Better Than a Poke In the Eye

We call horses green when they haven’t been ridden very much. A nine year old horse is still young, and a green one is a virtual baby when compared to others. Once I got over my concussion, I was pretty determined to get back in the saddle as soon as possible and get some miles logged on the Junior horse, hopefully without further incidents with landing on my head.

He had a habit of freezing in position when first hitting the trail. When he turned his head, he could get a good look at me sitting up on his back. He would stop, and turn his head to the left and then the right, looking at me out of one eye and then the other.

It was a funny habit, but what he was really hoping for was that I might slip him a treat. I had begun his saddle training that way, praising him for standing still when I got on, fixed my stirrups, adjusted the girth, whatever. If he stood there quietly, he got a treat. This, of course, quickly escalated out of control. He would stop every few feet and stand there, expecting to be rewarded for it.

This was all early stuff, as he was new to trail riding and I understood that this begging would eventually go away. But in the meantime, I carried along my Smackety Smacker. The Smackety was a whip about the length of a yardstick, with a paddle on the end. It wasn’t too scary. In fact I even taught him to pick it up for me if I dropped it.

But it delivered a firm whack at appropriate times. After a few such incidents, the mere sight of the Smackety would cause the Junior horse to keep moving.

My friend Stacey was making time to take little rides with me, while the days were still long and the weather cooled, and the horse fly population in the woods was finally thinning. We were treated to some beautiful weather, the aging summer sun poking shards of light through the still-green, hushed branches while the birds whistled of the bounty of an Indian summer. The horses’ feet thumped quietly on the trail of dirt. But even though Stacey’s mount Otis kept on ambling his way along the dappled path, the Junior horse decided it must be time for a treat. He came to a sharp halt and turned his head, rolling his brown eye up at me expectantly.

I had forgotten the Smacker. And he knew it.

“Confound it!” I growled. “Hang on a second, Stace.”

Since we were surrounded by trees, of course, there was no shortage of substitute Smackers. I was able to snap off a dead branch, crooked and with a fork at the end. I held it up and showed it to Junior. “Get moving.”

His head swung back around and he marched forward.

We enjoyed our ride, moving through the stillness, the soft sound of the woods, the sudden burst of creatures in the grass. Otis and Junior walked quietly for an hour and as we circled back down to the sandy path that led toward the stable, I flung the stick into the brush.

The downside of riding in a state recreation area is that the DNR can be picky about loose dogs. Even though my dogs were reliable off-leash, I always tried to comply with the rules during the busy hours of the season. But I would let them out to run if there were no other humans around. I opted to take the dogs out later, as the day waned long, and the goldenrod was blooming along the side of the dirt road. We wandered through the horseman’s campground, seeing no one, and the dogs sniffed deeply in the grass. I unhooked them and let them scurry along ahead of me as I headed into the canopy that covered the equine path. Walking along the trail that curved back toward the stable, my border collie Til stepped in front of me, hopefully flinging a stick at my feet.

He backed up and looked at me. I did a double take.

I knew the stick’s crooked shape, its forked end.

It was my replacement Smacker.

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In Other News, Peter Falk’s Daughter is Still Chipping Away at Guardianship

I thank my lucky stars for Catherine Falk, every day of my life. Daughter of TV’s famous, rumpled, delightful Lt. Columbo, she has been working hard to assure nobody else has to go through what she did. When her father was stricken with Alzheimer’s, Catherine was prevented from visiting him by his legal guardian. With the cooperation of the courts, she was not notified when he died. She was not notified of his funeral arrangements.

HIS OWN DAUGHTER.

New York’s Governor Cuomo has recently approved an end-of-life provision for loved ones of the ward (aka prisoner of a guardian).

For those who don’t know, a guardianship is anarchy. The guardian doesn’t have to abide by laws common in child custody. The guardian can do whatever he/she wants. These laws are regulated on a state-by-state basis. The courts are notorious for rubber-stamping them.

I’ve gotten the rubber stamp twice, after filing two petitions in two separate years and under two different judges, to get a visit with my sister Amanda.

Amanda has Down syndrome and in 2013 (following the death of our dad, of whom I was primary caretaker along with Amanda), she was swooped out to Arizona from our home state of Michigan. This was following a dispute between another sibling, our oldest sister Robin, and the current guardian, brother Ted.

