Our human kids went back to school today after another summer that went by way too quickly. As my friends and I all posted our back to school photos across our different social media accounts I came across one from a few years ago when Tinkerbell was starting her first day of Puppy Kindergarten class, conveniently the same day the human kids started their school year.
Like any good mom I snapped her photo as we headed out the door with the puppy equivalent of school supplies tucked away in my tote. Training treats, blanket, water bottle, water bowl, poop bags and her favorite toy were all packed up and ready to go to her first day of school. She was sporting her adorable red harness for the first time, so bright against her shiny black fur. The harness was a hand-me-down from big brother Jackson but she did not know or care; she was just excited and ready to head out the door on whatever adventure I wanted to take her on.
Like many little sisters she had a big boisterous older brother who was already well-known at their school. Jackson and I had taken many classes at their private obedience school; in fact, some of them we took just because I had so much fun taking him to class more than for the additional training. In fact we started a special training program where he could earn a Bachelor degree, a Master’s degree and aPhD. It was supposed to be a great foundation for passing the Canine Good Citizen test, and let’s face it: I really wanted to call him Dr. Jackson.
Training Jackson was a fun experience. He is a brilliant dog and extremely food motivated although also a complete social butterfly, wanting to say hello to every dog in the room. We used to laugh because there were always female Golden Retrievers in our classes and he would make a beeline for them. I would joke that he was doing the Joey Tribiani, “How YOU doin’?” from Friends as he sniffed and greeted them with great enthusiasm, and that they would simper and giggle as their big studly Labrador boyfriend sauntered off with his bear-like strut.
As much as he wanted to visit and play with the other dogs, though, as soon as we started the class and began working on different commands, he mastered them within moments. I think that the instructors were always stunned to watch my big overly friendly goofball of a Labrador go from Class Clown to Straight A Student in a matter of moments.
Because Jackson and I had gone through so many training classes together we had a mind-meld and I knew what to expect from him. As Tinkerbell and I started our first training class together I naively thought she would be the same way in the classroom. After all, they were cousins by blood and had the same upbringing both at the breeder’s (where they learned sit/wait for their food) and had the same human family and environment.
I was wrong.
Tinkerbell trotted along happily on her little puppy leash as we walked into our first day of Puppy Kindergarten. She was interested in the other dogs but was perfectly happy to lay next to me and chew on her antler while we waited for the class to begin. After the bicep workout that it took to get Jackson to his spot in the classroom each week I was hopeful that this nice and easy start would make her a joy to train.
With my pockets overflowing with tiny Fruitables and bits of Canine Caviar dog food we started working on sit. I thought, “Sit should be easy-peasy, she learned this already with her breeder.” Although we had continued working on sit and stay at mealtime, when it came to training class Tinkerbell wanted nothing to do with me, with the treats, or with learning or performing a single thing. As I waved a Fruitable in front of her face she looked at the other dogs, she looked at the floor, she looked at the ceiling. I made clicking noises and said her name as she chased her tail, chewed on her antler and completely and totally ignored me.
“Well, she definitely isn’t as food motivated as her brother,” I laughed as the trainer came over to help. In fact Jackson was so food motivated that I used to come home from class with my fingers sore from him nipping them each class while we worked on taking the treat gently from my fingers. The instructor even brought the “high value” liver treats to help. Jackson would have solved an equation and played the piano for one of the liver treats. Tinkerbell flopped down and licked her belly.
Eventually we were able to get Tinkerbell’s attention and somehow we progressed through the six-week course. As the weeks wore on I loved seeing how different she was from Jackson, so much easier to handle in terms of navigating the waiting area and walking past the other dogs to get to our seat, but so much harder to actually train and keep her interest.
When it came to the last class I knew we would be playing the school’s graduation game in which the winner would save money off their next class and win a special key chain. I loved playing the game with Jackson because I knew he would go from the big crazy dog who bounded into each class to a rock star obedience dog. We had won a few times and that key chain was a prized possession to me. In fact we had been playing the graduation game for the last year in our yard just because it was fun to do together.
The game consisted of performing four sets of commands in a diamond shape. From the starting point we would run to the next spot and do sit/down/sit, run to the next corner and execute stand/down/stand, go to the next corner and do another sit/down/sit and then run to the starting point for a long sit/stay. Jackson and I had a mind-meld; Tinkerbell had a brain freeze.
When it came to Tinkerbell’s turn she trotted along after me without a care in the world and then promptly forgot everything she had ever learned. Instead of breezing through the commands and stations she meandered along, looked at the other dogs, chewed her tail, licked the pieces of treats off the floor that other owners had dropped and generally showed no interest in the entire game. Competitive by nature, I had started off with high hopes although those hopes had vanished by the time we hit the stand/down/stand.
Fortunately we have been able to teach Tinkerbell her commands. Some things she learned from watching Jackson do them. These have been fun things like shake hands and speak. We often practice training side by side and I love to observe her watching him to see what he is going to do. We train them often to work their minds, especially on these very hot days when they are not as interested in running around outside and the pavement is too hot for long walks. In fact I am grateful every day that I took so many training classes that we can fall back on that for something fun and rewarding to do.
Right now we are working on longer and longer blind stays, in which I put them in a stay position and go to where they cannot see me before calling them to me. Sometimes we do this outdoors and other times we do it inside the house in a hide and seek sort of way. Jackson and I still do the graduation game although I have not timed us lately. I believe our best time was 15 seconds.
We haven’t taken any classes for at least a year and I find myself really missing this activity with both dogs. I am starting to look for some fun courses for the fall and am considering Rally for Jackson and perhaps some
or agility classes for Tinkerbell. Jackson and I did a few conformation shows just for fun before I neutered him and I loved going to them and performing with him and having that mother/dog bond. More importantly, though, I know that these dogs are incredibly intelligent and having activities to practice and do on a regular basis helps them be happier and healthier than just hanging around our yard. After all, that’s one of the reasons we wanted Labradors that had the canine trifecta: healthy body, sweet temperament and keen intelligence. You don’t get a Labrador so you can sit on the sofa; you get a Labrador so you can do fun things, play games, explore the world and generally live life together.