Half-way through the month.
I have taken a break from book writing to get today’s post ready. I’m 100 words short of 25,000 words and will stick at it until I’m over the 50% word-count before the end of today, Thursday.
Very conscious that many readers having got very used to my usual style of posts may be finding the change a little uninviting. Not a lot I can say other than I understand. NaNoWriMo do encourage all those November novelists who are bloggers to subject, sorry to offer, their readers the writings!
Learning from Dogs
The year 2003 did not have a great deal left in it and in what seemed like no time at all, New Year’s Day 2004 had been and gone. By the middle of January of the new year, Philip had settled into the regular trip across to Angela, the country journey not anything other than a pleasant forty-minute drive from home with Angela’s place coincidentally not a million miles from Sandra’s kennels at Hennock, where Pharaoh had been born.
It was certainly a higher elevation than Harberton and, potentially, a place to become snow-bound. But as January rolled into February, and while there were plenty of days of Devon rain, snow did not arrive.
As Angela had intimated would be the case, Pharaoh was nothing other than a gentleman during his days of obedience consolidation with Philip. During February, when Pharaoh had become accustomed to wearing a muzzle, Philip started walking with Pharaoh around their favourite spots in Totnes. Indeed, the walk from the Safeway car park by the river, up along Fore Street, underneath Eastgate arch where the road became Totnes High Street and all the way up to the old Totnes Castle, was settling into a regular event, often on the way back from visiting Angela.
What was interesting to note was that the sight of Pharaoh, this large German Shepherd dog wearing a muzzle, caused much more consternation for onlookers than it did for Pharaoh.
They had been resting one afternoon on a bench by the Castle after a brisk walk up through the centre of Totnes, when Philip distinctly heard a man, father he presumed, speak to the little girl with him and caution her that the dog was a most dangerous animal and not to go near it, because nice dogs don’t wear muzzles!
When they were walking around the Totnes streets, while Pharaoh would occasionally mutter a low growl towards a person, or more often towards another dog, there wasn’t even the hint of an aggressive move. It was almost as though when Pharaoh was on the leash and wearing a muzzle, he had happily deferred his role as protector to Philip. No, not deferred but swapped roles as if Philip was both minder and protector of the two of them.
Then on the first Wednesday in March, at the end of their obedience class, Angela turned to Philip and said, “Philip, I can’t teach you two anything more. Pharaoh has got so used to your personality that he is way beyond rigid command formats. He can read your whole demeanour, probably better than Maggie.”
Philip mused privately that that didn’t take too much for a dog to know him better than Maggie.
Sandra added, “And there’s no doubt that you, Philip, can read Pharaoh’s demeanour as well.”
There was a pause.
“What I have been thinking is that it’s time to have Pharaoh use his fabulous teaching skills to work with some of the dogs that truly need some help. Could the two of you come over on Saturday, say at ten o’clock?”
“Angela, Saturday would be so much less of an issue than a week-day. For reasons I’m not sure about, my mentoring client list is growing at the moment.”
The rest of the week flowed by as the weeks so often do and Saturday was upon them. It wasn’t much after eight-thirty in the morning when he nosed his car down their driveway, closed the gate behind him and set off to Angela’s place; Pharaoh already curled up in the back of the Volvo.
“Oh, good morning Philip,” Angela called out as he parked the car in what was now his usual place.
“Let’s leave Pharaoh in the car for a moment while I talk you through the plan. Just follow me.”
Angela lead the way between a couple of barns and there, just beyond, was a fenced paddock, possibly a half-acre in size. There were a couple of bench seats elevated a few feet but some way back from the perimeter fence.
“Philip, this is where we are going to have Pharaoh work with the guest dog. She’s a female grey-hound that the owner wished to introduce to greyhound racing, at the greyhound stadium in Plymouth. Her name is Betsy . However, when Betsy’s owner, Gordon, took Betsy to the stadium the first time, she was so aggressive in going for the other runners that, even with a muzzle, a requirement for racing, Betsy was acting up to the point where it was impossible for her to be with any of the other dogs.”
“OK, understood so far,” Philip replied, “but how will Pharaoh engage with Betsy?”
Angela responded, “I suggest we let Pharaoh into the paddock together with your goodself. Then you slide out when you can, which I suspect will not be long, because Pharaoh will be fascinated by the smells of many other dogs. You can quietly settle back on the upper bench seat and when I sense Pharaoh is ready, I’ll have Gordon bring Betsy just inside the gate of the paddock, let Betsy off her leash, and stay quietly to one side.”
“OK, Angela, all understood. How do you expect Pharaoh and Betsy to react to each other?”
Angela smiled, “Let me just say that I have an extremely good hunch as to what will happen, but just for now I’m going to hold back on making any predictions!”
“Oh, you can go and bring Pharaoh over now, don’t want him to feel any rush getting to know the smells of the paddock.”
Philip walked back to the Volvo, let Pharaoh down from the car and lead him through to the paddock. Pharaoh happily followed despite being off-leash stopping only briefly to have a couple of pees.
Once at the paddock, Philip went through the open gate with Pharaoh and waited quietly just inside the gate. Pharaoh naturally started sniffing around and exploring this new environment. A few moments later Philip gently opened the gate, slipped out, re-closed the gate and lent across the top bar watching his wonderful dog. Angela remained where she had first gone to, leaning on the top rail of the paddock fence just to the right of the gate, looking in on Pharaoh.
She silently pointed to Philip for him to slip back and be seated on the elevated bench seat.