Amanda and I stayed together during those very painful months and we wrote a book, “The North Side of Down.” Immediately after we published it, our story won the Honorary Medallion from the Book Reader’s Appreciation Group. This made Amanda one of the few co-authors in the world with Down syndrome… And Perhaps the only award-winning co-author.

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It was my first glimpse into what a horror show guardianship is. I was so relieved when Ted won that case. Amanda was terrified that Robin was going to win. But we both thought things would be just fine now.

WRONG.

Anyone who has followed this blog has seen the struggle I have been though, just trying to get quality time with my sister.

Who knew it was going to be so hard to get permission to take your sister out for movies and pizza?

Evil is rampant, and it isn’t just toward the elderly.

Amanda is a cash cow. Her disability check is “worth a lot more than people thought,” Ted’s wife Ruthie said, back when she was still talking to me.

I couldn’t have cared less about the money. But I am becoming very aware of how much others do.

Back during the days of more open communication, Ted told me he was afraid if Amanda spent too much time with me in Michigan, “she won’t want to come back.”

He transferred her case to Arizona in an attempt to thwart me from filing further petitions.

It’s not going to work.

The only thing that has prevented me this year is the influx of Covid-19.

Now, per this text message, he claims he has removed me from notices about Amanda’s legal status through the court. He said I refused delivery (not true) and I will not be getting any more updates. Ted has lied to me in the past, so it may not be true that he has requested me to be removed and the court agreed, but if it is, it wouldn’t surprise me.

When I posted this latest update on Facebook, a friend asked, “How low can Ted go?”

I guess we are finding that out, eh?

I thought his real low point was when Amanda wept in the restaurant and begged him to let her have time with me.

This friend is not alone. There are a number of friends and relatives, including people who have known Amanda her whole life, who are aghast at the way Ted is treating her. They don’t speak out. Many of them have even withdrawn from Amanda because they are so disgusted by the situation.

I wish people had more courage. Granted, my sisters can be vicious. They are bullies. They will gang up on you.

So what?

Do the right thing.

We need to shed a light on this unethical behavior of guardians. Thank you, Catherine Falk, for pegging away at it.

On September 24th, Amanda turns 50 years old. Hang in there, little sis. I’m not giving up.

Stop Guardian Abuse

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Foreshadowing, and a Thank You

On the evening of September 10th in 2001, I was riding my horse Clifford up the road heading back to my farm in Gregory. We were going at a steady trot and as we turned up the last mile, a runner fell in next to us. He was a wiry Mexican, likely a son of one of the migrant workers. He said I had a beautiful horse, and asked what kind he was. I told him Clifford is a Morgan, an American breed. He replied that this is a great country, and he had finished boot camp and was shipping out for his first assignment in Iraq in a couple of days. We continued our conversation until I reached my driveway and turned off.

He kept on running. He never ran out of breath, managing to have the entire discussion all the while he was keeping up with my trotting horse!

Thank you for your service, Mexican American Running Man.

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Top Notch

The sun was dipping toward the west, casting long shadows over the picnic table where Moriah and I sat together. It had been a long day at the riding stable. We were talking about the way Smokey had plunged into his role as lead guide horse, and how he was still a force at 25 years old. We talked about the summer and the way it was marching away from us, turning its face toward the next season. In the shield of woods not far from where we sat, right by the trail head, we heard a sharp cry.

“It sounds like a kitten,” I said.

“It’s a bird, Nancy.“

“I really think it is a kitten. And I heard it earlier today.”

“That’s a bird, for sure.”

We listened. The yowling cry continued. “Kitty!” I yelled. The cry stopped and then wailed louder.

“It is a kitten!” Moriah jumped up and I followed her through the gate, down the path that led to where the equestrian trail strarted. She crouched down in the pathway. “What are you doing in here?”

She was peering into the bushes. I leaned over and saw the white furry form, no longer than my palm, flattened and now silent, staring back at her through the grasses and twigs. I reached down and plucked him up, swinging him by the nape of his neck hair. He folded, hanging from my grasp, tucking his hind legs way up into his belly. I hoisted him up and looked into his big, black eyes, glazed over in that blank stare that happens when you hold a baby cat as its mother would.

“Where in the heck did you come from?”

