Training Maxine, Rescue Dog

Learning that life can be good
By Ellen Cooney, December 2014, Updated January 2015

She and I are alone. When I say the B-word, she rushes to my side and goes into a sit, the first thing she learned, and so far the only one: sit comes before treat the way head comes before tail. It’s not open for discussion.

“Bagel! Maxine! Bagel!”

She’s so wiggly, she can barely hold her bum to the floor. The eyes that were sad and dull in her adoption photo are now bright. Her long tail goes back and forth at the rate of maybe a hundred swishes per second. Come to think of it, since she came to live with us a month ago, she’s also learned something else: incredibly, there is such a thing in life as feeling alive.

Maybe she remembers that a frozen blueberry bagel was what I gave her to chew on after I brought her home for the first time, after she had torn apart every toy in her crate— toys that were supposed to be (ha-ha) indestructible. Last week, she got hold of her adopted brother’s yellow rubber duck, which now has no head. Yesterday, she attacked the only toy her other new brother loves, a small purple bear he’s had for seven years, since his puppy days. She pulled it from under his chin while he was sleeping. Now, it looks like someone put it through a miniature leaf-shredder, after pulling out the stuffing.

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She’s close to a year old: a chocolate Lab/Wirehaired Terrier mix, bearded, scruffy, skinny, long-legged. On our walks, strangers who stop to ask about her haven’t always been kind. It’s been pointed out to me that she looks like an Irish Wolfhound crossed with a monkey, a Labradoodle with ancestors who were porcupines, a Schnauzer crossed with a Whippet. I’m never bothered by these observations. I happen to know my new girl dog is one of the most beautiful creatures on earth.

The woman who rescued and fostered her told me during a phone conversation that she was guessing Maxine would turn out to be Retriever-ish, but maybe she said that to make me feel I’d have some experience to draw from (my other two dogs are Retrievers). I thought it would be nice to live with a dog who has two different but equal sides, like kids on a seesaw who weigh the same. That was a fantasy. I know a lot about Terriers now. I know the Terrier part of any dog has no interest in being equal. Terriers feel they should be allowed to do whatever they want, all the time, and if you don’t agree with that, something must be wrong with you.

“Maxine, this is a lesson! School time! School and bagel!” I home-school my dogs, making things up as we go along in a trial-and-error sort of way. I’m a dog-training amateur, and sometimes, their behavior drives me crazy, especially when other people are around. Anyone who comes to my home, stranger to the dogs or not, has to hurry to a chair (as in, “sit down and hang on!”) because the dogs get carried away greeting and checking out humans and vying for attention. If I shut them in another part of the house when someone’s visiting, I break their hearts. They act like eager students who do not understand why their teacher won’t give them a lesson in something they’re dying to learn.

I don’t have dog-education credentials, but I taught creative writing to humans for a long time. Also, I’m a mom. I love teaching and it’s always come naturally to me, and I do think my students and my son fared okay with me pushing them to try things they never thought they could do, and then pushing them a little harder to do those things as well as they possibly could. But they’d probably, every one of them, welcome any chance to say I was tough, or I was demanding, or I was “Terrier-like.”

“Yes! It’s blueberry!”

Maxine watches me take the bagel out of the freezer and drop it into an empty cereal box. Her tail stops moving, like an excited voice going suddenly silent. She’s confused. Why don’t I hand her this favorite thing? Is something wrong? Did I stop loving her after only one month, when I had sworn to love her forever, when love was the first word I taught her, even before sit and bagel? I set the cereal box upright on the floor. She is baffled. She takes a step toward it, then two steps back, tail drooping, head low.

When I do this with Andy, my giant, high-strung Golden, he gets whatever big carton I have. It takes him just minutes to jump the box and jaw it, paw it, crush it and rip it. When he finishes the treat, he commences to see how much cardboard he can eat before I take it away. Skip, my undersized Nova Scotia Duck Toller, gets a shoe or boot box, the lid secured with duct tape to thwart him. He is the MIT student of my household. He takes forever to paw-push and nose-nudge the box around, tipping it, studying it, until he figures out exactly where the treat is. When he creates an opening, it’s the right size for him to reach in with his snoot or a paw, and there you go. It would never occur to either of them not to liberate the treat.

