And I Am Not The Alpha Male

His name would be Scout. This dog just looked like he should have that name. I think the notion came from some old 50s cowboys and Indians TV show stored deep in childhood memory. Forget Coco–a name he must have come with to the humane shelter. What a  sissy name for a studdly dog. Scout. Come Scout. Stay Scout. Scout, Go Find Timmy!

So we got him home, well and good, save for having to lift a reluctant, fearful 55 pounds into the back seat of the car. I do not want to lift this dog ever again. And once in the house for the very first time, he seemed to have been indoors before. That was a relief. (Dingo, not so much. He thought the dining room table was just another place to lie down.) After marking his territory indoors the first three nights, he “got it” that ALL THIS was his territory. Oh you lucky lucky dog!

We’ve always shared our home with the family dog. Not everyone does, but his previous owners must have. This dog had definitely been up and down steps before, like maybe he lived in the basement and went UP to eat or to go OUT. He disappeared to Ann’s room at the top of the stairs before we closed the back door behind us on Day One. We still keep a barrier across the foot of those steps; and Scout discovers every failure to put it back in place.

On that very first day, we discovered that this dog didn’t give a rat’s acetabulum about food; or about treats. He could not care less. He still goes full days without eating, kibble and table scraps on the floor in front of him.

And that single fact set him apart from every other dog we’ve had since the Regan administration; set him apart from every other dog who would do ANYTHING for a mere morsel of kibble. Zack, Buster, Tsuga or Gandy (and the transient Dingo for that matter) would crawl on their bellies from here to town for a bit of scrambled egg.  Scout sniffed it and walked off. Gravy? Meh!

Scout yawned at all that. And this set the stage for a long and unsatisfying struggle to train this dog. If positive reinforcement didn’t mean squat, how would we reward and assure future desired behavior when it really mattered?  Sit, stay, come, leave it! Forget all that.

Flash forward from Scout’s first days here in April 2018 to October. We learned at (dis)obedience school that some dogs respond well to microwaved hotdog bits, and (whoodaThunk) string cheese. It worked sufficient (for a while) to reinforce basic commands. He loved playing hide-and-seek, both of us hiding and calling COME! (He gets a treat!) And back and forth he went. 

And so by October, some considerable training had happened–inside, at least, and in a distraction-free setting. But when other dogs and people were around (June dog-obedience classes in Christiansburg for instance) rules and patterns of behavior in the house totally vanished. We got back home, he became Good Dog Scout again. Indoors, he was affectionate, obedient, fun to be with, and increasingly devoted, especially to me. 

All the more heartbreak outdoors then, where he was NOT a joy. But we confess, in hindsight, to some early mistakes. We’d change this if we ever had it to do over again; but we won’t.

From the start, we wanted control over the dog on walks, where he was prone to take the lead. A chest harness took the pressure off his throat and distributed it through his chest. This seemed logical, but it was a mistake. His strength and drive to lead the pack pulled us like a plowshare behind a draft horse on crack, in then out of the creek and across the pasture. The harness gave him authority to be pack leader. I watched Out the window, Ann in this dance, the water-skier behind the powerboat. Land skiing is NOT a pretty sight.

So morphing Scout into the comfortable, reliable companion dog like each of his predecessors had been to us would mean that we could confidently and routinely have him with us, off-leash, for our walks around the pasture. Eventually, we hoped, he would stay with Ann when she went to gather twigs, go with me to haul wood up from Yucca Flats, be with us every time we went outdoors multiple times every day, good weather and bad.

This, some of you will recognize, is Gandy, from about this time a few years back. Look what she found! I realize now I have very few shots of Scout outdoors. That will change.

Scout would be responsible for keeping up with us, not us with him–and, most importantly, he would sit-and-stay reflexively, calmly, a safe distance from passing trucks, bicycles, horses and motorcycles on the one-lane gravel road, rare though those passers-by might be.

Alas, into November, it never happened the way we longed that it would. We’d walk a bit down the New Road along the pasture margin, with the dog on leash. At some point one of us would say “You think this is a good place?” And very subtly I’d unhook the clasp from the leash to the harness ring, hoping he would get it this time that he belonged along-side US. But the instant he was free, he was gone. Outta sight. His off-leash breakouts averaged an hour and change. 

And so we loved him under a roof and loathed him under the sky. Scout was disturbing my peace, having become canine non grata. And yet, Ann “just knew” that some day, he’d morph into a devoted, intelligent, obedient dog. And when we told him to, he’d go find Timmy.

Read Part One: Outside of a Dog

Read Part Two: Finding Old Yeller

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Fred First holds masters degrees in Vertebrate Zoology and physical therapy, and has been a biology teacher and physical therapist by profession. He moved to southwest Virginia in 1975 and to Floyd County in 1997. He maintains a daily photo-blog, broadcasts essays on the Roanoke NPR station, and contributes regular columns for the Floyd Press and Roanoke's Star Sentinel. His two non-fiction books, Slow Road Home and his recent What We Hold in Our Hands, celebrate the riches that we possess in our families and communities, our natural bounty, social capital and Appalachian cultures old and new. He has served on the Jacksonville Center Board of Directors and is newly active in the Sustain Floyd organization. He lives in northeastern Floyd County on the headwaters of the Roanoke River.

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