Once I got Lilly out of the car at her first official obedience class, I had a hard time convincing her to get up off the ground. Once I got her off the ground, she didn’t want to go into the building. Once I got her in the building, she hid under my chair and bared her teeth (in fear) at anything that moved. She was about 9 months old, and things looked dismal. Any kind of dog training win seemed impossible.
Teaching myself as much or more than Lilly
Contrary to popular thought, obedience classes teach people as much or more than the dogs. I wasn’t there to teach Lilly how to be a good girl. I was there to learn how to communicate with my new pal, who was nervous but anxious to please.
Accustomed to my requests being ignored, after 14+ years with a beautiful-but-ornery dalmatian named Penelope Grace, Lilly came as a revelation. She really listens to me. She has potential for maybe a dog training win or two.
I quickly learned to give her space from the other pups so that she wouldn’t fixate on them with the classic border collie “eye” used to control sheep. With some personal space and rewards for focusing on me, Lilly shined in class.
She loved training at home each day. And, week after week in class, she worked her heart out. We’d found the key to teamwork.
My favorite moment came in about week six. With all the dogs in down-stays and us across the room, the trainer taunted them with noisy toys as he paced the line. It’s called “proofing.” In other words, will the dogs stay steady amid distraction?
Lilly didn’t budge. Even when the trainer came by with a rubber chicken that made an ungodly noise, my sound-reactive girl held strong.
Then, a large, young yellow lab next to her lost it. He simply couldn’t stay one … more … second. He leapt to his feet and displayed a textbook case of “the zoomies.” That’s when a young, playful dog ricochets around the room. It set off a chain reaction of broken stays, as dogs couldn’t resist the invitation to play.
Lilly calmly took in the scene, never breaking her stay, despite the other pups doing their best impression of popcorn. Pop … golden retriever. Pop … black lab. Pop … sheltie.
Gibraltar in a sea of motion, Lilly stayed – even when the pup that started it all soaked her with sloppy kisses from tip to tail.
I watched my Einstein in a room full of class clowns, and I was proud.
We took a final exam in week 8. Set up like a rally obedience ring, like a car rally, we took turns heeling our dogs through a course. Various stops required different maneuvers – sit, down, standing stay and such. We heeled quickly and slowly. We made right turns and left turns. We stopped and started in unison.
The exam also required long, group sit-stays and down-stays as well as at least one individual trick. The trainer had and ribbons for all that passed, but I knew we had a shot at the top spot.
First, big dog training win
There was one dog in the room that could have beaten us, a German shepherd, but he fell apart in the ring and blew off several commands from his handler. At that point, I leaned over to my pal Crystal, who came to support me since my hubby was in training all weekend, and said, “We’re going to win.”
I was right (first overall, second in tricks). Lilly was nearly flawless. She scored 196 out of 200, only docked points for lagging a bit, heeling a little wide in a turn, and sniffing the ground.
Her stand for exam nearly made me cry. It’s a big deal for a shy dog to stand still while a stranger touched her. I think someone actually gasped in awe when I said “Freeze,” used our hand signal for it, and walked away without doubt or hesitation. She didn’t move a muscle.
Remember the yellow lab? Well, he went into the ring next, and I’ll never forget his mother’s voice as she headed to the start line, “Oh, great! We get to follow Lilly.”
(To his credit, that pup earned a trophy for most improved, and he did graduate.)
An expanded version of this dog training win post appears in a book called My Dog is My Hero.