Archive | January, 2012

Is It February Yet?

30 Jan

January stresses me out.  The pressure to set goals, to change one’s comfortable pattern of behavior, to stop eating so much ice cream and yelling at the kids, and quit smoking (okay, I don’t actually smoke, but you know what I mean…).

It’s not the New Year’s resolutions that I find so stressful; it’s my inevitable, predestined inability to keep them.  Year after year, New Year’s Day dawns, full of bright hope and good intentions, and by February, it has all gone to shit.   Making New Year’s resolutions, I’ve always thought, is the best way to ensure feeling like a complete failure.

So when January rolled around,  I thought I would try just skipping over the whole month.  Pretending it wasn’t happening.  The days are already only about six hours long.  I would stay in my pajamas through the meager hours of sunlight, wearing my eye mask on my head like a talismanic hair band and sneaking in a few middle-of-the-day naps, and maybe January would be over before I even had a chance to come to full consciousness.

Somewhere around the middle of the month, I knew I had to face reality.  It was January, and I that had an obligation to myself and to “Forward From Fifty.”  Just because it was January, thereby dooming whatever resolution I embraced, didn’t mean I could skip out on my resolution-making.  And, really, I’m already well acquainted with, if not complete failure, something less than glowing success.  I have not, this far, withered away from self-pity or been laughed at in public places or spontaneously combusted.   So what would be so hard about another month of trying to be a better me?

I got out of my pajamas, tossed the eye mask onto my nightstand, and decided I’d use what was left of the month to try volunteering.  I would not put pressure on myself by committing to volunteer a certain number of hours each week, or to volunteer with a predetermined number of organizations, or to commit myself to volunteer forever.  This would just be a January experiment, where I’d give some new volunteer activities a try.  See how it felt.  I couldn’t possibly fail at that, right?

Which is how I found myself, two Sundays ago, at the other end of a leash from Waylon, a young and rather excitable pit bull terrier who is currently living at the New Rochelle Humane Society.

I did not, mind you, just stroll in to the shelter and grab a dog leash.  Volunteering at the shelter – and everywhere else that I’ve contacted – requires at least one, and often more, volunteer orientation sessions.

So before I let myself into Waylon’s cage and clipped a leash to his collar, I had attended both a general orientation and a special Green Dot Dog Walker session.

The general orientation was a talk about the shelter and basic shelter rules, and the Green Dot Dog Walker session was a talk followed by a short, trainer-supervised hands-on.  At the end, we got a volunteer badge with a green dot on it.  No one did not get their badge.

The basic idea of the Green Dot Dog training is to learn how to be able to:

  • get into a Green Dot Dog’s cage without the dog slipping out, leashless;
  • get the dog out of the shelter, past the other caged dogs, without incident;
  • walk the dog;
  • prevent the dog from ‘staring’ at another dog, which is considered rude dog behavior and can lead to fights; and,
  • get the dog safely back into the cage, and yourself out of it, at the end of the walk.

This all sounds relatively simple and straightforward.  Except that what the dog wants to do is…

  • escape from the cage,
  • sniff, bark at, and otherwise taunt the caged dogs,
  • stare intently at all other dogs he encounters on the walk, possibly provoking a fight,
  • walk faster than you,
  • or slower,
  • or not in the direction that you’ve chosen.

(If you’re wondering what a Green Dot Dog is, it is a dog who has been judged by the professionals at the shelter to be fairly easy to handle and walk.)

At the Green Dot Dog training session, the trainer explained that the shelter uses positive reinforcement to train their dogs.  They never hit or chastise a dog or use physical force.  Physical force includes pulling a dog by the leash.  I never thought of pulling a dog’s leash as using force, and I do it all the time with Goldie because she hates to be walked.

There are two basic weapons in the Green Dot Dog Walker’s arsenal.  The first is not giving the dog what she wants.  If, for example, a dog is pulling on her leash, you simply stop walking, turn around and look in another direction until the dog realizes that she isn’t going anywhere.  This same technique is used when dogs jump on you – you ignore them because what they want is your attention.