The sound of a car door being closed caused Angela to disappear back out between the two barns. Pharaoh had raised his head and was looking and listening intently towards the source of the sound.
A few minutes later, Angela and Gordon appeared, Gordon leading Betsy on a leash. They walked up to the outside of the closed paddock gate. Betsy started eyeing Pharaoh with a very direct stare.
Pharaoh started to walk towards them. Betsy gave a deep-throated growl causing Pharaoh to pause in his walk and observe her.
“Gordon, let me have Betsy on her leash.”
Angela took Betsy’s leash and very gently lifted the gate latch and cracked the gate open by six inches or so.
“Pharaoh, there’s a good boy. Pharaoh stay. Good boy,” came Angela’s softly formed words yet using her words as a cover to open the gate just sufficient for both Betsy and her to enter the paddock, Angela then closing the gate behind them.
There was a pause of perhaps a minute where nothing moved. Angela gently let her fingers run down Betsy’s leash and softly unlatched the lead from Betsy’s collar.
Again, Betsy’s eyes were fixated on Pharaoh and, likewise, he seemed to be assessing just what Betsy represented.
Angela softly slipped open the gate, slipped through and held the gate closed yet unlatched. She was confident there were not going to be any panics but it never paid to be complacent.
Pharaoh did a quarter-turn with his head to the left and seemed about to sniff the ground near his front paws.
Betsy suddenly growled and started towards Pharaoh but stopped in less than two paces. For Pharaoh had immediately turned his head back to face Betsy’s face full-on, giving her the most compelling message of perhaps rethinking what she had in mind. Well that’s the message that Philip saw in Pharaoh’s face. A facial look that Philip had never seen on Pharaoh before now yet, nonetheless, seemed utterly clear. So imagine what unspoken words were picked up by Betsy; that old business of dogs speaking dog to each other so much better than humans speaking dog!
There was a pause where nothing changed. Then Pharaoh, again, turned his head a little to his left. Betsy took a step towards Pharaoh but noticeable without the aggressive overlay of before.
Pharaoh turned his head and looked back at Betsy. However, now his facial message, as Philip interpreted it, was Pharaoh saying to Betsy that this was getting boring and that he still hadn’t finished sniffing out the new smells around here.
Then Philip saw, hardly believing his eyes, Pharaoh wander over to the far fence line, pee on an upright wooden fence post, and continue following the fence line around to the left, as in left from Philip’s perspective. Betsy stayed rooted to where she was. Not even turning an eye as Gordon came up and sat down next to Philip.
Any sense of time passing was beyond grasp. However, when Pharaoh had walked away from that marked fence post by, say, thirty or forty feet, Betsy almost imperceptibly looked at the fence post, possibly some twenty feet from her, and in what might be described as a casual gait, walked across to the post. She sniffed the bottom of the post where Pharaoh’s pee had run down to the ground. She sniffed long and hard and then turned around and walked a few yards in Pharaoh’s direction, he having now paused in his stroll along the fence line, his head turned back to watch Betsy.
The next action by Betsy brought an audible gasp to Gordon’s lips. For Betsy calmly and quietly settled down on the dusty ground, tummy against the bare earth, paws straight ahead, head lowered, eyes watching Pharaoh.
Pharaoh then turned in towards the prone Betsy, gently walked towards her, sniffed her rear quarters, walked around to the other side of her and just looked at her for a few moments. Then he eased himself forward, lowering his head a little. Their doggy world seemed to come to a halt for a few moments, then Pharaoh and Betsy came together and simply touched wet nose to wet nose.
Philip and Gordon both came down from their seats and stood next to Angela. Both of them couldn’t avoid noticing that Angela had silent tears running down both cheeks. Not a word was spoken, not a word needed to be spoken.
Gently, all three of them, Angela, Gordon and Philip, slipped quietly into the paddock and enjoyed what was happening in front of them. Almost as though their pleasure at the outcome was fuelling the moods in the two dogs, Pharaoh and Betsy each took up a behaviour that could only be described as a couple of dogs being relaxed and comfortable with each other.
Angela slipped out and returned a few moments later with some dog biscuits in her hands, the large chunky ones shaped roughly to look like a bone. She walked up to Pharaoh, stroked him on the head and offered him a biscuit. He took the biscuit and settled down to nibble it.
Angela then went across to Betsy and repeated the biscuit giving. Betsy settled down to eat her biscuit.
Upon coming back to the gents, she said, “OK, it all happened more or less as I anticipated. Pharaoh has given us a copy-book example of a strong, dominant teaching dog behaving in his natural role as a minder dog.”
Gordon was practically unable to keep his beaming face under control. He bubbled out the question, “So what happens next, Angela?”
“Well, I would like to repeat what we set up today one more time, just to be sure, although I have not the slightest doubt it will be fine.
Then, we’ll have Betsy and Pharaoh come again but keep Pharaoh to one side while I introduce Betsy to another dog that is dominant but not a teaching dog. In other words, more likely to trip Betsy into her old ways. If that happens we will bring Pharaoh in and he will adjudicate. Then next time round, we will introduce Betsy to an even less disciplined dog, again more or less aiming for the conditions where Betsy will learn a strategy for keeping her own temptations under control.”
Angela added, “There’s no doubt whatsoever that Betsy, sooner than you can imagine, will be a settled dog and ready to go dog racing if that’s what is right for her.”
Angela had a cheeky grin on her face, “Sorry, I meant what’s right for you, Gordon. OK, I’ll confess, I’m not a fan of dog racing!”
2,185 words. Copyright © 2013 Paul Handover