Settling down

Puppy class week 3

I’m on my own this week and arrive late and flustered, coaxing Percy into the hall with all her bits and pieces under my arm.  Bed, lead, water, bowl ….. oh no – I’ve forgotten the kong!

‘We’re in the pub,’ says Mary, as Team Percy blunders in; she is holding a plate with a pile of dog treats on it.  What?   It takes me a moment to work out that this offering represents a plate of food, or a pint and some pork scratchings.  Percy must be trained not to put her paws on my knee – or leap on to the table, in Moose’s case – and beg/steal a mouthful.  I do this by distracting her with alternative treats, dropped on the floor.   Yes!  Settle!  

We had a go at this exercise last week, but it was overshadowed by Percy’s chicken-scoffing episode, and we didn’t really get to grips with it.

‘Four feet on the floor please’, says Mary.  Otherwise no treat.

Settled – but for how long?

While the other puppies take it in turns to keep four feet on the floor, Percy needs to settle on her bed and enjoy the kong I have failed to stuff and forgotten to bring.  Never mind: Mary has a spare. Yes! Good girl! 

It’s a thick rubber gadget with a hollowed-out middle, filled in this instance with a mash of chicken, carrot and sweet potato that Mary has cooked up in advance.  The aperture is big enough for a tongue, but not a paw.  Percy settles miraculously absorbed and quiet for ten long minutes, like Pooh with a jar of honey.   These gimmicks have their uses, I am beginning to understand.  Last week’s theft of treats suggests that the pouch on the belt may have something to be said for it too, though I can’t say I like the look.  How long before we’re fully accessorised dog nerds, with harness, whistle etc?        

Week 4

Intense cooking activity has preceded this class.  I found a kong beneath piles of out-of-date worming pills in our dog drawer, purchased my first-ever sweet potato, grilled a fillet of chicken breast and dusted down the magimix.  The home guard regards all this activity as unnecessary and, frankly, a nuisance.  So much washing up, badly done!   And since 1/10 of the prepared mush stuffs the kong to overflowing, 9/10 will clutter up ‘her’ freezer.  ‘What next, caviar?’  she asks, hilariously.

At the village hall, socialisation proceeds apace.  Mary has craftily re-labelled the pods so that Moose and a chocolate-coloured spaniel called Woody are neighbours, their owners being a singleton man and woman of approximately similar age.  They soon get chatting and it sounds as though they might be meeting up at the weekend for a ‘doggy social’ in the local park.  It’s the oldest story line in the book (cf 101 Dalmatians).  Good to know Woody is a girl: another one flying the flag for gender-non-specific nomenclature.       

This week we practise the Down manoeuvre, having first achieved the Sit by means of only a hand signal (otherwise they will think Sit! means Down!).  Mary shows how to do this, tipping her demo-dog Frida’s head back with ‘the food magnet’.

It doesn’t help that the home guard shouts Down! at Percy repeatedly each morning when an empty tea cup needs refilling and they meet half-way up/down the stairs. Would it be OK to say Settle instead of Down?  It would not.  Settle and Down are quite different things. 

It comes as no surprise to the rest of the class that Down is not Moose’s strongest suit – he’s really more of an Up kind of dog. Mary teaches his master the Down Backstop, which involves using a treat to persuade Moose to crawl through a gateway of legs, as illustrated. Getting up again is easy enough for Moose, less so for the senior dog owner.

Desperate measures: Moose attempts the Down Backstop

‘Bottom and elbows on the floor please,’ says Mary.  Yes! Good girl! Settle!

Now that we are into the second half of term, Percy has indeed settled.  It is she who pulls me into the hall at five to seven. Persuading her to leave is the problem, when Mary calls time and tells us how well we have done.       

‘Thank goodness it’s only an hour,’ someone whispers. ‘I’m exhausted.’

Me too.  Admitting defeat, I pick Percy up and carry her to the car; reach for the keys and find the stuffed kong in my coat pocket, still wrapped in cling film.  After all that trouble.  Home guard unimpressed.