I had an embarrassing number of years’ worth of cat experience. I had sworn off cats, and yet they insisted on continuing to find me. I quickly assessed his gender and health and estimated age. A male, dehydrated but free of fleas and ear mites and no sign of upper respiratory infection. He was a mere three weeks old, far too young to be away from his mother. He looked white, but was actually a flame point Siamese type, with the beginnings of an orange tail and ears, and cream-colored paws. I nestled him close to comfort him. As he snuggled up under my chin, I immediately gave him a name. Notch. Notch Yer Kitten, I told myself.

“I want!” Moriah cooed. I handed him over. Good. Notch already had a home.

We brought him inside and I sent a message to the stable manager Jennifer, who was out on errands, to bring us back a bottle and a can of kitten milk replacer. In the meantime Moriah kept him warm.

“I want to call him Ghost!” she said.

“You can call him that.”

“Well did you think of a name?”

“Ghost is fine.”

She knew me better. “What is the name?”

I explained it. Notch. Notch Yer Kitten.

“How about Notcher Ghost?” she suggested.


He was a ghost. He was a waif, shrunken, with enormous eyes that were blue in color, but dark with his enlarged pupils. He was too young to be terrified. He had just fallen into a type of shock that was designed to immobilize and protect infant creatures of his age.

The first picture of Notch.

The KMR arrived and he suckled voraciously. “Do you want me to keep him here until he’s ready to wean?” I asked Moriah. “He is going to need a lot of care.”

“I can’t take him,” Moriah said. “My dad is allergic.”

That settled it. Notch was going to be my charge, at least for a while.

Notch didn’t even know how to go to the bathroom by himself. It took a couple of days before he fully inflated and his coat smoothed into the fuzzy kitten hair. He crept along the floor, looking at everything in wonder. He began to chew solid food. He learned to use the litterbox, and within a week he was galloping after the dogs and rolling and batting at balls of rumpled paper, like kittens do.

Now, every night, he crawls into bed demanding snuggles, patting my face with his paws, claiming ownership of my soul.

On a whim, I entered him in the America’s Favorite Pets contest online, and he shot to first place. It will end during the first week of October.

Notcher Ghost belongs to everyone.

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Amanda’s New Year’s Revenge

One of my mother’s favorite holiday traditions was to play a practical joke on someone. It usually was Dad. One year she knitted him a cap that she decorated with tinsel and ornaments in the form of plastic animals; a pink walrus, a sheep, and others, that swung around his face. Mom was multi-talented and she could knit beautifully. I always wanted her to make me a granny square afghan, but she delighted in making things she could use to torment Dad.

Dad was the favored target, but no one was ever sure who the next victim would be; or, in fact, who would instigate the joke.

Around 1997, I selected Amanda.

The youngest of our eight siblings, Amanda spent summers with me downstate where every year I would buy her a new wardrobe to wear to school. We loved shopping together, although she didn’t always appreciate having to try things on. I picked out cute tops and flattering pants for her. But she liked wild colors, leopard prints and flashy materials, and dramatic styles with lots of pockets. Her interest was piqued every time we went to the mall and passed the leather store. Amanda wanted a black leather jacket in the worst way. She had aspirations of looking like a biker babe. Unfortunately, like most people with Down syndrome, she is short and her body is soft and pudgy. Her figure was not one to handle the narrow-waisted style of biker jacket that she yearned for.

One summer, she stayed with me for about six weeks and after a vigorous diet and exercise program, she had dropped a significant amount of weight. When shopping, she spotted a leather jacket she liked and tried it on, and it did fit her. But although I was seriously tempted, I opted not to buy it for her, as I knew she was going to gain the weight back when she got back home and fell “off the wagon” of daily walking and careful eating habits.

As Christmas rolled around, I was in a convenience store and I happened to notice a keychain that had a perfect miniaturized version of a black leather jacket, complete with zippers and snap buttons and pockets.

I got the key ring and wrapped it in a large box. On the tag, I wrote: “To Amanda. Here’s something you’ve wanted for a really long time.”

The box sat under the tree for a solid week, with its sparkling ribbon and tempting gift tag. Anyone who lifted it up and shook it would have easily deducted that it wasn’t heavy enough to contain a real black leather jacket. But Amanda’s hopes were soaring.

“What’s in that box?” Dad roared.

I leaned over and whispered in his ear. “Say, ‘A black leather jacket’ really loud!”

