GOING TO COURT
by Terri Florentino
Courthouse Square is always a great place to train and socialize dogs. It’s a bonus that there’s a lot of green area to spread out for basic obedience exercises and a fairly level sidewalk to practice heel positions. There’s never a lack of people, adults and children alike, sitting on park benches, strolling along pushing babies in coaches, skateboarding, jogging, and even walking their own dogs. The water fountains spout and splash water onto anyone that dares stand near enough, and there are various statues of heads of state strategically placed throughout the square. There is the usual hustle and bustle of traffic and the sounds of beeping horns, emergency vehicle sirens screaming as they speed past, screeching breaks, and the occasional rusted-out muffler growling as an old car passes by. There’s also the occasional beep-beep sound from the traffic light that signals when it’s safe to cross the street.
As always, I arrive a few minutes early. The class and I meet underneath the statue of George Washington. It was a beautiful day, warm enough that the thought of spending most of the class by the fountain crossed my mind. As the students arrived, we all engaged in small talk as we waited for the remainder of the students. As we were chatting about our week, I observed a young man on a skateboard pass by. At the same time I heard a shriek to my right and noticed Debbie bent over with her hand on her calf as she was reaching out to give Chase’s leash to her husband Sam.
“Are you OK?” I called out as I hurried towards her.
“How badly did he hurt you?” Deb pulled up her pant leg to assess the bite wound. “It’s a pretty good bite, but barely bleeding, I’ll be OK,” she said, obviously frustrated.
“You’ll need to be more aware of your surroundings and what might stimulate an overreaction from Chase. Next time the skateboarder comes by put Chase in a down/stay position and don’t let him up until the skateboarder’s out of sight. No doubt he’ll come around again, so be prepared. In the meantime let me take Chase for a few minutes while you calm down.” I took the leash from Sam so he and Debbie could take a few minutes to settle down.
Once all of the class arrived I announced that we were going to start with our walking exercise. “Let’s stay in a straight line, keep a reasonable distance behind the dog/handler team in front of you and rehearse a heel position while we walk. Are your dogs sitting politely on our left side? Remember to use your lead leg. Let’s go. Heel.” In a single file line we walked around the square, everyone promoting a good heel position even amongst all of the distractions. I purposely had Chase and Debbie walk at the end of the line to allow enough distance between Chase and the next dog. After a short while walking Chase, lunged at the Schnauzer in front of him.
“Leave it,” Debbie insisted with a firm voice, at the same time walking off with Chase in the opposite direction in order to relieve the pressure. Once Chase settled she fell back into line.
“Nice work, Deb,” I encouraged her to keep up the good work.
Once we arrived at a large green area, I had the class stop and take a break. “Great job with the heel positions! Get yourselves and your dogs some water and relax for a few minutes.” I sat down with my own bottle of water and admired all of the students enjoying their dogs.
“What we’ll do next, right here in the green area, is practice the sit/stay and down/stay exercises. I’ll just have everyone spread out into a long line facing me. Put your dogs in a sit and stay on your left side, instruct your dogs to “stay,” and pivot in front of them. When we release them from the stay, remember to use the release word, ‘OK’.” We continued with these exercises for a few times, having the dogs sit or down while learning to stay. Debbie and Chase did very well; she was starting to recognize his comfort zone.
“The final exercise for the day will be at the water fountain, it’s always a lot of fun for the dogs that like water.” In a single file line with adequate spacing between each student we made our way around the block to the fountain. The water fountain is ground level, easy for the dogs to have access to walk on. One by one in a heel position the dog/handler teams made their way back and forth by the fountain. Most of the dogs didn’t mind the spray from the water, those that did stayed further away. As Debbie and Chase waited their turn in line Chase snarled, growled, and lunged at a keeshond that was standing in front of him. The keeshond immediately turned around and snarled back defensively. Debbie immediately removed Chase from the line while the owner of the keeshond settled him down just in time to go ‘play’ in the water.
Deb walked far away from the group; I could tell she was upset. I finished up with the rest of the class. We discussed where we were going to meet the following week. “Congratulations, you’re all doing a fantastic job with this class; I’m looking forward to seeing all of you next week.” Once the students started to walk away I made my way to Debbie and Chase. By now Debbie was in tears.
“This was a terrible day,” she sobbed.
“You did a very good job today. Each time Chase overreacted, you handled him perfectly. There were even a few times that he didn’t react at all. You’re not going to magically make his reactiveness go away overnight. He’s learning from you that his responses are inappropriate, and you’re working very hard at promoting appropriate interaction. Go home, give Chase his favorite learning game and relax, you’re doing fine.”
“Some days I think we’re really coming along, and then days like today I feel like we’ve made no progress at all,” Debbie sighed.
“Keep at it, Deb. I assure you he’ll come around. Sometimes it gets harder before it gets easier.”
I bent down to Chase, who immediately rolled over onto his back. “You’re alright, Chase. Be a good boy for Debbie this week.” I gave have him pat on his belly, he wagged his tail, and we stood up and walked together back to our vehicles. “Keep your chin up, Deb. I’ll see you next week.”
As I watched them go, my biggest fear was that Chase might bite Debbie or Sam –or someone else–so severely that they’d give up on him. And then what would become of Chase?