Murphy is not a stupid dog. In fact, I contend, that Murphy is a brilliant dog. The issue, over and over again, proves to be his attitude. His attitude, which while endlessly playful, is not one of obedience.
Murphy took the “Puppy” level training class at PetSmart while he was living with my mom during the cross-country move preparation. Initially, my mom was very enthused about helping us out through the transition. In fact, I worried that I would have trouble getting him back from her. That is, until the voicemails began.
“Tasha, this is your Mom, I really don’t know what to do with this dog. He is totally out of control. He ate the staircase! He ate an entire step of the staircase! I’m sending you a picture. I mean, good God, what the fuck is he doing! He can’t eat the house! Call me back.”
“Tasha, this is your Mom, Murphy and I had our first puppy class tonight. It was a disaster, a total disaster. He jumped out of the ring. Well, he knocked it over, completely over, in the middle of class. He free’d all the other dogs and then they were all running around the store like wild animals. It was, the biggest fiasco of my life. I am so embarrassed. He’s too much, really. Call me back.”
“Tasha, this is your Mom. Well, Murphy and Weasley are best friends now. They broke into the pantry and ate the lids off of some peanut butter jars I had stocked up on. They were on sale three for five, if you can imagine. But those little criminals ate all of that peanut butter! The plastic lids and everything on three jars of peanut butter! It’s insane! It’s just totally insane! Call me back.”
“Tasha, this is your Mom. You said that he was potty trained and yet I keep finding piles of puppy poop in the basement. You need to call me back right this minute, little girl.”
So, clearly, my diligent training of teaching him to sit while we were in my apartment elevator wasn’t cutting it at the big house. For the record, Murphy was totally potty trained in the apartment. My theory is that he couldn’t handle the responsibility of not pooping in a 2500 square foot expanse. It was a lot to ask of him.
Regardless, his antics were enough for Mom to enroll him in class. When we picked him up she reviewed what he had learned so we would know what to do for “drop”, “leave it”, etc.
Since then it has become clear that Murphy may have learned what these words mean, but does not care to act on these meanings. In fact, he finds creative ways to skirt around doing what we ask of him.
For instance, Murphy absolutely knows what “drop it” means, but instead of immediately dropping the object, he will toss it down the stairs or otherwise hide it somewhere out of sight before jogging back without the object, expecting a treat.
So we decided to enroll in PetSmart’s Beginner class, which is the exact same thing as the puppy class, once again to try to solidify some of this basic training.
Our first class was not what I expected. Out of about ten people in attendance, we were the only ones on time, including the instructor. Side eye to everyone.
After fifteen minutes of people lackadaisically moseying in we did introductions. Our peppy trainer enthusiastically instructed us to introduce our dogs with an adjective that began with the first letter of their name. Contrived socialization is a major pet peeve of mine, just like tardiness.
“Hello everyone! I’m John and these are my kids, Arson and Jane. Our little bulldog here is Winston.”
“Winston Wiggles!” Jane giggled.
Our class broke into studio laughter, a golden colored mutt in the corner of the room howled happily.
“Hi, I’m Sandra. This is Tucker, Tucker Talks!” she sighed, as Tucker howled again.
More studio audience laughter.
“Annoying. Really annoying,” I whispered to Joshua.
“Your East Coast is showing” he replied.
The next woman was sitting indian style on the floor, despite the chairs provided. She was wearing a Coachella costume and was a dead ringer for Kristen Wiig.
“Hey guys, my name is June and this is Washcloth who wubs water and wubs wittle wishes on stars.” She lifted the tiny puppy into the air and rubbed his body against her face.
Josh and I exchanged a look, her West coast was showing.
“Hi I’m Josh,” he then turned and stared at me.
“I’m Natasha. This is Murphy who enjoys… marathon running and …mischief.”
Studio audience laugh track.
By the end of that initial class we had learned nothing.
By the third class the attendance had plummeted to just Murphy, Bella, a husky, and Tucker who talks.
“It’s important to reinforce the good behavior, so if they do ‘watch me’ on the first try, go ahead and jackpot ’em. Give them like ten treats for that.” Julie stopped, Tucker was howling again. “Hey, here,” she handed Sandra a toy, “No, no, don’t pet him for doing that. Distract him, get up, get his attention. Yeah. Ok, so same thing with sit. When they do it on the first command go ahead and jackpot them. Don’t keep repeating yourself, they will start to wait for the third time you say sit if they think they get a treat after you say it three times. They’ll wait for it. Let’s take a couple minutes and practice ‘Watch me’ and ‘Sit’,”
Tucker began howling, Sandra stroked his head. Julie beelined across the training room, “Don’t pet his head that just reinforces the barking.”
“Alright, Murph, look at me! LOOK AT ME!” I had treats in my hand and was dramatically gesturing to my eyes. Murphy stared at the treats. It was a start.
Tucker’s howls reached ear piercing levels, Murphy turned and lunged. Josh wrapped the leash around his hand twice and pulled, “No. Stop.”
