When I was a kid, one of my favorite authors was James Herriot, who wrote wonderful nostalgic stories about his life as a veterinarian in England’s Yorkshire Dales.
In those days, my family didn’t have a dog, nor did we live on a farm. Herriot, on the other hand, was a highly-trained domestic animal expert who often found need to put his entire arm directly inside a cow. Suffice to say, I regarded him as a pretty safe authority when it came to the general behaviour of all creatures great and small.
Herriot frequently wrote about the majesty and nobility of dogs. However, now that I am older and endure a dog of my own, I now believe that:
1) James Herriot didn’t actually own a dog, and was pretty much just guessing about how they might act, or
2) James Herriot was on drugs, or
3) The dogs he wrote about in his books were on drugs, or
4) James Herriot is actually the pseudonym for a group of talented Labrador Retrievers who somehow taught themselves to type.
As I mentioned, as a little kid I didn’t get a lot of real-world experience with dog ownership, although I remember our family briefly owning a dog when I was around six-years-old. The dog was a beagle mix of some sort that we obtained from the animal shelter, presumably because his previous owner, Satan, found him too difficult to manage.
This particular beagle had some very specific anger management issues coupled with a unique fondness for urinating on furniture – and when I say “fondness,” I mean that if pissing on things was an Olympic sport, this dog would be Michael Phelps. He lasted in our house for about a week (the dog I mean, not Michael Phelps) before my father returned him to the shelter. I don’t recall if we had the dog long enough to properly name him. I just remember the moniker my father stuck him with, which was “that little son of a bitch.”
My dog stories don’t exactly match up to those of Mr. Herriot, is what I’m saying.
Our current family pet is Superdog, a Japanese Chin-Shih Tzu (gesundheit) cross, whom my daughters adore. Perhaps his most notable features are his big brown soulful eyes. When he looks at my daughters, his eyes tell them, “I will love you for eternity…especially if I can have the rest of that cookie.”
When he looks at me though, the message is far less benign. His eyes say, “Hello human person. I’d like you to do something about the temperature of the water in my drinking bowl. Lukewarm doesn’t do it for me. And while you’re at it, I left a steamer in the yard for you this morning that looks like it came out of a Tasmanian Devil. Enjoy.”
When Superdog was a puppy, I decided early on that I wasn’t going to surrender in any battle of wills against a nine-pound furball who still gets confused by stairs. I was determined to train him so well that, if things didn’t work out for him in the Ad-libb3d household, he could always fall back on a career as a canine officer with the local SWAT team.
Every book I researched on the subject made the process sound simple. According to popular academic theory, the first step in dog training was to establish myself as the “alpha dog” or “lead wolf” in our metaphorical household pack. In other words, I simply had to convince Superdog that I was the dominant male of the family and entitled to all the deference and privilege that the office entails.
However, given that our metaphorical household pack also includes two fair-haired daughters who, whenever I make any attempt to flex my alpha-wolf authority, openly laugh in my face – and, in fact, just last week took turns throwing peanut M-and-M’s at my head when I ordered them to fold laundry – this concept was doomed from the start.
So as a backup plan, Superdog and I enrolled in Wednesday night dog obedience class.
The first Wednesday, we owners attended without our pets. The teacher was a pleasant woman with an uncanny ability for sizing up people and their dogs.
“Dogs never fail my class, only people fail,” she warned, making it disturbingly clear from the outset whose side she was on.
One exasperated woman constantly interrupted our orientation with anxious questions about her dog, which was, I gathered, some dreadful destructive monster that kept its entire family in a constant state of terror. The woman’s demeanor was not unlike JoBeth Williams in the movie Poltergeist when, exhausted and nerve-wracked, she finally goes looking for an exorcist to rescue her family.
The woman showed up to class the following Wednesday with a little blond Chihuahua, who proved to be ridiculously easy to train. The teacher looked at Superdog on the first night and told me, “He’s got a stubborn streak in him. It’s going to take a lot of work to make any progress with him.”
I told you she was uncanny.
I came to dread Wednesday nights. Our classes were held in a large downtown warehouse, where we owners would move around in a circle with our dogs while people sat along the sidelines in folding chairs and laughed at us. I don’t know who these people were or where they came from. Maybe they just came down to the warehouse on any given night just to watch whatever happened to be playing.
I would have laughed at the spectacle too, were it not for the fact that Superdog and I were a central part of the entertainment. Week after week, session after session, I watched as everyone’s dog learned to skillfully execute every command at a snap of their owner’s finger. By week four, even Jobeth Williams lady’s Chihuahua was a poster model of puppy success, dutifully marching around like the sergeant major in a military color guard, while Superdog and I mainly just spent our time trying to get from one corner of the room to another without tripping each other with the leash.
As you remember, dogs couldn’t flunk the program, only people could, so Superdog was, in the end, entitled to a diploma. Me, I received only a slightly ripped receipt for the payment of the classes and a sad, disappointed look from the instructor. Superdog and I slinked away, wholly accepting of the fact that Superdog is far better suited to sitting on the sofa nuzzled up to one of my girls than, say, defending our estate from invaders or rescuing children after they’ve fallen down a well.
Superdog’s nearly eleven now, and despite our differences and his steadfast refusal to do anything I ask of him, we manage to get along in an ongoing state of mutual ambivalence. After all, he’s never been “my” dog, but rather “their” dog, referring to my children. And in fairness, they love him to death and he loves them back, and I’m certain he would do his level best to defend them both with his life if it came down to it, even if the best he could do is bite someone in the bottom part of their lower ankle.
In his eyes, I’ve never achieved “alpha-wolf” status, and I know I never will. But hey, there’s always a silver lining if you look hard enough.
At least he doesn’t piss on the furniture.