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Puppy Preschool: Not a Raging Success

The winding road to the dog park is lined with trees and snakes its way gently up a mountain. On the way we drove past a lake designed just for dogs, complete with a pier. I imagined glorious summer days filled with Capone frolicking in the water as I sat sipping a mint julep or something. We parked the car in a snow-covered lot nestled beneath pine trees. The dog center looked picture perfect, perched on the very top of the mountain, surrounded by miles of trails and woods and wonderful places to explore.

I had such high hopes. My youngest two sons had joined me, in spite of the fact that it was awfully early on a Saturday morning for teenagers. We were all bound and determined to do the best for our dog, and this seemed like the perfect place to start.

Capone leapt out of the car and looked around, tail wagging. Every car that passed paused and the drivers couldn’t help but smile at Capone. He is an awfully nice looking dog, and there is something so pretty about a black lab with a bright red collar and leash against a backdrop of white snow and pine trees. It was like a painting, probably one found in a hunting lodge in a place that included plaid curtains, velvet chairs, and portly men smoking cigars.

Walking up to the center, Capone was thrilled to greet the other puppies. Most were around his size and age, and I imagined a solid hour of nothing but fun and some rollicking puppy play for him. He was a little…enthusiastic…but not more than the other puppies his age.

We walked into the center and Capone sniffed around in joyous anticipation. I began signing him in, handing the receptionist Capone’s vaccination record and the forms I’d brought with me. I was so proud because I’d been organized enough to fill them out ahead of time (3 sheets, single spaced, with over 50 questions). Part of it felt vaguely like a psych eval from the NSA, and I began questioning my answers. What were my goals?  I had no idea. I just wanted Capone to learn to obey me, for his protection and for my own happiness.

We got in line to sign in, waiting with all the other happy puppies. The receptionist perused my paperwork with a frown. “Are you here for obedience class?”

“No. Puppy Preschool. We have our two orientations and interview for obedience class next week.”

“Oh. You’re signing the wrong sheet. Sign over here.”

We walked away from the line of happy puppies and towards the sign up sheet with only one other name on it. This was not going to be the crowded group of happy puppies I’d imagined. This was going to be a one on one with Capone and a 10 week old lab.

As all the happy puppies pranced down to obedience class, we were directed towards a large silver table and told to wait. An older couple with a tiny black lab joined us. The man smiled and fussed over Capone. He wife wasn’t quite so entranced. She had very thin, penciled-in eyebrows that rose to her hairline as soon as Capone tried to greet her puppy.

“Oh, my. What is his name?”

“Capone.”

Her nearly non-existent eyebrows rose even higher.  “Really? Our puppy is named Luke. After the apostle. We named all our dogs after apostles. Matthew, Mark, John, and now Luke. It’s from the Bible.”

“How nice,” I said. “I guess we’ve got both saints and sinners here today.”

Even though her eyebrows made her look perpetually surprised, I could tell she thought that was funny. She giggled until her husband let Luke get on the floor with Capone. Then all the laughter stopped.

I thought Capone did well. At first. They approached each other tentatively and sniffed with wagging tails. Then a dam burst somewhere inside Capone and he had a sort of love eruption. He began sniffing Luke so aggressively he knocked him over.

“Oh, my,” said No Brows. “Pick Luke back up.”

Her husband guffawed. “They’re just playing…”

No Brows wasn’t having any of that. “Pick. Him. Up. Now.”

I should explain, although Luke was 10 weeks old, he was the runt of the litter (the evil breeder switched puppies on No Brows, I heard the whole story – so did the trainer, the groomer, and every innocent bystander). Luke weighed 18 pounds. Capone, 6 weeks older, was exactly 22 pounds heavier.

By the time the instructor arrived, I was starting to sweat. He asked if we had any questions before we got started. No Brows placed a dainty finger in her chin.

“Luke likes to bite my calves. I tell him ‘no’. Is that okay?”

My sons and I just looked at each other. We hadn’t done an official count, but we told Capone ‘no’ about ten million times a day.

Even the instructor looked perplexed. “That’s a good way to handle it, but make sure you sound like you mean it. You don’t want the dog to think you’re playing. You have to be firm.”

My sons and I nodded at each other. We’d been doing something right. We were definitely firm when we said, ‘no’ – and loud.

Luke was back on the floor and Capone struggled to get close to him again. I raised my hand, even though we were the only two sets of dog owners in the place. “How do I know what’s appropriate when he’s playing with other dogs?”