Murphy lunged again and again. His body lept into the air and twisted against the anchor of Josh’s grasp.
I had never seen him so out of control.
Tucker continued to bark gleefully, and Murphy couldn’t tolerate it.
“This is ridiculous. I’m going to ask to just join another class next session if this continues.” I whispered.
“My ears are bleeding.” Josh growled, his knuckles whitening around the leash against Murphy’s continued lunges.
“Alright, lets take a couple minutes and show what we’ve learned,” Julie gestured for Bella, the husky to come to the center.
Bella approached with her owner, and when told to sit, proceeded to urinate all over the floor. The pee spread rapidly across the flat warehouse floor, which offered no absorption, and the vile lake raced toward us.
“Well at least we’re not the worst here,” Josh said.
Our instructor encouraged us to let Murphy burn off some energy before class, although she acknowledged that the incessant barking appeared to be a trigger for him.
We began taking him to the park and letting him run for an hour or more, even to the beach to let him swim before class. By the time he arrived he was near exhaustion, laying down on the floor while other people trickled in. It felt like cheating, but things went smoother.
There were other valuable insights throughout the classes, like when we described the endless struggles we had with Murphy lunging and dragging, mostly me, around the neighborhood.
“Alright, so when he pulls and lunges you need to stop. If stopping doesn’t work start backing up. He needs to be paying attention to your pace and that you are in charge of the walk and not him.”
“He is seventy-five pounds. When he pulls and lunges you’re sort of propelled forward. There is no backing up.” I countered, annoyed. I knew what I was supposed to be doing, I was here because that didn’t work.
She nodded, petting Murphy pensively.
“Hot dogs. Cut up hot dogs into tiny pieces and use those only on walks when he is walking with a loose leash. Murphy has a huge personality, we’re going to have to make the reward worth it to him, you know what I mean? He needs a big pay off. Don’t you, big boy? You need the big prize.” Julie offered, smiling into Murphy’s face.
The hot dogs changed everything.
Within the first walk, within five minutes, Murphy had completely turned around his behavior. He desperately slowed down, would even sit if you paused mid-step in order to get a piece of hot dog.
It was magical.
By the last class Murphy was able to sit, lay down, look, drop it, leave it, shake, come, and walk with a loose leash. Granted he is only able to do those things in limited environments with minimal distraction. He does none of those things when we go to Dog Beach or the dog park, for instance, but still. Progress!
We walked around the store, doing an obstacle course of commands as Julie instructed to prove our progress. Murphy walked down an aisle with toys and treats everywhere and didn’t take a single one, listening to our “Leave it” with apt attention. For “come” Josh and I were placed at opposite ends of the back of the store, Murphy bounded back and forth on command, crashing into our arms gleefully over and over. He did not even look at the Husky waiting nearby.
We were feeling pretty stellar. We thought we were unstoppable.
Then it was time to showcase our “Sit and greet”. Ideally, Murphy was supposed to sit upon meeting anyone/anything until we say “done” and move along. This doesn’t happen. I don’t think this has happened even once.
Julie began, “So we’re going to have each of you take turns approaching the fish tank for sit and greet. Just have them walk up, and command them to sit.”
The husky did beautifully.
Tucker who talks barked insanely.
“I don’t think this is going to go well.”
“I don’t either, he can’t be anywhere near the bird aisle.”
We approached, a unified front, all three of us in a straight line.
“Murphy, sit” Josh and I said in unison.
He sat, and for the briefest of seconds I thought we had it in the bag, but then he raised his front paws and began boxing the fish tank. He shoved his nose under the lid and flipped it open, water splashing as he tried to climb inside. We whirled around and dragged him backward.
“WOAH!” Julie said.
Murphy was still sliding on his side, against his will. We dragged him into the next aisle.
“Wow, I’ve only ever seen one other dog do anything like that!” Julie appeared in our aisle.
“Yeah, he’s very curious.” I offered, glaring at Murphy, who was oblivious to the weight of his transgression.
“Well, we know what to work on!” Julie smiled.
I nodded. We know not to bring Murphy to the fish tanks, I thought. Additionally, we had also run out of hot dog pieces and we were losing our thin veneer of control over Murphy.
We crowded back into the arena to receive our diplomas. Random customers lingered outside the plexiglass partition, observing. Julie delivered the certificates and shook paws with every pet before cheerfully taking pictures.
Tucker who talks began barking at the observers, pulling on his leash desperately.
“I can’t believe we’re out of hot dogs,” Josh said, gravely.
“We were too liberal with them during the come back and forth part. We didn’t think ahead!” I was afraid of what was coming.
“I can’t wait to see you again for intermediate, Murphy! I can’t wait! It’ll be so much fun!” Julie said, handing us our misspelled certificate.
She had included a schedule for the upcoming classes.
As soon as the door to our little arena opened Murphy lunged forward, sensing our hot-dog-less weakness. We were lurched out of our seats and tripped forward. There was no graceful way to exit this class, having Murphy at the helm.
Intermediate classes, indeed.