As a child, I had a few notable dogs, and not one of them, to my knowledge, spent a single moment of their lives on a leash.
We lived in the country where dogs roamed free. They’d come to the back door for kibble or scraps (except for Trinket the toy poodle who exclusively ate hot dogs and Doritos). They went under the porch for extra shade. They’d keep us company for any adventures we took outside and would follow Daddy more faithfully and happily than any of the rest of us even though he was quickest to scold them and was never one to pet them.
They were our dogs, and we were their people; but we all belonged to nature first and foremost. Our dependence on one another was loose and fairly balanced. We provided easy food, but they could hunt up some supper of their own if they wanted. A few even helped us get OUR dinner by hunting rabbits and squirrels with Daddy. They provided protection from other animals getting in the garden or coming too near the house. They notified us of visitors or the mailman or the meter reader. We offered one another companionship, but they had other friends, and so did we.
When I got my first city dog as an adult, I didn’t really know what to make of it at first, and sometimes I still don’t. I always wanted a dog that could come in the house and watch TV and cuddle. When we got Barkley, a yellow labrador retriever, we took him to the best veterinarian in Danville. I read all about puppy raising. We built a chain-link fence. He even graduated from obedience school with flying colors though I think it must’ve been because Steve was particularly charming because Barkley was not the most obedient dog.
The whole process fascinated me. It was the first time I grasped that the only reason to train another being to do anything at all was for their safety and the safety of others. Good training has absolutely nothing to do with the ego of the one who is to be obeyed and everything to do with the love for the one being trained.
I didn’t really grasp this before. I thought obedience was about dominance and not letting your dog, or anyone or anything else for that matter, get the best of you. But as we practiced with Barkley, all of that changed. I learned that while he was still very little, we needed to practice taking his food away while he was eating it so that when he grew to a 100 lbs., he wouldn’t hurt us, other animals, or children who approached him while eating. We practiced taking things out of his mouth and commanding him to “drop it” so that if he was eating something that could harm him, he would let us take it away.
We lost Barkley when he was about 4 years old. We’d moved to the country after my oldest daughter was born, and with his new freedom to wander, he encountered some antifreeze and was accidentally poisoned. I dream of him still and occasionally see a yellow lab and have to remind myself that it isn’t him.
We had a country dog or two before moving back to town. My heart was still very raw from Barkley’s loss, and I was busy teaching two baby girls what to put in their mouths. But when we’d gotten to the point that the kids were house trained and could walk through a parking lot without holding my hand, it was time to get a dog to love more intimately, a dog on a leash.
I got Bodhi for my birthday. He was a family dog, but he was my dog most and everyone accepted that was so. It had been awhile since I’d had a puppy, so I refreshed myself on the details of training and set in determined to raise a dog who loved me unconditionally, who listened and could understand me when no one else could. That’s what I needed most at the time, so I thought he could give me that.
But I was quickly reminded that this relationship wasn’t about me. It would be good for me precisely because it wasn’t about me. Everything about the training is about Bodhi. It’s about keeping him safe, helping him FEEL safe. In order to do that, I have to be consistent and trustworthy. When I am consistent and trustworthy, I feel really good about myself, and he’s happy and cuddly and safe, so it is a win all around, but all of that happens only if I make it about him.
Before Bodhi, I guess I thought the most important things to teach were “sit” and “stay” Those are great commands. All the obedience classes test them. Your dog won’t pass canine cotillion and be pronounced a “good citizen” if he doesn’t know them. They’re about manners mostly. I appreciate manners very much, but they don’t really keep you safe. In fact, sometimes our strong training to be polite with everyone may land us in unsafe circumstances because not everyone who says sit and stay and offers you a treat has your best interests in mind.
I’m sure there many opinions on what is the first and most important thing to teach a pup, but once we got past house training, I determined the most command to teach was “come”. You see, even if it is your intention to always have your dog on a leash or in a fenced in area, teaching “come” can save their lives because things happen. Gates get left open. Holes get dug. Squirrels run out in front of you and instincts give chase and break leashes. But if your dog knows “come” then it is safer in the world.
The training process begins by putting the dog on a long leash, going outside and giving him some affection and maybe a treat. Then, you sit down and wait for him to wander off and get interested in something other than you. Then you say “come”, and reel them in to you, pet them, and give them a treat. Then, you wait for them to wander off again. You repeat the process until they associate the word “come” with coming into your arms for affection and yumminess. Eventually, no “reeling in” is necessary, because they want to be in relationship with you. They may explore other things, but you are the source of all the best stuff, so they will willingly abandon whatever else might have their attention and come to you if you call.
Years after teaching Bodhi I realized that I was taught the same way. My parents and grandparents and church family and God loved me and taught me so well. They kept me on a pretty short leash at first even though I was a country girl. They taught me “come” just in case the leash broke and in anticipation of a time I’d run free. If they called me to them, I didn’t fear a whipping and run away. From the very beginning and to this very day, if I hear their voices, I suspect they want to give me rest, keep me safe, and maybe even give me a treat.
Sure, I heard about whippings and even hell, but there was no need to worry about either one so long as I stuck close to the ones who loved me- most especially MaMa Cain and Jesus who loved me most of all of course.
I understood “come” to mean good things, and so I didn’t run from it. I listened for it. A few times in my life I’ve found myself out chasing squirrels, having followed my instincts or curiosity a ways off from the protection of MaMa and Jesus. Like Bodhi, sometimes I didn’t even know I’d gotten so far from home until I heard the voices calling. Other times, I’d realize I was lost and didn’t know which way home was, so I’d just get still and wait, because I knew my loved ones would miss me soon enough and come looking. I’d hear them holler and know where to turn. When I heard those voices I’d learned to trust, my ears perked up, and I headed toward them.
I am forever grateful for that training and the opportunity to love others of all species as I have been loved.