The instructor looked at my boys. “It’s like when your boys get into a fight. You stop them before anyone gets a bloody nose, right?”

Three jaws dropped. I think Capone’s may have dropped, too. I wasn’t sure what to say. What kind of family did this man grown up in?

He let out a sigh. “Let both of them go and see how they interact.”

I looked at the instructor in surprise. I had the leash wrapped around both of my hands and I was leaning back as far as I could to keep Capone from climbing all over Luke and squashing him like a bug.

“Let him go?”

He nodded. “Just let go of the leash, both of you.”

No Brows didn’t look convinced either, but we both let go at the same time. It was not a raging success. Within seconds Capone was on top of Luke and Luke had curled into a submissive little ball of black fur.

“Capone. No!”

He knew I meant it. I spoke very firmly that time. He took one look at me and darted out to the reception area, nearly knocking over a cute little girl in a sequined skirt.

“Puppy!” she squealed.

“I’m so sorry,” I said to her dad. He just laughed.

“We have a big dog, too. It’s okay.”

We brought Capone back to the Puppy Preschool area and were met with accusing eyes.  Capone had reached a frenzied state of puppy overload at the moment. He was low to the ground and sniffing, pulling me back and forth.

“Look at him,” said No Brows. “He so crazy. And Luke is so good. We named him after one of the apostles.” She nodded at the instructor and he nodded back at her.

“Dogs eventually live up to their names,” said the instructor sagely.

Oh, crap. No one told me that.

He asked me to lift all 40 pounds of Capone onto the shiny silver table. He proceeded to clean his ears and pretend to clip his paws, talking the whole time. “His energy is off the charts. He needs to learn how to behave around other dogs. He needs social skills to understand appropriate behavior.”

He looked over his shoulder at dogs in the outdoor play area. A spaniel jumped on another dog and proceeded to hump it.

“He belongs out there.”

I felt tears prick behind my eyes. “Are you saying he’s a bad dog?”

He looked shocked. “No. He’s a good dog. He just needs to spend more time with dogs his age. He needs to be corrected so he can learn the right way to behave.”

Capone snuggled close to me and licked my neck. “He’s not a bad dog.”

Ever since we got Capone, I knew we were embarking on unknown territory. We’d never had a puppy. We didn’t know much about dogs at all, but we were trying. And so far Capone was pretty good about 95% of the time. Not bad for a puppy with off the charts energy levels.

We went to the scale and it took Luke several tries to understand he had to sit on it. Even then he didn’t really cooperate. It took three people feeding him treats for him to stay. Capone hopped up and sat down right away.

“He hopped right up,” said the instructor. “Good boy, Capone.”

I mentally stuck my tongue out at No Brows. Capone positively preened.

“He knows ‘sit’, ‘stay’, ‘lie down’, ‘come’, and ‘off’.”

As soon as I said, “Off,” Capone stepped off the scale. The instructor was impressed, and victory tasted so sweet.

At the agility training, Capone kicked Luke’s hairy little butt again. He walked up and down ramps and steps and different surfaces with ease. He was an agility genius.

“He’s doing well for his second week,” said the instructor.

“It’s his first week,” I said, a little smugly.

I couldn’t resist smirking at No Brows. Luke kept forgetting what he was doing and turning around in the middle of the obstacles. It was hard not to laugh at the expression on her face.

“The breeder gave me the wrong puppy,” she said to the instructor.

“Our breeder gave us the right one,” I whispered under my breath. My son giggled.

Suddenly, it hit me. Puppy owners were the canine equivalents of Dance Moms. The bragging, posturing, and competitiveness was (like Capone’s energy levels), off the charts.

A woman came in with four white Westies. She scowled at me when I said, “Hello.” After our class, we took Capone to the dog walk area to relieve himself. She came out with first one dog, then another identical dog. I smiled and tried again.

“It’s like déjà vu,” I said. “Weren’t you just here with different dog?”

She didn’t even look at me. “I have no idea when you saw me last.” She turned on her heel and went back into the center.

Whoa. The Wicked Witch of the Westies.

“People are snobs here,” said my son. “Dog snobs.”

“There were nice people here, too,” said my other son.

We’d be back in a few days for our orientation, then for obedience training, and eventually for Doggy Daycare. Capone chose that moment to squat under a pine tree.

“Good dog,” we all said at once.

                                   Capone exhausted after his fist day of Puppy Preschool.