dimanche 23 janvier 2011

Not Marley


Fia, five months
photo by Sam


"Elle est vraiment très bien comportée," said my husband, looking down at Fia, who had come up to gaze into his face while he finished his dinner the other night, avec l'aire de concéder quelque chose. I felt a surge of pride in my training skills.

"Elle ne fait aucune bêtise. Aucune," I confirmed, avec l'aire de ne pas trop vouloir réjouir sans pouvoir m'en empêcher complètement.

I was merely stating the obvious: Fia is not Marley. On the flip side, she would make the subject of a very boring book, of which no one in his right mind would say, "Hey! That dog would make a great movie!" I am not sure I ever completely believed in Marley, though. I mean, how bad could Marley's dad be, and if not that bad, how bad, really, could his master be? And, if his master really were that bad, how come his wife didn't throw him out with the dog? I mean, what Labrador Retriever can't pass Obedience 101 if I can get mine to do it? I didn't even mess up that badly with my first one, Baccarat, and I never saw the sire go streaking by, or even know more than his name.

Baccarat, on the other hand, was no Fia, either, but I think I can take responsibility for that. Still, by comparison with Marley, it was mild. The worst, I believe, was the morning we came downstairs to find the nose of the last tread chewed to bits. It looked like the results of a beginner's level leather working class in belt making (I know, I have done one.). Teeth marks festooned the edge of the tread, from where Baccarat gazed at me, taking a break in her decorative teething work. I had hoped my husband would somehow fail to notice. He never does.

"Tu as vu ce que cette chienne a fait?" he demanded of me, once he came down a little later.

The light was at the perfect angle to show off the depth of the imprint her incisors, canines and pointy molars had achieved, chewing, chewing, chewing her way around the step. I had seen. This was the one time I wondered if Marley's master couldn't be for real the worst with me just behind him. I nodded.

"Je vais prendre de la pâte à bois. Tu verras,"I promised him, hoping I sounded convincing, "ça ne se verra plus."

What do you do? Do you acknowledge how ineffective you might be? How awful your dog might just actually be? That the future, indeed, is terribly unknowable? No, you don't. Not if you want your dog and to remain, both of you, in your home. You acknowledge the misdeed, the poor behavior, you express regret and solidarity with your spouse, you read up more on dog training, and you buy wood paste and tint and get on the repair fast. Out of sight, out of mind.

Really. It works. Not only did Baccarat never chew that tread again, my husband was actually relieved and impressed with the results. I wondered if she didn't like the smell of the wood paste and tint, or, was it more like what the librarians always told us about damage in schools: if you let it go, the students will keep at it until the destruction is total, but if you repair it -- however many times you have to do it --, the damage is never serious. Or, maintain something, and it stays nice.

But, here was Fia, five months old and perfectly house and hotel broken, delighted with her toys and to leave our belongings alone. I was prepared to acknowledge the wealth of knowledge I had accumulated asking questions from those I knew knew more than I, from the Internet and from my earlier suspected mistakes with Baccarat, but maybe, just maybe I had to give Fia and her sire a little credit where credit was due. After all, I couldn't be that wonderful, could I?

That is a rhetorical question.

Before leaving for Argentière, midway up the valley of Chamonix-Mont Blanc, I hemmed and hawed over the purchase of a portable, folding soft-shelled travel kennel for Fia. After all, she was fully two months younger than Baccarat was when I took her for the first time four years ago. I knew before I left that Baccarat could hold it, but when I got to the hotel, I discovered that she was already widdling by the time we got to the top of the staircase, and we were on the third floor (fourth for the States).

"Non, Baccarat! Non pipi ici!" I'd correct her in an hissing undertone, so as not to announce her misdeed, and start the race to the bottom of the stairs, where we had to confront the electronic sliding door at the entry of the hotel, which always took a couple of seconds to register your presence, and then a couple more to grant you access to the outdoors, where Baccarat would squat promptly, right on the granite stoop, in full view of passersby, the hotel patrons and the diners at The Office across the street. I'd already be praying that the drops of urine just inside the door would pass for snow, melting off the skis of everyone else returning from the slopes. I don't know how many were fooled.

And then, there was the incident with the low, upholstered wood armchair with the lion claw feet. She must have appreciated those feet because she lovingly nibbled them about the ankles. The chairs might have been old and well-broken in, but the hotel did not fail to notice, and I felt the guilt that comes of having made a mild misrepresentation. I had expressly said in my email to the hotel that I had two, well-behaved and calm Labrador Retrievers; I had not said one of them was still teething at seven months old. They said nothing, however, and were as nice to us as ever, commenting, in fact, on how well-behaved our dogs were, but the next year, there was a new per diem charge for doggy visitors. I paid. Baccarat behaved like a princess.

