Discovering you can't teach old dogs new tricks


Long ago, on an island off the coast of Scotland, rugged little dogs herded sheep in the harshest elements, their daily efforts earning little more than a dish of gruel and an occasional kind word from the farmer.

Or so the story goes.

Fast forward a century or so, to a home where Andy, a young descendant of those tough little dogs, lives a pampered life, well-groomed and well-fed, the idleness of his days interrupted only by such pleasurable pursuits as a neighborhood walk, a trip to the park, a game of fetch. Just as soft is the life of the older dog, Toni.

They snooze their days away while the one who pays the mortgage works to put top-quality kibble in their personalized dishes.

As the one who pays the mortgage, I was considering the situation when a flier advertising a "herding instinct test" crossed my desk. Toni is too old for such exertion, but I saw no reason why Andy couldn't cut it as a working dog. I daydreamed a plan of revenge, where I dropped off the lazy dog at a farm on the way to work, and picked him up, tired and fulfilled as only a working dog can be, on the way home.

Then I read the flier again, and saw that the dogs were to be tested not on sheep, but on ducks. Still, it could work. I imagined dropping the lazy dog off with a city parks crew, where he'd spend the day driving ducks out of the way while the pond was cleaned.

The prospect was pleasing, so a couple of weeks later, I found myself ringside at the herding instinct test, a less-than-excited Andy at my side.

While border collies showed they had instinct to spare, Andy spent his time watching not their spectacular example, but a pen full of puppies. Later, while a collie drove ducks enthusiastically, Andy mooched some cake from a spectator, then drifted off to sleep.

Finally, we were called into the ring, where a trio of noisy ducks eyed us warily from a tree-shaded corner, and the judge explained that the trick was to get the dog interested by showing interest yourself.

"Are you ready?" she asked. I nodded, and we headed for the ducks, dragging a still-sleepy Andy behind us. I chased ducks and herded ducks, turning them one way, then the other, breathlessly chanting, "Andy, ducks!" in my most enthusiastic tone.

"Let him off the leash," suggested the judge. "Maybe he'll do better."

Once free, Andy headed to the shade the ducks had vacated, and after five minutes the judge agreed that while I showed promise, Andy was clearly not cut out for this line of work. We flunked the test.

I thought, quite frankly, that Andy would have taken to the sport. I've seen him round up children in the park, tennis balls in the house and dogs in the yard. But he obviously prefers to use his natural talents for his own amusement, and doesn't want to make a living at it.

After all, a Shetland sheepdog he was born to be, but Shetland couchdog is his calling now. And there's no indication things are going to change, at least in my house.

Ms. Spadafori is a licensed pet trainer in Sacramento, Calif. Questions about pets may be sent to her c/o Home and Garden, The Sun, 501 N. Calvert St., Baltimore 21278.

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