Words Matter: Teaching a Rescue Dog New Tricks

When I adopted Harley, he was a gangly 11-month-old teenager, all legs and big ears with a long, plumy tail. He was a White German Shepherd, with a bit of Siberian Husky and wolf mixed in. He’d spent the first nine months of his life chained to a doghouse. Other than screaming at him to stop making noise, his owners ignored him. One experienced rescuer called him a “project dog.” I have rescued all kinds of dogs, but I was unsure whether I’d ever be able to socialize Harley. In the end, he taught me how much words matter.

Harley Napping

Harley joined my two Siberian Huskies, Reese (he-who-pees-on-snakes) and Brodie. Brodie was a handsome goofball, a muscular black and white husky who lived for food and held strong opinions about which he could be very vocal. He was not beyond chastising me if he thought it warranted as, for example, when dinner was five minutes late.

It turned out that Harley was indeed a “project dog.” Socializing him took months, and the ever-opinionated Brodie was a big help. The two became best friends. Whenever he faced something new, Harley would look to Brodie for guidance and reassurance. Brodie taught him that pigeons could be fun to chase, to be curious about new things, and to always welcome strangers.

Move Over, Dog Whisperer

Harley settled in. It was time to work on basic manners and I had a challenge. He wasn’t motivated by food and was still shy enough that praise might not work very well. With a flash of inspiration, I enlisted Brodie as my assistant. I figured as long as I kept the treats coming I’d have his complete cooperation.

One fine spring morning, I led the dogs out on the deck. I had a pocket full of treats and an optimistic frame of mind. We started with “come.” I issued the command, Brodie headed for the treat in my hand and received his reward. Harley watched, curious about this new ritual. I moved back 10 feet and said, “Brodie, Harley, come” a second time. Again Brodie trotted up to me and received his reward. Harley started to realize this might work to his advantage, so he strolled over and nuzzled my hand. I gave him the treat and praised him to the skies for being the smartest dog in the world.

Little did I know.

We progressed quickly to “sit” and “stay” over the next couple of days. Things were going very well indeed. Brodie watched me and the treats; Harley watched Brodie and imitated him. I started to think I was a world class dog trainer.

With “come,” “sit,” and “stay” mastered, it was time to work on “down,” as in “lie down.” I figured out my approach. I would Harley to sit then say “down” while holding a treat on the floor in front of him and praising him for doing the right thing. Like all the other lessons so far, it went very fast. Within a few days, Harley had all the basics well in hand. I was quite proud of myself.

Words Matter

Next step: test Harley’s learning without my chief assistant and crumb snatcher. We worked through the litany: stay, come, sit, down. Rinse and repeat: stay, come, sit down. One more time: stay, come, sit down. Harley executed the commands promptly, with a German Shepherd’s dedication to precision. I was starting to think Cesar Millan had nothing on me.

Then I tried mixing up the order of the commands.

“Harley, come.” Harley walked over to me. “Harley, down.” Harley lowered his front end, leaving his rear end up in the air while he proudly wagged his big, white plume of a tail. He was quite pleased with himself. I repeated “down,” a bit more firmly. Another enthusiastic tail wag. “Down, Harley.” Polite tail wag with somewhat less enthusiasm, “Harley. Down!” Barest of tail wags—he was running out of patience. He was doing precisely what I’d taught him to do. Sit was for the back end. Down was for the front end.

Harley on the Patio

For the record, I did try to teach Harley a more conventional “lie down” several times over the years. He understood perfectly well what I was asking. And every time he’d lower his front end, wag his tail, and smile his big, toothy grin. My vet and the techs in his office got no end of laughs out of us.

Not the first dog to remind me I wasn’t as smart as I thought I was. Or that words really do matter.

Great Lessons in Not Taking Yourself So Damn Seriously

The world is suffering from an overabundance of people who take themselves too damn seriously. Maybe we blame it on social media. Maybe we blame it on the current social and political climate. Whatever it is, people, we need to lighten up! How many of you have abandoned Facebook because of the vitriol, or look at nothing but puppy videos? Not that there’s anything wrong with a puppy video when you’re having a bad day.

The thing about dogs is they force you to lighten up. Most are naturally open, friendly and curious. At least my Huskies were, and they taught me three basic lessons that stick with me today.

Three Lessons

Like clockwork, every afternoon at 5:00 the dogs would wake up, shake themselves off, and take me outside for a half hour of roughhousing. Like the littlest kid in the class, I was always “it.” I’d sit on the deck while one plopped his furry butt in my lap. The other two would stage an elaborately ferocious battle to unseat him. Eventually, someone’s teeth would flash a little too close to my face for comfort and I’d call a halt to the proceedings. We’d troop back into the house, refreshed. The boys would go back to sleep; I’d go back to work until dinner time.  

Stuffed panda toy

It was a much-needed break in my day. It got me away from my desk, and it often knocked an idea or two loose in my head. Best of all, playtime reset my perspective. How seriously can you take yourself when you’re a living sock doll for three dogs?

Lesson #1: Play daily, even if you’re “it.”

