Hank’s education began during the first week that I met him.
I didn’t know this then. My first week spent in North Carolina was mainly spent getting to know the woman I’d come there in the first place for. But she had shared some stories of him over the phone, and I’d come to know he was a highly spirited Border Collie cross, that he had some bad habits, that he was, to put it simply, somewhat “out of control”.
I didn’t know what that meant. I only knew what she told me: that he was all over the furniture, that he could not be trusted off lead, that he jumped on whomever he chose, whenever, that he barked incessantly.
Alright, I thought.
My first exposure to Hank was…interesting. He would not meet my eye, he avoided me completely, he was hugely distrustful.
Alright, I thought.
For the first couple of days, I paid him no attention whatsoever, other than a glance and a soft, “Hey, Hank,” or, “Hi, buddy.” I did not touch him, I did not invite him to interact, I did nothing.
In the house, he continually darted toward me, or cocked his head at me from a safe distance; he would inch toward me, and then back away quickly. I ignored him, other than to say softly, “Hey, Hank.” Invariably, he would go to her, his person, and invite play as he always had. They had a routine of playing “fetch” with his favourite rope toy in the house: she would toss it into the livingroom, and he would run madly and bring it back. It could go on endlessly.
The day he changed this behaviour, and brought the rope toy to me to toss, was a huge breakthrough. I downplayed it, and said nothing, other than, “Good boy, Hank,” and tossed it for him to retrieve.
That was the extent of my involvement with Hank in the first week of meeting him.
When I returned to North Carolina after almost two months, for a period of 6 weeks, knowing what I then knew, that she wished me to work with him, my intention was to spend two weeks bonding with Hank (it has been said that two weeks is an optimum period of time to bond with a dog, and, in my experience, this has proven to be true, and it proved so with him.)
Two weeks into that period: The bonding is going well. I am learning about Hank, as he is learning about me. And then a storm is threatening. Hank is terrified of storms. She calls me from work, and suggests I bring the dogs in (Spot was still alive then). I do as she asks, and Hank and I spend a half hour doing the “fetch” routine in the house, and working on his vocabulary. I then decide a nap is in order, and before I know it, the storm has passed, I wake up, and decide to take the dogs out to their kennel. No sooner have I decided to do so, and feeling groggy as well, I open the door, reach for Hank’s collar, and BOOM! he has slipped through the door (another bad habit), and he’s in the yard, a yard that is not completely fenced in. Before I can even gather my thoughts, he’s gone.
My first thought is: Oh, fuck.
My second thought, as I see him dart around the corner of the house is: Oh, FUCK.
I immediately head back into the house and grab a handful of MarroBones, which I stuff into my pocket. I had been using them to treat the dogs to that point, calling them “cookies” (she had been calling them “treats”). I then head back out again, to the gate which leads to the street. She lives in a town, and so it’s basically closed off, but there is a highway 100 yards away, and this is my concern. She has told me that he has done this before, and he usually runs AWAY. I know I cannot allow this to happen. I am terrified he will be hit by a car.
I run around the side of the house, and I see him, prancing away up the street.
“Hank!” I shout. “What are you doing?”
He pauses, then continues on around the corner.
I follow, and he comes to a stop when he sees me.
“Hank, what are you doing?” I lower my voice, though I feel quite panicky. “Come here, Hank.”
He looks at me, tail in the air, head lowered.
I lower my own head, and lower my voice even further. “Hank, come on, let’s go.”
He stands stockstill. I take a step toward him, and he’s off.
And now I know what to do.
I watch as he trots away, and I follow discreetly and slowly, and when he stops, I do as well.
“Hank, enough,” I say, firmly, “Let’s go. Do you want a cookie?”
He has turned his head, and he perks his ears. I have added to his vocabulary slightly in the two weeks, and “cookie” is now part of it. He knows what that means. And his whole demeanour says, Why yes, I would like a cookie.
I dig in my pocket and toss a MarroBone toward him.
He darts toward it, and as he does I say, “Alright, let’s go.”
And I turn and head back to the house.
I do not wait to see if he is following. I go back to the house, through the side gate, sit on the back step, and call her. I tell her he has gotten away. She says she will come home immediately. I feel terrible. I rise and go back to the street.
He is closer.
“Hank,” I say, in the same no-nonsense tone, “enough. Come on now. Do you want a cookie?”
He pauses, and cocks his head again. Of course I want a cookie. He comes toward me and I toss another MarroBone out. And then I turn and walk away.
My heart is in my throat. I am thinking, This cannot be happening. If something happens to him, this, all I have thought I could have with her, is lost. This cannot happen. I walk back to the house through the open gate. I sit down again on the back step.
When I get to my feet again, and round the corner of the house, I see he has entered the yard.
“Hank,” I say firmly, my heart pounding in my chest, “come on, do you want a cookie?”
He cocks his head (Of course I do), looking for all the world like he will dart if I move unexpectedly, and so I don’t. I toss him another MarroBone, and turn and walk away.
I go back to the back step, and sit down, and I think, she’ll be here soon, then what? And out of the corner of my eye, I see him.
He’s ten feet away.
I look over and I say calmly, “Hey, Hank. Good boy. You want a cookie?”
He lowers his head (Of course, I do), and I toss him the last MarroBone. He crunches it up, and then raises his head. I eye him sidewise. I can do this, I think.
But I have no more cookies.
I see, at my feet, a leaf. It’s pale, and oval, and if I hold it just right, it will work.
And so I surreptitiously pick up the leaf, and then I hold it out toward him, and I say, “Come here, Hank, come get this cookie.” And I place the leaf on the ground, one foot in front of me, and I tap it, to bring his attention to it.
He cocks his head, takes a step, and then another step, and then comes all the way to me, all the way to the “cookie”, lowers his head, and I gently reach out, and grasp his muzzle.
He makes a surprised sound, a soft “Woof?”
And I take his collar, tell him he is a good boy, and then take him into the kennel.
And when she comes home minutes later, it’s to find he is safe.
The lesson here is not one of deceit. The lesson learned is not to go chasing after a dog who has gotten away from you. Anyone who has had a dog who has gotten away from them will tell you that the worst thing is to go haring off after that dog. They know you can’t catch them. Trust me, they know this. You may as well go chasing after a rabbit. You won’t catch them. But if you show enough interest, coupled with enough disinterest, you will be able to bring that dog back, UNLESS that dog does not care a whit about you. In that case, good luck. I’ve been working with dogs for 20 years. If your dog doesn’t care about you, you’ll know it.
And Hank is not my dog.
p.s. One thing you should never do, when a dog finally comes to you after this kind of episode: Never, NEVER, verbally or physically reprimand a dog who finally comes back. DO NOT EVER do this. Think about it: all you are teaching the dog is that coming to you is a bad thing, and punishable. Always reward a dog who comes to you. This is one of the most difficult things to teach people.
Which is why I prefer to teach dogs.