Week 5

The best-laid plans of mice and Mary …. 

Woody turns out not to be the accessory of a merry widow or a lonely divorcee, but a family pet.  At this late stage of the course, pater familias enters the lists of puppy training for the first time, escorting Woody to her now completely drape-free pod with an air of lofty semi-detachment.  I have more important things to be doing than this, he seems to be saying (perhaps he follows the Archers); but I need you to know that I exist.  Mary and the Moose-meister do their best not to show disappointment.   

Woody-man can’t have been reading the briefing notes, because he shows no understanding of marker words and even gets Woody’s recall command wrong.  Could do better.    

This week’s new exercise involves scattering treats around the hall, hidden beneath upturned yoghurt pots, and inviting our puppies to find them. (‘Find it!’).  It would be hard to think of a better way to train Percy to lift the lid on the leg of lamb we’ve left to defrost on the sideboard.    

Playing games is mentally stimulating, Mary explains.  Successful completion of a task makes Percy feel good.  Is that so hard to understand?  

Week 6

Puppies unite, you have nothing to lose but your pods.  The hall seems positively cavernous without its mesh of wire cages.   Mary directs Percy and Moose to the two corners at the far end, well removed from their four classmates.  Am I being over-sensitive, or does she consider us disruptive?  

It’s the last day of term, and the class is all about fun.  ‘We’re playing games this week,’ says Mary. 

Our first game is a race through the tunnel; Percy is first on to the blocks.  ‘All four legs behind the line at the start, all four over the line at the finish,’ says referee Mary.   Ruby’s owner volunteers to be timekeeper and somehow uses her phone to register a time of 1.7 seconds for our little racer.  Not bad!  ‘Percy has set the bar high,’ says Bo-lady, as we return to our corner, heads held high.

To our dismay, all the others finish in fractions of one second, each one faster than the last, conclusively demonstrating the importance of imitation in the learning process.  Showing no signs of the aversion that afflicted his younger self, Moose hurtles through the tunnel in a deflating 0.47 seconds.  How do you measure hundredths of a second on a telephone?

And, guess what, Ruby wins by a nose (or a tail) with a time of 0.42.  It’s a fix!      

The obstacle course race is like a show-jumping contest, with penalty points for a refusal or knocking things down.  There are no clear rounds but Percy’s good effort wins her the award of a pig’s ear.  ‘I warn you, they’re very fattening,’ says Mary.  Percy doesn’t mind; at 4 months she’s not worried about her figure yet.  

Without her foster sister around to confiscate objects of desire such as pig’s ears, she tucks in with gusto, warning off space-invaders with an impressive display of bared teeth and growling.   Mary seems to think this is bad behaviour, to be dealt with, like, yesterday.  But is it?  What are trying to achieve here – a full canine lobotomy?    

The find-it game is less closely contested.  Percy is more interested in returning to polish off any remaining scraps of pig’s ear than searching for chicken morsels hidden under yoghurt pots.  Ruby is another walkabout who has done enough competing for one evening.  ‘I don’t think we’ll be sending her to the police to find drugs,’ says Mary.     

Benji enjoys the find-it game

Before the award of our certificates and a group photo in front of the Christmas tree, there’s just enough time for that failsafe feelgood end-of-class exercise, the Recall.  Percy, come!  Yes! Good girl!

‘Top marks all round!’ declares our demob-happy trainer. ‘Well done everyone!  See you all for more training in the spring.’

  Trainees Percy, Moose, Benji, Ruby, Bo, Woody

Post script.  Three days later, I recognise a face across a crowded room, and forge a path through the crush of the party.  ‘We met at puppy class – it’s Woody, isn’t it?  We’re Percy.’ 

Woody-man looks horrified.  ‘Percy?  Oh, yes – very badly behaved.’

What?  Men have been called out for less outrageous slurs than this.    

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