I'm not sure how late it is, but it's dark outside — dark and cold.
Angus and I are standing on the sidewalk in front of my house. He is sniffing the snow-packed ground, and I am doing my best to exude calm, authority and serenity. None of this comes naturally to me, and although I'm doing this for him, I'm not sure that Angus even notices.
I can hear the neighbor practicing her violin. I hear the snow (the endless snow) sifting down through the tree branches. I hear Angus' snuffles. I can barely feel my toes.
"Come on, buddy," I say, and we start up the sidewalk, but the second he starts to wander too far, we stop. I jiggle the leash to return his attention to me.
Angus has a bad habit of being on high alert when we walk — pulling on the leash, and scanning the horizon for dogs, people and critters. And he barks like a mad dog when we have visitors. Those are really his only two flaws. ("Really? The only two?" my husband says.) But those problems have been pretty consistent ever since he was a puppy.
For the past few weeks, I have been working with a new trainer, possibly the most mellow person I have ever met. Her method is not the traditional command-correction-reward training that worked so well with Rosie but not as well with Angus. Her method is what you might call pack-based.
Dogs, she says, need to know where they fit in the family and what is expected of them. Owners need to set boundaries and help them do the right thing. They do this, in part, by understanding dog behavior and how dogs communicate.
It sounds a little touchy-feely and I am probably not describing it very well — we've only had a few lessons — but it is already making a difference. No, I'm not ready for you to come to the house and meet Angus (he will still bark). But the walks are becoming less fraught. I am able to distract him (usually) before he gets wound up. I am getting less frustrated with him. I no longer stomp my foot with vexation when he won't obey. I am no longer thinking in terms of "obey."
On her first visit, the trainer spent some time playing games with Angus and Rosie, our seven-year-old Lab mix, to see how they interact. She noted that Rosie is the bossy one — we already knew this — and Angus is the soother. That was news to me.
When Rosie runs barking through the house after seeing a squirrel through the window, Angus runs right next to her — but he doesn't bark. He licks her face. He's trying to calm her down. "He's very sensitive," the trainer said, and I thought with shame of how he cowered when I stomped my foot.
One reason he barks on the walks, the trainer said, is because he thinks it's his responsibility to take care of everything. I need to let him know that safety is my job.
So we are working on it. Instead of stuffing him with treats when he walks well and whirling around endlessly when he starts to pull, I just … stop. Regain his attention with a nudge or a jiggle of the leash. When he's calm, we take another step.
The first time we tried this, we got as far as the next-door neighbor's house. It took about 20 minutes.
By now we are up to walking much farther — a mile or more — though with frequent stops. Any time I think he might be about to react to something, I stop. We stand there, together. Once he is calm and looks at me, we move on.
This is extremely hard for me — harder, maybe, than for Angus. I like to walk fast and far. Meandering around the neighborhood, stopping every few feet, is not my style. Anticipating his behavior is tough and I don't always get it right. But part of the success of this method is getting owners more in sync with their dogs. It seems to be making a difference with Angus.
It worked well when it was cold and dark and there were few distractions.
How will Angus behave now that spring has begun and the world will soon be full of squirrels and bunnies? I don't know. We are taking this one calm step at a time.
Read all of Angus' adventures at startribune.com/puppy.