During Angus’ third training session, the trainer and I took him for a long, slow walk through the park. Angus behaved beautifully — walking with a slack leash, showing some restraint (with our encouragement) when he encountered squirrels.
When a huge golden retriever flattened out on the path in front of us, blocking our way, Angus snarled and lunged at it, but a gentle touch at his waist and a few words from the trainer got him to back off immediately.
Instead of being thrilled, I was filled with dismay.
He is so good with her! He is not this good with me! I need her to go on all walks with us forever!
She laughed when I said this. “Yes, before training sessions I spray myself with a magic potion,” she said. But seriously — these sessions show me what Angus is capable of. They also show me that the responsibility for his bad behavior lies at least partly with me and my reactions to him.
Perhaps to prove it, the next evening he was about as difficult as he has ever been — chewing the leash, pulling my glove off, whining after squirrels, dragging me up the street. Doug finally took pity on me and gave me Rosie to walk, perfect easy Rosie, and he took The Beast.
I cursed and muttered the whole way home.
Meanwhile, at the trainer’s suggestion, we are working on impulse control in all areas of Angus’ life in the hope that it is a transferable skill.
So we play games where I set treats in front of him and make him wait to eat them. He waits at the door when we are about to go for a walk — with the door wide open. He waits when I set his food down. He has always done this, but now if he makes a move toward the dish prematurely, I do not pull the dish away. I just freeze until he settles down.
A few days ago on the morning walk, I spotted a big dog in a yard about a half-block away. Angus went into high alert, slowing down, staring intently — what the trainer called his “full border collie mode.” I tried to break his concentration — jiggled the leash, called his name, poked him, touched his head. None of it mattered.
When he started to bark, I reached for his waist, the way the trainer had when she distracted him from the golden retriever — just a quick, gentle grab at the top of his hind leg.
He whirled around, mouth open, and lunged toward my hand. I jerked my hand away. Holy moly, was he about to bite me?
Shaken, I dragged him away and e-mailed the trainer the minute we got home. Her response was reassuring. No, she said, it is highly unlikely that he was going to bite me. And yes, she has seen this reaction in dogs before.
“It is usually that they are feeling so on edge about the ‘threat’ that when they whirl around on us it is an intentional message to not bother him while he is ‘on duty,’ ” she wrote. “I find that if I just leave my hand there and stay calm, it sends a powerful message about who the lifeguard really is: the one who is showing composure and calm and has a plan.”
Well, I don’t really have a plan, other than to get him to stop barking and move on, but that’s probably better than Angus’ plan, which seems to consist of barking until someone turns a hose on us.
So the next morning I tried it: Touched him at the waist and then kept my hand there steadily when Angus whirled around toward me. And you know what? Not only did he not bite me, but he calmed down.
Not completely. Not like he had with the trainer. But enough to get him away from the barking dog under his own power.
Two steps forward, maybe no steps back.
Read all of the Angus stories at startribune.com/puppy.