Illustration By: Yuta Onoda
I take a deep breath, push it out slowly through pursed lips, and gaze into the treetops. The sun shines through branches in little starbursts of golden light. I watch for a long quiet moment and take another belt-stretching breath. That’s better. My pounding heart settles to a near normal thump. My jaw muscles relax. Leaves and twigs and branches. Twinkly, little sunshine. Happy thoughts. Let’s try this again. One more deep breath. I have to remember: She is just a puppy.
I’m no expert, but I’ve had a pretty good run of luck bringing up duck dogs. I never broke my first Lab, Emma, of whining, but she was a terror on crippled swamp mallards. Next came Biscuit. Injuries sidelined her early on, but she was steady as a chocolate sphinx when something went splash. Now there is Minnie. She’s a small black Lab, a canoe dog. Seven months old and barely 40 pounds, she uses each ounce to push my buttons. Emma and Biscuit, like most of their breed, relished praise like handfuls of kibble, and you could see it–in the thump of a tail, and in their eyes, glancing at me like a kid searching the stands for his dad after sinking a shot. They loved to please their master.
Miss Minnie, by contrast, is one selfish little girl. She’s a sweet pup, make no mistake. She’d lick the skin off your face if you let her, but life is all about Minnie. She is loved just the same as Emma and Biscuit, gets wrestled with the same, and is run through woods and swamp. When Minnie is presented with a choice, however, that dog looks out for No. 1. To say the least, she is leading me toward unhealthy levels of cardiac unrest. Over the years I’ve muttered one training platitude a million times: Whip the dog once, whip the master twice. So today I’m working on a bit of a reset.
My idea is a review of the place command. It’s a critical concept for a gun dog. Minnie needs to understand that when I point to a location–the bow of the boat, the platform in a duck blind, or one side of the fireplace at a hunt club–and command, “Place,” I want her to take up residence there until I tell her otherwise. Of course, knowing her place seems to be the central issue of late.
A week ago I started her off with a single “place,” a jerry-rigged dog stand so ugly my wife cuts me dirty looks whenever I roll it within sight of the kitchen window. I sawed off the corners of an old foam archery target and lashed it to a boat tire. In just a few sessions, Minnie had the lesson dialed in–on her own terms. She’ll perform perfectly twice, maybe three times, just enough to prove she knows the deal. Then she’ll show her butt, just to prove she’s the one in charge. Each time I can see Minnie working the geometry out in her little head: The check cord is X feet long. The pecan tree is X + 2 feet away, ergo: Bolt from the place stand, around the pecan tree, streaking for freedom, till the lead snaps taut. Minnie clearly likes to learn. Perhaps, I think, I need to learn more about how to teach her. In addition to the tire, I’ve set up an obstacle course of various “place” stands around the yard: a square of bricks, an overturned canoe, and a log round standing on end. Instead of drilling on the boat tire I’ll switch it up and keep her guessing.
We start the circuit. I point to the boat tire and say, “Place.” Up Minnie goes. Quickly now, before her mind starts wandering, we work the course. The square of bricks is cake, not much different from the boat tire. A piece of old carpet padding–O.K., she seems to say, I see where you’re going with this. The canoe is a different matter altogether. She hesitates for a moment. You want me to do what? As I give her the command, I lead her muzzle with a piece of tasty kibble, and have her sit on the upside-down hull of the boat. It’s slick and wobbly. She’ll have to pay attention, and that’s the point. If I can take up some of the headspace in that evil little brain with more serious matters, such as balance and body positioning, there won’t be bandwidth left over for her to calculate disobedience. Three times running now, I point to the canoe, command, “Place,” and she hops up, spins around, and sits. My heart starts thumping again–but in a good way.
With the canoe firmly in mind, we move to the last challenge. When I point to a standing log round and give the command, she hesitates again. The log is maybe 16 inches in diameter. This will take some doing, but up she goes. Minnie leaps to the top of the log, pirouettes, and sits like a pelican on a dock piling.
I pour it on: “Good girl! Good girl, Minnie!” I am absolutely impressed. I drop the check cord, command, “Stay!” and turn my back. I walk around the corner of the house. I count to three. When I round the corner back to the yard, Minnie is still on the log, pretty as you please. When I command, “Come,” she vaults off the log and dashes to my side. My left side, the correct side. Little twinkly sunbeams dance all around. “You and me, girl,” I croon, “we just might be going places.”