“I’m interested in your puppy class,” said the voice mail.
That voice mail sent me on a memory trail of training my own puppies and the adults they became and the dogs that came to live with me along the way. It strayed far back to the first puppy classes that I instructed, a dim memory of owners with wiggling fuzziness and slick coated lickers.
“Put your hands like this, get them used to being handled all over, remember to praise and be pleased. See you next week!”
Puppy classes still start the same; my introduction as a farm girl growing up with border collies, getting married and, in 1976, bringing home a Norwegian elkhound puppy who flipped me the furry finger when I said come. The owners laugh at the visual and relax as we move into the basic skills of civilizing Fido.
My elkhound from the 1980 training decade taught me a painful lesson. Oh, how hard she worked to please me, the impressive scores in Novice obedience, and then the huge struggle in Open. Her problems were so confusing, how she would sometimes be almost flawless then hit the jumps, or race out for the dumbbell and then next session just stand there with it lying almost in front of her, or the times she just flat refused to do anything.
And then the answers:
“Juvenile cataracts,” said the eye specialist at the CERF clinic. “Your 4 year old dog can’t see directly in front of herself, and bright lights or sun make it impossible for her to see clearly. She’s had them since birth.”
“Hip dysplasia,” said the x-rays.
“I love you anyway,” said my dog. “Even when you yelled at me or yanked my collar and got really frustrated.”
“Listen to your dog,” is the lesson she taught me. “Look for medical issues!”
Kids and dogs seem natural. My daughter’s dog taught me volumes. My shy young girl, who clung to me for weeks at the kindergarten door and had to be bribed to merely step onto the stage at a dance recital, oh, how brave she was with her dog beside her. She trained her dog with infinite patience through Open and showed her in 4-H for years at the Fair and in AKC Showmanship. They developed a teenage Saturday morning ritual – I would open the bedroom door a crack and there was a dog stretched out on the floor beside the bed giving me a one eye look of close-the-door-and-leave-us-alone and a teenager doing the same.
“Remember the kids,” she taught me. “Teenage years are tough. Make sure we’re there for them.”
The girl grew up and left for college. The old dog began sleeping downstairs by the door. Then Thanksgiving came. An ecstatic dog bounced up the stairs and slept by her bed. The week flew by. The house was quiet again. Bedtime came. The dog climbed the stairs, butted the bedroom door open, and looked around at the empty room. The tail drooped, a slow turn and an old dog with a broken heart slept downstairs.
I take a walk in the small orchard and pine tree mix and visit with the spirits of my greatest puppy class mentors. I pause for a moment at the patch of tulips that I didn’t plant. They just appeared one spring. It’s where my special instructor rests. He was a brilliant puppy, ready for Novice obedience by 6 months, and then became a teenage hoodlum. After he growled and snapped at several people, I became a student again. My training changed, my world changed, and he changed. His ability to reach and rehabilitate troubled kids and troubled dogs was enormous. When his last day came, the clinic closed and all were in tears. He could only raise his head by then and he gently licked the tears off the vet’s chin.
“Keep learning. I had to rebel so you would become a problem solver,” he whispers across the curtain.
The old dog now prefers to lay under the shrubs and shade tree during the day and dream about roaming the pasture and digging for rodents. Fourteen plus years ago, the wheaten brown retriever mix was a young pound dog. She became one of the dogs chosen for participants to train at a NADOI sponsored workshop. This puppy had to be dug out of the crate the first day. Slowly, the trust and try began and blossomed. By the end of the three-day workshop, all the dogs had learned their task and the people had grown in knowledge. Miss Maggie had also snagged an adolescent’s heart. Her home would be here and her puppy lessons would continue here.
“You’re like the rest of the world” she grins at me as her broad head rests on my knee. “Your little girl wanted the shy cute puppy. You didn’t know the parents or any background. Yet I came to live with you.”
Yes, Miss Maggie, you’re right. Because of you, I was humbled and learned more empathy and skills when dealing with owners of rescues.
My heart breaks when my companions leave me. They always greeted me with wagging tail and delight on their faces. The current crew will break my heart some more.
I muse about teaching puppy classes. I celebrate each success. Another family will have a cherished canine member for X number of years. Then that dog, once a puppy in my class, that dog will break their heart with a much too soon departure. I set them up for that broken heart. But I have also set them up for years of joy and unconditional love.
“Hello,” I say to voice on the line, “You called about puppy class?”
©2014 Marti Kincaid