“A black leather jack-“ his yelp was smothered when I clapped my hand over his mouth.

Amanda’s dark blue almond-shaped eyes crackled. She rubbed her hands together. That sealed it. She knew she was finally getting the jacket of her dreams.

When Christmas morning dawned, she made a beeline for the tree, and with trembling hands she tore open the gift and ripped through the tissue paper. She pulled out the keyring, the mini jacket too small to even fit a Barbie doll.

“WHAT IS THIS?!” she screamed.

The family howled!

“Some sister, eh?” Dad yelled.

“Yeah!” she snapped. “Some sister I got!”

She whipped her hand back and flung that keyring. It flew across the room and struck me squarely on the temple. The room was in an uproar.

“You thought you were getting a black leather jacket?” Mom said.

“Yes!” Amanda shouted.

“Oh, Manda, you’ve gotta be out of your orb,” Mom said.

Amanda couldn’t help laughing. But she said, “Gol darn you, Nancy, I’m gonna get you for this!”

Christmas passed, and Amanda finally got her jacket, although it was a swing coat more suited to her figure than the biker babe jacket she had picked out. I didn’t think too much about it. But several weeks later, in January, I received a package, with a note that said, “Dear Nancy, here’s something you’ve wanted for a really long time.”

I tore open the package. Inside, I found my granny square afghan, carefully hand knitted.

It was attached to a key ring, and it was only one square.

Amanda Makes A Wish by Nancy, watercolor and colored pencil.
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Decking the Halls

One of the best things about the Christmas season is tradition, and every year the Novi Pet Expo kicks it off for us. Even though the pet show happens in mid November (always falling on my birthday weekend), for years Clifford the horse has ushered in the season at the big event, posing with Santa, sporting his elf hat, and painting ornaments.

I was pretty sure Christmas just wasn’t going to be the same without Clifford. But his understudy, Kerry 7th Gen, known fondly as the Junior Horse, had spent the summer polishing up his tricks in order to step into the big hoofprints. He has learned to do a lot of Clifford’s tricks including nodding “yes” and “no”, showing his teeth, counting, and bowing and he had even added the Spanish walk to his repertoire.

One thing that JR couldn’t do was paint. I hadn’t attempted to teach him to push the sponge around. We were slated to go to the Expo under Clifford’s contract, and what the contract promised was a painting horse! In the middle of the Expo offerings, birds and reptiles, llamas and goats, agility dogs and rescued kitties, was a horse who could paint with a sponge and non-toxic pigments.

Thanks to my friends, Lyn and Harry Alban, JR got a ride to Novi from their home near Grand Rapids. They even brought a folding table for him to work on. I had packed all the necessary gear: sponges and neon colors, a thick pad of multi-purpose paper, and the essential star-shaped wooden Christmas ornaments.

JR’s great-uncle Clifford had spent over twenty years promoting literacy and empathy, as well as promoting the Morgan horse, a breed I now learned had become an endangered species. It was, I thought, due not so much a lack of interest in the Morgan, as a growing lack of space. People no longer had acres to live on, and the cost of hay was skyrocketing. Horse ownership was becoming a thing of the past. It was becoming more important to promote horse ownership, the equestrian sports, riding lessons for kids, and the Morgan breed in particular as the horse who could do it all: He is the perfect equine athlete, proficient in eventing, reining, dressage, and virtually anything the larger, more high-maintenance breeds could do. Plus, he was smart and personable. He was a terrific therapy animal and could excel at meet-and-greet events such as the Novi Pet Expo.

With this in mind, it became more important than ever to show that JR could handle the job of painting; that these odd behaviors were not quirks exclusive to one silly gelding, but instead trained tricks to prove the affable nature and intelligence typical of the Morgan breed.

When we first approached the table, I had the sponges already soaked in paint and the paper laid out. I simply said those words I had uttered to Clifford so many times over the years, “Touch it.”

Being a typical curious Morgan, JR took a swipe with his nose and was rewarded with a piece of red licorice.

It didn’t take long for him to catch on. It turned out that he loves to paint. He swirled those sponges so hard he was sending them flying. Little kids crowded around to laugh and stare and pick them up again.

After the first session, every time he came out of the stall, he made a beeline for the painting table. He was more than happy to be involved.

