Harriet Goes to School

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Harriet is six months old now, old enough to know better about some things. It would be obvious to most everyone who walked in the door that she is an alpha dog, whether they know the term or not. She dominates. She’s got to be first in line, ahead of the game, issuing the orders. Mayday, who is going on 14, is often left in the dust of Harriet’s storm. What she wants more than anything at this point in her life is to lie on her (my) couch and sleep, perchance to dream. But Harriet is intent on disturbing this restful pose, egging her on to play or pushing her off her nest. Not nice. It’s true that Mayday’s age works against her but they both are terriers, or as we sometimes call them, terrierists, willful little creatures from whom the word dogged was undoubtedly derived. Mayday was not so very different when she was Harriet’s age. Once I saw her little pointed ears grow straight up, I called them her devil’s horn as she took over the household. And so it has gone for Harriet, soft floppy ears instead of devil’s horns but the effect is all the same. But, alas, what was good for Mayday will not be good for Harriet. For Harriet, the fun is over. Her puppyhood is past and now it’s time to get down to business, enroll in school, start figuring out that she’s not the only creature on the planet, start realizing that she has to recognize some authority other than her own.

I am so lucky as to have a “dog whisperer” living down the road. I first encountered Perry at my friend David’s sheep farm, where he used to be the fulltime dog trainer. There are a lot of sheep dogs up there and they perform before audiences at fairs around New England, in addition to their more homely chores on the farm. Since then, Perry has gone out on his own and leads classes and does special one-on-one coaching for problem dogs. Not that Harriet is a problem, per se, but rather I would like to correct some of her, shall we say, less attractive habits? So last week Perry was able to spare me an hour to work with Harriet. I do believe that dogs have a sixth sense and Perry’s arrival here could prove it. Harriet just about stood up and saluted as soon as he walked into the house. Of course, the training was more for me than for Harriet but I didn’t tell her that. She sat and regarded him quietly while he and I spoke. Clearly she had encountered her match. She seemed to be trying to figure out how to put him into a corner and make him stay there. She knew perfectly well we were discussing her future. I was waiting for her outburst. But instead, he led me through some exercises, which I duplicated as best I could, even trying to imitate the funny mouth sounds he made, sounds meant to say “no” — a word he cautioned me against using. Too general. No meaning. So I have begun stuttering out this sound, something like uh-uh-uh-uh uttered at high speed whenever she is doing something I don’t want her to do. Another command we have adopted is “off” when she jumps up or goes on the couch without an invitation. Personally, I have never been able to prevent a puppy, who then becomes a dog, from jumping up on a couch or a bed. They just do it and that is that and, frankly, I don’t mind at all. But, no, Perry says it should only be done on command, especially when you are dealing with an alpha dog. Otherwise she will run your life. OK, I’m not interested in that eventuality so I have started using the word “off” when I want her to — stay off whatever it is. The amazing thing is, it is working. Only a day of this new regimen and she’s getting it. It seems almost magical. Maybe he really is a dog whisperer. We’ll see how far we get but, for now, Harriet is behaving remarkably well. I guess dogs are not so different from children. Or adults, for that matter. Discipline really does matter. We all feel better for having a bit of it.


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