I had just taken Mindy out of the x-pen and given her a chance to piddle; now we were waiting for the two dogs ahead of us to finish running the Rally Novice course. Could she qualify today? Could she get at least 70 points and earn her third leg and her Rally Novice title today? We stepped into the ring.
The judge asked, “Are you ready?” “Ready,” I answered, “Mindy, heel.”
Ten months ago Mindy, a 12-year-old, 60-pound rescue Brittany, came into my life. An old dog, she was found running loose in Northern California, picked up by the local dog pound and then rescued from them by a no-kill shelter near San Francisco. The shelter had her vet checked, cleaned her teeth, spayed her and got her ready for a new home. She then spent seven months doing nothing but eating and waiting.
I found her photo on the American Brittany Rescue website. I sent in my application late one night. She was delivered to me by a rescue volunteer almost two weeks later, in May, a very plump 60 pounds of white and orange Brittany with an abundance of freckles on her front legs and a sweet graying face with a pouty smile. She was introduced to my other two Brittanys, Magnum and Merlot. After a few snarking incidents between the girls and some unwelcome overtures from Magnum, the male, she settled into our home.
She became Mindy Minya (with the help of a computer search for names), meaning Sweet Older Sister. And that she was. She was mannerly. She was pushy. She wanted her own way. She was grabby when treats or food were dispensed. She knew no real obedience. She could sit if offered a treat but that was the extent of her knowledge.
If Mindy was going to live in my house she needed to learn obedience commands. I am an obedience instructor; my dogs and I live with obedience words 24/7. I was not sure how much a dog her age could learn. My estimation, along with the vet’s, put her at 12 years of age. Could I teach an old dog new tricks?
I signed her up for the next beginning obedience class at our club. I put her on a strict diet; well, the same diet my other dogs were on. Her hips were weak and the additional weight was not helping. She waddled. She had a bad-looking, rough-feeling coat, and a bad eye that was the result of “dry eye” and a blocked tear duct. We got medicine from the vet for her eye and added supplements to her food for her hips and coat.
At the first beginning class (I had my assistant teach the class so I could train Mindy), my old dog taught me a new trick. I called it the “limp lump.” When it came to anything Mindy did not want to do, she went limp, fell on the floor and could not be moved. At 60 pounds she was a hernia waiting to happen if you tried to pick her up. She clamped her mouth shut when she didn’t get her way, and would not be enticed with any type of treat. She even tried a hunger strike for 24 hours because she was upset with me for something I insisted she do.
Her attitude shot down the lure and treat training I usually use, so I went back to an old method of correct and praise. She responded to that well. She quit being a limp lump and started to move. She looked up at me as we did heeling exercises and smiled. Mindy still did not take treats when she was working, but once back in her x-pen at the classroom she would eat. When she decided she was done working, however, she would try to get to the x-pen and end the lesson. When I didn’t allow her, she would yelp. We stopped calling her “limp lump” and started calling her “melt and yelp.” It was quite entertaining for the new beginning students to watch their instructor work with a problem dog. But Mindy was learning, and sometimes even looked like she was enjoying the process.
She started dropping weight, and currently weighs 40 pounds. She started getting energy and stamina with her three-mile walks. She started running around the yard and playing with my other dogs. I didn’t get to work with her daily as I would have liked, but she got in at least one or two days of practice each week. Mentally, she could only handle about ten minutes of training at a time before her little old brain would shut down and she would stress and shake and pant. I tried to end the sessions before she started panting and shaking so she didn’t think that act could end a session on her terms.
In November I signed her up for our club’s annual CGC (Canine Good Citizen) testing. It had been six months since she came to live with me. The test wasn’t easy for her, but we completed the ten exercises for the Canine Good Citizen certificate. What a happy day! I was very pleased with my rescue girl. I wondered what more she was capable of doing.
Over our winter break I trained my competition dogs, Magnum and Merlot. Mindy watched from the patio door while they worked, got treats and had fun with me. I would bring her out for a short bit of training. Shortly she started demanding to come out and train. She started taking treats. She started really being interested in trying to do an exercise—not just having to do it.
In February, my fellow obedience competitors entered a back-to-back trial at the Cow Palace in San Francisco. I decided to enter Mindy in Rally Novice to see what she could do. Rally is a low-stress obedience competition; highest score is 100 points. Seventy points are needed to qualify. Your dog needs three qualifying legs to earn the AKC Rally Novice title. The courses set up at the trials are always different, with signs giving you obedience exercises to complete along each course. It is like a PAR exercise course or rally road race. The judge scores each exercise as they are performed. ..
Very early Sunday morning in February we all piled into my Tahoe, three people and seven dogs, off to the trial in San Francisco. The first course – early in the day – was not an easy one, but I managed to get Mindy through it, and she was willing. The required lie-down exercises found Mindy upside-down on my feet. The left turns, which are her bug-a-boo, were like turning a semi-truck, but we got through the course and she scored an 85. What a good girl, Mindy!
