My mother was a woman of boundless compassion, a fiery animal rights person who considered disciplining dogs an act of repression and abuse. As a result, a visit to her house meant a bunch of tick-infested, dumpster-breathed oaves would leap on you, lick you, panhandle with impunity, and ram their snouts in your swimsuit areas. At one point my wife had ankle surgery and needed a cane during her recovery; when she realized she could use it to ward off the dogs she brought it on every visit for years, until my mother pointedly commented on the slowness of Alexis’s convalescence.
So when we got our first dog about 6 years ago,we resolved to train the daylights out of him. We’d been cat people for decades and we heard that a Bolognese would be a good “transition dog”-not only were they cat-sized at 8-9 pounds, they were known for being a bit more independent and less clingy than most canines. Lambert was the name of our little guy; he was insanely cute, and the bonding was instantaneous, but that wouldn’t cloud our Campaign To Train: Navy Seal Hell Week would be child’s play compared to the discipline he would endure; we would ride him until he made Anthony Hopkins in Remains Of The Day seem like a rebellious punk. We were too lazy and cheap to take him to a professional trainer, but after a few sessions at the University of Youtube, we were as confident as an army that rides into battle armed with 10,000 more horses than its adversary. Plus, he was obviously smart, which we assumed would be a trait that would be helpful in the training. I guess this is where the word “cat-like” sneaks back into the conversation.
We started noticing that Lambert played by his rules, all the time. Affection was doled out in small doses… on his terms. While other dogs had a conniption fit at the jangle of a leash, he hung back, like a hipster or teenager who resists predictable behavior. Perhaps most problematic for the training: he had little interest in food, which removed our ability to incentivize. Even with the promise of a treat, as my wife put it, “he doesn’t come, he… evaluates…” It was true, you see the wheels turning-“Beef liver treats? They’re tasty but honestly… am I going to prostitute myself for something I just swallow and is gone in a second… when there’s a risk the ‘treat’ could actually be bait to trap me into a toothbrushing session?”
Other marquee failures included the “training clicker”-a device that purported to deepen the training connection by giving the dog an audio “reward” in addition to a treat if they did something good. Trying to teach him to him heel, my wife employed the “meatstick”-a piece of bacon attached to a dowel with a rubber band. It may work with donkeys and carrots but Lambert was blase about the meat and frustrated by the whole absurdity of it-my wife felt like the whole thing was a pointless circus act, and quickly lost her resolve.
But while he resisted training, we just loved him more-and we knew this willful, ungovernable beast was a GOOD DOG. He beguiled adults, he charmed children, he snuggled with us and slept on the bed. At doggy day care, he was loved by the workers and the other dogs alike. We began to think of him as the Bill Clinton of dogs-a glorious, magnetic personality… just not so good when it came to the rules at home.
Sure, there were days we’d have a good training session, but the gains never went toward an over-arching sense of progress. It was painful, and it gnawed at us, and so was the question we started asking ourselves: was this about him, or us? Was he a smart trainable dog, and our failure was exposing us as frauds and weenies? Neither of us is “management material” at work-we cringingly get along with everyone in order to avoid conflict… and Amazon has never recommended a “LIKE A BOSS!” t-shirt based on the personality profile they’ve compiled on us. Maybe it’s a blessing that we never had kids-we’d probably be the kind of parents who let the 4-year-old control the dinner menu or the 8-year-old drive the car. Or maybe we should have just stuck with cats, who carry no expectation of training, they’re just “as is.”
Lambert is now 6, and a leashing still involves a series of cat & mouse games. He’s a master of dodging and weaving under the dining table and has even developed a “back-up” gear to help his evasion. He still jumps on guests and tugs on the leash. But here’s the thing-maybe we failed him as trainers, but he doesn’t bite, he isn’t aggressive, he isn’t destructive, and he’s an immaculate restroomer. At his day care, which is also a rescue place, he’s assumed a leadership position, vetting, calming, and welcoming the newbies. So maybe we got lucky… or maybe we did the one thing right that’s most important for people who are inept at dog training-we got a tiny one. If Lambert was 50 pounds, he’d be an unruly monster… but because he’s the size of a handbag, he’s adorable, an impish little mischief-maker. Sure, we have zero control over what he does, but at least if we get sick of his antics we can snap him up and toss him in a playpen… well, if we can catch him.