Obedience Training

A while ago, as if in another life inside this one, I acquired a black lab. I had said farewell to my first dog, Libby, a Beagle. She was eight and had been a trial run to see if I could parent a child. I had read in a book that if you can raise a dog, chances are, you are a good fit as a parent. I’m not kidding when I say that. I was young and impressionable, so I didn’t know any better. 

Libby saw me through the early stages of my marriage and the birth of my children. She stood by as I let daycare kids into my home to make a living. I often found her under a pile of little ones who were all trying to hug her at once. She was patient as circumstances changed around her. Death came to call so early, I felt, and I wanted her to know she could leave. Every night, I would go out into the quiet of the living room, lay my hands on her and ask for a peaceful passing. As I put groceries away a few days later, I felt this overwhelming pull to the living room. I rushed to her as she took her last breath. When I returned to the kitchen later, I had left the refrigerator door wide open, and I had dropped everything all over the floor. Tears overwhelmed me as I cleaned up. 

Having another dog wasn’t something I desired until one night, after tucking my girls in bed, I heard: make room for another one. There was a gigantic hole in my heart, but I covered it up as my kids were young, and I didn’t have time to sit around and grieve. 

I went to bed thinking..no!

The following week, Shady was living in my home. She had an owner who loved her dearly, but his wife did not. This dog landed in my household at nine months old with absolutely no training and extreme separation anxiety. Her black lab stature was pushing more than 80 pounds from being fed from the table and spoiled rotten. She was convinced she was a small lap dog and tried to execute this move frequently. When she wanted my attention, she got it, whether I was prepared to give it or not. 

Having no real bond with me initially, I had to learn how to deal with the bad habits that her previous owner had instilled, but who was I to enforce the rules? Leaving her alone in the house was a nightmare. I never knew what I was going to come home to find destroyed. I had gone from a well-trained Beagle to a black machine of mass destruction. I consoled myself by realizing this wasn’t her fault but the lack of teaching she never received. 

My commands to her were a foreign language because she never had to obey before. It was like taking in an animal from the wild. She loved water as this breed is naturally inclined to, and we had an above-ground pool. Her idea was to get into the water, and mine was to keep her out because her nails would shred the liner. I always made sure to close the safety gate behind me to keep her at bay-until I forgot.

One morning while I was pulling back the cover to put in weekly chemicals, I saw a gigantic shadow over my reflection in the water as I was crouched down. Instinctively, I glanced upward to see the underside of Shady hurdling over me to get into the pool. With a thundering splash, she cleared me but then began to panic, not knowing how to get out. The ladder was way too small, and the pool was deep. I had no choice but to jump in freshly showered and with full make-up on to rescue her. As I tried to reach her, she would move away. By some miracle, I got behind her and was able to shove her hulking form onto the deck. She shook off her coat, turned, and looked at me as if this was such a wonderful spontaneous moment. Like we had just had the best pool party of our lives. I had ten minutes to get reassembled and out the door, while she napped on the kitchen floor, exhausted from her morning swim. 

Because she was accustomed to going everywhere all the time in her previous living situation, I was left in a quandary trying to curb her extreme fear of being left alone. I thought as time passed, she would get the idea that when we left, we would return. But her anxiety got the best of her, and she was causing damage. The final straw came when I walked in the door to see one of my daughter’s Beta fish tanks in the living room. In a frenzy, she had decided to take it off the kitchen table and run with it. There was water, rocks and an empty plastic container proudly strewn all over.

When I heard my daughter sadly say, “Oh, no! Not Oscar!” I began frantically searching for the tiny red fish, hoping the whale hadn’t swallowed him! 

I found him breathing quite rapidly under the table, so I rushed around trying to make it right and stop the tears of a little girl for her beloved fish. I think he died of a heart attack. Oscar joined the other dearly departed Beta fish in the little cemetery we had created. I think he was number ten. I lost count. 

This prompted me to buy the most oversized kennel I could find. I put the softest of all dog beds inside it to convey how nice she had it. It was to be a safe oasis for her to meditate and center herself while she was alone. I gave the idea a try. The kennel was placed and left open for her to come and go. To coax her in, I would leave treats for her to find. She would buzz in quick and fly out just as fast. It was a battle of wills by the time I made her go in, but I knew this had to be done. 

I gave her an extra treat through the metal front and told her that we would be right back. While driving away, I realized I now had acquired an anxiety disorder about leaving her. I brushed the thoughts away, hoping for the best. 

When we returned home, Shady greeted me at the door. I regret not leaving a recording device while we were away. I looked across the room at the kennel, and it appeared perfectly intact. The door was secure and locked. It wasn’t until I walked to the side that I saw the gaping hole where she had made her escape. She stood by once again, whipping me with a happy tail while I took in the incredible handiwork she had done, eating away at the plastic to gain her freedom. It was impressive to see that she had cut out the perfect side door with just her teeth. 

Shady taught me some lessons. First, fear can make both people and animals do crazy things. She was perfectly safe, but she thought she wasn’t, and she made a mess trying to solve her illusionary problems. The kennel was a respite, not a trap. Second, she left me to understand that when someone feels they are limited, there’s always a way out. It may not be the most logical, but the drive to change circumstances to one’s liking can happen no matter what. Shady wasn’t happy, so Shady made a way where there seemed to be no way.

Do we let our fears get the best of us? Or do we see with the eyes of God? Do we rest and allow a safe place to be provided where our spirit knows that it’s okay to stay awhile? Or do we chew and claw at the walls of our lives, desperate to create an opening by our willpower? Or do we get still and let the divine take over so that the outcome is perfect? 

I applaud Shady’s desire to run free, but her solution wasn’t ideal. In 1 Corinthians 10:13 it says: 

All you need to remember is that God will never let you down; he’ll never let you be pushed past your limit; he’ll always be there to help you come through it. (Message) 

So how do we get to this point of just strolling through panic mode? We have to embrace the thought that we are loved beyond measure in an unearthly way. It requires receiving, not striving. 

Romans 8:28 says: That’s why we can be so sure that every detail in our lives of love for God is worked into something good. (Message) 

God’s love, trust, and faith are the best things to rely on while people (and dogs) must undergo obedience training. 

Afterthought: Shady lived with me for three years. I used clicker training and other devices to help her adjust. It didn’t tame all of the wild behavior, but enough to cohabitate decently. In the end, she went to live with another family. I was getting a divorce, and she required a lot more attention than I had at the time. Again, by forces beyond my control, a family was provided. They lived on a lake. The day the couple came to see her, she greeted them like they were old friends. They asked if they could take her. At first, I thought…huh? Then I gathered up her bowls, her leash, and all other items. We walked outside; the lady slid open the door to their van, and Shady jumped in without glancing in my direction. The last I heard of her, she was retrieving tennis balls from the lake.