle horse was ever as well-trained as that dog. As I grew, dog riding became impossible, so I focused on more traditional canine pursuits: sit, heel, lie down, stay. Training our dogs became an obsession with me, and no methodology was too bizarre if it achieved the desired result.
I recall, for instance, the time I decided to teach our longcoated German Shepherd, Caitie, to speak on command. My family watched dubiously. I stood before her, firmly commanded “Speak!” and then myself “woofed.” At my first “bark,” Caitie cocked her head to the side. I repeated the procedure. The third time I said, “Speak,” Caitie leaned forward with an eager “woof.” I rewarded her with a treat from my coat and an effusive hug. From that time on, Caitie “spoke” on command. The fact that she also began barking at other times — when she wanted to come in, or go out, or for no real reason in particular — rendered our success somewhat less meritorious.
The next time I resumed my dog-training pursuits, the goal was nothing as frivolous as entertainment. This training would benefit our livelihood. My family owns a farm that produces winter rye as one of the crops. When all other crops succumb to snow and freezing temperatures, the rye endures. The tender roots hold the precious topsoil in place through winter’s cycles of freezing and thawing, preventing erosion. Then in the spring, the limp green shoots grow tall and stiff. It is at this time that we mow it and bale it into square straw bales that we sell for decoration, mulch or construction. It is a valuable crop … if it weren’t for the geese.
Each winter, thousands of Canada geese migrate to warmer climes, and each winter they tarry at our farm. And eat our rye. Some years their voracious feeding has completely decimated our crop. My great-grandfather used to combat Canada geese by firing a twelve-gauge shotgun in the air. When that no longer scattered the flocks, we tried a loud bird cannon. The resounding booms scared the geese for a while … but only until they grew accustomed to the regularity of the noise. Then it was back to grazing as usual.
About this time, my affection for training dogs came to my aid. My current dog was a tri-colored Sheltie named Bailey. By breeding, Bailey was a herding dog. By practice, he was a couch potato. Bailey’s former owners lived in the suburbs of Chicago, so his natural skills of bunching and directing sheep were, well, underdeveloped, to say the least. I, however, was undeterred. Bailey was a purebred, pedigreed herding dog; with a little schooling, breeding would tell. So I began a training regimen designed to take my dog from laid-back house pet to aggressive goose-chaser.
In any program of this sort, the first goal is to create pleasurable associations with the desired outcome. In other words, the dog has to think he does his job because he likes it, not because he’s ordered to. I determined to connect “geese” with “fun.” Training began the first time a flock of geese flew overhead honking loudly. Stopping in my tracks, I pointed to the sky and said breathlessly, “Geese, Bailey! Geese!” Bailey, of course, had no idea what “geese” meant, but being highly intuitive he knew it was exciting. He lifted his little black ears, circled me at a run and barked frantically. Within a very short time, any mention of “geese” elicited this exuberant response. Step one accomplished.
The next step was to transfer his enthusiasm from the word “geese” to the act of chasing geese. This proved slightly more difficult. One day I took Bailey to a field full of geese. I waved my right arm in the direction of the fowl: “Get the geese, Bailey! Get the geese!” My dog yapped and circled and jumped and cavorted … but he never once headed toward the desired objects. Utter failure.
I recalled my experience with Caitie. Perhaps a demonstration was required. Since the geese still sat there placidly eating, I commenced immediately. “Get the geese, Bailey! Get the geese!” I called, running toward the geese while waving my arm in their direction. Bailey loved this new game. He ran alongside me, periodically circling and barking. When the geese finally took flight, I got the impression it was more out of sympathy than fear.
I do confess that the incident undermined my confidence, but not for long. After all, it was only the first attempt. Next time would be better.
It wasn’t. Nor was the third or the fourth or the fifth. I couldn’t understand it. My dog was smart. At the slightest movement of my hand, he would sit, lie down, stay (more or less), come or go upstairs. He had a working vocabulary on a par with most college students. What was the hang-up with Get the geese?
I understood Get the geese. Sometimes I found myself stopping mid-sentence when I heard geese approaching: “Geese, Bailey, geese!” I got to the point where I would pull my car over to the side of the road when I saw geese eating, let the dog out of the car and run at them pell-mell yelling, “Get the geese, Bailey!” Walking back to the car after one such episode I had to ask myself, Just who’s training whom here? I almost quit trying. The only thing that kept me going was my brother’s smug look after each abortive attempt and his condescending, “That dog will never learn to chase geese.”
Perhaps Bailey sensed my despair. Perhaps the months of rigorous repetition did their work. Perhaps he knew what I wanted all along and just wanted to see how long he could keep me running around rye fields like a woman possessed. I don’t know. All I do know is that one day as Bailey and I walked my horses to pasture, we skirted a rye field being ravaged by geese. Saying anything was useless: My hands were busy with three 1,700-pound horses. I wasn’t chasing geese this trip.
That’s when it happened. My dog suddenly took off across the field, his tiny body barely skimming the dirt. Silently he hurtled toward the geese. Within yards of them, his telltale bark exploded. So did the geese. Black-and-white Vs scattered into the air, squawking indignantly. Bailey turned and trotted in my direction. Two impertinent ganders settled back to the ground. Bailey turned and barreled toward them again. This time they took off for good.
I stood at the side of the field, my jaw brushing the tops of my boots. Bailey stopped at my feet, his tongue lolling and his tail wagging. I stretched my arms as far as the lead ropes would allow and ruffled his perky ears. I couldn’t believe it: I had finally trained a goose-dog.