On October 7, at just over 4 months old, our puppy Harvey graduated from pet training class.
He wore a pup-sized mortarboard for a few fleeting seconds and he received a PetSmart certificate vouching for his accomplishments after eight weeks of class, but I have to admit this one seems like a case of social promotion.
It’s not that Harvey, who is an energetic mix of lab and Brittany Spaniel, didn’t half-way learn lots of things at pet-training class – like how to “sit,” lie “down,” “come,” “stay,” and “leave it,” when lured to compliance by juicy treats. But back at home, if we didn’t have a treat in hand and an official training session underway, he mostly ignored commands and returned to jumping on me in excitement and mouthing me like a mega chew toy.
And this is not a criticism of the PetSmart classes, which provided a great roadmap for discipline for many other dog owners and even for us — since we can still envision the dog that we are attempting to train Harvey to be.
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In fact, I would recommend puppy training to anyone with a young pup. Harvey loved playing with his fellow puppies, and it’s a key time to socialize dogs so they don’t spend the rest of their lives barking and lunging at one another.
And for me it was like a support group. During one class, I broke down and cried to the group. One woman, who’d also acquired a hyper bird dog of a puppy for herself, told me not to worry; she’d been in tears just a couple days before. I felt reassured by our shared moments of misery.
Our pet trainer, Toni Biggs, also stayed after class with us, helping us solve specific problems and encouraging me to believe that one day Harvey would become a slightly more mellow, manageable dog.
I even felt comforted when Biggs jokingly called Harvey “stink pup,” on a couple occasions to describe our rebellious student. “This might not work for Stink Pup over there …” she’d say with an empathetic smile, and I’d feel validated in my struggle. It wasn’t just that I was a stink-owner, even if that was partly true too.
Biggs also encouraged us to neuter Harvey sooner rather than later, since he was obviously overstocked with testosterone. And I was happy to go to surgical lengths to rein in our rowdy pup.
It didn’t work magic, but nine weeks post-operation, I’ve begun to see the faintest hints of testosterone reduction in Harvey’s behavior. And I am rejoicing.
I had plunged into puppy ownership with all the foolhardy impulsiveness of a mom eager to get a memorable birthday gift for her son and reluctant to be the fuddy-duddy of the family after my husband’s heart had already melted at the sight of sweet Harvey when a colleague brought him in to work.
Now we’ve divided our house into dog zones and kid zones, because unless Harvey’s feeling uncharacteristically lazy, the two together are a dicey mix.
But Harvey is sweet. He’s a smart, hyper, stubborn, tireless baby dog who can’t restrain his impulse to play.
He loves to jump with glee on 2-year-old Owen, bite at my toes like they’re ten tiny tennis balls and run around with our shoes in his mouth. We are trying to apply the tactics we’ve learned from pet training classes and the dozens of puppy raising books we’ve skimmed and studied over the past few months.
When all else fails, I give up and send Harvey to play outside. Until he barks and I have to bring him back in to his crate or break out the citronella spray collar.
We’ve watched a lot of episodes of “Dog Whisperer” with Cesar Millan and learned that the moral of every dog problem story is 1) It’s all the owners’ fault and 2) the best hope for correcting dog problems is to rehabilitate the dog, retrain the owner, and take the dog on long walks.
If Millan knocked on my door, I’d throw up my hands and say, “You’re right,” before he could speak. And then I’d let him train me — because none of Harvey’s antics are his fault. He’s a dog, operating on dog impulses in a home designed for humans, and small humans at that.
And when we walk him it does help. I get up 20 minutes earlier than I did in my pre-Harvey days so I can take Harvey on a modest walk before I head off for a morning at work. In the evenings we walk him again.
The one thing Harvey does well is walk – thanks mostly to a gentle leader that pulls his head back painlessly, like a horse halter, when he gets the urge to lunge ahead.
But of course 45 minutes of walking is peanuts to our energetic Harvey.
Biggs advised us that he could probably use three hours of exercise a day. I’ve even considered getting him his own treadmill.
Mostly though, I’m trying to trust the people who tell me that Harvey will start to settle down by the time he’s 18 months old, and I’m trying to ignore those who say it’ll be more like three to six years.
My husband and I are already looking forward to rewatching, “Marley and Me,” so we can get teary-eyed together as Owen Wilson (playing journalist John Grogan) tells his giant dying dog who was once such a terror that he is a GOOD dog, that he has always been a GOOD dog.
And then we’ll look at Harvey and see into some distant calmer future with him and survive on the hope that we’ll help him discover his inner good dog soon.
The truth is I can see it in his sweet eyes every day.
Annie Addington is a freelance writer and mother of two boys and one energetic puppy. She be reached via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org