I could not help being a little verklempt. After all, JR had stood by and watched Clifford work at the painting table, over five years’ time. Was he simply waiting for his turn? Did he understand that it was up to him now, to carry on this odd Christmas tradition that made everyone laugh and caused such a stir among the visitors? For sure there was a glimmer of Clifford’s ancestry in his pedigree; might he have captured a bit of that whimsical spirit, as well?

I wasn’t sure. But as the Expo drew to a close after a long and hard-working three-day weekend, when he was still fresh and eager to greet people, and I wrapped my arms around his neck and gave him a grateful hug, I swear he winked at me.

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Precedent, Not President

Things have not improved. Amanda continues to flail along under the hyperreligious, desperately misguided sacks of greed. I have not forgotten you.

Diary of a Misplaced Yooper: Cliffy's Mom's Blog

The election of Donald Trump has shaken a large (perhaps the majority – since more people actually voted for Hillary Clinton) part of the population.

One faction affects me personally — Hillary had promised to be a champion for people with disabilities. (Trump makes fun of them.)

I watched the voting numbers, while my hopes of talking to my sister Amanda, who has Down syndrome and is basically being held hostage by her guardian, sank into the sea of despair.

(Full Definition of hostage. 1 a : a person held by one party in a conflict as a pledge pending the fulfillment of an agreement b : a person taken by force to secure the taker’s demands. 2 : one that is involuntarily controlled by an outside influence.)

I admit I joined a legion of folks who spent part of Wednesday in tears.

I recently watched an interview…

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Be the Change – Freya the German Shepherd

Loki, the dog with ears like the Flying Nun, has a new sister. Freya is a German shepherd that was picked up on a road somewhere. She was thin but obviously a well-bred shepherd, rich red and black in color, with the conformation of a working show true German line. After a month’s time and a hard search, the rescuer didn’t find the owner and Freya became available for adoption. My friends went to see her and decided to bring her home, to learn that besides the looks, Freya had the pushy German shepherd attitude, too. Even though the dogs weigh about the same, Loki had to fall back when the treats came out. She would shove her way between him and the new owners to snarf up the cookies. The same thing happened with his toys: Freya would just grab whatever he was playing with and carry it away. If Loki chased her or tried to get it back, Freya would run into her crate with the toy, guard it, and growl.

When I showed up that day to visit and see the new addition, the adoptive dog parent Lyn said, “I’m not sure we are going to keep her. Loki just isn’t himself when she’s around.”

I looked at Loki, his ridiculous ears at half-mast but still standing flared out from his head like a character from a Gremlins film. His eyes showed resignation. I held up a treat. He looked at it sadly. I offered it to him, and in came Freya like a furry missile: CHOMP! And it was gone.

“No!” Lyn shouted, “That’s for Loki!” But Freya just smiled with her happy pointed teeth as she crunched down the cookie. Crunch, crunch.

“Loki just seems so sad. I don’t think he is happy with this addition at all,” Lyn sighed.

It wasn’t too much later; perhaps an hour, that I heard a bunch of thumping and growling in the living room. I looked around the corner and Loki was rassling with Freya in a waggy-tail tongue-lolling happy-dog-match.

Evidently, things weren’t as bad as they seemed.

Lyn handed me a box of treats and the dogs came running and sliding to plunk themselves in front of me. Loki hung back a little.  I held up a treat. “Freya, wait. This is for Loki.”

Freya lunged for it. But the treat disappeared into my closed fist. “You have to wait,” I told her again. She sat back a moment in confusion, and I said, “Good!” and gave it to her.

Loki stood by watching while Freya had a lesson in patience. Again and again, I asked Freya to wait, and when she sat still and just watched, I awarded her the treat. Finally, it was Loki’s turn. I called his name. He was reluctant, creeping forward as Freya restrained herself. But he earned one. “Good, Freya!” I said, immediately giving her one of her own.

The name recognition game went back and forth for awhile. Pretty soon Freya was so tuned in to her own identity, and Loki’s, that when she dropped her treat and Loki grabbed it, she looked at me, aghast! That was HER treat. She earned it! She received two as a bonus.

Just through this gentle reward system, Freya learned better manners in only one session. She learned to sit quietly and wait her turn. She was even waiting at the door.

It happened just from waiting for the good behaviors, and focusing only on those. When putting energy into positive results, the negative ones fell away.

