There is no walk for Sam this morning until she gets it right.
It’s 6:10 a.m. We are in the backyard, facing one another in a standoff. I am adamant and Sam is defiant. Although I’m not sure she knows it. Her attitude is more like rebellion, an obstinate teenager. I’m not going to do anything just because you say so. In fact, I’m most likely not going to do it at all, simply because you asked. This is what I’m dealing with. Oh, and did I mention I have bacon in my outstretched hand?
“Come,” I say firmly, holding out a sliver of the salty, meaty treat.
Sam stares at me.
“Come,” I say again.
She does not move.
Sam is a good dog. She’s a great dog. There are only two issues: her itchy, troublesome ears, which I have discussed previously, and an occasional, extremely annoying stubborn streak. Remember the time she and I were at the park and she refused to come directly to me, and instead lingered behind, just out of reach until I was finally able to snatch her? What I’m facing this morning is a part of that maddening personality trait. She’s too damn smart. She has learned that when I call “come” that likely means she has to head indoors because Leslie and I are leaving the house without her. Or she has to give up something fun—a romp at the park, meeting another dog, getting her nose in the garbage, or what I’m facing this morning, ending her sniff-fest around the backyard.
“Okay then,” I grumble, “you’re not getting any treat.”
Earlier this morning I fried up some bacon, let it cool, and placed the strips in a plastic baggy. It’s been suggested I must up the ante on the treats when trying to train a dog. And whatever it is you are attempting to get them to do, only give them that certain premium treat when they perform that particular request. So, when Sam comes to me on my command without hesitation, when she comes directly in front of me, pauses to look at me, and maybe even sits, then, and only then, will she get the bacon.
I sit on one of the metal lawn chairs, trying to appear less like I’m going to scold her and I offer the bacon.
Sam is ten feet away and not moving.
Sam takes one hesitant step toward me.
“Good girl,” I purr.
Sam takes another step.
“Oh, good girl,” I say, wiggling the bacon, believing twitching meat is somehow more appealing.
Sam is closer now but standing still, again. It’s a pause. Progress has halted. So, I slowly stand to offer the bacon at closer range, thinking maybe Sam just needs to get a better whiff. But this is a bad move. Sam reacts to me by stiffening and hopping back two steps. It’s a playful, catch-me-if-you-can move, the same thing she does when she sees me with her ratty tennis ball in my hand and is preparing to watch it fly. She wants no part of my bacon-fueled plan. Sam believes whatever I’m up to is of no good.
“Come on, Sam,” I moan.
Sam offers a mischievous growl and a sharp bark.
“No,” I snap. “It’s too early for that.”
She barks again, falling into what is best described as a three-point-stance. Another bark, another hop, another rascally growl, the catch-me-if-you-can dance, and another woof.
Behind me I hear the bedroom window slide open.
“Can you train her some other time?” Leslie’s comment is formed in the style of a question, but this is not a question. It is not a request. “It’s too early,” she pleads.
“I can’t keep her from barking,” I say.
“Later, please? The neighbors.”
I look at Sam. Damn it.
I thought I could do this work in the quiet of the early morning when Sam would have little distraction and focus on the training, on me, and on the bacon rather than neighbors, other dogs, or some squirrel scurrying around one of the trees.
I am wrong.
I walk behind the garage. “No walk until you come,” I say. Sam soon follows and together we are out of sight of the bedroom window and the back entrance. Sam stands ten feet away. I hold out the bacon.
Nothing. Sam stares.
I drop the hand holding the bacon. “Really?”
Sam does not move. No expression. Poker-faced.
“Jesus,” I’m bellyaching now and move past her toward the back door. “No walk then,” I say over my shoulder.
Sam stands still, only her head moving to follow me.
I step to the stoop and stop. One more shot? I turn, offer the bacon, and give a little smile, hoping a shift in attitude might do it.
Sam is fifteen yards away near the back of the garage and facing me now.
She takes a step.
“Good girl, Sam.”
She stops for a moment and then puts her head down, taking another deliberate step, and another. Sam is now three feet away.
Sam is tentative, suspect, but she is almost there.
Inches away, she looks at me. She looks at the bacon. Again, she looks at me… slowly lowers her butt…and sits.
“There you go! Good girl, Sam!” I kneel to her level and give her the bacon. She takes it with great care; maybe a bit unsure she deserves it. I put my hands on either side of her head and vigorously rub her ears. “Good come, Sam! Good girl!” Her leash is in my hand now and I shake it. “Walk time!” Her ears perk up, her eyes brighten, and her tail wags. I clip the leash to the collar and offer a hardy rub of her back. “Good girl.” Sam pulls toward the gate, and with the small plastic bag of bacon strips in my pocket, we are off.
One loop around the neighborhood is a good reward, I figure. And as we step off it appears all is right with the world. Crazy Guy, who I’ve written about before, has resumed his chalk art on his driveway. It’s what we all expect. Super CFL is written in big bold letters. It’s a reference to the famous radio station WCFL of the 1970s. His front entrance is open to the screen door and I consider, if only for a second, to walk up and finally introduce myself. But then I’m reminded it’s only 6:45 a.m. Still, I’m pleased to have thought of it.
A few houses down the block, the big old Golden Retriever, also named Sam, who I’ve also written about earlier, is slumped, as he usually is, on the lawn of his home, his head in his front paws, eyes closed, unaware of anything around him, either deaf or indifferent, or both. Motionless. He always looks this way.
And around the bend, on the north side of our street, the yard of the house with the young couple and the three little kids looks like the ransacked warehouse of a former Toys “R” Us. I smile. The yard is always like this, proof that all is well, all is constant, all is as it should be.
It occurs me now that this sameness—Crazy Guy, the old dog, the yard full of toys—is what I am trying to break in Sam. Her “sameness” is to continue the catch-me-if-you-can game when I call her. That’s her constant. It’s become my constant, unfortunately. It’s what I have come to know. It’s the norm, like it or not. It’s wearisome, frustrating, exasperating. But it’s Sam being Sam. And now I want to change her. I want to break the “sameness.” It’s for her own good, I think. It’s a safety thing, ultimately. It’s a good thing. Still, although change is forever, everywhere, and inevitable, it usually comes with some level of struggle, big or small. It comes with work and determination. I think of raising a child. And it comes when we are not looking for it, out of the shadows. We lose a job, our spouse asks for a divorce, a friend dies suddenly, we win the lottery. Anticipated change or sudden change, but it is still change, nonetheless. Training a dog to obey a command is of minor consequence in the great scheme, but change is not.
We are a few houses from home and I want to give it another try. One more time will re-enforce the behavior. I drop Sam’s leash. “Stay,” I say. She sits and I walk a few feet in front of her. “Stay,” I repeat.
I reach for the plastic bag in my pocket and pull out some crispy meat. “Stay,” I say one more time. I wiggle the bacon and Sam is quick to notice.
“Come,” I command.
Sam puts her head down and walks directly to me, sits, and looks into my eyes.
She accepts the bacon. I rub her ears.
Back home inside the kitchen, I go for the trifecta.
Sam does not hesitate. Right to me. I kiss her on the top of head and slip her more bacon.
It’s still quite early and Leslie remains under the covers. I walk quietly into the bedroom and she stirs. “Hi,” I whisper. “I think Sam’s getting it.”
“Okay,” Leslie whispers back.
“And when you go to the store today,” I add, “buy a big slab of cheap bacon. We’re gonna need it.”