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The Phoebe Chronicles III: Phoebe Learns the Ropes

Training Dogs Magazine © 2002

At 10 ½ months old, Phoebe, a.k.a. Feebes, the Feebinator, and Fubilation, is pure high-octane adolescent border collie energy and zoom.

Luckily, this household of three boys is accustomed to adolescent zoom, and with a little planning we can meet her needs, even in Tidy Lawn, U.S.A. Phoebe is a cooperative and gentle member of our family if she exercises at least three times a day and solves a puzzle at least once a day.

border collie looking at blue sky

A cold nose nudges my hand at 5:30 every morning. Phoebe's first task is to get me up and out. Elderly Esme would rather sleep in, but she hoists herself up to join us. Tidy Lawn forbids dogs to be off-leash anywhere except their own yards, so we practice virtual leash walking under the cover of darkness. Feebes trots at my heel because the cue "With me" rather than a leash holds her there. We walk to the schoolyard, halting and sitting, doing inside and outside turns, all on heel. A click and a treat reinforce particularly well-executed moves. At the schoolyard, "Go play" releases her to run, sniff and chase squirrels. Her pals Jessie and Jazz may even show up on their morning walk for some pre-dawn puppy play. Sometimes we stop by the playground, with clicks and treats, practice walking along a four-inch wide beam or zig-zagging around poles. (In her youth, Esme loved to skid down the slide, with all the neighborhood children behind her. Soon, we'll add that to Phoebe's repertoire as well.)

Back home, waking the boys for school is a responsibility Phoebe takes seriously, planting four feet on all sides of a boy and licking him awake. (Those who want to sleep in have learned to sleep on the top bunk.) After the boys head to school, I'll sit down to work and she must follow Esme's example and wait quietly several hours for me to finish.

The end of my work is rewarded with the beginning of Phoebe's work. While the house is still quiet, we stretch her brain with clicker training. She is learning to put her toys away, take a bow, weave through my legs, play the maracas, and a few fundamental freestyle moves. Lessons end with a mid-day walk, this time to Tidy Lawn's high school field to see if the Canadian geese are in residence. The geese graze the field, leaving small unpleasant presents for the after-school sports teams as they go. Esme lumbers directly toward the flock, efficiently flushing it into the air. Phoebe drops into classic collie herding position, and creeps wide around them, urging them toward an unseen pen. On other days, we head instead over to her best buddy Lily's house, where a fenced-in backyard allows the two young dogs to wrestle and run until they're reduced to staring side-by-side at passing traffic.

Phoebe is learning other tasks and behaviors, all assisted by clicker training and Esme's experienced model: to wait calmly on the sidewalk for me to reappear from the bookshop; to let strange children hug and kiss her while I dash into the school; to drop to her belly when a fearful child reaches out a tentative hand; to sit for the elderly neighbor; to wear a harness and pull a skateboarder; to guard rather than harass the guinea pigs. A solid family dog is no slouch. Their job is a 24-hour, week-in-and-week-out responsibility, with no time off when nothing is happening on the farm. On this tiny, sheepless farm, there's always something happening-and Feebes is almost always right in the middle of it.

Learning About Dogs - ©2002 Learning About Dogs/reprinted here with permission.

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Gale Pryor is a writer and editor at Pen and Press, an editorial services and consulting company. Her writing credits include Parenting Magazine, Mothering Magazine, Teaching Dogs, National Public Radio, and two bestselling books.

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