24 August - Can't Teach an Old Dog a New Trick. Really?

I did not grow up a dog lover. So how is it I have two?

Growing up in a family of nine, half of us were meant to be allergic to animal hair. And with both parents in the medical field, our home was a sterile haven. We had a beautiful aquarium that goldfish managed to jump, but our other "pets" included the occasional chipmunk or bunny one of the siblings would find. The added makeshift leash tied to our basement door was a nice touch. The "pet" of course was kept in our central social hub, the kitchen. Can't believe Mom allowed us half the things she did...but I digress.

Being petite as a child, I was always afraid of dogs. At least big dogs or small ones that bit, yelped and scratched. When I was five, our neighbors had a big fluffy white and gray dog that jumped on top of me, pinned me down and licked my face. Other experiences weren't so friendly, so I was always taught to "freeze" when I saw a dog. That made walking home from buddy Jane's house an hour-long ordeal. I could see my house one backyard away. But it was the one with a dog.

So when my husband asked if we could get a dog our first year of marriage, my answer was an absolute "no." We took a drive through the countryside with his brother Rick and wife Cathy and saw a handwritten scrawled sign: Puppies for Sale. We pulled over and looked at the litter in the kennel. Cathy held one, nuzzled it, then held it out for me to hold. I crinkled my nose and kept my arms crossed. She asked, "Don't you love that puppy smell?" I swatted at the imaginary gnats swarming around my neck as I started to itch. I sniffed it to possibly understand what "puppy smell" meant. To dog lovers, this may be nostalgia, where the scent opens up an album of personal random memories of warmth, childhood, laughter and perhaps sorrow, I suppose. An experience that did not resonate with me, but might have been collected in raising a dog from puppyhood. I looked at the seven little creatures playfully jumping all over each other, barking in excitement. But there was one yellow lab, content in the corner, not seeking attention but just happy that she existed in the first place.

As we headed back to our apartment on Oakland and Thomas, I could tell my husband kept planting the seed. I said, "If we get one, it has to be mellow and you have to give it a bath three times a week." That's all he needed -- he had the checkbook in hand and left to pick her up. And he did give her a bath several times a week so I could hold her. Until he said, "You realize this is bad for her coat." Oops. Oh, then let's shut that down, shall we?

The education process of raising a puppy was quite interesting to me...like giving her too many treats was like giving a newborn a chocolate bar; realizing smelling funnies in my dream in the middle of the night was reality...that there really was fecal matter in the middle of our bedroom floor; but also, meaningful parental lessons like being able to teach and train by structure, repetition and praise.

We endearingly named her Scout, after the charming little girl in To Kill a Mockingbird. Scout came to be my baby. When we moved to our first home, we let her run everywhere. We built an indoor/outdoor kennel. I felt the joy of her licking my skin and actually took her for walks, not minding at all to pick up after her. And when it was time to sleep, she slept in my arms under the covers.

But when the babies came, Scout gradually became a pet. As the attention waned, and I would rock each baby to sleep, she would lay at my feet. In looking back at photos, she stood guard behind the children. And the children paid their own interpretation of "attention" to Scout. As the years went by, I noticed in the quiet, I would turn off the last light to head upstairs. She would be waiting for me in the foyer, and follow me to bed. She still does. My personal guard and loyal friend. Who asks for nothing.

Scout is now 13 years old. Her arthritis kicked in a few years ago. I came home one day to a black lab puppy running around our backyard. I asked, "Whose is that?" My husband smiled and said, "I thought you said it was okay..." Um...for what? That's OURS? The month before we move to a new home? But he explained Jet, our new puppy, might help keep Scout young. We surmise that Scout is still waiting for us to come clean and call off the joke -- that this thing that stalks her at her most private moments of going to the bathroom, is truly a bad dream. After four years, I think she understands it is reality.

Though Scout has lost her hearing, we have not given up hope that her age and arthritis define anything. So after dinner last week, we decided to try to teach her a new trick -- proving wrong the adage "You can't teach an old dog new tricks." We looked down at our plates, which included purple potatoes, and decided to try to balance one on her nose.

The video shows our attempts. It also shows our effort in switching to another trick, but poor Scout just physically wasn't able to turn over -- nor could she hear her cues. So we switched back to what we knew ... structure, repetition and praise. And finally, progress.

Changing the piece of food to an inanimate object helped too, poor thing....