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Adventures with obedience school
TETE AND FINNEGAN seem a little skeptical about obedience classes. Finnegan, who is a novice, seems to be slightly less underwhelmed than Tete.

VERNON COUNTY - My two dogs run, leap, and chase each other through the snow as Dane and I labor to keep up. It’s a gorgeous, sunshine-filled winter day. I’ve been telling my pups about the obedience classes they’ll be taking for the next six weeks. I’ve read that if you tell your animals in advance what they’ll be doing and what’s expected of them, they’ll experience less anxiety.

“You’re going to learn new tricks, you’ll get tons of treats, and you’ll make lots of new friends!” Téte’s sideways glance oozes skepticism—been there, done that, not fun—but Finn, who has never attended an obedience class, looks interested. His little head cocks to one side, and his eyes widen at the mention of treats. Later that day, the fun begins.

Lesson 1: I’m standing in a large gymnasium behind Téte, a jet-black mixed-breed dog with shiny fur and a brown Zorro mask. She’s stretched her leash to its limit, pulling my arm straight out from my shoulder socket to gain a few extra inches. My white-knuckled hand clenches the handle.

Téte is gazing across the room at Finnegan, who is also straining at his leash, held in check by Dane, whose arm is stretched as taut as mine. The two dogs reach toward each other like long-lost lovers, Téte’s large chocolate eyes looking almost teary.

Around the gym, dogs of all breeds sit calmly, eyes fixed on their owners, who appear to be holding their leashes loosely, arms relaxed by their sides.

Téte pulls harder and lets out something between a long, low howl and a deep, dark whine. Sinking to her haunches, she starts to crawl across the hard gymnasium floor like a woman dying of thirst toward a river. Her strength jerks me forward and my body lurches in a Frankenstein stride behind her.

My heart breaks for Téte, but my face flushes in embarrassment as I’m dragged across the gym to Finn and Dane. Dane gives me a lopsided told-you-so smile. I half smile back as Harry, our instructor, grabs Téte’s leash from me. He marches her to the middle of the gym floor, where she turns and gives me an accusatory look that says as clearly as words, “Traitor!”

“This dog has separation anxiety,” Harry bellows. I meekly hold out my hand to reclaim her leash, thinking, Let’s not put a label on my dog, though I know darn well Harry’s right.

As class resumes, Téte sits and lies down when asked to, and I give her pieces of cheese to reward her good work. But she seems to keep one eye out for Harry and the other for Finn and Dane.

Meanwhile Finnegan, a rat terrier mix with hardly any fur and a perpetually pink belly, is growling and snapping his tiny razor-sharp teeth at every dog—all much larger—that comes within a few feet of him. Harry cautions Dane not to scold Finn for protecting his space: “This dog is saying ‘You’re too close,’ and that’s okay. That’s how other dogs know to stay away.”

It works. All the dogs and their owners stay far, far away from Finn, Téte, and Dane and me. So much for making new friends.

Lesson 2: Téte bounds out of the car, pulling me behind her. Finnegan is already “protecting his space,” yipping at the other dogs that are arriving. Inside, we take off our coats and head for opposite sides of the gym.

Once again, Téte obeys basic commands, but Finnegan isn’t doing nearly as well. When asked to sit, he squats, keeping his rear end an inch or two above the floor. Harry's young assistant takes an interest in Finn and gently places her hand on his hindquarters, says “Sit!” and gives a firm push toward the floor. In response, Finn stops squatting and stands instead. He wants the treat and listens to the endlessly patient gal, but despite all her attempts, his bottom keeps hovering when it should land.

Our next task is get our dogs to sit, stand, lie down, walk, and so on before giving them their treat. The idea is to master a series of commands instead of just one. Téte is doing great until another teen helper decides to intervene. After the hundredth “Sit, lie down, stand” without getting the piece of cheese that’s being held a quarter inch from her nose, Téte gives up and decides to find Finn and Dane again. She makes her belly-rubbing, haunches-up, Jane-dragging way across the floor to check in with our partners.

Harry spies us and advises me, “Don’t get mad at her. You’re not here to work on her separation anxiety. Let her check in and then take her back and work on her exercises.” Easier said than done, Mr. Harry, I think. Thankfully, the class ends just then. Spared by the bell.

Lesson Three: Finn bounces out of the car with Dane holding his leash. As we walk to the door, greeting fellow classmates and their dogs, Finn starts gagging like a ham actor pretending to have swallowed poison. He’s so impatient to get inside, he’s choking himself on his leash. No doubt he has visions of cheese sticks dancing in his head. Téte, however, has planted her four paws into the sidewalk and wants no part of this fun I speak of.

Our first task today is to teach our dogs to come by calling their name once, then running backward with a beef jerky treat. This is a breeze for Téte, who snatches the treat as she zooms past while I fall on my buttocks. I scramble to my feet, worried that Master Harry will use me or Téte as an example again. Across the room, Dane is rewarding Finn, who has this exercise down pat.

We were told to bring a rug today, and now we’re instructed to lay it down near our dog. Finnegan is quick to learn that every time he obeys the command “Rug” he gets a treat. Téte is the only dog in the room that completely avoids touching her rug. Treat or no treat, she acts like it’s a land mine that I’m trying to get her to step on.

As the class ends Téte makes a beeline to the gymnasium door, eager to regain her freedom. Finnegan is still ready to sit, stand, walk, come, lie on the rug—anything for more cheese. On the drive home both dogs sprawl in the back seat, exhausted.

Graduation day can’t come soon enough for Dane and me. We come home pooped from the lessons too. Learning to obey is hard work for all of us!