Off North Road

Calling off the dog

By Russell Hoxsie - June 1, 2006

Two years ago when Ticker was a six-month pup, we put up with almost any kind of behavior; she was young and tender but would outgrow her tendency for wildness and lost control. Aha! What a wonder of naiveté and ignorance about raising a pet! You would have thought our raising five kids had produced more common sense.

Marc Street, dog trainer, came to our rescue when we told him of our uncertainties and qualms. He was a godsend, but even in his wisdom we thought he had some concerns himself. Ticker would go down to the shore of Menemsha Pond on a leash with me and walk close-by off the leash for a few minutes, jumping at flies now and then or chasing uncatchable sand fleas. Then, without warning, she would dash into the water at right angles to the narrow beach and swim non-stop toward the center of the pond. She seemed miles away from any rescue should she become tired or her collar tangled up in a boat mooring. Calling her was to no avail, and my anxiety rose to heights quite unreasonable for watching an instinctively water-friendly spaniel which should be able on intuition alone to scramble through the water to fetch a water fowl.

By endlessly and ineffectively calling her name I belied my success as a pack leader. An effective dog owner aspires to be the pack leader in the family, according to a writer in last Sunday's Times. Marc Street would call him the alpha male. I was forced to invent a way to take advantage of the springer's natural instinct to return to its owner. I started to walk along the beach at right angles to Ticker's course which lay toward the opposite pond shore. I called with authority, "This way, this way." Ticker then made a slow but definite turn in my direction, now parallel to the shore. When I changed to the opposite direction and repeated the experiment saying, "This way, this way," Ticker slowly and surely turned herself to follow my direction but still out in the water. Each turn I made she followed and came on a course closer and closer to our shore until she sprang through the shallows onto the sand. She passed me at a gallop instead of licking my hand. Then she turned toward the distant woods and made a mad dash for them well beyond our house and into her own world, as Marc would later observe. The only saving feature would be her appearance twenty minutes later at our back door waiting to be showered off, dried, and fed.

Marc prescribed a 30-foot training leash to be left on as I let her go into the water, the point being to retrieve the end of it as she returned to shore under my indirect direction. I learned to be very quick; the leash flew by at 30 miles per hour on the sand and if I was lucky I could stamp it to a sudden stop before she disappeared again. More likely than not, the leash burned my foot and Ticker ran to the woods. With coming of dangerously cold waters in the late fall, I decided to leash Ticker closely on the beach to keep her out of the water until she grew into more mature judgment. Spring has come and we wait for that moment.

Years ago I first met Marc at a Sunday fair on the grounds of the Old Grange Hall. He was giving on-the-spot tips on walking a dog. To watch him made the exercise seem quite easy. I thought it was all in the owner's attitude and definite hands on the leash. An untrained dog looked like a trained circus performer under Street's tutelage; it really worked. I asked his advice about a problem with our old friend Lilly, now long in dog Heaven. She was an habitual barker when friends or strangers came into our yard. She seemed not to discriminate. Although we lived in the country, people were always driving into the yard and they were put off by the commotion Lilly made when we knew her greeting was friendly and she wouldn't harm a flea. We told that to everyone who hesitated getting out of the car or approached our back door. They were exercising normal self-protective behavior, and I didn't blame them when they didn't believe us.

"Lilly is only doing what comes naturally," Marc said. "Her nature is to protect her own boundaries and to announce the alarm at the approach of strangers or the joy of seeing friends. You waste your breath trying to stop her barking. Simply redirect her attention by throwing a ball or turn her to some activity you know she enjoys." That was not as easy for us as it might seem, and his words rang down unheeded through the years of Lilly's life and our unsuccessful control of her bark. Of course when Ticker came along, she began barking as more summer people arrived in the neighborhood or the UPS man stopped to deliver a package. The two children next door from Pittsburgh had never owned as large and loud a dog as ours, and they simply were terrified to enter the yard unaccompanied by an adult. Something had to be done. One day I told my wife Mary Ann that I would put Marc Street's advice finally to the test. "I'm going to thank Ticker for warning us, whichever is the case: an impending visit of friends, an invasion by a skunk, another messy dog or a tick-infested pair of deer. I'll invite Ticker in to greet the visitors, stand guard or leave the skunk to its own aroma."

"You must be crazy," Mary Ann said turning away to some other activity at the stove.

To hear my up-pitched voice at high volume sing out, "Thank you, thank you, Ticker.... Who's coming? That's great, Ticker! Thank you for telling us; come, see who's here!" My voice must have sounded inane to the person or persons trembling under the oak tree and wondering whether it was safe to advance toward the house or wiser to scoot back to the car before that dog came any closer. Well, I thought I sounded foolish along with Mary Ann, who laughed every time I went through my performance. But, I stopped feeling foolish and Mary Ann stopped laughing when the ploy seemed to work and still works ... mostly. Ticker's barking stops with my first "thank-you." I no longer yell out more than, "Thank you," and she looks up and on my invitation springs in to the back door looking for a treat, which she receives with much praise. Calling off the dog has become an attractive invitation (to Ticker at least) rather than a useless and enragingly ineffectual threat to, "Stop barking!"