It occurred to me that maybe I could apply this theory to all things in life.

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Murder on the Intrepid

Over the course of the past several weeks I have learned a couple of things about myself.

  1. I crave violence in entertainment.
  2. I like things to stay the same, and if they work, I don’t get tired of them.

I use the term “violence” loosely when it comes to entertainment. What I might really mean is, “action.”

My play, “Murder on the Intrepid” is a comedy/murder mystery, set up as a dinner theatre. The show takes place on a cruise ship, whose characters are a cross between Star Trek and The Love Boat. The show first staged by the Brighton Players about ten years ago. The cast centers around a couple enjoying their 40th wedding anniversary. I named them Sam and Donna Ledy, as an inside joke to my parents, because the Ledys were their best friends and I was sure my folks would attend the stage premier of one of my plays. Unfortunately, they didn’t make it.

However, my sister Amanda did. She was righteously offended by my characterization of Donna, because I wrote her as belligerent and unkind, the polar opposite of the real person. “Donna Ledy never acts that way!” Amanda hissed at me during rehearsal.

Anyway, in the show, Donna is mean to everyone and ends up getting offed. Unfortunately she has been so rude to all the other cast members that there is no immediate suspect. The cast includes, among others, Captain Kirk and a couple of goofy lounge singers named Sunny Delight and Chiquita Banana. And there are the Ledy’s adult children, Scotty, and Cindy, the seasick daughter who wears an orange life vest in every scene.

When my friend Anne approached me about a group for a Livingston County Nonprofit called the Second Chance Support Network doing the show, I pulled out the script and looked at it for the first time in years. Reading the lines took me directly back to the original cast so clearly that I could hear their voices shouting the words.

To my surprise, in the first few minutes of the show, I had my Donna Ledy character getting into a fist fight with the Chiquita Banana Mexican Belly Dancer. I mean a serious fight! Rolling around on the floor, Donna yanking out a big hunk of Chiquita’s hair, the whole shebang.

Later, Scotty grabs his sister and tries to yank the life jacket off of her. “Why are you wearing that? You look ridiculous! Take it off! Take it off right now!”

In the Second Chance rehearsals, I thought all these encounters were way too tame. I wasn’t the director, I was only there to support the group. But I found myself yelling, “More violence! More violence!”

The original script is peppered with bawdy humor, and since a church group was taking over, it was heavily redacted. I was kinda uncomfortable with this. I thought it wouldn’t be as funny… It was just way too tame. Not enough violence, not enough sleaze, and Donna wasn’t nearly mean enough. But this group was comprised of people who weren’t actors. They were just regular people meeting to help a cause. So I kept my opinions to myself.

However, I secretly thought the show wouldn’t be very good. I yearned for the original Captain, my friend Paul Rice who could emote William Shatner like nobody’s business. I longed for the dancing talent of my original Woodchuck character, Matt Moore. And of course, I was the first Sunny Delight. I had written her for myself; a washed-up lounge singer, holding on to the last shreds of her youth, who actually couldn’t carry a tune.

But to my surprise, the new group pulled it off. They put their own spin on the show. They even added some new jokes that were really funny! They raised thousands of dollars for their cause, and they staged my show in the swanky Crystal Gardens ballroom. And they had a blast doing it. How can you top that?

And maybe best of all – they have raised the Intrepid! Who knows where it will sail next?


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Fear in Dogs and the Difference Between Teaching and Training

Arthur is a German Shepherd and a social clod. He’s big and clumsy and he wets on the floor when he gets too excited or scared. He will jump on people. He is boisterous and exuberant.0916191017.jpg

Arthur is a year old. But mentally he is about 5 months of age. Arthur is a special needs case who has had to return to kindergarten and learn how to be a puppy.

 

My blog has covered a lot of Arthur’s early training and how he behaved when I first got him. He was terrified of virtually everything. When approached by a stranger he would back up barking and sometimes even literally fall down in fear. He was reminiscent of a child with autism in the way he reacted to noise, including engine noise from automobiles and other common sounds.

