But you can teach an old dog old tricks
After watching britain's premier dog show this year, I decided to try an experiment.
Our No. 2 dog, Bugsy, cannot be said to have "Obedience" as his middle name. He has his own ideas about things. He goes his own way, mainly.
Indeed, so far as I know, he has no middle name at all. Or any other name that's mentionable. He is, in fact, a monomial dog. This brevity in the nomenclature department is one, but not the only, reason that we didn't enter him for Crufts this year.
Crufts is a household word in Britain. It is our premier dog show. Dogs and dog owners of the first order flock to it annually. The rest of us watch it on TV. One of the first qualifications for inclusion in this remarkable event, it seems, is that your dog must have a kennel name both distinctive and extensive. Like, for example, Fyrnrose Bee Baw Babbity or Shalanka Political Storm Over Vanitonia.
There are other reasons, though, that our two scruffs stayed at home. The unspecific character of their forebears; their idiosyncratic notions of behavior; their distaste for shampoo (though Muffie does like licking it); their fondness for playing with or barking at other dogs; and one or two other fine and unpredictable points.
Watching Crufts is an entertainment I rate highly, if for no other reason than the total absence of embarrassment apparently felt by the participants, human or canine. I wondered this time how many of them might have seen the wickedly observant American film "Best in Show." Did they find it as funny as we did, or was it rather too close for comfort?
One is aware, of course, that at this level of competition, enjoyment is not the primary consideration. And yet it seemed to me that, for all the primping and crimping, the prancing around the ring with head held high, and the indignity of being squeezed and prodded by judges, everyone appeared to be having a great time. And not just the humans.
The dogs at Crufts did not look unhappy to me. They even seemed to display a vain relish for the endless grooming. The obedience dogs appeared positively proud of themselves, and their eagerness to do the right thing made it obvious that they saw it as an enormous game.
Even higher up the "fun" ladder, though, was the agility competition, and best of all was the "flyball" event, a relay race with hurdles and a suddenly released ball that had to be caught and taken back to base. Reluctance was nowhere, jubilation everywhere.
After watching this year's Crufts, I decided on a local experiment. It was not conducted under laboratory conditions (kitchen conditions, actually), and my description of the results is purely anecdotal, so the results will immediately be dismissed by the scientific fraternity. (Why do "anecdotes" get such short shrift? Experience, it seems to me, is more than 99 percent anecdotal.)
Bugsy was the subject of my test. He, after all, purports to have some connection to the so famously trainable sheepdog breeds. I took a fancy to teach him some elementary commands, nothing too taxing. Initially they were just hopeful attempts of the "SIT!" "STAY!" "COME!" variety. I planned to graduate to "HEEL!" and maybe even "DOWN!" if he showed any aptitude. (I knew there was no need to teach him "ROLL OVER!" and barking at pigeons comes naturally.)
To my considerable surprise and gratification, aptitude is exactly what Bugsy did show. On "BUGSY, SIT!" he sat immediately, and eyed me. I backed away from him steadily, holding up my finger and eyeing him back. I solemnly repeated "STAY!" at each step. He knew exactly what I was talking about.
When I finally broke the spell and said "COME!" he bounded at me like a sausage out of its skin, his whole personage a vast wriggle of enraptured self-esteem. I hyperbolized his magnificent amenability to instructions, and we repeated the experiment to see if it had been a fluke. Same effect. And again. My praises crescendoed. His sense of achievement grew to a kind of hysteria. I was astounded.
There is an explanation.
Before Bugsy lived with us, he lived with Louise, a teacher colleague of my wife. When my wife told her laughingly that we were thinking of Crufts next year, she said "Oh yes, we did take him to training classes."
As I press home my advantage and give The Bugs further instructions, mainly because he gets such a kick out of it, my wife observes, "You can see him casting his mind back. Click-click. He's thinking, 'Ah, now those sounds "sit" and "down" seem familiar. I'm sure I've heard them somewhere before....' "
At this year's Crufts, one collie doing agility stuck in my mind particularly. He did an almost perfect round - up, down, over, and through all the seesaws, fences, and serpentine tunnels, triumphing over all tricky obstacles in his path - and finally beat the time of all his competitors. Any idea that he might not be having one great whale of a time was nonsense. Discipline is a delight! Obedience is joy! Life is magnificent!
And then, best of all: After the last jump, jubilant and victorious, he leaped in the air and landed in his master's arms. Do you teach a dog that trick?
"Now, Bugsy, let's try: LEAP!"
But Bugsy just looks perplexed.
"Leap?" he seems to be thinking. "How d'you mean?"