George Clooney – or, The Importance of Training

Ardala and Shadow - her first buddy.

Ardala and Shadow – her first buddy.

A neighbor in our last neighborhood had a big yellow lab mix-looking dog (he wasn’t – he was part pit, some ridgeback and a host of other dogs) who was the king of the block. Which I suppose made sense – our neighbor (Hannah! Wow – I remember a dog-owner’s given name!) was the block captain. She was an irascible busy-body, but entertaining and a great dog owner. Shadow was a licensed therapy dog and the sweetest thing ever. He also had a few health problems in his old age, problems which led him to a local university’s veterinary school for care. Hannah proudly told us that she had trained him to pee on command – it made taking urine samples for his various check-ups and tests much easier. Later she mentioned that he was trained to pee on command, but always made the vet techs play Chase Me! with him for a few laps first. I’m not sure who was trained here.

Our first trainer mentioned the possibility of training “go potty!” – “you never know when you’re going to need it!” she said. But we were just overwhelmed with trying to make sure Ardala didn’t slip her lead when we were walking her. She was (and is) a total angel, but the first week we had her we noticed something that was later diagnosed as “leash arousal”, but looked to us like OMG CUJO! when she saw another dog. The training helped us, and Ardala calmed down pretty quick. As a herding mix, she’s pretty smart but not quite too smart to train. Some things she never did pick up, like catching a treat in mid-air. I think this is because she is smart enough to understand gravity; why leap when you know that treat’s going to hit the ground mere milliseconds later?

One thing we started but never quite followed through with was the “play dead” command, and it required a series of two or three steps put together. Our trainer said the verbal cue for this was often “bang!” at which point the dog would comically drop to the floor on her back with her legs straight in the air. We decided that was a little morbid so we decided the scenario we would train is “Look! It’s GEORGE CLOONEY!” at which point Ardala would comically drop to the floor in an imitation swoon. Not only was this just an awesome trick, it was something that, if done right, could have landed our adorable pup on Ellen, maybe get us an audience with the Cloonster himself. (this is the type of Hollywood-Onset Dementia you can develop after sucking in the smog and the jacaranda pollen for too many years). So we started training the first part, which was a lie-flat-on-your-side bit. This was challenging, as she’s a hand-signal rather than verbal-cue kind of dog, and it was important that she not point her face to look at us. We developed a sort of clockwise swirl of the hand that got her into the least-alert posture she could manage, with the side of her face pressed to the ground. It took us awhile to do that,  and then we learned that we needed an interim “stay” command before we taught her the leg thing. She doesn’t like not keeping an eye on her monkeys.

Well, that was about as far as we got, really. Swirl your hand when she’s already on the ground and maybe she’ll lie still. We never made a conscious decision to abandon it, but it certainly became less important. Her sit, heel, and halt all held, and her stay was pretty good. Her recall was stellar so what more did we need her to do?

This week she was prescribed crunches – most of her reluctance to use her legs isn’t down to an her legs not working (see: swimming) but because she can’t even hold herself up because her core muscles are weak after months of us “helping” her. They demonstrated how to do these crunches and it looked pretty easy at the rehab facility. Of course when we got home it was a different story. It was very hard luring her to bring her head to her flank without her propping herself up on her forelimbs. She could be in a dead sleep, lying inertly on her side, but as soon as she hears the magnet on the treat pouch disengage or gets a whiff of a tiny treat morsel, she’s at high alert.  I was frustrated, but then Red Monkey remembered the training class we took six years ago; she swirled her hand and said “George Clooney!” and just like that, Ardala was flat on her bed. We’re slowly building her up – the first day was one set of four, the next was one set of five – we may do two sets of three tonight. We hope to eventually do two or three sets of five each day. And while she may not be great at doing tricks, I am happy to say that George Clooney still serves as an inspiration to my dog.

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