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.