Here we are in the middle of summer, and I am in the mood to tell a story. Something about the summer months prompts me to reflect on all of the summer fun I’ve had with the dearly departed dogs of my past.
Today I will write about Ivan, the Rottweiler. Ivan was my first dog as an adult. Prior to him, I’d had a lovely family dog, Charlie Brown, whom I picked out at 5 years old; we had a massive love affair with him throughout my entire school years. Charlie stayed with me until right before I was ready to go off to college.
In my post-university years, I decided that the normal 9-to-5 life simply was not for me. So I embarked (ha, ha, get it?) on a mission to become a dog trainer. To do so, I needed a dog. I lived alone in a big city and wanted a large dog that would not only be my training partner, but could also serve as a source of protective comfort in an urban environment. So I got myself a Rottweiler puppy and never looked back.
As part of our training, I taught Ivan a soft-mouthed retrieve. In spite of his powerful jaws, he was very good at holding nearly anything in his mouth without damaging it. He could even hold raw eggs with delicate care. And for some reason, he really enjoyed this activity, holding things. Ivan had a tremendous sense of humor, and he kind of used it as a parlor trick.
For example, one of the tricks I taught him was to retrieve a beer from the refrigerator. Hey, I was barely out of college, remember; this was a useful task! He could easily pull on a rope attached to the fridge door and gingerly pick out one can of beer and deliver it to whoever had requested the refreshment. (Closing the fridge door? Not so much. Ivan was ignorant on the topic of energy conservation.)
Even though he’d performed this task multiple times over without error, one day he must have been feeling particularly silly and decided to stray from the script. You see, another favorite game of Ivan’s was a faux keep-away game. He never actually kept things away from me in a possessive way, but he and I would play chase, each of us taking turns being the chaser and chased. When it was his turn to be chased, he’d grab something in a “naughty” fashion, tease me with it, and then walk around or barely trot, trying to “keep away” from me. I would walk very slowly behind him pretending I could not catch him. On this particular day, Ivan blended his retrieve trick with his keep-away game and took it upon himself to get a soda out of the refrigerator, walk over to me with it, and then teased me, trying to initiate keep away. This was already quite clever and fun, so I went along with it. At some point, perhaps he got too excited and bit down a little too hard on the can, which by this point was very shaken up by the chase game. You can guess what happened next. Fizzy soda sprayed all over my hallway walls as Ivan gleefully ran about with the soda bomb in his mouth. It was too silly to be angry, though, yeah, there was quite a mess to clean up.
On another occasion, Ivan and I were visiting family in the country. Their property had a pond. After the first day, I kept finding toads in my guest bedroom. My aunt said that had never happened before—toads getting into the house. But it kept happening. Toads galore!
Finally, several days into my visit, I noticed that Ivan was kind of walking funny as we returned from our daily hike. He was acting a bit silly and had the “keep-away game-face” on—a mischievous and playful look, with his mouth clamped oddly shut. This is also the look he’d give when he’d steal something he should not have in order to entice me into a game. I thought, “What do you have, you naughty boy?” Then it hit me. Instead of engaging in his game, I used a more formal cue for him to come and sit in front of me. Then I asked him to “drop.” Ivan complied and a large, slightly miffed but entirely unharmed toad popped out of his mouth and hopped away. Toad mystery solved! From then on, I had to do a mouth check every time we entered the house to do a toad sweep. Several more toads were spared a trip to my guest bedroom under the new routine, and I never had to fear sleeping with amphibians again.
I miss that big, beautiful boy and all of the laughter and lessons he brought into my life. I cherish the memories even as I go out and make more with my current crew. I hope you get out there and do the same with your dogs. Happy summer.
Kelly Gorman Dunbar is director of the Center for Applied Animal Behavior where she recruits and trains instructors for SIRIUS Puppy & Training, the family business.
Main article photo by: Eli Duke-Creative Commons