Saturday, April 16th, 2011
Anyone who has lived with dogs will tell you about the magic power that cookies hold. In fact, more than 15 years ago, the first dog trainer I ever met counseled me not only to reward the “come” command with a cookie, but in fact to sometimes use the word “COOKIES!” to call my dog back to me. Some might say this is bribery. And I’m no dog training expert (a fact to which anyone who has visited the farm will attest). But fun food and the delivery of the promise of fun food are, in my opinion, important keys to bonding with your dog. Or sheep, or pig, or horse, or even the next door neighbor!
As much as eating drives your average, pleasure-seeking animal, however, I’m not convinced that treats are the only motivator.
One of the saddest things I ever did was to misuse the word “Walkies” to get my dog Sage to come to me. In those days we lived in the suburbs (a fact I will heartily deny if anyone ever asks again), and we went for a walk several times a day. Sage adored her “walkies”, and just as soon as I said the word, she would rush at me grinning, ears flattened to her head in pleasure, fluffy tail and hips swooping around and around like a Brazilian girl.
Sage was beautiful. She was graceful, athletic, gentle, pure of heart, and an absolute lady. She was perfect. My soul mate. When I was not at the office, she went everywhere with me. Actually, when my boss wasn’t looking, she went there too. She was, however, (ahem) at times rather headstrong and wanted to do what she wanted to do, when she wanted to do it (and who says owners don’t resemble their dogs…). Because of her tendency to not “come” even for a cookie, I began to use the word “Walkies!” when I simply wanted to get her back into the house.
Sage was also impossibly smart. After three or four times of not being rewarded with a walk, she stopped responding. She became depressed. Even when I got out the leash and pronounced “Walkies!!” in that inane high pitched doggie-goo-goo talk we too often use, she didn’t believe me, and would walk resignedly back into the bedroom. You see, her understanding of this word had changed; it now had multiple meanings and this confused her. Did walkies mean ‘here, have a cookie and be quiet now’? Did it mean dinnertime? Bedtime? Did it mean no cookie, no walkie, and stay alone inside the apartment while Anne goes to work for the day? Or did walkies mean a real walk? You could see her trying to work it out, trying to get herself worked up about going for a walk, but really, she had lost her zest. I did that. No future cookies or walkies would change the duality I’d created. I failed to respect the dog-girl pact. I failed the one being I loved most in the world.
Before the violins start playing, I would like to report that no call for cookies goes unanswered at the farm now. While my conscience is clear, I sometimes wonder about my role as butler, maid, chef, and chauffeur. Many people refer to animals as “innocent”. I spend a lot of time around animals and let me tell you, there ain’t nuthin innocent about the ones who live here. (Bunch of greedy, clever, conniving little &*#)^!(% thieves….). But direct? Yes. They expect and demand consistency. They dish it out, too. They have me so wrapped around their hooves all it takes is a sideways look and I jump to attention and salute.
Last night I was going out for dinner with friends. But I was running late. I’d done half the evening chores and I thought, hedging my bets, waffling in my resolution, well now, the horses and the llama can wait a few hours for their dinner, can’t they? After all, they have HAY. But they had already gathered round their feeding station. They were looking at me. Expectantly. Cr*p, I was busted. I got out their grain, feeling virtuous and selfless. They were nearly done when Jean Claude the llama got annoyed at a goat who was (literally) horning in, and spat the last (rather large) mouthful of his dinner all down the front of my lovely brand new sundress. You always know where you stand with these guys.
I no longer ever use a word with my animals I don’t intend to honor; and I try pretty hard to keep to the schedule and routine I’ve set for them (yes, and this includes staying up late and sleeping in!). But I alas often so often fail the consistency test in my human interactions. We all do. Perhaps animals’ needs are more circumscribed, their demands so abundantly clear, that it’s easier to manage them. Or maybe we all have to make the sad mistake that I did with Sage before we can even get to that stage of awareness. I really don’t know. But I can say this: one of my primary goals for the second half-century of my life is to learn to treat people as well I do my dogs.
Till next time,
Star Gazing Farm 501(c)3
A haven for retired farm animals and wayward goats