Maxine went into a high-kill shelter when she was a tiny pup. There is no information about her past except that her mother is a chocolate Lab owned by a “backyard breeder.” Somehow, the Lab had mated with an anonymous bearded Terrier—definitely not one she was supposed to step out with.

The woman who saved Maxine is connected with the adoption group I had applied to. This is how she described the rescue to me: “I ran to the shelter when I found out they put her name on their euthanasia schedule for that day. Her time had run out and no one wanted her. I don’t suppose anyone going there to adopt had looked at her twice, her being so unusual. She’s the only one of that litter—they were all surrendered— who didn’t get homed. I opened her cage and grabbed her and tucked her under my arm. I wish you could’ve seen how she looked at me. She was real quiet, but she knew what was what. They always know.”

Maxine looks at the box. She lies down. Her eyes are the eyes of one who feels defeated about trying something before the trying has even begun. In her head, she is still in her cage. Everything she wants is outside it.

They say that dogs don’t cry like humans. But anyone who has lived with a dog knows they do. They just don’t get wet about it.

I whisper to her, “Don’t cry. It’s okay.”

I’ve been afraid that all those months in a cage damaged her in ways that cannot be undone. She has space issues; she’s always banging into things. Her vision checks out perfectly, but she has trouble seeing anything that isn’t straight ahead and up close. If she hears a noise behind her, she still doesn’t know she can learn what it is by simply tuning around. When you throw her a tennis ball, she leaps to catch it, but by the time she jumps, the ball is no longer in the air; then she freaks out a little, not knowing how to look for it. And she was terribly ill when she arrived: parasites, malnutrition, poor digestion. Then came a scary infection that put her into emergency care and hospitalization. This is a dog who, in her first year of life, has twice been at the brink of death.

What am I doing? Why am I forcing her to confront a task she clearly can’t handle? Why didn’t I know right away that expecting her to try for the bagel is the same as asking her to grow wings and fly around the room like a bird?

For a second, I comfort myself with the thought that maybe I rushed this. It’s only been a month. Surely, when I try again at some point in the future, all will be well, and she’ll make a tiny effort to at least put one paw on her box. But the signs aren’t good.

The top flaps of the cereal box are open and folded back. In the moment before I reach for the box to tip it and let the bagel fall out so she can at least retrieve it, I smile at her and try to tell her with a look that what I’m about to do is completely right, and what I’d meant to do all along. I didn’t really want her to do to the box what she had done to her crate toys, Andy’s bear, Skip’s rubber duck and all the other things she’s destroyed. It’s fine that she doesn’t do what Terriers have done historically to small animals, such as rats. I want her to be happy and safe and okay with herself exactly as she is. I want her to …

There’s no such thing as ES P, right? There’s no such thing as thoughts in a human mind transporting, somehow, to the mind of a dog, right?

This happened. I was thinking something along the lines of Get this box and kill it, Maxine. I was thinking, I want …

She jumps up from what was nearly a stupor so fast that I almost don’t see it. She pounces. She sinks her teeth into the side of the box, then tips her head and hoists it, and shakes it and shakes it and shakes it. Her head is going side to side almost as fast as her tail. She doesn’t know the bagel flew out until she takes a break from the shaking to catch her breath.

She spots where the bagel landed. Oh! How did that happen?

She is awestruck. She grabs it and jumps to the couch, which is covered with an old cotton blanket. As soon as she’s up there, she licks the bagel like it needs to be cleaned. I see the way she settles into the blanket. Her cage had a floor of cement.

I go to the treat container to get a biscuit. Andy and Skip are out in the dog pen and they’ll soon be inside. I know what will happen if they smell blueberry bagel and not a ordinary treat on their sister’s breath. I’ll never hear the end of it, but they’re both on a diet.

I send Maxine this thought: no way am I leaving the box lid open the next time, no way. She doesn’t tune in. She’s too busy chewing.

Crumbs are stuck in her beard. She’s holding the bagel between her slim, strong paws. She seems too fixated to know she’s about to get a biscuit, too, but of course she knows. Her tail starts thumping the couch, up, down, drumstick-like, sounding out a beat I want to listen to forever. A heartbeat.

Ellen Cooney, who has taught writing at MIT and Harvard, has had stories published in The New Yorker and many literary journals. Her most recent novel is The Mountaintop School for Dogs.