Maybe You Can Teach An Old Dog New Tricks

A Border Collie descending an A-frame at an ag...
A Border Collie descending an A-frame at an agility competition. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

What a proud moment this was for me.  I was attending my first graduation ceremony as a parent.  Like any other doting mom, I made sure that I had a good camera so I could take lots of pictures during this momentous occasion.  Of course, my graduate had to have clean teeth and brushed hair.  She looked absolutely radiant, the blue mortarboard delicately perched on her dark, wavy locks.  This was not just my triumphant moment–it was Rosy’s.

I eagerly snapped the proud graduate’s pictures, capturing the brightness and intelligence shining from her eyes.  Surprisingly patient through the first couple of pictures, Rosy, the graduate soon grew tired of the headpiece, and shook it off her head, throwing it onto the floor.  Most parents would have been mortified by this brattish behavior, but I laughed hysterically, as did the other parents attending the ceremony.  Thankfully, this was not the behavior of a defiant teenager.  No, this was the response of a confused, middle-aged dog during her graduation ceremony from Beginner Obedience Class.

It all began when my teenage son decided he wanted to get Rosy into Agility, after watching too many dog shows on Animal Planet.  After all, most agility champions are border collies, and Rosy was part border collie (we think).  She’s a rescue dog, so there’s no way to know for sure.  But, she’s got the distinctive black and white markings of a border collie, so, we figure she’s at least got a little bit somewhere.  The other part, is up for grabs (based on some of her habits, I’m guessing junkyard dog’s not too far off the mark).  Anyway, based on her possible border collie heritage, she had potential in agility.  Potential is the key word.  So far, her potential had only been explored as to how much food she could consume.  She demonstrated great ability in eating anything and everything that didn’t eat her first.  This “skill” netted her about ten extra pounds than the charts indicated healthy for her frame.

Despite her weight issues, Rosy did have other qualities that showed promise.  She chased squirrels and possums scurrying along our back fence with amazing speed.  Plus, in spite of some of her rather disgusting habits(remember the previously mentioned junkyard lineage), Rosy was quite alert and certainly intelligent.  Yes, the potential for a great agility dog was there.  The problem.  Rosy was six years old when my son decided to train her.  That’s forty-two years to you and me.

My son was persistent in his pleas, and we located a good school that was close to our home.  Proximity was important because Rosy was a very anxious traveler.  This was understandable since her only car trips resulted in multiple pricks and prods, humiliating explorations of every conceivable orifice (at the vet’s office) and the drenching, soaking, and clipping noise contraptions blowing hot air (at the pet groomer’s).  If those unpleasant events had greeted me after every road trip, I might need heavy sedation during car trips, as well.

We finally got Rosy enrolled in Beginner Obedience Training (the first step in the long journey toward agility).  And, we would soon find out if it’s possible to teach an old dog new tricks.  Our first class, the teacher recommended a pronged-collar for Rosy, since even my rather large husband could barely control her during walks.  We were assured that this collar did not actually hurt Rosy, but rather gets her attention for training purposes.  So, Rosy was fitted for a pronged-collar (which did, in fact, get her attention almost immediately).  We were also told to bring plenty of treats for her training.

The first class was awful.  Since my son was not yet eighteen, I had to stay outside the perimeter of the training ring, for insurance purposes.  Rosy and I go way back.  My son was only ten years old when we got Rosy, so I was the one who “raised” her.  I fed her, potty-trained her, and we ended up being roommates, even sharing a bed.  So, our bond goes way back and runs deep.  My son’s desire to train Rosy, however sincere, was only recent.  Prior to this training experience, Rosy had seen him as more of a playmate.  So, the transition from playmates to teacher and student was going to be tough, if not impossible, on everyone.

So, this first class was a bust.  Rosy whined and paced the whole class period, and kept looking over to me every five seconds, in hopes of a rescue, that was never coming.  And, I must admit, it was hard sitting idly, trying to remain nonchalant while my “baby” was being jerked around and chastised.  But, I began to notice something rather remarkable.  It was working.  Rosy was beginning to respond to my son’s commands.  The teacher brought in her dogs, who were extremely impressive and well-trained, of course.  Watching her work so well with her dogs, gave us hope and a vision that perhaps with persistence, hard work, and a little luck, our dog, too, could be one of those dogs receiving admiring glances from other envious dog owners.

But first, some of the dynamics in our home involving Rosy’s care would have to change in order for success to be possible.  First, my son would have to be Rosy’s primary caregiver.  He would need to start feeding Rosy.  Wow!  This would indeed be a monumental change in our normal routine.  I had not only been feeding her, but I even made Rosy homemade food.  This would be the second change.  My food, along with the indiscriminate tidbits of food which “happened” to drop from my husband’s plate, would, of course, have to stop.  The teacher mentioned Rosy’s girth (See my earlier post, Leftovers: Chicken Ala Compost Heap) confirmed by a subsequent vet visit.  Rosy was definitely overweight.

So, Rosy and my son began working together almost every day.  I’d try peeking out the patio curtain, so as not to distract the “master” at work.  I was amazed.  My son was giving Rosy commands, and she was following them.  It was a beautiful thing to witness their teamwork.  Both of them focused on the same goal–working together.  Before long, my son would take Rosy for walks around the neighborhood.  A truly amazing feat in itself, since prior to obedience training, Rosy was affectionately referred to by some of our neighbors as “Taz”, short for Tasmanian Devil–completely appropriate given her behavior prior to training.

Now, however, my son and Rosy are poetry in motion.  Rosy, walking perfectly aligned by my son’s side.  Stopping when he stops.  Waiting until the moment he admonishes her with a quick “let’s go” and their off again, on their astonishingly peaceful sojourn around the block.  What a triumph for both of them.  That my son can actually walk Rosy around our neighborhood without fear of Rosy going AWOL or being charged with disturbing the peace.

Yes, this was indeed progress.  My son proudly reported that they had strolled calmly past a busy garage sale and an unsuspecting patron had remarked what a lovely dog Rosy was.  It made my son proud, and it made me proud when he told me the story.  Proud of both of them–my teenage son who had gladly, and somewhat naively, taken on the responsibility of training our middle-aged, heretofore, stubborn female border collie mix dog in hopes of some day competing in agility.

Which brings me back to the graduation ceremony.  When my son accepted the Certificate for Beginner Obedience Training, it was a very proud moment for all of us, especially for Rosy.  This experience taught my son to be more responsible, our dog more adaptable, and me to believe in miracles.  It’s been awhile since Rosy’s training.  Since then, my son’s gone on to college, and I tend to be the one caring for “my girl” these days.  Because of my son’s hard work during training, though, I’m able to walk Rosy around the neighborhood.  Eleven years old, Rosy has yet to appear on Animal Planet, though, we did see a dog show recently, and one of the stars was a twelve year old dog, so, who knows.  But, even if she never competes, Rosy and my son are already winners in my book.  Apparently and amazingly, you can teach a young man responsibility, and maybe even teach an old dog new tricks.

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