Sunday, January 18, 2009


I just finished reading Merle's Door, a book I received for my birthday. It got me to thinking how different having a dog is now than it used to be. Better different. Better for the dog and better for the people.

Back in the day, the fact that our family dog could not only sit and roll over but play dead when we pointed our finger and said bang! was an amazing thing to most folks. Now Kharma rips off a series of ten or more tricks for just one of her homemade little peanut-butter treats. Obedience class was for very few people and now nearly everyone has attended Puppy Kindergarten. Walking Fido has become Agility Classes. Dogs have their own seatbelts (at least Kharma does).

I'm no longer comfortable saying I "own" a dog. It's not a PETA thing; it just feels wrong. I'd rather say that I share my life with a dog and she shares her life with me--I guess that's the change I've been thinking about in a nutshell. I'm well aware that I've been blessed with her love and confidence for an all-too-brief time and I want Kharma to develop to her full potential.

I'm learning not to micro-manage though. She's great at hand signals that eventually have been paired with audibles and will respond to both. In our Team-Relationship Building class, our instructor would have us take our dog though a tunnel in the way that seemed foreign to me at the time. There was very little luring and no naming--both things I've done regularly and successfully with Kharma. A little lightbulb went on for me: agility happens fast and a dog who can read your intentions via body language or pick your wishes out of thin air is greatly preferable to one who needs to be told every detail.

After reading Merle's Door, another Aha! moment happened. I need to respect my dog's ability to think for herself. We aren't so lucky as to live next to a wilderness, away from speeding cars and privacy fences, where a dog can roam safely all day, choosing his own activities.

But we are lucky to live next to an undeveloped park where we walk off-leash with great satisfaction. There are cowflops for her to smell; goose poop for her to sample like See's Candy for dogs; geese families who should be wintering in the Imperial Valley instead of the Sierras and thus are fair game; voles and coyotes and other dogs leave scents to be thoroughly investigated. I walk and she ranges. Sometimes we play with neighbor dogs who are also in the park off-leash. Frequently I bring the Flippy Flopper along and we play Frisbee until her tongue hangs out far enough to show off her two blue tongue spots. There is no Calm Assertive Energy involved, no Pack Leader. We just hang out and have fun. I can't imagine always having her on-leash and I suspect she's pretty happy I think that way.

I know she enjoys meeting other dogs, although she checks in with me frequently. Running full tilt to catch her Frisbee just feels good to her. Putting a flock of lazy geese into the cool morning air tickles our mutual senses of humor. Our unstructured time together is every bit as important as clicker training or working on a new trick or taking a class. Now that I'm thinking about it, maybe it's the most valuable thing we do together.

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