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November 30, 2008 “Grrrr…”

Welcome to My Green Vermont - A Blog by Eulalia Benejam Cobb.
By Eulalia Benejam Cobb

That\’s me growling, not my dogs. But I\’m growling at my dogs, or rather at the mysteries and ironies of training dogs, living with dogs, trying to figure out dogs.

Last week, when our housekeeper, Vanessa, arrived to help keep household chaos at bay, not only had I made the bed and straightened up the kitchen in advance, but I had the dogs on stay, ready to enact our visitor-greeting ritual (see my November 18 post).

Wolfie and Lexi are wildly fond of Vanessa, so it is especially important to me to keep them in check when she comes. When Vanessa came in, I put her on stand-stay by the door, then released Lexi to say hello. By the time I told Lexi to stop the love-fest and leave the room, Wolfie was whining with excitement. I called him to me, but while I was doing that, Lexi went back to steal more kisses from Vanessa. This made Wolfie upset—I could not blame him—and while I was correcting Lexi, he rushed over to Vanessa, without permission. I scolded Lexi, retrieved Wolfie, and made him walk calmly (this took three tries) and sit in front of Vanessa to be petted.

As the dogs finally left the room Vanessa said, “Gosh, this is so much easier when you aren\’t here.”

What do you mean?” I asked.

You know, when you\’re gone, and your husband lets me in.”

Yes?” I said, my voice rising. “What happens then?”

He just puts the dogs on stay, and then releases them.”

And they mob you, right? Smash into your kneecaps, knock you over?”

Not at all. They just come and say hello and then they go away.”

On their own? They go away on their own?”

Sure. It\’s over in a minute. It\’s a lot easier than what you\’re doing.”

I am aghast. I have been training dogs, our dogs, since 1980. Every dog we\’ve had since then I\’ve taken to obedience classes—some of them, like Lexi, for a full two years. I have sat at the feet of eight different trainers. I have read every dog training book, watched every dog training TV program and video I could lay my hands on. I have done everything I could to bond with my dogs: fed them, groomed them, played with them, worked and exercised them. I have dedicated major areas of my brain and my life to them.

And now it turns out that my husband—who tolerates dogs only for my sake, who doesn\’t feed or exercise or otherwise interact with them unless I specifically ask him to—is more successful in implementing the visitor-greeting ritual than I am.

What\’s going on? I can\’t bear the thought that he has some innate gift, some pheromone-related thing that causes dogs to pay attention to him and not to me. There has to be an intelligible reason behind this, something I can grasp, and emulate.

After days of mulling this over, here is all I can come up with: when someone comes to the door, my husband\’s main concern is with who it is, whereas mine is with how the dogs will behave. The dogs, bless their hearts, feel this intense focus of mine, and that makes them excited, and they do the very things I don\’t want them to.

I guess I just care too much, am too invested in their behavior. I am convinced that people will judge who I am by how my dogs act. Strangely, I never felt this way about my children, and they, in consequence, never let me down. From an early age, I trusted them to do the right thing.

Maybe it\’s time for me simply to trust my dogs.

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