 

Although it is the usual go-to explanation in the case of a dog who reacts fearfully, Arthur was never beaten or abused. Indeed the family who purchased him from the breeder was at a loss over what to do with him and his inexplicable depressed behavior. They had tried classes — where in the instructor had them place a prong collar on his neck and then drag him along the floor when he collapsed — a terrible experience for any puppy. (NO puppy should have to wear a prong!) Arthur’s owners didn’t like the way this was headed, and to their credit they kept trying multiple trainers before a friend called me in. They wanted Arthur to come to my puppy boot camp so I could fix this terrified, vomiting puppy, and I was given two weeks to do it.

After having Arthur for 2 weeks I realized that he should not go back to the home because he had a genetically programmed, deep seated fear response that could manifest in aggression. He required a lot of special handling. He couldn’t walk down the street or through the store without barking at everyone we met.

My goal with Arthur over the following months was to build his confidence. This was the most important thing that could be instilled in this dog, because fear is what was driving most of his behavior. I logged much of his progress on my blog.

He became my full-time job. My goal was to not only save his life, but offer him some quality of life. His owners gladly relinquished him to me when they were presented with a list of daily activities that his condition demanded. Their hearts were in the right place but it was just too much for a normal family to handle.

Arthur was taken under the wing, albeit reluctantly, of my border collie, Til and my other dog, an older mixed lab named Jasper. He lived with three smaller dogs as well, in a big eclectic canine family.

 

In the following months Arthur visited stores and shops and many other public places. His contact with people was carefully monitored to orchestrate a positive experience on each occasion. I spent the summer teaching him to swim. He was afraid of the feeling of his feet leaving the lake bottom. He didn’t understand how to chase a ball, but thanks to the example of my other dogs he learned how to play.

He enjoyed a lot of freedom during those months. We went for daily runs in the field. We walked in and out through doors that scared him. We went on stairs and elevators. We faced countless boogeyman, every day, for months. He worked hard. He learned to come when he was called, every time. He learned to stay when he was told and wait patiently. He learned a couple of fun tricks.

His training was geared toward confidence. Not precision obedience. He never had to plod around a boring ring and have his neck jerked. He knew all the basics — sit, down, and to not pull on the leash when walking. But he was allowed to remain happy and buoyant and even on the verge of euphoria most of the time.

It has taken me eight months to get Arthur to the point of where he is confident enough to go up to anyone. Now he’s at about the five month age level, mentally. He will always be a special needs dog.

I received some criticism because Arthur is skinny and he doesn’t look or act like his littermates. All the littermates have their ears up, are enjoying a comfortable lifestyle and tipping the scales at a robust 80 + pounds.

Arthur is not like his littermates. He just got over a bout with a tapeworm — probably from eating fly eggs in horse poop. He’s had zero couch time. He is solid muscle from running and swimming and maintaining active days over 8 months. While he’s received a fair measure of discipline, (no chasing horses or cats, no barking and running up to people who come to the house, etc) he doesn’t know how to behave inside, because he’s had to stay in a crate due to the urinating.

A couple of weeks ago, Arthur rolled Jasper, puncturing his neck in a completely unprovoked act that was vicious and deadly. I put Arthur in the van to take him to the vet to be euthanized. But looking at that goofy face, well… I decided to instead return him to the source, his breeder, in hopes that her experience with the bloodline and handling in a controlled environment will give him a future with some quality of life. It’s possible that he’s acting out as a bully during his delayed growth phase. But the congenital undercurrent is always there.

It was a heartbreaking decision and not one I have taken lightly.

I’m not going to bash formal obedience training or working with dogs in a classroom setting. On the contrary! Any quality time spent with your dog is always a good thing! However…

A classroom obedience regimen does not always translate to the real world. If you have a dog that does a perfect recall and a beautiful sit and a lovely stand for examination inside a building, that’s wonderful. But would you be able to pull that dog away from a running deer or rabbit with just the sound of your voice? The biggest question is what happens with the dog if he gets off the leash.

If your dog is going to mature around a hundred pounds and has a congenital fear aggression problem, then he is a liability and you damn well better be sure that you can call him back.

A dog who will listen to you under the most extreme of circumstances is a dog that can go into the classroom and easily learn all the formal stuff. The reverse is not always true.

Arthur hasn’t spent much time walking in circles in a classroom. He might jump up in greeting or be a little too exuberant in his manner. He’s had no formal training. But he will come back from a running rabbit for me. He’s come a long, long way up from a darkness that was no fault of his own.

And he’s still alive.

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