For all her posh breeding–Cavalier King Charles Spaniels were favorites of Charles II of England–Bisou is a country dog, accustomed to a daily ramble through the landscape.
In our previous house, the minute I let her out she would disappear into the woods, which in fall were her exact color, or into the tall grass of the field. When–certain that coyotes and catamounts were salivating after her–I shrieked \”Bisou, come!\” she would streak back to me, her feathers encrusted with burrs and her back crawling with ticks when the weather was warm, or soaked to the skin and with baseball-sized ice balls clinging to her coat when it wasn\’t.
What never changed was the speed of her short legs, the way her ear curls streamed behind her head, and the ecstatic smile on her face.
In her childhood I took her to obedience classes, where we were introduced to \”walking on a loose leash\”–a kinder, gentler version of the strict heeling that my earlier dogs and I had been taught. While she was not the star of the class, she wasn\’t a disaster, either–at least not on Wednesdays at 7 p.m., when we gathered in the same building with the same dogs and people and smells.
But whenever I took her to new surroundings, her training went out the window. The solution was, of course, to take her to a different place every day and practice walking on a loose leash–meaning that the instant she began to pull I would stop, and resume walking only when she released tension on the leash. This stopping and going was to be done over and over and over, day after day, until it dawned on her that, if she wanted to get anywhere, she had better make sure she wasn\’t pulling.
You can guess what happened. The training was so mind-numbingly repetitive and frustrating that I wasn\’t very disciplined about it, especially since Bisou needed a lot of exercise and she could get it in fifteen minutes running full tilt out in the field or in ten minutes retrieving balls. The stop-and-go walks may have exercised her patience–they certainly did mine–but they provided neither of us with physical exercise. So when the classes ended, though I continued perfecting her recalls and her stays, I hardly ever leashed her again.
Although we\’re not actually in a city–it\’s nothing but verdant woods and meadows around here–the rules for dogs are city rules, and dogs must be leashed at all times. I agree with and observe this rule, but oh, I wish I\’d persevered when Bisou was a pup.
She only weighs eighteen pounds, but she has the heart of an Iditarod champion, and she would gladly pull me all up and down the hilly Wake Robin paths. So I\’m teaching her to walk on a loose leash all over again.
I had taught my previous dogs to heel the way everybody did back then: by the \”jerk and release\” method. And because they were big dogs, I was advised to use a prong collar, which the dogs didn\’t seem to mind much and which saved my arm from being wrenched out of its socket. But Bisou is a sweet- and innocent-looking dog, and people would call the SPCA if they saw me using a prong collar on her.
So instead I use positive reinforcement, which is about as challenging to my physical coordination as playing the violin. Here is how it works: with Bisou on my left, I hold the leash in my right hand. My left hand holds both a clicker and a tiny piece of mozzarella. As we set out the door, I carol \”with me!\” and the minute Bisou lurches ahead, which happens right away, I halt.
I stand there like a statue while she, her nose in the air and her front legs practically off the ground, pants \”I see a bird! I smell a mouse! I feel the grass! Let me go!\” After many minutes, she eventually turns her head towards me; the leash loosens a tiny bit; and I spring into action. I click the clicker and deliver the mozzarella in a single, instantaneous, fluid motion, thus giving Bisou immediate reinforcement for loosening the leash.
This happens maybe ten percent of the time. The rest of the time, I forget to click, or I drop the treat, or I treat first and then click. The thing is, Bisou knows exactly what I want her to do, and what she will get if she does it. But even for a devoted cheese lover the scent of cat or bird or squirrel sometimes takes precedence.
We\’ve been practicing with this technique for three weeks now. Is she getting better? Maybe a little bit. A tiny little bit. There are miles of trails around here–every inch meticulously maintained by the residents themselves–and Bisou and I have years of potentially pleasant walking ahead of us. It is important that we work this out, and I\’m not ready to give up yet. But sometimes, in the dark of night, I despair.