September 10, 2019

Every dog should have a man of his own. There is nothing like a well-behaved person around the house to spread the dog’s blanket for him, or bring him his supper when he comes home man-tired at night.

-Corey Ford


It’s early morning and I am dragged from a deep restful sleep by a soft whine coming from just beyond the foot of my bed. I open my eyes and, out of habit, look at the clock. It reads 6:33 AM. Once the fog clears from my mind, I say, “Good morning, Waldo,” and start getting dressed. The early morning sun is oozing its soft pastel rays between the slats of the venetian blinds and gives dim illumination to the bedroom. I’m pretty sure the motivating power behind the whine is this low ambient light level and not some internal dog-clock. A full bladder and bowel cramps may be playing a role too, but I’m not about to test that. Waldo has me well trained and I get us ready for a walk, on the rail-trail, without further thought, complaint or argument. Sometimes morning doesn’t begin this way. When it doesn’t, it’s because I want to get going earlier and it starts with an electronic alarm in the dark. But this morning I “slept in.”

He also has me trained to recognize when he wants to play, get pets and hugs and when he needs a drink of water. This is not too hard to figure out. He comes up to me and nudges me with a toy in his mouth when he wants to play. He lays his head on my lap and nuzzles in between my arm and my chest when he wants affection. He pants hard, his saliva-dripping tongue flops around in the air and he seeks whatever shade he can find when he needs rest and a drink of water. More than anything else, Waldo has trained me to be vigilant and pay attention to him and his body language so I can anticipate what he needs. He uses a butt-wagging tail, a jaunty step, and a mischievous twinkle in his eye as positive reinforcement. His methods of negative reinforcement usually entail some kind of mess I have to clean up, but that doesn’t happen often.

Waldo has learned a lot of commands. He knows sit, down, wait, come and drop it, to name a few. I use treats, hugs, pets, and verbal encouragement for positive reinforcement and a shortened leash, a soft tug on the leash, and a sharp word (like “Goddammit, dog!”) – all of which are rare and thoughtless reactions, as negative reinforcement. We see a dog trainer once a week. She gives us goals to work toward during the intervening days and helps us slowly progress down the path of mutual respect and coexistence. This week, we’re working on the command “stay.” We’ve worked on this in the past, but indoors. We now work on it in the midst of distractions outdoors. It has obvious safety implications and I don’t give Waldo much slack in compliance.

As we walk down the rail-trail, I stop every few minutes and tell Waldo to sit and then to stay and slowly back away from him while facing him. If he moves from stay, I tell him no and return him to the same spot. Once I am at the end of the leash, I count to thirty seconds and, if he has held his position, I tell him to break and he gleefully comes to me for a treat before he goes back about his business. This does not always happen. He could rebel and fight the leash and refuse to sit, but this is not his default ploy. Instead, he’ll see what he can get away with and break from stay without command. He’s a brat. I think he’s trying to train me to let him decide what he’s going to do.

It’s been a bit more than six months since Waldo and I joined forces. I’ve adapted to living with a puppy whose needs I can’t ignore even if I wanted to. Waldo has accepted that there are things he must do, even if he’s not so inclined, and what he can get away with. It is definitely a work in progress and it is not at all clear, all the time, who’s in the driver’s seat. We are both pretty hard-headed.

Living with Waldo is a negotiation and, in the end, we both get trained.

No! Stay!

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