The second weapon in the Green Dot Dog Walker’s arsenal is food.  How much food?  A steady stream.  But delivered in pea-sized bits of food, because, the trainer explained, dogs don’t savor their food.  They swallow it whole, whether it is a pea-sized piece of dog kibble or a giant juicy meatball.  Their dog brains get the same nanosecond of pleasure from either.

I was not entirely convinced after the Green Dot Dog training session that I could pull off a Green Dot dog walk, but the shelter people seemed to have confidence in me – they let me put a green dot on my volunteer badge – so I decided I would just have to suck it up and act like I was really capable of Green Dot Dog walking.

Waylon, however, did not realize that he was a Green Dot Dog.  He really, truly thought he was a Yellow Dot Dog – one who required a walker with special dog-whispering skills. Which I did not have.  I had only a clear sense of what NOT to do, a shaky belief in my authority, and a pouch full of pea-sized treats.

Waylon loved the food, and he would bound right to me and sit prettily to get nibble.  Then, as soon as I took a single step, he would leap ahead, pulling at the leash with all his might.  He wanted to RUN.  To soar over giant puddles and roll in the snow.  To stare intently at any other dog who crossed our path at any person who passed us.  And to run some more.

The walk went like this: I would take three steps, and Waylon would charge ahead, full tilt, pulling the leash and me with all his impressive might. I would stop, and turn in the other direction.  Waylon would tug hard for a few seconds, then give up and sit sweetly next to me.  Pea-sized treat and praise.  Three steps.  Full-tilt Waylon. Repeat.

It was extremely frustrating for both of us.  Waylon wanted to GO GO GO and I kept making him STOP.  Each time we stopped, Waylon’s desire to go intensified. He was perfectly happy to take as many pea-sized treats from me as I’d give him, but all of the treats and all of the stopping weren’t going to convince Waylon not to pull on his leash. And I wasn’t supposed to let him pull on the leash.

After about a block and a half, I decided we needed to turn around.  The walk wasn’t working for either of us.  My first Green Dot dog walk was a total failure.

Outside of the shelter are two fenced-in play areas, which can be used by the dogs and their volunteers – one dog at a time.  Both had been occupied when Waylon and I headed out, but the volunteer in one, perhaps picking up on the dispirited slump of my shoulders, told me she was taking her dog back in and I could use the play space.

When we stepped through the gate, Waylon’s whole body thrummed with excitement.  He pulled so hard at the leash that I knew I’d never be able to unhook it from his collar.  I dropped my end, and he took off, racing around the yard at what seemed like fifty miles an hour.   He raced through the red play tunnel, then back through it again, then around the whole yard in a circle, then through the tunnel, and up over a sort of wooden bridge, then around the whole yard.  He grabbed one of the stuffed toys, dropped it off at my feet, and raced off again, radiating pure joy.

Waylon didn’t need me.  He was making his own fun, and although he brought me several toys, he didn’t really care whether I threw them for him or not.

While he raced around the play yard, entertaining himself, and exuding doggy ecstasy, I watched other volunteers take dogs out of the shelter for a walk, and bring them back in.  And I noticed something: sometimes they pulled a reluctant dog by the leash.  And sometimes they let dogs stared at each other, or even allowed them to come over to the fence around the play area to watch Waylon.  And sometimes the dogs tugged at their leashes, wanting to walk faster than the volunteer.  No one seemed the worse for wear because of these dog-walking imperfections.  In other words, none of the other volunteers were perfect dog-whispering masters.  They were just as incompetent as I was.  But they didn’t seem to care.

Waylon played in the yard for ten minutes.  He would have happily stayed longer, but I thought we should let some other dog have a chance in the space.

I took him back into the shelter, got him successfully into his crate, and got myself out of it.

Then I took a deep breath, refilled my dog-treat pouch, looked around, and chose another dog to walk.  This time, I picked a little one.

In dog walking, as in most everything, perfection is nice if you can achieve it, but “good enough” can be good enough.  I wasn’t a perfect dog walker, but I was good enough.

Waylon

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