A Dog Who Minds; Or, Mind of the Dog

I give my dogs a lot of credit for the evolution of Jasper. A dog who comes when called is a joy to own and is the priority in early training. All my dogs drop what they are doing, no matter what it is, and come on the double when I call them. This is a feature that allows them a lot of freedom, as I can let them roam off leash in safe areas and know they will come back.

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I inherited Jasper when he was three years old. He was my boyfriend’s only dog, a big rescued greasy blob of black mostly Labrador with a stubby tail; probably at least ten lbs overweight, gasping for air under his rolls of blubber and grinning, sniffing and licking my feet, jumping up to scratch my skin with his raspy pads.

He suffered from chronic ear infections, itched his skin constantly, had a bad body odor, and other indications that growled of food allergies. I took him off the corn-based kibble and changed him to a lamb and rice diet. The recovery was miraculous. He almost immediately became more comfortable in his skin, and his ear infections cleared up.

He still stood guard over his food bowl like a fiend, attacking with noisy, slobbering vigor any dog who passed within three feet of it. My pack, accustomed to a relatively peaceful coexistence, were taken aback by this. He didn’t understand that nobody wanted to steal his food, or fight with him.

He lived on a cable tied to a tree, and was ushered into the house where he would climb on the furniture and blow silent, massively pungent wads of sulpheric gas into the room, the stench so foul that you would either have to leave, or usher him right back outside.

He was enormously uncivilized, but his biggest problem was that he would hit the road. No amount of screaming would bring him back. If he got loose, he was gone.

Being mostly Labrador ensured that he would be generous with his home and space, and no danger to my little chihuahua types. Since I had a pack, my boyfriend made a big enclosed fenced yard. So now Jasper ran and played with my two herding dogs, carrying a big collapsing rubber ball around in his mouth most days.

The excess weight came off and he grew strong. I was determined to teach him how to come when called. I would walk him out in the back field with my bag of treats, calling him to me and giving him random snacks. It would work for about ten minutes. Then, his nose would go in the air and he would gallop off. He would return home an hour later, covered in mud or smelling of garbage.

All my training tricks flunked. I refused to use a shock collar or punish him in connection with the behavior. As much as he loved chicken jerky, he loved his freedom more. I could understand that. He had to be walked on a leash. Some days, I admit to not wanting to deal with him and I would leave him behind the fence watching sadly while the pack moved and played around the yard or I taught the horses tricks. This in itself, I am sure, was instilling a notion in his lemon brain.

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Not long after meeting him, I discovered that he loves to swim, so I would take him north to Drummond Island every summer. He would still run off, dodging through the woods to be gone for an hour, running deer or black bears. But he was safer in the woods than on a highway in the Lower P.  The joy in his experience was evident. He was part of the family here; not a misfit. On Drummond, he is just another loose dog at camp.

Each dog has their special needs. Ms. Rip, my 12 year old Aussie, is sensitive and is afraid of deep water. Terrible Til the border collie has to keep moving, every day.  The chihuahuas have to be kept safe due to their size.

This is my fourth year of living with Jasper as part of the pack. He is seven years old now and there has been a shift in his behavior. Because of all the time I have spent playing with him, feeding him, talking to him, and treating him just like one of the group, he now behaves more like one of the group. He sits in line with the others, waiting his turn while the treats are doled out. He runs with the other two and jumps into the back of the van. He is a perfect example of how a dog who is happier will make the decision to behave better, in a congenial effort to get along. I haven’t done anything special to fix his running away problem; he just fixed it himself as a result of a more interesting life and good treatment.

There have been other indications too, that Jasper is getting smarter as he interacts more. I take him swimming several times a week in summer. I use two chuck-it toys and two balls, one for him and one for Til. As far as I’m concerned, the balls are interchangeable. But Jasper has decided that his ball is HIS BALL. While I lob them both, if I take Til’s from him and throw it, Jasper will wait until I pick up his ball, and then dive in when I pitch it.

It has been funny watching the two of them work things out between them. Jasper will often try to retrieve both balls, swimming in circles until he gives up and leaves one. Til just hovers to scoop up whatever one he leaves.

Yesterday, even though Til already had a ball, he waited, far out in the water, to make sure Jasper found the second one before they both swam back. Til helps take care of the others.

Jasper is a terrific example of how a dog’s brain kicks in to be a better pet, a result of good treatment and nice language, and the standard established by his well-mannered pack mates. Rules are rules. People who live with dogs understand they respond well to respectful treatment, and will return it in kind. There is no way to teach this detail to someone who wants to train their dog, other than to explain that kindness speaks volumes, and dogs are much more sophisticated than we think.

Now, if he would just decide to stop farting…

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About Nancy J. Bailey

Artist, author, bad karaoke singer. Woodsy ragamuffin. Mom of a horse named Clifford who plays fetch and paints with watercolors. He visits libraries and schools with me, to promote literacy and making the world a better place. Yes, he is house trained, no, he doesn't live in my house! I have written three books about Clifford. But my newest book, THE NORTH SIDE OF DOWN, is co-written by my awesome sister Amanda, who has Down syndrome. Her unexpected one-liner wisecracks can always make me laugh. If you make me laugh, you've made my day!
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