Every Monday evening at about six-thirty, our dog, Dolly pees on the floor. Dolly’s a young black-and-white rescue mutt my husband and I have had for two months; and on Mondays at three o’clock I pick her up from the day care where she goes twice a week and take her to what we call, Dog School. After a day of wild romping, Dolly sits more or less quietly on a low platform with five other dogs who are also sitting quietly on low platforms, where they learn to obey basic commands. Dolly is extremely good at “stay,” as evidenced by her refusal to get into my car when class is over. Eventually someone comes walking by and, out of kindness, pity, or both, helps me hustle her through the car door. When we get home, she sleeps for a couple of hours and then, when my husband and I aren’t looking, leaves a puddle of urine on the carpet.
This is, I have decided, due to contempt for me. I’m the one who goes with her to Dog School, and I don’t seem to be the most successful student. The first time Dolly planted herself in the parking lot of the school and refused to move toward the car, I took her back into the building and asked for help. “I can’t get her into the car,” I said.
“How good are your treats?” the trainer asked. I thought I had pretty good treats—meatball pieces—but apparently not. I don’t know what treats the trainer had, but he had dog-movement success where I failed. My treats failed. I am a failure.
My failure is particularly galling because my husband doesn’t have the car problem, which also arises at home. He’s strong enough to pick up Dolly, who weighs about 50 pounds, and shove her into the back seat when she balks. He also doesn’t have the problem of her nipping at his ankles when he walks her. When Dolly first came to live with us, however, she bit my ankles all the time, to the point where it was almost impossible for me to take her out. The trainer, when consulted, said, “Plant your feet and don’t move until she stops.”
Me: “I can’t move because she has my pant leg in a death grip.” Then I added, “She doesn’t do this with my husband.”
The trainer, a man, arranged his face into a tolerant expression, “You may not be setting strong enough boundaries with her,” he said. Since my husband is the one who lets Dolly nibble on his hands, I thought this was a sexist comment but let it go. Thankfully, Dolly let go too, due to the apparently better treats and praise (“Good girl!”) I started to give her when she walked nicely by my side. I did have to learn, said the trainer, not to say “Good girl!” too often, lest it stop working.
Dolly isn’t the first animal to make me feel like a loser. There was our orange cat, Rocky, adopted when I lived in New York. After I picked him up at the animal shelter and brought him to my apartment, Rocky ran behind the bathtub and didn’t come out for two days, after which he appeared in the hallway and meowed dolefully at me at the top of his lungs. He didn’t stop for five years. Then there was Max, voted Pet Most Likely to Eat Us If We Died. Max was a black cat we bought from a pet store at a discount because he’d been killing birds in the store, and to be fair, he didn’t much like anybody. He spent his days and nights hunting in the woods behind our house, having urinated regularly in a corner of the living room until we allowed him outside. Eventually he met his end at the jaws of a coyote. “Well,” I told my husband, “At least he died doing what he loved.”
The pet who topped them all, though, was Banzai, the dog we owned before Dolly. Banzai was four months old when we adopted him as a shepherd mix—he looked like a small Belgian Malinois—but when we did a DNA test, the results showed he was 75% border collie. This explained his herding behavior, which manifested in never letting our kids out of the house without circling their feet and barking. He also barked ceaselessly at school buses, trucks, and cars during walks.
I hired a trainer who specialized in working with herding breeds. The first day, she showed me how to stop Banzai from herding the kids by deploying a pair of ski poles to create a space to trap him in. I wasn’t nimble enough to succeed at this. She also instructed me in the use of cheese to distract Banzai when he barked at cars; this worked two or three times, after which Banzai decided he liked barking better than cheese—or than anything else I tried to give him, including lunch meat. “Hm,” said the trainer, “I’ve never seen a dog who didn’t respond to food.” Since for several months Banzai had been using his nose to push away treats he didn’t like, his lack of responsiveness wasn’t a surprise to me. We had to wait until he was 13 years old and his hearing and eyesight failed for the herding and barking to stop.
My sons, who have more-or-less jokingly told me that Banzai traumatized them, nevertheless became dog owners after they moved out on their own. Sam and his girlfriend own a Siberian husky and a sheepdog, and seem to have no problems except for the state of their house during fur-blowing season. Pete adopted a puppy he named Sasha and immediately decided he was going to train her better than we’d trained Banzai. During a drive from Boca Raton to Boulder, Sasha slept happily in the back seat of Pete’s car through the whole trip. “She was great,” Pete said. Pete himself had been nearly impossible to get into his car seat when he was little, later distinguishing himself at age 14 by stealing my keys and driving my minivan to a friend’s house. I could only marvel at his good luck in finding a dog who was his polar opposite.
Despite my frustrations, I’m gradually coming to terms with the fact that I’m never going to be a person who can always get other creatures to do what I tell them. And Dolly, for her part, is a sweet, affectionate dog, so there are moments of peace. Unfortunately, one came after a terrifying incident at the local dog park: Dolly was playing with another dog who grabbed her collar (“He knows how to go for it,” his owner had said proudly), got his tooth stuck, and couldn’t let go. Dolly started choking. The other dog’s owner and I tried frantically to separate the two, but couldn’t until another person—a burly guy with a no-nonsense attitude—muscled his way in and pried the dogs loose. “I’m a corrections officer,” he explained. Dolly ran to me and huddled close beside me on a bench, and I snuggled her until we both decided it was time to leave. Love is something I’m good at, and at that moment, it was the most important thing for both Dolly and me.
But a happier bonding event occurred on a walk a few days after Dolly stopped biting my ankles. As she and I passed the neighbors’ house, Dolly spied a bone lying on their front lawn—a long, thin bone, probably from one of the many deer who live in the woods surrounding our neighborhood. She walked up to the bone and sniffed it. She looked at me. I looked back at her. Then she picked up the bone and looked at me again. “It’s ok,” I said. Dolly turned around, bone still in her mouth, and made a beeline for home, glancing back at me every minute or so as if to say, “Are you sure you’re ok with this?” I decided I was. “Good girl, Dolly,” I whispered. “Good girl.”
Rita Malenczyk is a writer, English professor, painter, and printmaker living and working in eastern Connecticut.