dominance in the dog house: trying and failing at dog training

by caitlin meredith

This summer I had my first shot at being a pack leader. My house was rented out for two months so I ended up house sitting for a couple that has four dogs. Four. Other than the prodigious amount of dog hair I’ve become accustomed to, I’ve also gotten an inside look at what kind of territory dogs have taken over in the American psyche.

When I was young, there was no dog whisperer or puppy college. You brought a puppy home, hoped it quickly grew out of the shoe-chewing phase and kicked it when it humped guests’ legs. Nowadays trainers instruct dog “guardians” on everything from who should go through the doorway first (you, not the dog) and whether or not tug-of-war is harmless fun or dangerous precedent (seem to be split down the middle on this one.) Clearly out of my depth in the new canine culture,  I’ve  spent most of the summer at the mercy of these damned dogs.

One of the popular training styles is hierarchical. When I arrived at the dog house I was told I would need to establish my dominance from the very beginning so they (the dogs!) would treat me with respect. The last house sitter took the more mellow we’re-all-equals approach only to come home one day to find that one of the canine crew had pissed in his bed. They attributed this to his lax leadership style – I guess that was a doggy cry for help for more structure in his life? I’m pretty good at being the bossy bitch, but I keep my bedroom door closed just in case.

Part of the dominance routine is that I have to make them all sit and stay before they’re allowed to go outside in the back yard, the place of bountiful bird and squirrel sightings. Though we go through this routine up to eight times a day, it’s always a freaking production that brings me to my knees. Getting all four of these beasts to sit simultaneously, much less stay, even when I turn the door latch, seems more like herding cats than leading allegedly structure-happy dogs.

First there’s the problem that every single time we go to the back door Sara, the crotchety black lab, suddenly remembers that she has an urgent, deep thirst that must be quaffed immediately in the back bathroom doggy water bowl. Never mind that that same water bowl was sitting there full, untouched for the approximate two-hours leading up to the bathroom break. I try to use the time to get the other three situated but just as I get them in some delicate, but seemingly stable, formation, Sara stumbles out of the bathroom like a wino after last call. She tramples over tiny Benjamin the Cocker and knocks Chalmers the Pit mix to one side. Once displaced, after we’ve all been showered by Sara’s shaken voluminous water-laden jowls, Chalmers gets a brain wave: Hey, maybe it’s a good time for me to have a sip too. Josephine, a wiry black mutt, remains tautly perched on the couch, ignoring the floor-based kerfuffle, her piercing, beady eyes trained on my face for the cue to run outside. When Chalmers returns from the drink I start over.

The other common interruption to our pre-exit formation, and threat to my role as dominatrix, is the robot vacuum. When I first came to the house and heard vacuuming in the back I thought they had a maid (and a persistent one at that – during my half an hour visit the vacuuming never ceased) but no, it was the Roomba, pet version. The Roomba, I now understand, is a pet owner’s secret weapon against pet hair pile up. There is so much dog hair in this house that at any time there is a thin, or not so thin, layer evenly distributed over all of the surfaces of the household. If you go a few hours – much less a day – without dealing with it, massive dog hair drifts accumulate like tumbleweed surfing through the winds of the desert. Except the desert is the living room and the breeze is the constantly circulating AC. The Roomba doggedly (pun intended) chases these clumps, bouncing wall-to-wall in a trippy Spirograph-like route until there’s a problem and some lady’s voice calmly instructs you to clean out the filter or to recharge the unit.

Since the dogs sleep in the den there’s always a few hours of vacuuming that needs to be done in there every morning. No problem. Just take the Roomba off the charger and let her rip. But the den is also where the back door is. So when it’s go outside time (I see their ears all perk up even as I type those words) in the first half of the day, we are invading the Roomba’s territory, which adds a whole new time pressure to the exercise. However I time it, the line of precariously perched pooches is inevitably mowed down by the Roomba, like a super-slow motion bowling round. The dogs are so habituated to this little rover that they take the tumble with enviable good grace. I, on the other hand, have developed a paranoid fantasy that she is deliberately sabotaging my morning. Trying to outsmart her, I rack my brain to do simple geometry and physics on the fly, calculating the angle at which the Roomba hit the far wall, predict the rebound trajectory and the velocity with which she will roll towards us. I never get it right.

Because of all of this, what should be a ten-minute pee break turns into a 20- minute exercise in the five stages of grief.

  1. Denial: OK, everybody, Sit!
  2. Anger: What the fuck?! Why can’t you just fucking sit down and stay for 30 seconds?
  3. Bargaining: If you don’t go drink water right now I won’t insist you stay seated when the door opens.
  4. Depression: Is this what my life has turned into? I have two masters’ degrees and it’s 11am on a Tuesday and I’m tearfully pleading with someone else’s dogs like they’re representatives from the Middle East.
  5. Acceptance: OK, whatever. Just open the fucking door and let them out.

Who’s the dominatrix now?