I’ve written about Reese, my alpha husky. (He was the guy who dealt with a snake by peeing on it.) His most endearing trait was his welcoming personality. Everyone who came to my front door got the same greeting: an ears-back wiggle, a nod of the head, and a soft woo-ooo-ooo. He’d escort them to a seat and made sure they were entertained, often by graciously allowing them to scratch his ears. The delivery people confused him a bit–they’d never come inside. But even they didn’t leave without saying hello to him. It didn’t matter how he felt. Even when he was suffering from cancer, he’d wobble to his feet, shake himself off, and find the energy to be a gracious host.

He made a lot of friends that way. People would stop by just to visit him. He became a bit of a legend with the Fed Ex guys. He won over people who were afraid of dogs, people who didn’t like dogs, people who were just plain grumpy. The day I put him down, I called a list of people so they could come and say their goodbyes.  His last gift to me was new friends I’d never have had otherwise.

Lesson #2: Always welcome new people into your life, no matter how you feel.

My White German Shepherd-Husky-wolf mix, Harley, was endlessly curious. Sometimes this wasn’t such a good thing. I spent my fair share of time in the shower de-skunking a large, irate dog. But I’ve learned that exercising your curiosity can lead to great things.  

One spring Sunday, we were headed home after a long walk. Cars were pulling over along the curb. People were getting out to stare at the top of the hill in front of my house. Cell phones and cameras pointed upward. I was busy getting the four of us across the street safely so I didn’t look up.

Harley’s radar dish ears turned toward something. He led us straight up the hill to confront a magnificent great blue heron hunting for her next meal. Yes, herons are water birds. They will also hunt in open fields for a meal.  This particular hillside is a condo complex for ground squirrels, and the hunting was good.

great blue heron

We all froze. I had never been so close to such a majestic bird, and I’m reasonably sure the dogs hadn’t either. More to the point, they’d never seen a bird so big. There was some confusion on their part. It smelled like a bird. They knew from decimating the local pigeon population that birds could be caught and eaten. But something this big…? Unclear about how to proceed, three faces turned my way.

The heron gazed down at us with considerable disdain and some annoyance. She spread her wings and slowly, gracefully, soared away.

Lesson #3: Stay curious. You never know what will happen.

Leader of the Pack: A Snake, A Dog, and a Good Decision

A lot of life’s lessons have come from my dogs, especially the pack of Siberian Huskies that shared my life for a while. Boy, did they teach me a lot. Making a good decision quickly was at the top of the list.
As a breed, Huskies are smart, loyal, independent decision makers. They can sense trouble before a human can. If you’re running a sled team, you want your dogs to refuse commands in dangerous situations. It can save their lives–and yours.

One dim, damp, winter afternoon Reese, my alpha husky, was outside on his regular tour of the backyard. I was inside with the other dogs when we heard a high-pitched bark. Reese was calling out the cavalry. We ran to the back door. I let the dogs out and peered through the mist. 

A very large snake was curled in the dead leaves, giving Reese the stink-eye.

Snake vs. Dog

Gopher Snake
The Enemy

Rattlesnakes and gopher snakes are common where I live. As a rule, I don’t mind them. They keep the local rodent population in check. They eat; I save money on rat traps and don’t have to dispose of the deceased. Although rattlers and gopher snakes look alike, there’s one key difference: gopher snakes are not poisonous. On a bright, sunny day the differences between the two are clear. Not so much on this particularly gloomy Sunday.

If you’ve never seen a pack of dogs hunt, it’s a wonder. Each dog has a role. One stations himself at the prey’s head while the rest of the pack circle and distract. Reese took up a position confronting the enemy. The others ran in tight circles around them, snarling and snapping.
I didn’t want to have to drag a snake-bitten, hysterical Husky to the emergency vet.

Battle On

I called them to heel. The backup unit returned immediately, looking somewhat relieved. This was not their idea. Warm, dry beds required their immediate attention. But Reese persisted, brave and conscientious if a bit nervous now that he was flying solo. He paused to acknowledge my call; however, this was an imminent threat to his pack. He was going to take care of the intruder come hell or high water.
The snake was none too pleased. It lashed out to strike my resolute Husky. Reese hopped back a couple of feet but immediately leaped forward again with a snarl. The snake lunged a second time. I continued to call Reese. I was getting more worried about the outcome of this little tete-a-tete. Reese was torn. He recognized the danger he was in but didn’t want to fail. This was his backyard and the uninvited guest must be dealt with. It was all on his shoulders.
He paused to think things through.
You could almost see a light bulb go off over his head. He launched one last attack. The snake tucked itself down into a defensive curl. Firmly planting himself, Reese lifted a rear leg and aimed a stream of urine at the snake’s head. It hit the target dead on.
I imagined explaining the snake bite to the emergency vet.

Good Decision

Reese the Red Husky
Time for a Nap

The snake shook his head in disgust and beat a hasty retreat, never to be seen again. Reese turned and bounded into the house with his tail curled high, very proud of himself. Job done, he paused just long enough to collect praise from me then promptly took a nap.

Sometimes it’s better to ask for forgiveness.