Coming to the End of Our Leash

Part Four of Five…

When Gandy died on Valentines Day last year, we vowed we would not have another dog in our lives. At this point, any dog we get is likely to need a foster home before the end of its life and after the end of ours—or at least after we are able to house or care for a dog due to late-life circumstances. It just did not make practical or emotional sense to take on the future pain of losing another one at this point in life. 

And this resolve was firm during the two-week fog of grief and loss, made more firm every time I looked out the kitchen window at Gandy’s grave, covered with new white quartz stones from the creek as we find them, even today. 

But as the sadness dulled a bit, it became clear that this place and our lives would not be complete without a dog—whose short absence since Gandy left us with a missing tooth. You just can’t help being aware of it the loss of a 24/7 presence when it is gone from your life. And so we talked it out, and decided we would look for a female puppy of a breed (if not another Lab) that would be big enough to take care of itself, but not so big we couldn’t manage it in our mid-seventies or later.

And what we ended up with was nothing like that: a 13 month old male dog that weighs more than half Ann’s weight. So much for plans and intentions. It is what it is. The heart has reasons that reason does not know, Pascal said, and this confirmed the claim.

So on April 19, we brought home a late-stage puppy pre-wired with bad habits, almost too old to reprogram, and vastly stronger than the smaller of us could manage even on level ground and good footing—a dog determined to lead the pack and indifferent to bribes or rewards to conform to the rules on Goose Creek. The worst of it was, as I have told, that outdoors he was master of his own choices. He would pull us when and where he wanted.

A turning point came at the very last class of dog classes where I pulled the assistant aside. “We’re learning here how to reward desired behavior with positive reinforcement. How do we extinguish undesired behavior with treats?”

Seeing the problems we were having with Scout in the chest harness and how strong-willed and determined he was to not give up leader-dog control, she suggested we look at a prong collar. I was ignorant but did the homework. They look horrible, and can be misused, and of course, the Internet is well-populated with worst-case images and videos. But we were up against the wall. Scout stood in real jeopardy of being “rehomed” to younger humans with a large fenced yard.

Used properly, a “prong collar” is a crucial and painless tool for training

And so this (Herm Sprenger) collar, from the first few days, worked not so much physically as psychologically to encourage Scout to take his lead from us. A gentle tap on the leash—not a violent painful yank—was all it took for him to look around as if to ask “What is it you want me to do?” Before a pull on the leash only produced a harder pull in whatever direction he had decided to go. And so like some training videos explain, the prong collar  used correctly is a communication device, not a punishment.

The collar never caused Scout any pain, but it prevented pain and injury for Ann, whose back could not withstand the strain of holding a strong and strong-willed dog. She had not been able to walk the dog by herself with the chest harness or regular collar; she could do so with the prong collar. And by the way, we haven’t used it in a few months–because we no longer need it.

The second element in this success story—if not the half the book of Scout’s coming into the family—was the use of a retractable leash with the prong collar. This gave him 16 feet of choice, and more of a sense of walking near us but not in lock step. It gave him the chance to explore and range within limits. 

And yet, after three months of this leash training with the prong collar, when we got to the back of the pasture, four hundred yards from the road, and unleashed him, he was off into the distance, disappeared into the autumn foliage. (I really wish I’d taken a BEFORE video of this heartbreaking pattern–especially now that I know the story has a happy ending.) We’d hear him bark from time to time, but in these deep pockets, it was impossible to tell just where he was.

We were coming to the end of our rope–er, leash. Physically and emotionally, we could not keep doing this, day after day. We only had one last possible thing to try.

See also in this five part series…

1-Outside of a Dog
2-Finding Old Yeller
3-And I Am Not The Alpha Male