On Teaching Dogs to Sit

It turns out that this isn’t about sitting at all– But about shaking.

(I have no pictures of Dan at all, I’m sad to say, but this is me around that age, I think)

The first dog I ever taught a trick to was our golden retriever Dan. I was in third grade. No one had shown me how to train a dog, but the concept seemed pretty straightforward. Dan liked treats. I said, “Shake!” and lifted up his shaggy red paw into mine, and I gave him a treat. His pads were leathery and soft, and auburn tufts of fur curled around the edges. He liked his treat; I liked that furry paw. We smiled at each other and I tried again. Repeat. Repeat. Associate. Until Dan got the picture and on his own, at my word, shifted his weight to one shoulder and put his shaggy palm into my own. “Good boy!” I told him.

I was shocked and pleased that this had worked so easily and so well. I would repeat the experiment over and over on different days, and to my excitement Dan did not forget. We had communicated! It was a major breakthrough for me. Since I was very young, all I’d wanted was to be “good with dogs,” the way my dad was. Connected with them, communicating. My dad could wrestle with them and they watched him carefully for every cue. I pet them and gave them treats, but they didn’t care much about me. Until I showed Dan to shake; then everything fell into place. We had a word between us that meant something to us both.

Maybe I should have noticed that even though Dan was the younger of our two goldens, he was moving a lot slower that year. We found out about the cancer a few weeks later, and how bad it had progressed. Mom and Dad sat us down in the living room and told us: Dad was going to take Dan to be put down. I curled up in the arm chair and cried. My parents looked at each other, surprised to see how upset I was. I wasn’t even close with Dan. I loved his mother, Golda, much more. But the idea of losing a presence, a being, who had been around my whole life, was shocking. The idea that we had made this connection and now he’d have to go was devastating. My memory says I stayed in that chair with knots in my stomach, hoping against hope that somehow this would be all right, somehow there was a mistake and Dan didn’t have to die.

Dad came back from the vet– and Dan was still with him. “They couldn’t do it today,” he said. I was so selfishly grateful. I thought my dad looked that way too– relieved and also sad. My parents made sure I knew, Dan still had to leave us. There was no choice; he was in a lot of pain. It wasn’t fair to keep him around for ourselves. The appointment was rescheduled. That’s all, just a temporary reprieve. I didn’t ask Dan to shake that week. He was too tired to pick his head up from the floor.

When Dad and Dan went to the vet again, I came too. I’ve wondered, now, if maybe the reason they didn’t put Dan down the first time was because they vet advised my father it would be good for me to be there. Whatever the reason, I came along for the second time. The final time.

In the back room of the vet’s office, they shaved a little patch of fur from his forearm. That hurt to see almost worse than anything. I thought about Aslan’s mane being shaved. Dan didn’t seem to mind. His eyes drooped; he swung his big red head slowly, back and forth, to take in the shiny chrome and sharp edges, from up on his cold table. He looked so sleepy. Not worried. Content. They must had given him a sedative. Then they gently tucked the needle into his shaved arm, and Dan looked around once more, a good dog, and he lay his head on his paws and went to sleep.

Dad and I took Dan somewhere else to be cremated. Maybe we drove all the way to Anchorage. It seemed like a long drive. On the way, I thought about death, and the paw in my hand. I didn’t stop crying, but I made peace with the way things were. I was glad I could have shared that moment of holding good ole Dan’s hand.

Furiosa is a wild thing, even for a sled dog. She is goofy and full of herself and her world. She doesn’t mind how little she is.

I bring treats to the yard during playtime. I want to practice some training. I want to establish that sense of talking to each other, understanding. For almost twenty years now, I’ve talked to dogs, known dogs, spoken dog, dreamt in dog body language. Dogs and I have traveled across vast wilderness; we’ve seen things no one has seen or will see. Dogs and I have formed connections over and over, communicating in silent agreement that yes– We want to go forward. I am now, maybe, “good with dogs” at last.

Sled dogs don’t sit or shake. Hooch does. Teaching her was fun: she is the gentlest shaker, lifting her big front foot carefully, like it takes a special concentration to make it go up instead of just onward. She holds my hand with a paw that’s run thirty thousand miles or more. Her pads are rough and weathered. The fur around her paws is short and white.

The puppies in the playpen are another matter. They are almost all a year old now, just balls of wiggling energy, learning as fast as they can take the world in through eye and tooth and tongue. When it’s play time, their energy ramps up to “uncontainable.” They have to run in unbridled zoomies through the yard til the high emotion of Play and Love and Fun have been blasted outwards, dispersed into their world.

If there’s anything that might distract them from the high octane run-around, it’s treats. Not all of them. But once one or two realize what I have in my pocket, I have a dedicated crowd. Like most sled dogs (especially yearlings) they jump and pound me with their front paws, and demand their treat. There is no exchange or communication– I am a faceless entity that might as well just be a dispensary. Sure, they know that when I call their name or sing, “Pup pup pup!” it probably indicates food. But so far, I haven’t worried about communication more beyond that. Not of this type anyway.

I pick out a likely candidate: Rogue. This isn’t the shaking trick: we have to do step one first. “Sit!” I tell her, and I reach behind her to push her butt to the ground. She is offended and confused and immediately distracted and runs off to chase whatever so rudely bopped her on the butt (she does not understand it was me). I still have a crowd. I pick another possible candidate, Rebel– But Furiosa shoulders her little chubby way to the front, and jumps up like a rabid hungry bird with arms. FEED ME!!! Okay, I think to her, but you have to talk to me!

“Sit!” I tell Furiosa, and I push her butt down. She looks as confused and offended as Rogue, but she gets that this was me, and she gleefully scarfs down the offered treat and the “Good girl!” I almost see the wheels churning in her head. Around me, the hungry leaping hordes continue to leap and hunger, and I am doing a kind of dance to keep them away from my pocket of treats. But Furiosa and I are looking at each other and considering, and I have the slightest thought that maybe– Then Sundance grabs my attention. I ask her to sit: I push her bottom down to the ground. She sits but is too overwhelmed by happiness to even take the treat.

Furiosa isn’t overwhelmed. She’s zeroing in. One more time, I pick her and tell her to sit, and push her butt down, and give her a treat. Another dog demands, but now that they see I’m not just handing out freebies, they are losing interest. Only Rey and Rogue are here now, and Furiosa, taking a brief hiatus from her caterwauling to think again. I try Rey, who sits but I’m not sure associates. Then who elbows herself to the front? Furiosa of course. And now, in the most beautiful, slow motion moment, as I turn to look at her and hold up the treat for her to see, with great alacrity, Furiosa plunks her own butt on the ground, and waits.

She gets it. It’s a breakthrough– The same breakthrough as I had with Dan. We’re talking! We found a word that means something to us both. Furiosa gets a treat. I try someone else and come back to her. Will she remember? “Sit!” I say, and her butt goes down. What a good girl! I snuggle her to me but she cares most about the treats; of course she gets some.

Furiosa remembers. She draws the connection and maintains it. She is the best sitter I have by far– I’ve been training them all individually in the morning (when we can work one on one, instead of en masse), and Furiosa has this down.

My favorite thing? Whether it’s from watching Hooch, or just cuz sled dogs are pawsy– When Furiosa sits now, without me asking, she shakes. I haven’t even taught her what this is, but this good little girl will carefully and specifically put her hand in mine. Her paws are still soft, though I know with time they’ll become calloused. The fur curls around her pads in blacks and reds and golds. I hold her little paw in mine; I think about the first Good Dog I taught this to. I shake her paw, and smile, and give her a treat.

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