Lately, I’ve noticed a lot of people on Facebook posting under the names of their pet dogs, including German Shepherds. Some of the posts are hilarious, others… well, it’s easy to see how come so many pet owners have issues. Dogs are wonderful, but they are dogs, not children. Many of those posts suggest why most people aren’t good pack leaders.
For better or worse, I am a forthright and forceful person. Many people find me to be without courtesy, and maybe they are right. Maybe, but I don’t lose sleep wondering if I misled someone with phony courtesy. Funny though, dogs have no trouble understanding what I want them to do. I only wish humans were so straightforward.
And then there’s Lilly. Many of the “dogs” posting on Facebook admit to being less-than-perfect. While nobody’s perfect, Lilly comes so close that I am still being amazed after nearly a decade. Remember, she’s never needed any formal training, she simply looks at a situation and pays attention to what I seem to be telling her to do.
I made a road-trip this past weekend to an Amateur Radio “hamfest” in Belton, Texas, and of course Lilly went with me. A “hamfest” is basically a swap-meet of amateur radio gear and other stuff. Some, like at Belton, have large cook-outs the day before. Hamfests are held across the country, and they vary in size. Belton’s is held semi-annually in the county exposition center. Although small by urban standards, the Bell County Exposition Center simultaneously hosted a hamfest, gun show, and dog show this weekend, making for a quite busy environment filled with potential distractions for a working dog.
By coincidence, I decided to not put Lilly on her lead when we arrived Friday. I knew we’d mostly be outside that day, and I frankly expected her to go lay in the shade, this being her last year and all. Wrong! Oh yes, she did go find shade if I was stationary for any length of time, but, if I moved, she was right there. Other dogs? Meh, Lilly barely noticed. She seemed to say, “outta my way you lazy mutts, I’m on duty.”
Came Saturday with its full crowd, and I decided to see how Lilly would handle herself off-lead. I don’t really know what I expected, but she blew away any expectations. She might be 75 feet away when we were out in the open, only to be at my side as soon as I entered a crowd. The dog show shared the livestock hall with the hamfest tables, separated by partitions so the barking was obvious. However, Lilly never even turned an ear toward it. By mid-morning, she evidently had figured out my travel pattern as I trolled the aisles between the tables, because Lilly started walking three feet ahead of my wheelchair and gently using her nose to move people out of my path. I kid you not! That’s what I call a Class A working dog.
I will get a new dog in a couple of months, Arena vom Funken Spiel, a full-blooded GSD with a pedigree a mile long. Even my critics have acknowledged that my dogs have been exemplarily, but I fully expect Arena to be both my greatest challenge and (hopefully) my greatest success. The idea has always been to use Lilly’s final working years to train her successor by example. That’s how dogs naturally learn in the wild. My role has been, and will be, to be a strong and consistent leader. That’s not easy to do, human behavior is inherently inconsistent. It requires a very conscious effort to be consistent even when that’s inconvenient. That’s how dogs learn, though. I’m also getting a new wheelchair shortly, and I’ll use that to wear Arena out! The first rule of dog training is to manage the pupil’s energy level, and GSDs are pretty darn high energy. This step is probably the only one Lilly won’t participate in since she’s never been a runner.