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Trick of the treat: the way to Tucker's heart

Tucker, a Dalmation-black Lab mix, called for piles of dog snacks on the road to obedience.

By Diana Federman / October 18, 2011



"Dog taking you for a walk?" quipped the fellow passing by as I tried to drag Tucker away from the French fries scattered on the ground.

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I smiled politely, as if I hadn't heard it before, and Tucker took the opportunity to scarf up the fries, wrapper and all.

"You want sauce with that?" I asked.

At times like that, I had to wonder how a cat lover like me had come to acquire a dog like Tucker, a Dalmatian-black Lab mix. Why would someone who had never had dogs and was actually a little afraid of them start with such a big one? Why wasn't I at home being ignored by my cats?

Kids, of course. My two sons had begged for a dog and sworn they'd take care of it: feed it, walk it, groom it, teach it cool tricks. All I would have to do was pay the vet and heft a bag of kibble in the car now and then. Did I want them to grow up like me, with dog issues? Did I want my headstone to read: "Mom: She never let us have a dog"? Many people had dogs. So how hard could it be?

Tucker, a rescue case, was 9 months old when he entered our lives. To someone used to cats, it was like bringing a horse into the house. We came in the front door and let him off the leash, and he galloped out the back door. We found him staring up a tree at one very startled cat. "You can't be serious," she seemed to be saying.

Our learning curve was steep. "What happened to the sandwiches?" I'd ask. "Where's the pie?" All eyes would turn to Tucker, calmly licking his chops. An entire ham disappeared, as did LEGOS, baseballs, and every single cat toy. Tucker ripped out the carpet from under a threshold, ate the carpet, then ate the threshold.

The property destruction was unpleasant, but with boys in the house, not unprecedented. I could live with it. When Tucker moved on to people, however, tackling visitors who came to the door, I put my foot down.

"Stop it," I told him.

He didn't.

"Don't do that."

He did.

I pored over books. One recommended "telepathic communication with your dog," but all I got was the Scooby-Doo channel. Another advised a booby trap of pots and pans to foil food snitching. The crash dented the pans but not Tucker's gourmet habits.

So Tucker went to obedience school, where I quickly learned something myself: A dog is not a cat. Not even close. Tucker was more like a wolf, and I was the woeful omega to his alpha.

"You must be the leader," the trainer admonished. No matter how much I might prefer, say, to sit quietly reading a novel with a cat in my lap, I had to get busy and teach our dog that I, not he, led the pack and – this was key – controlled the food. My secret weapon? Meaty Bones.

To teach Tucker to leave visitors alone, we practiced: One son would knock on the door, Tucker would raise the alarm, I would distract him with the magic word "treat!," and my son would enter. (Repeat 10,000 times – Tucker was not a quick study.) Then, mirabile dictu, came a day when Tucker heard a knock, yawned, and sauntered to the treat bin. I nearly barked for joy.

Other wolflike behaviors also receded as Tucker began to respect my leadership skills (and my priority access to you know what). He learned to come, sit, stay, and merely gaze with deep affection at food on the counter. He even learned that with a cat curled in my lap, I could still stroke his velvety black ears.

And I learned that it's hard to be afraid of anything you love.

The boys were true to their word. They fed Tucker, soaped him up and hosed him down, and taught him amazing tricks: For example, throw a ball and he brings back a stick. (OK, that one still needs work.)

But because I walk often and it's hard to leave behind a creature so elated by the sight of sneakers, I do most of the dog walking. Now, when a roadside delicacy beckons, I tell him to leave it. He cocks an ear, remembers the Meaty Bone in my pocket, and then we move along, a stately suburban pair, my alpha to his I'll-humor-her omega.

"Beautiful dog," says a passerby.

No issue there. None at all.

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