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Being Trained by Your Dog Without Really Trying

A Dozen Beagles...I thought you said A Dozen Bagels!

A dozen beagles and a tub of cream cheese please.

It’s 4:30 pm on a Monday, my husband busies himself at the stove with the clattering of a spatula against a fry pan. I set the microwave timer for 15 seconds and proceed to clanking bowls together before noisily retrieving utensils from the drawer. Sounds like someone is making dinner? Actually, we are trying to head out the door for an early burger night at our neighborhood Applebee’s. You would realize this when you saw no food in the pan, the knobs on the stove all off and would quickly notice there was no aroma. We are not actors, simply pathetic pet owners who are attempting to lure our beagle in from a cold spring rain so we can beat the rush. Millie is a nine year old beagle and to be honest she owns us.

For the first seven years of her life she simply did what her older and wiser sister Lily did; eating, sleeping and even playtime was typically scheduled based on Lily, who had been the Alpha even when she arrived at our home as a puppy and took charge of our 109 pound Lab/Coon Hound named Angus. He was big but shy, cute but dumb and seemed pretty comfortable succumbing to this chubby bundle of fur that upon arrival was smaller than his own head. All three of the dogs we have had during our marriage have been at least partially hound, which basically means that if a squirrel or rabbit was in the area in the last month and they have access to an open door or gate they will follow that scent and act as though their name is some foreign word they are not familiar with. My biggest fear with an un-streetwise dog on the loose is them being hit by a car and even though I love my dogs dearly it is the driver that I feel for in those imagined scenarios. Angus could eventually be coaxed home with a slice of American cheese. I used to have a minivan with the automated side door and to an onlooker it must have appeared that the Lab with the howl of a wolf had called for a cab. I would pull up, open the door, flash the golden square of cheese and he would hop right in. Why? Because that is what he had trained me to do.

Millie eventually came in on burger night, most likely because she didn’t enjoy the rain and not because of our acting. Since dogs noses are so much greater than peoples we actually could see her snout snorting in air trying to figure out what was being cooked. We were only fooling ourselves. Other acts of ours include loudly talking (our son Eddie is the actor, mom and dad not so much) “lets go downstairs and watch Wheel of Fortune.”, ringing the side doorbell which actually was a pretty good routine for awhile and the “wanna go on a walk?” complete with leash which just makes you feel like a guilty and cruel human being. More embarrassing is when a neighbor is watching her for a day or two and she refuses to come in, somehow thinking it will force us to return home. We are fortunate to live in a neighborhood where we know each others pets, will care for them and assist when one makes the great escape. There have been some summers where the neighborhood dogs ate more of our cheese than we did.

Most of Millie’s quirks have surfaced since we put Lily down, two years ago this spring. We have a large yard and as a result never walked our dogs when we owned two. They got plenty of exercise by playing and chasing each other. Taking two dogs on walks for us was a tangle of leashes and Angus was incredibly strong. Lily was a dog that really needed to be part of a duo, the six weeks after Angus did not return from a trip to the vet until the rainy day we took her to her own birthplace (River Bottom Beagles) and picked up Millie were the saddest weeks I’ve known as a pet owner. Lily carried Angus’s collar with her, cried each time I came through the door without him and gained weight because she had nobody to chase in the yard. Millie gave Lily her life back, a renewed sense of purpose, another creature to be in charge of, a companion. When Lily needed to be put down we braced ourselves for a similar reaction and even briefly had another dog stay in our home, which Millie sort of ignored. To prevent the weight gain my husband began the ritual of the evening walk. He arrives home from work, she is fed, he changes, she pretends she does not want to get into her harness, they take their walk and she is released in our backyard. It is almost like a pendulum swinging it has become so routine. Occasionally; weather, illness or actual human plans will interrupt the routine. This infraction results in her putting her snout behind the basement door and looking at the hook with the leash on it. If that does not achieve the desired result then the “beagle collapse” is utilized, which means releasing all tension in the body and dropping to the rug in a pathetic sigh. The eyes of a beagle look sad to begin with but deny them part of their routine and you know that if she could access a phone that a representative from the Humane Society would be doing a background check on you.

Millie is a diva. Since she doesn’t “need” a companion in the way that Angus enjoyed or Lily required we have decided to let her live out her life as an only dog, at which time we will get two puppies from the same litter. There is an ease in having two dogs and as much as we love the interaction of two dogs in the house we also want to be respectful of Millie’s needs. Yep, we have become those people. When our kids were little and dogs were just part of our family there was less time to meet their every need or acknowledge each nuance of their personality. Our kids are both away at college now and Millie is well aware that for nine months out of the year she is the center of our universe.

During the warmer months in Minnesota I join in on the evening walks, recently we had some postcards to drop at specific homes on our route and we had to change how we walked and correct our positioning to ensure that Millie was to the left because the desires of a 22 pound dog outweigh those of two full grown adults. None of our dogs have liked when one of us is away. Jeff discovered this years ago when I was gone on a business trip and when  he rolled over in the night and his hand hit my pillow which was soaking wet. Angus would not eat in my absence and apparently tried to comfort himself by licking every inch of my pillow case.  Millie’s greatest pleasure is when all of us are home and as Jeff and I get up in the morning after her breakfast she can resume sleeping with Betsy and eventually when she is up make her way in for a snuggle with Eddie. Rough life.

Three dogs, three distinctly different personalities. Each one affectionate in their own way and each with individually amusing traits. Lily carried herself like a little tank, she would use her forehead to try to get into Betsy’s room in the mornings, if the door was latched she would scratch it once with her paw, if that did not open the door she would bark once and someone would open it for her. She was smart, methodical and funny but not in a way that would make you laugh at her because you honestly felt like you were hurting her feelings. Angus was such a dope, when we had him neutered the vet warned that he was likely to feel punky and should rest. Oddly we think he never actually noticed, ran around happy and swollen. He loved ice cubes and preferred not to drink from a dish, we turned on the bath tub a couple of times a day and he drank from the tap. He never got his “sea legs” in an automobile and typically fell over whenever we turned a corner. Millie loves the idea of going in the car but quickly  turns into a spastic shaking maniac. She will occasionally engage with dog guests but is not a hostess in the way that Lily was (she often would put her head in larger dogs mouths just to let them know she was not going to harm them) and will eventually ask to go in the house or be let into our room. The exception to this is her pug friend Leroy who is less than half her age but loves to come visit or stay, she tolerates all of his affections.

Having a dog is a big commitment, they need to be fed and let out. They want your attention and have quirks that need to be addressed. They are not intended to be tolerated and pushed outside but rather embraced as a family member. Just like the people in our lives, they have annoying habits and endearing qualities. You are amused by their antics and your stomach is knotted when they are sick and you are waiting for test results. When it is time for them to leave us they leave a hole in our hearts that is theirs, a space that can’t be filled by another pet because no two are the same. A hole that reminds you that the time, the energy (yes, even the money) and the necessary devotion is all worth allowing yourself to be trained by another dog.

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