By the time he was a year old, Jesse was a delight. He slept across the threshold of the girls\’ bedroom at night. He howled charmingly when they practiced the violin. He was so submissive towards my husband that he would roll over on his back in the front hall and produce a fountain of pee when Ed came home in the evening. It eventually occurred to me that this was related to eye contact, so when I would hear the key in the door I\’d rush out of the kitchen yelling at my husband, “Keep your eyes down! Don\’t look at him!”
For all his macho demeanor, Jesse never growled at any of us. When I had him neutered and he pulled out his stitches and I had to put antibiotic on the wound, he let me do it, with only a long-suffering look on his face.
At the vet\’s, it was a different story. He continued to be plagued by hot spots, and tests revealed him to be allergic to everything: trees, grasses, the air itself, and most of all, dust mites. He was put on weekly allergy shots, and that became a problem.
His yelp as the shot was given became a little growl, then a bigger growl, then a growl as soon as he saw the syringe. The technicians were understandably nervous of him, and I was by turns alarmed, embarrassed, angry and despairing. We ended up muzzling him, but those weekly shots were nerve wracking for everyone.
And they weren\’t working. The hot spots continued, and his eyes turned red. He knew I didn\’t want him to scratch, so he would discreetly leave the room to do it. He spent a lot of time banging around the house with one of those “Elizabethan” collars around his neck.
By the time I was able to enroll Jesse in obedience, he weighed over 90 pounds.
It was a large class, some 20 dogs from mastiffs to lap dogs, most of whom, when Jesse and I entered the building, would growl at him. I couldn\’t figure out why. After all, he wasn\’t doing anything. He was just standing there, surveying the scene. I didn\’t know then the power of the canine stare.
This was an old-fashioned class: no treats, no clickers, no psychoanalysis. Just sits and stays and heeling in a circle until the dogs capitulated, out of sheer boredom if nothing else. Jesse learned all the moves, and so did I.
Then came the day of the final exam, with an outside judge, just as in a real obedience trial. At this time, having spent the first part of my life making good grades, I made a living teaching and grading college students. So final exams and grades and doing well in general were much on my mind.
But I was confident. After all, I had a clearly intelligent dog from an intelligent breed. And I had done more difficult things in my life than train a dog.
When we walked into the building that day, nobody growled. But somebody whined: Jesse. I felt stupid, with this big, powerful dog whining at the end of the leash. “What are you doing? Stop that,” I said, giving the leash a yank as I\’d been taught. He stopped for a second, then whined some more.
What was this? Jesse had never whined in his life, not even as a puppy. And now, on the day of the final exam, he was whining non-stop. He whined through the heeling. He whined through the sit-stays, the recalls, and the stand- for-examination. When it came time for the long down, a thoughtful silence settled over dogs and trainers, broken only by the endless, incredible, appalling whining of Jesse. When it was over, I drove home in humiliated silence (the whining had stopped the moment the test was over).
As I announced to my family that we had FAILED THE TEST, I saw the merest hint of schadenfreude pass over my daughters\’ faces.
How, I wondered, looking at Jesse scratching a hot spot, do you go on after you flunk?