The second trial didn’t start till 1 p.m., but Mindy was already getting tired by late morning. It had already been a long day and then Mindy had one of her panic attacks. She started panting and shaking. This is something she has done since I got her. They come less frequently now, and usually have to do with stress, exhaustion or separation from the other dogs. I took her for a walk outside, but she wanted to get in the Tahoe and go home. Sorry, girl. I worked with her, treated her and petted her until she settled again, and then brought her back into the noisy building and the x-pen with her buddies, Magnum and Merlot. She settled and took a nap.
Finally, 1 p.m. rolled around and we got ready for the next class, but as we waited for our turn in the ring, something happened. A noise, a dog barked – I don’t know – but she started shaking again. She stuffed her head between my legs. I stroked her between the eyes and told her she was fine. And it was our turn in the ring. Yes, Mindy, you can do it.
It was another hard course with a call front, back up one, two, three steps. Mindy was supposed to sit toe-to¬toe with me and face me on each of the stops. But by the time we completed the exercise she was sitting on my feet, her back against my legs looking up, backwards into my face. Points off for being out-of-position and touching the handler. But even with that, we passed with a 72! Talk about squeaking through. We now had two green qualifying ribbons. She had earned two of the three legs needed for her RN title.
Now, one month later, we were outside a Rally ring again, hoping the old girl could keep it together and come out with another qualifying leg and the title we were after. It would be an easy course if I could get her through the left turns. You don’t ever count your points before the judge gives you that score sheet – too many things can happen in the rally obedience rings.
She started forward; we did our fast, then normal, then the first 360-degree left turn. Yes, it was like turning a semi-truck again, a very wide turn, but it should be passable. A right turn, call front, sit, and return to heel around behind me and sit. Another of those dreaded left turns, this one a 270, semi-truck time! She did the turn without sitting down – that was good.
Spiral ahead; time to get dizzy. Thank goodness it was a right spiral where she was on the outside of me. I could coax her along, and she moved easily on the outside turns. Spirals consist of three cones and you walk around and around them cutting off one cone each time until you finish going around the first cone for one last time and off to the rest of the course. She was still with me, yay!
Another right turn, another call front and sit, this time a finish to the left and forward. A 270-degree right turn, and another left turn. Next was what I call the wedding march. Halt and sit, heel one step forward and halt, sit; heel two steps forward and stop, sit; heel three steps forward, stop and sit. That was the last exercise. We finished the last straight heeling exercise of the course. Mindy was still bouncing and looking at me and smiling. We were done. All we had to do was wait for our score. We raced back to the x-pen and I gave her lots of good treats for a job well done. What a good girl, Mindy…
Minutes later, I checked the judge’s scores. Mindy had scored an 85! She passed! She had earned her third leg in Rally and was now an AKC titled dog: Mindy Minya RN CGC.
You CAN teach an old dog new tricks. Where shall we go from here?
Well, it has been another year. Mindy is now 13. A few months ago some friends got together with their Brittanys and went out to a hunt club to see what the dogs were capable of. I had Mindy and the other two dogs with me. Mindy was the first one off the “chain gang”. (A length of chain with shorter chains attached so dogs can be leashed next to each other – close enough to sniff noses but far enough away to not get tangled.) I had thought about keeping Mindy on the check cord, but at the last minute let her loose to hunt on her own. She ran down the hill and started quartering like a good bird dog. She drifted into the wind, stopped and sniffed and off she went, right to where the men had planted a bird. She pointed! Oh my, this dog has had some training in her previous life! She held her point till the bird was flushed and shot and she returned it to hand. Holy Cow! Mindy had a secret skill. Everyone was amazed. So much so that they insisted that I take her to the next hunt test.
I ran the old girl both days of the weekend of the hunt test. She ran hard on Saturday morning, hunting and pointing and finding two birds. Her average score that day was a 7.75, passing. (In hunt tests, two judges judge the dogs on four different skills earning points from 1-10 – they must get at least a 5 for each and average 7 from both judges).
Saturday night at home I gave Mindy a good massage of her sore muscles so she would be able to run again the next day. I was worried that she had run too hard and would be stiff and lame on Sunday. Well, she is a strong old girl because of good food and good exercise and a current good weight. Sunday morning she didn’t run as hard, but she still ran, quartering and hunting and finding her bird. She only found one bird on Sunday, but that was enough – and her pointing skills earned her a 9.5 to average a passing 8.5. This was her second orange hunt test pass ribbon. Two more and she will have the title of Junior Hunter.
But she hasn’t stopped. The next weekend we went back to the Rally courses. With just regular heeling practice and doodling exercises, Mindy was going into the next step up in Rally, Rally Advanced. She was working that afternoon on the foundation obedience training that was done when she first came to live with me … and working with her same tail-wagging attitude she trotted out of the Rally Advanced ring with a qualifying score of 92! Guess we need to go back and finish that Rally title (two more legs) and of course the Hunt title … because the old dog hasn’t stopped learning – and amazing all of us!