Not long ago we adopted Maggie, a black Labrador retriever puppy. It was my 11-year-old son who had initially wanted the dog, but Maggie quickly become a family project – and I suddenly found myself as the newly appointed project manager.
One of the first things we did after taking Maggie home was to sign up for puppy training. A description of the course told us that we would learn how to teach our new dog to sit, stay, and come on command.
I was skeptical. It was hard to believe that with just a few minutes of practice each day we could turn this little furry creature – who liked to teethe on our fingers and steal our socks – into a well-behaved family dog.
But I was willing to try.
"It's easy to teach a dog to sit," said the trainer at the first training session.
The trainer's teaching method focused on positive motivation – lots of pats, praise, and treats. Her basic premise was that dogs want to please. They just need to know from you what behavior is acceptable and what isn't.
"Take a doggy treat and hold it directly over your puppy's head," she instructed.
There were eight of us gathered in a circle – all new dog owners – each listening carefully to every word the trainer said, hoping to gain some control over the squirming young dog on the other end of the leash.
"As soon as your dog sits down, pop the treat into its mouth and say 'Sit.' If you do that enough times, your dog will sit on command," she promised.
We did exactly as we were told, and Maggie was sitting on command after just a few tries. I was impressed – our puppy was a genius.
Teaching Maggie to come when I called her name seemed easy, too. The trainer emphasized again the importance of praise and utilizing a dog's natural pack instinct. She told us that a puppy doesn't want to be left alone and will usually follow its leader automatically.
"When it comes to the come-home command," she said, "enthusiasm, kindness, and praise are crucial. Your dog will always return if she knows it will be a positive experience."
During our daily walks with Maggie in a wooded area near our home, there were lots of opportunities to practice and improve what we learned at puppy training class.
We live in Denmark, where there are designated areas – dog forests – for walking dogs.
Every time I spied a potential distraction in the distance – such as a runner or another dog – I called Maggie to me, told her to sit, and put her on a lead until I could see that the oncoming dog was one we could play with, or the runner was someone we knew.
But learning to stay was quite another matter for Maggie.
"To stay means making your dog remain in one place for as long as possible," explained the trainer. "In the beginning, the length of time you make her stay is more important than how far away you are from your dog. So take your time when you practice the stay command."
This was easier said than done, especially for me.
"Remember your body language!" our trainer warned. "Just the slightest indication from you that you want to move on will make your dog want to get up and move on, too."
She was right. It seemed to take me forever to teach Maggie to stay. When we practiced, it was almost as if Maggie could read my mind.
I enjoyed our walks in the woods and training her, but I was also eager to get back to whatever it was I thought was important – work, errands, or dinner.
A change of attitude was required. If Maggie was going to learn to stay, I had to learn to stay, too.
I started by observing Maggie. She seemed to enjoy sitting and waiting. Often she would stick her nose in the air to catch a whiff of the wind's fragrant secrets, or she would watch a beetle crawl past her front paws.
Occasionally she would seem bored with it all, yawn, and walk away, or, if she saw a dog friend, she would run off – only to be corrected and called home again.
As we practiced each day, I started to notice small things that I hadn't really noticed before – the gradual emergence of windflowers in spring and the sudden stillness at dusk when the birds grew silent. In the mornings, I could hear the sound of laughter from children playing in the schoolyard nearby.
I began to look forward to my walks with Maggie in a new way, and I welcomed these brief, quiet moments during a busy day.
Today, Maggie is a full-grown and, for the most part, well-behaved family dog.
She still steals our socks from the laundry basket, but she can sit, stay, and come on command.
As for me, training Maggie has taught me many things, including the importance of patience, praise, and love.
And best of all, I've learned to stay and enjoy the moment.