Canine Disobedience or the Tao of Maddie

The other day while waiting at the bus stop, I began to ponder the issue of dog obedience. Yep, sometimes the things that I ponder amaze me, too.

I love my dog, Maddie. She’s a 4-year-old Shetland Sheepdog, commonly known as a Sheltie. Shelties look a bit like small collies — if someone ever tries tries to sell you a “toy collie” it is in fact a Sheltie; there is no such thing as a toy collie —  which makes some sense as the breeds are related. Like most Shelties, Maddie is friendly, very loyal, very smart, has two coats of fur and a piercing bark.

We got her young, about two months old, and we had some ups and downs with her health and behavior, both of which seemed to disappear like magic around her first birthday. By her second birthday she settled down to such an extent that I usually take her off the leash in our nearby city park and have no fear of her running away — even after a long dash after the occasional squirrel she quickly returns to my side.

Our getting Maddie seemed to spark a rise in dog ownership in our little neighborhood, as in the space of her first two years several new canines appeared. I know this because Maddie likes to talk to them, usually by barking whenever their owners bring them around our cul-de-sac. Shelties have a piercing bark, remember?

Anyway, the other morning at the bus stop one of the later additions to the neighborhood roster of dogs made an appearance with her owner. Maddie, of course, wanted to immediately check this Labrador out, but I held her leash tightly until I knew the other owner was fine with Maddie and her dog getting to know each other.

The Lab must have been a star student in obedience school, because its owner used a series of sharp commands to direct and control her dog. After the Lab was in a sitting position — it took a bit with the various kids at the bus stop ooh-ing and aah-ing over the two dogs — the owner agreed to let Maddie come over for a sniff. Maddie had been tugging at the leash all the while, but when given the green light she approached warily and tried to get to know the Lab the way dogs do.

This was no easy task as the other dog was commanded and code-worded into sitting the whole time. Soon enough the bus came, the kids were hugged and waved goodbye to, and we all went our separate ways. Seeing how the other dog was handled, that’s what got me to thinking.

We briefly talked about getting Maddie into an obedience school or course, but I never really wanted to do it. I know some dog owners swear by it, but I always wonder if getting the dog to do exactly what you want on demand is worth changing the animal’s natural behavior.

As I put it to my wife at the time, I was afraid an obedience course would remove Maddie’s essence … whatever it is that makes her Maddie … her Maddie-ness, as it were.

Sure, I can see how behaviors like destructive chewing and biting need to be modified. But I don’t want a robot that sits next to me and looks to me for approval or disapproval at every turn. Some of Maddie’s habits are irritating (did I mention she has a piercing bark? She doesn’t bark a lot, but when she does watch out if your ears are anywhere near her) but I imagine a lot of my habits are annoying to her, too. Like eating jalapeno-and-cheddar flavored SunChips but not giving her any (she gets one or two regular flavored SunChips when I have some, but seriously, I don’t want to deal with the, um, aftereffects of her eating spicy food, y’know?).

We’ve been very fortunate not to have chewing or biting problems with Maddie, so obviously I may have a different opinion if we did. She does jump up on people, but I handle that with a short leash and a word of caution to any strangers who want to say hello.

Maybe we just got lucky with this dog or this breed. I don’t know, but I do know I’m happy with Maddie as she is, was and has become. Even with that bark … and following me everywhere … and her going nuts when she hears one of our neighbors rolling their garbage cans back from the curb on Thursdays … and her two coats of fur shed so much it clogs our vacuum, and …

Well you get the point.


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