Shortly after we got Stella, I had an epiphany watching some corgis on an Instagram account I follow called Alfuku.
The owners of these corgis are Japanese, and naturally they talk to their corgis in Japanese.
When I heard them interact with these dogs, I had no idea what they were saying. But these corgis sure did.
These dogs are beautiful and funny and trained. They know all kinds of tricks. They even dance in competitions with their owners, weaving in and out of them to music. It’s amazing.
But my epiphany watching them respond to commands in Japanese was— and everyone who has ever trained a dog, will go, “Duh” when I say this,— is that these dogs don’t understand the Japanese language, or any other language, for that matter. They’ve just learned to decode sound patterns.
They’ve translated what sounds to me like: ichi washi goobahya into: Bring the rubber chicken here, and drop it at my feet.
Once I fully grasped this, I consciously started monitoring my speech for brevity and consistency when I talked to Stella. No color commentary, no reasons, no verbal expressions of exasperation or complicated feelings and needs. I needed to shut up, keep all that to myself, and just say, Come!
Same with body language. No dancing Shiva arm movements, no fancy footwork. If she was trying to decode me, I needed to send as clear a signal as possible.
One thing that makes Stella easy to train is her attentiveness. She makes eye contact. She seems to be trying to read me.
When I ask her a question, or, more accurately, when my voice goes up at the end: “You wanna go for a walk?” She cocks her head to one side, as if to say, “What?”
Then, if I put on my shoes and grab her leash, and always repeat those same sounds every time before a walk, “You wanna go for a walk?” is basically ichi washi goobahya except instead of fetching a rubber chicken, she gets to go outside with me.
My latest project is trying to train her to know the distinction between “Stay With” and “Stay Close.”
I want her to understand that when I say, “Stay With” she should stay within a close proximity to me, maybe 30 yards. I should always be able to see her, and she, me.
I use Stay Close to mean what most dog trainers mean by “Heel.” I want Stay Close to mean, “keep exact pace with me.”
This training has been eye-opening. I have to be totally present and aware of what I’m doing in order to be effective.
It’s a lot like practicing yoga. I can’t multi-task. I can’t make random, mindless movements or jibber-jabber to her in meaningless paragraphs of mouth noise.
If I want the signal to be read, I have to reduce the noise. I have to breathe, slow down, make eye contact, be patient, be willing to fail, and try again. And again. I have to make it fun. I have to have treats on me at all times.
Dog training means paying attention to what I’m doing, and what she’s doing, and finding ways to connect. I have to witness myself and I have to witness her. I have to create a relationship.
When I’m walking alone, without the dog, it’s different. I can and do carry on long conversations with myself, out loud.
I used to get embarrassed if anyone caught me doing this, but now, in the age of wireless headsets, everyone appears to be talking to themselves as they walk along, anyway.
Yesterday Stella and I were walking on the Hike and Bike trail. This is where I like to practice stay with, and stay close with her. She had her short, lightweight drag-along leash attached to her collar but I wasn’t holding on to it.
It was sunny and warm and I found myself striding along, happily talking to myself about my usual nonsense when I realized I’d lost track of her. And myself.
But thankfully she hadn’t lost track of me. There she was, up ahead, waiting for me to catch up. She was doing a great job of staying with. Whereas I had strayed. I had lost her. And myself. To thought.
Dogs teach us so more than we teach them, if only we would stop thinking and just observe them.
A long time ago I wrote this poem to another dog:
My dog knows the universe with his nose,
sips the air for the scent of leaving
after the doorlock clicks.
I spend each day practicing to do
what he does:
Follow my senses,
observe the wind,
respond to the sense of soil
and not to the flowering of each
fantasy, each upturned rock
my teacher on a leash.
From the passing pick-up
it looks as if I am walking you,
but I am the student
following you each morning
probing the world of gravel
learning the proper response
to air, the infinite
logarithms of light,
the script of sound
far beyond my range.