As I said to my younger son, if you’re going to have a problem child, better that it be the dog. Our beloved but selectively compliant grand dog, Winston, is back again for another of his multi-month sojourns at Camp Grammy and Grampy.
We adore Winston even though his breed is known for emitting loud snores from one end and noxious streams of post-digestive kibble emissions from the other. Sometimes both Olof and I wake up in the middle of the night simultaneously exclaiming, “Geesh, Winston!” It’s like sleeping with a flatulating white noise machine.
Winston’s positive traits, however, are many: he loves people albeit a tad over-enthusiastically (think slobber facial). He is wonderfully gentle with our tiny grandchildren and our neighbor kids. A more affectionate dog you couldn’t find.
Well, that is until a dog walks by our front gate at which point he launches into his Cujo imitation. I don’t know what Winston thinks he’s protecting us from, but he’s pretty clear we need it. Ironically, as soon as you get a dog on our side of the gate, he’s Winston’s new best friend. Dog owners who don’t know Winston can be forgiven for not wanting to take my word for it.
Our son and daughter-in-law don’t have walk-by traffic at their house but we see a dog every five minutes. We have spent a fortune in trainers in an effort to persuade Winston to be less territorial at our house. In fact, the third trainer finally referred us to a “behavior collar” trainer whom I wrote about previously. Winston definitely improved during that stay with us, but using that collar truly took more out of me than him. (A letter from Winston’s attorney says he begs to differ.)
When Winston arrived for his most recent stay, I couldn’t help but be totally dazzled by a woman in my neighborhood who walked by my house every day with – count ‘em – FIVE dogs off leash. Chatting with her one day over the fence (I could barely hear her over Winston’s massive snarlathon while her canine entourage sat obediently) she offered to take Winston for a test walk the next day with her chihuahua.
I could only assume she didn’t like the chihuahua and wanted to get rid of it. But post walk, she reported that Winston had behaved just fine. When he started to “alert” to other dogs they encountered, she corrected him.
“With what?” I said, “A two by four?”
It became instantly clear who the alpha entity was in Winston’s and my relationship. And it wasn’t me.
And thus we ended up hiring Trainer No. 5. No, not the neighbor. She is obviously a natural dog whisperer (and I would have hired her in a heartbeat). She doesn’t do training but knew someone she really thought could up Winston’s game.
Winston initially rolled his eyes when the new trainer arrived, as if to say, “Are we really going to do this again? For all that money, you guys could have bought me a lot of chew toys. Or yourselves a whole new dog.”
I liked this trainer. He felt that Winston needed his vocabulary expanded – specific words to specific behaviors rather than my over use of “AIEEEEE NOOOOOOO!!!!!” As with most previous trainers, Winston was good as gold while the trainer was there. (Dogs? What other dogs?) The trainer felt that if I could get Winston to reliably respond to “Down!” (i.e. lie down) followed by “Stay!”, that 95 percent of my problems would be solved. Hard to hurl yourself at a front gate with your belly on the ground.
Suffice to say that the next day when Winston and I went out front for a practice session, it became clear we were going to have to tweak the system slightly. The trainer’s command for aggressive behavior was “Be Nice!” My former military officer husband balked at this, commenting, “What is this, the California School of Canine Self-Esteem?”
“Be nice!” also seemed a little understated for a dog impersonating a pit bull on steroids.
My other problem was that I wasn’t sure which of the new commands to be using first when Winston did his Cujo thing at passing dogs. I asked my neighbor across the street, who has a really well trained dog, “So when Winston charges the gate, what should I say?”
Neighbor: “RUN FOR YOUR LIFE!”
“No,” I said, “to the DOG.”
Well, it’s still a work in progress. But I am beyond relieved not to be zapping poor Winston. Some passers-by tell me I shouldn’t be even trying to train Winston out of his territorial behavior, that with Winston on site, I live in the safest house in America. But yesterday, when a neighbor walked by with his three dogs and I was actually able to get Winston not to snarl at the gate, a voice came from the other side: “Good dog.”
* Look for La Jolla resident Inga’s lighthearted looks at life in The La Jolla Light. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org