Could I take the chance of ruining our reputation and having our welcome revoked this year at the cost of 70 euros for the insurance and peace of mind a portable kennel would provide? I broke down and ordered the thing, typing the hotel's address into the shipping information, but when we arrived at the hotel, expecting to receive the package, the receptionist said, "Le colis n'est pas encore arrivé."

"Non?" She shook her head. "Alors, on n'a pas la niche pour la chienne?" I had no choice but to be honest and acknowledge my concern. It seemed the responsible thing to do. She shook her head again. "Bon. On verra bien alors. Elle est propre et très sage, mais ça m'aurait rassuré. She nodded sympathetically. We were, so to speak, on our own.

Not that I knew how she would react to spending a day in a portable, folding, soft-shelled travel kennel. It could have been worse.

The next day, we left her in the late morning after a long walk in the forest, an introduction to the housekeeping staff, cleaning rooms at the far end of the hall (I knew them from previous years, happily), and a last pipi with two Kongs stuffed with banana, apple bits and peanut butter and went to ski.

"At least the lifts close an hour earlier at this time of the season," I said to Sam, closing the door behind us and sending a prayer ceilingward. He nodded.

At 4:50 pm, we stowed our skis and boots in the ski room and headed upstairs. She had been alone, apart from housekeeping's visit, for nearly 6 hours.

"Listen," said Sam. He cocked his head toward the door to see if she ran across the room, jumped down from a bed, or was sitting right behind the door. It appeared to be the latter. I slid the card key into the slot, and pushed it open. There they were, Rapide and Fia, sitting there pressed between my bed and the wall, just short of hysterical with joy to see us back. Sam and I set off on a tour of the carpet, chair and bed legs, and trash cans.

Nothing.

Not one thing out of place. Not one spot of wet. Not one tooth mark. Rien.

"Her Kongs are under my bed," said Sam, straightening, "with her Powerade bottle."

"Here's the stone she carried up from the back of the car," I said from over by their bed. I felt a little stunned by our success. Or, my luck. "She's five months old, and she hasn't done a single bad thing, alone in a new place, all day long." We looked at each other, and then at Fia, who looked back at us, Moi? Oui?

"Bon," I said, reaching for her leash, "we'll see tomorrow, I guess." There was still the matter of getting her down the flights of stairs and past the electronic glass door before I could claim success. She sat, I attached her leash, and we struggled out the door.

Between our last visit and this, they had installed a fire door just outside the door to our room and the next room's in the little corridor off the main one, leaving us a meter square in which to maneuver between the two. Rapide did not like that. I learned I had to stand outside the door, Fia's leash in my left hand, left leg fully extended to hold the fire door open, while holding our room door open with my free hand before she would come out. It was an unpleasant gymnastic that involved the expression of impatience before Rapide would finally budge. She is fearful of Fia's chastisement, which amounts to Fia waiting for her and then grabbing a chunk of neck fur, just below her ear, to drag her where Fia knows I want Rapide to go. She received the same from her daughter Baccarat.

That says something.

It wasn't long before I let Fia go. She went nowhere; she was too interested in making sure that Rapide did what I wanted, and leash back in hand, Fia trotted to the top of the steps, down the three flights and right up to the sliding electronic door, waited, trotted out and promptly squatted next to the granite stoop, before letting go a torrent of scalding pipi that cascaded down the sidewalk, steaming. I am not sure the passersby shared my pride in her.

The next day, and each day after that, the room went unscathed, the carpet in the hallway unbaptised, and the stoop unsoiled. We paid the customary charges for our dogs, but, like I said to Sam, you pay more for two people in the room, and still more for three, so it makes sense you pay a little something for your dogs, even when they are quieter, and possibly neater, than your British neighbors.

Today, a week after our return from Argentière, the wood garden gate came down. It will be out in the garage for the next puppy, and like I did with Fia this time, I will be sure to give that puppy lots of undivided, one-on-one attention and training.

Starting again four years after Baccarat was a puppy, I suspected that having left the two dogs -- mother and daughter -- always together and always bringing them both with me made Baccarat less attentive to me as her mistress, and I believe that my hunch was correct; each dog needs to have a direct relationship with her mistress, access to her pack, lots of exercise, good food, and clear, consistent rules with all members of her family, and a structured life. I am also a firm believer in any version of crate training as a primary tool in achieving the rest to make a well-adjusted, well-behaved, trustworthy dog.

This might be the moment, however, to mention the bêtise Fia reminds me I forgot. Socks. I cannot leave a sock or a pair of socks anywhere within reach of this rapidly growing dog, which leaves fewer and fewer safe havens.

Like the ski sock she retrieved from the sofa before I had a chance to put it on. By the time I reached for it, it was in handing from her mouth, the top of the sock gnawed and damp, the elastic dangling.
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