In my dog-training heyday, you could walk into our house and see, several feet away from the door, Lexi and the now long-departed Mojo lying like statues on the rug, holding down-stays. If you stayed for dinner, I might move the dogs to a spot from which they could watch the festivities, and they would lie there until the evening was over.
I had trained Mojo and Lexi in the old no-nonsense way, in which commands were clear, immediate compliance was expected, and the administration of food treats was viewed as morally suspect. The method was especially appropriate for Lexi, who had lots of drive and would have taken over the household and organized it according to her principles, if we had let her. But it also worked for eleven-pound Mojo, who seemed to enjoy showing off his world-record stays before our guests.
When we got Wolfie, I trained him the same way. I remember having a pot-luck dinner for ten people when he was nine months old, and he held his stay next to Lexi like a champ. Soon after that, however, things began to fall apart. The winds of revolution were blowing through the dog-training world, but they were the benign breezes of positive reinforcement. In the classes I faithfully attended with Wolfie, talk was of getting your dog to enjoy his work, getting him to want to please you, and helping you to develop a quality relationship with him. And the treat bag was as important a piece of equipment as the leash.
I was told that a dog like Wolfie has a natural instinct to check out the people who enter his house, and that he should be allowed to greet guests at the door. This marked the first step on the slippery slope. It was easier for Wolfie to hold a down-stay when people came over than to moderate his enthusiasm if he was allowed to go up to them. It\’s not that he jumped up on people or, heaven knows, was aggressive. But he\’s a powerful dog with an extra-long tail that becomes a kind of bull whip when he gets excited, and his welcomes could be–well, overwhelming.
We hit the bottom of the slippery slope when, in an attempt to provide him with intellectual stimulation, I signed Wolfie up for herding lessons. Herding is its own separate universe of dog training. Although a herding dog needs to be under control, \”you don\’t want blind obedience from him. He has to be able to think for himself in order to do the job,\” the instructor explained. So when Wolfie got up on his own initiative from his down-stay in the sheep pen, it might be because he had seen one of the sheep do something she shouldn\’t have, something that I in my ignorance might have missed, and I wasn\’t to correct him for it.
In a word, Wolfie was expected to hold down-stays no matter what when he was in the house, but was allowed to break them in the sheep pasture. As that fundamental precept of parenting as well as of dog training, consistency, went out the window, I abandoned all attempts to make Wolfie stay when someone knocked at the door.
The entrance of guests into the house, formerly a scene of grace and serenity, now became a frenzied struggle as I tried to get Wolfie to say hello calmly and to withdraw politely. And it didn\’t take Lexi long to realize that the regime under which she had lived all her life was finally teetering, and could be toppled. Soon my friends were greeted by not one, but two German Shepherds hurtling towards them, jaws agape, tails wagging madly, exclaiming \”Oh, hel-lo! We thought you\’d never get here! My, what is that delicious smell? How about a kiss? We hope you\’ll take us home with you. But meanwhile, may we sit on your lap?\”
(To be continued.)