Loose leash walking is easier said than done with a new dog, especially one, like Gracie, our American Staffordshire Terrier (mixed breed?), who loves to pull because there’s so much to see and do and sniff. What she really wants to do is play with the dogs that she sees out walking with their owners in our Norman Rockwell – looking neighborhood. We know that Gracie likes dogs but my neighbors, who haven’t met her yet, look at her and see the stereotype pit bull dog that they “know” isn’t dog friendly. Rather than fight that battle, we’ve decided to do all of the things that we’ve always done with all of our dogs with Gracie.
Like go to dog school.
Dog school means that you have a formal class one night out of the week with other dogs and their humans. It also means that you have homework to do until the next session: 8-10 minute mini lessons of focused activity that take one teaching moment from class to work on.
Last night, we moved ourselves out into the front yard because (for the most part) we were having success with loose leash walking in the back yard. It was time to widen the training area.
Gracie decided she’d much rather focus on all of the neighborhood activity than focus on my son. As clicker training is still more a confused tangle of holding treats and clicker in one hand, balanced against the leash-holding hand, while the brain coordinates the physical demands alongside of the mental calculations including human speech (Argh!), we bagged the clicker. How to turn this around into a positive, fun session?
Suddenly, one of those eureka moments spun out of my head. Taking the leash from my son, I said, “Gracie, heel!” and gathering the leash so that she stood close to my leg, I started walking figure eights between one of the dogwood trees and the tree peony. Together, we walked fast as my son watched. I stopped, asked Gracie for a sit stay. Taking two stepps to the side of her, I silently counted to five and released her.
“Now, it’s your turn,” I said to my son. Just like a game of show and tell, off they went doing loose leash heeling, mixing things up by changing direction, ending each figure eight with a sit stay.
Early this morning, I grabbed my camera and quietly let myself out the front door to take a few photos of last night’s training arena. It’s one of my favorite spots in the yard because of all of the memory flowers and bushes we’ve planted over the years. Holding up the anchor position, at the far end of the garden, is a huge Miss Kim lilac bush. When my father-in-law died, one of my dear friends showed up at our house with a small lilac bush, its root ball wrapped in burlap. “We plant a tree when someone we love dies,” she said as she held it out to me. I think that was 19 years ago. In full bloom, it’s delicate perfume teases after the dog walkers as they amble down the street. When I stand in my kitchen, in front of the open window, I can get drunk on the scent.
At the opposite end of the garden is an azalea plant, just one of the flowering shrubs that my mother-in-law planted in my yard during the years that she and my father-in-law lived near us. I worried about this plant for the longest time because it’s flowers never seemed to bloom with the richness in color and size that my neighbor’s more established azaleas did. This was a good year for it.
When my mom died, I dug up one of the peony bushes that grew in her front garden, brought it home and stuck it in my front garden. It always blooms a few weeks before my grandfather’s thick row of peonies bloom. His peonies are more than 50 years old, and take up one end in the back yard. I never had to worry about my grandfather’s peonies, except for two summers ago when my son chopped half of them back to the ground three months earlier than you’re supposed to. I worried all through the following winter. What if they didn’t come back?
All that worry for nothing. The next spring, they rose up out of that flower bed like nothing bad had happened to them.
Which is to say that some flowering plants are pretty resilient. If they get what they need, enough water, sunlight and the right kind of plant food when they most need it, they will reward you with beautiful flowers. Some of them take their own sweet time and you have to make allowances for that. I like to think that learning things with your dog is a lot like this. If you know what your dog wants and needs, if you know what you want to accomplish, if you give each other enough of the right kinds of things and if you’re patient, you’ll both be rewarded beyond anything you could imagine. For now, we’ll just imagine the end result of our training: Gracie, walking without pulling, on a loose leash, by my son’s side.