If my husband and I had to identify with one of the couples in the movie Best in Show, we would be Hamilton and Meg Swan, the uptight duo (she has adult braces, he favors turtlenecks) whose own neuroses screw up their pooch.
If we are one of the couples in the movie National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation, we are most definitely Todd and Margo Chester, the equally uptight twosome who are constantly being imposed upon by the unruliness of their neighbors.
So, when it came to dog ownership, no one accused us of being too laid back about it.
We had two goals. One, to make sure our home was left as unscathed as possible from the rigors of puppyhood. Two, to make sure our neighbors were not bothered by a barking, snarling dog that chased them as they passed by.
So, after we had completely puppy-proofed the kitchen, we expanded our library by buying five, yes, five books on dog obedience.
As I had never owned a dog, the idea of training one seemed overwhelming to me. And my husband, who knows I am both uptight and changeable, was skeptical I would be able to apply the concepts as well. Basically, he told me that dog obedience school is all about consistency. And consistency? Not my strong suit.
However, I started reading. Started reading, flagging, highlighting and underlining, if we’re being honest. I got through the entirety of the book on Boston Terriers. And then I started reading The Power of Positive Dog Training.
It didn’t take me long to realize that people who write dog obedience books are, ba dum ching!, a special breed. First off, they don’t mind talking about their own dogs (living and dead) quite a bit in their books. They also don’t mind taking pictures of themselves (with their dogs) in various unflattering poses wearing various unflattering outfits. Sweatpants paired with blouses? Not out of the question for this crew. Floppy hats with daisies pinned on them? It only means I’m fancy.
Anyway, William was right: The gist of the training is to work your dog often and in the same way each time. And if you’re going to train your dog the 2017 way, that means no punishment, only treats and praise.
It also means you buy a clicker.
For the uninitiated, a clicker is a little device that has a button that, when pressed, makes a firm click sound. The click, like bright lights or other sharp sounds, is supposed to make a beeline to the amygdala, a structure in the most primitive part of the brain. The amygdala is associated with rapid learning, long retention and emotional surges.
To use the clicker initially, you give your dog a command. If he even comes close to doing what you asked, you click the clicker and then give him a little treat to reinforce the behavior.
When I was reading, I immediately saw one glaring problem with this approach: How in the heck are you going to make sure you always have the clicker on hand? I had visions of fashioning some kind of necklace featuring the clicker as the charm so I could wear it at all times, like some women do with eye glasses. It was then I started to get a better picture of how dog obedience experts start down their sartorial path.
Anyway, by the time we got Fitzi, we were in possession of three clickers and a whole pile of treats. And three weeks into ownership, it was time to begin.
First off, I’ll say I was an immediate flop in the dog-training department, in no small part because I kept freezing when he’d actually do something right. I’d either forget to do anything or I’d treat first and then click or I’d drop the clicker altogether and Fitz would run after that thinking it was a treat and then I’d freak out thinking he was going to swallow it.
But, thanks to Caroline Short at puppy school, I got my act cleaned up. And all of a sudden, all of a freaking sudden, Fitz was doing exactly what we asked exactly when we asked it.
I mean, I’m not here to brag (much) or anything, but there was one night at puppy school that Caroline was pretty damn impressed with our dog. I mean, it’s possible he’s the best student she’s ever had. In fact, now that I think about, it’s quite likely. So far, he can sit, lie down, come, wait, and go to his bed on command.
It’s actually pretty cool. And yes, I did just call dog obedience theory “cool.” And as I sign off wearing a flouncy dress, sturdy, black loafers and butterfly earrings, I don’t give a care who hears me.