I teach a young dog an old trick - the hard way

Just look at my new (purchased at half price) $60 tennis shoes. My husband, Gary, and I were not looking to own another dog for a while after our mixed-breed, Gracie, passed away last spring. We felt we weren't ready to commit to another dog. Then a marvelous thing happened.

Our friends Kelly and Mike, who breed chocolate Labrador retrievers, decided to quit the business. They had a beautiful 2-1/2-year-old female Lab, coincidently named Gracie, and they offered to give her to us. They knew how much we loved Labs and thought we would be perfect for each other.

We had a trial visit in which Gracie was driven around the block to meet us, so she wouldn't know that we lived across the street and two doors down from her house. We didn't want her trying to cross the road if she ever got out of our fence.

It was love at first sight. We both knew she was the perfect dog for us.

This experience has opened up a whole new dog chapter in our lives. We already have a chocolate Lab "grandson" named Ranger, so I thought we were well versed in the nuances of Lab life. Wrong! Gracie had lived her whole life in a large fenced yard with her Gramma Suzie, Mom Mocha, and Lab mix Rosie. Our new dog had never been without dog companionship.

To make the move less traumatic for her, we decided to make the transition from the veterinarian's office. Kelly would take her in, and I would pick her up. Gracie was very happy to see me, but I immediately became her replacement "companion dog."

She trailed me wherever I went. No trip to and fro in the house was without her at my side. When I stopped, she would very gently reach out and tap me with her nose as if to say "I'm here; don't leave me."

Every evening we placed her bed on the floor next to my side of the bed. As soon as I stirred in the morning, she gave me soft nuzzles to see if I was truly awake. Then a brown shadow followed me all day long. I placed her bed beside my chair in the living room so I could hang my arm over and rest it on her to reassure her. She loved to go out in the yard, where I threw her a retriever dummy and a flippy-floppy.

After living with us for several weeks, Gracie was finally content to stay with Gary when I went out, instead of following me out the door and barking at the fence for me to come back.

After a month, we felt she trusted us and was ready to go for a swim. We drove to a local lake, where we expected her to behave the way our "grand-dog" Ranger does: race from the car, run for the water, and eagerly await the fun.

It didn't happen exactly like that. Oh, she jumped out of the car all right and was very excited, but she was more interested in the goose droppings than the water.

After a number of "no-no's" and "icky-icky's," she finally came to the water's edge. I eagerly held up the retrieving dummy for her to see and watched her excitement grow as she waited for the throw.

Plop. It landed about 20 feet from shore.

My husband had told me not to throw it too far, but I'd thought, "She's a Lab, and this is just a short distance."

Gracie whined, looked at me with her big brown eyes, then looked at the water and back at me as if to say, "You want me to go in there alone?"

Then it began.

"Come on, Gracie! Get the dummy, Gracie! Get it, get it, get it!" We sounded like those overexuberant parents you see at children's sporting events. They think the more they yell, the better the child will perform. It doesn't work for them, and it didn't work for us.

"Get the dummy!" we commanded.

"Get the dummy!" we pleaded.

We threw rocks at it. We threw sticks at it. Gracie waded in up to her ankles (dog ankles, that is) and brought back an alder leaf. We threw more sticks a few feet from shore. To her credit, she did plunge in the water. But she stopped when the water got halfway up her legs and brought back a stick that was nearby.

Then I had a brilliant idea: throw her favorite flippy-floppy toward the dummy. I was sure she would go for it.

I tossed it about 10 feet out toward the dummy, and Gracie ran after it until the water came up to her dog elbows. Then she stopped. The flippy-floppy sank. She whined, and so did I.

The ripples from her splashing at the edge of the lake were pushing the dummy further from shore. These were her favorite toys, so I had little choice: $60 tennis shoes or $5 dog toys?

I waded into the lake, gasping from the winter cold. When I was about waist deep, Gracie suddenly bounded toward the dummy, swimming vigorously. I got to it before she did, so I passed it to her. She took it back to shore.

She pranced over to Gary, bursting with pride, and shook the water onto him. I found the flippy-floppy and sloshed my way to shore. I thought she had it figured out now, so I grabbed the dummy and gave it another toss. Gracie just stood and looked at me again as if to say, "Do you want me to go out there again?"

Back in the water I went, and again she came racing at full speed to try to get to the dummy before I could.

About this time, a pickup pulled up and saw the dog and me in the water chasing after the orange dummy. The driver and passenger stared at us a moment, then turned around and left. I can't imagine what they thought.

I pointed to the dummy, Gracie grabbed it and headed to shore. Gary got another shower, and we heaped praise on Gracie for her good job. By then, I was acclimated to the cold and trained to throw the dummy only a short distance. Soon Gracie began to race out to retrieve the dummy and dash back to shore, where she'd wait for the next throw. I kept increasing the distance until she clearly knew what to do.

She was wet and happy, and so were we.

Later that evening I called Kelly and asked her why Gracie wouldn't retrieve the dummy. She explained that whenever Gracie had gone swimming, Suzie and Mocha had always cut her off. They had retrieved the dummy first, so she would just swim along. She never got to retrieve it herself. Gracie didn't realize that she could be the one to actually retrieve it.

Sometimes life is like that. You never know your potential until you stand alone. Unless you are a dog who has never met a cat before. But that's another story.

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