Players Part Two

by jkatejohnston

November 28

Dear Max,

D-Day is getting so big and easy. He cracked twenty pounds last week and got to have his food increased. He went to his first outdoor puppy class, which consisted of playing with a pack of other puppies and talking a bit with Katherine, the teacher. He was the smallest puppy there and the calmest.

His only real challenge is crate time. He likes his crate fine as long it’s just a private retreat with an open door and plenty of people around the house to retreat from. But when you shut him in there and leave the house, his tragic yowling is unbearable. He sounds abandoned. So now he has his own little corral in the living room. The idea is that when he’s home alone, he will be shut in his corral instead of in the crate. Teresa is training him to desire the corral. She scatters special treats there—little cubes of Applegate Naturals uncured humanely raised gluten-free, casein-free turkey hotdog. She does it while he’s not looking, so that he’ll think that his corral is the magical place where hotdogs pop up from the floor.

But his favorite place is in front of the fire. The light plays on his shiny black coat. You can warm your hands on his smooth hot surface. A few minutes ago, I walked into the living room, and  D-Day was sitting up alertly in front of the fire with my tea strainer in his mouth. He was holding it correctly it by the handle, as if waiting for someone to pour him a nice cup of Earl Grey.

November 29

Dear Max,

Puppy class. This was the small, in-door class. And D-Day was so good that it felt like showing off. But he can’t help it if he’s the best. His recall and position changes are perfect. And you can see the current of attention between him and Teresa. They’re reading each other, responding to each other.

All dog training classes are really people training classes, and the teacher, Heidi, applies the same principle of positive reinforcement. So if any human does something right—like recognizing the moment to give extra rewards—she praises them like crazy. It’s almost like, Good Girl! What a good girl! So smart! In class last night, it felt as if she was about to toss Teresa a few liver treats, or maybe even the jackpot—salmon jerky.

But the nicest moment was when Heidi used D-Day to teach Chloe how to play. Chloe is a handsome pitbull pup, physically imposing but scared to death of everything. When all the puppies go off leash to frolick, she gets overwhelmed and cringes away, sometimes with a low growl.

Up until now, Heidi has had Chloe stay behind a little fence so that she can watch the play and feel safe. But last night she had just D-Day and Chloe off leash in the middle of the room. They sniffed each around the butt, every cell at attention. And then D-Day did one of his hopeful, bouncing invitations, and Chloe stayed curious, following him. They moved around the room like that. Chloe’s tail was low, but starting to wag a bit. D-Day was apprehensive—the hair along his spine was raised—but he still kept up this sort of bouncy engagement. And when Chloe went into little play bow and popped up, there was a small cheer from the humans.

I give Colin the credit for that little scene. When he plays with D-Day, he stays low, keeps himself small. D-Day jumps on him, but he never jumps on D-Day. And when he has D-Day’s head in his mouth, he only gives it a light chew. So D-Day knows what it looks like to adjust play to the other player. And he did that with Chloe.

That extraordinary social adroitness—humans must have it too, but it’s so complicated by language that it’s harder to see. But every now and then you come across a person who doesn’t know how to play, and it’s as obvious as a missing arm.