We take turns luring the pup off the deck. We nudge (read: push) him down the deck steps to the lawn. We practically drag him around the yard to do his business. He vacillates between being afraid of the front yard and, when the wind direction changes, the back yard. The Black Ninja Squirrel’s appearance provides no comfort. He’s scared. He’s nervous. He’s jumpy. On the plus side, his appetite hasn’t wavered. Thank goodness for little favors.
We’re intellectually prepared for what’s ahead of us. For the next three weeks, Tuesday through Friday, I’ll drop Zozo off for training in the morning on my way to work. At the end of the day, James will pick up the pup on his way home. We’ll go about our business during the day, and Zozo will attend the most prestigious and intense dog training program I’ve ever heard of in the DC/Metro area. Zozo will have focused, one-on-one training three times each day for 30 minutes at a time. (There’s a lot of numbers in that sentence.) He’ll be out-and-about in the city, honing his leash skills in parks, busy street corners, a noisy corner store, and in the presence of strangers, kids and geese.
James and I are not entirely off the training hook, though. Each week we have one lesson with Zo and his trainer, and we’ll have nightly homework to do after the first week. We have to force ourselves to encourage Zozo to go further, to not give into frustration and distress if it doesn’t go well, and to learn how to read Zo for triggers of a meltdown. If all goes well, we’ll graduate the program with a certificate of accomplishment, an honor student bumper sticker, and better tools to help Zozo cope with the world around him.
So here we go….
The first day of school, I’m down with the flu (of course) and DC’s February weather descends with the first sleet storm of the year. And still, I’m out of bed at 7, bundled up and in the car with Zozo riding shotgun (it’s a Mini; he’s riding shotgun even if he’s in the backseat). The shop opens for drop-off at 7:30am, and we’re the first through the doors. Zozo is excited to meet the ladies behind the counter– he’s becoming quite the ladies’ pup– and is escorted up to his school crate while I write a check. He doesn’t even look back after I hand off the leash. Fine, if you’re going to be like that…
At the end of the day, James returns home with a sleepy dog, who lumbers over to “place,” flops down and sacks-out for the night. We have to wake him up for dinner and to take him out. He’s so exhausted he doesn’t even snore. The rest of the week progresses much the same.
Saturday morning, we rise and shine ourselves, throw on some layers and head out for our first family training. For the next hour, we follow behind our trainer marveling at how confidently Zo is walking on leash. He’s “heeling” like a pro. We take turns learning to walk him in community lot. We struggle with holding the leash, moving the leash, giving the verbal cues… it’s walking and chewing gum and rubbing your belly and patting your head. It’s hard. The trainer gently stops us, adjusts our errors and sets us on our way. Zozo is equally patient. He quietly sits and looks lovingly from human to human (to human) while we get ourselves together. He’s ready when we are. And then it’s over: we head home knowing that we humans have our work cut out for us and that our dog is a superstar. That’s a great feeling to have.
Every night for the next two weeks, we take Zozo on homework walks. He still spooks easily, but when he has a job to do– Let’s go! Heel! — he can get it together and focus on the prize (liver treats, say what?!). We drop him off, we pick him up, we do homework, he sleeps. By the end of our training, he’s automatically sitting when we come to a stop, he’s able to “down and stay” on crowded sidewalks. He’s oddly more comfortable walking in the dark than he is in the daylight, because he’s literally afraid of his own shadow.
We finish the program with no fanfare: just a quiet, final training session and some words of encouragement about what’s next. These are our hard facts: Zozo’s never going to be an off-leash walker. He’s always going to be uncomfortable around strangers, especially men. When he can take his social cues from other dogs, his anxiety levels lessen. The world is big and bright and too noisy for him sometimes, and that’s scary.
But the best news is he’s got us, and we’re not going to let him down.