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(A true story.)
Meet Hola. She’s a nightmare, but it’s not her fault if she tackles strangers and chews on furniture, or if she runs after buses and fried chicken containers and drug dealers. No one ever told her not to. Worse yet, she scares her family. Hola may be the most beautiful Bernese mountain dog in the world, but she’s never been trained. At least not by anyone who knew what he was doing.
Hola’s supposed master, Marty, is a high-functioning alcoholic. A TV writer turned management consultant, Marty’s in debt and out of shape; he’s about to lose his job, and one day he emerges from a haze of peach-flavored vodka to find he’s on the verge of losing his wife, Gloria, too, if he can’t get his life—and his dog—under control.
Desperately trying to save his marriage, Marty throws himself headlong into the world of competitive dog training. Unfortunately, he knows even less than Hola, the only dog ever to be expelled from her puppy preschool twice. Somehow, together, they need to get through the American Kennel Club’s rigorous Canine Good Citizen test. Of course, Hola first needs to learn how to sit.
It won’t be easy. It certainly won’t be pretty. But maybe, just maybe, there will be cheesecake.
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Martin Kihn is an Emmy Award–nominated former writer for MTV’s Pop-Up Video and the author of House of Lies and A$$hole. He has worked at Spy, Forbes, and New York, and his articles have appeared in The New York Times, GQ, Details, and Cosmopolitan. He lives in Minneapolis.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
Entering the Ring
“Is it just me,” I ask my ninety-pound copilot, framed in the rearview mirror like a hairy Warhol Marilyn, “or is everyone losing their minds?”
I’m sorry to say, she seems to be sorry to say, it’s just you.
“Did we miss our turn? I can’t see the signs.”
And I, she says, can’t read.
Now I will advise that when you’re going somewhere that is not so easy to get to, don’t let me drive.
There are few guarantees in life like the one I will make to you now: you will get lost. Very lost. So far from your destination you’ll be looking out the window as darkness descends, watching street signs change into another language. During my days as the world’s most ungrateful management consultant, I tooled around London in a rented Ford Fiesta with one of the firm’s partners, who spun on me after a string of boneheaded turns and said, “Who was it that hired you again?”
Losing her religion, my copilot—a five-year-old Bernese mountain dog named Hola—stretches herself out on the backseat of our alarmingly small car and moans softly, serenely, like a butterfly being sawn in half by wind.
“You’re not helping,” I say to her, as the Sprain Brook Park way is glazed with a silver coat of fear.
Neither are you. Did you bring any cheese?
“If you’re driving,” says the guy on 1010 WINS news radio, “think about getting off the road. We have a severe weather warning. It’s going to get ugly out there.”
Not as ugly as White Plains, New York.
A gray blanket stuffed with old malls, it claims to be thirty minutes north of Manhattan. Ninety minutes after setting out, Hola and I finally slide into the parking lot of the Port Chester Obedience Training Club, where we’re scheduled to take the Canine Good Citizen test ten minutes ago.
The PCOTC is a legendary facility that relocated from Port Chester to an industrial district in White Plains without changing its name. It readies little woofers and their handlers for everything from crate training to all-breed shows, and five years earlier, Hola had the distinction of being the only dog in her puppy kindergarten class to be invited to leave. Twice.
Let it not be said that my dog is not a legend in the canine obedience world.
She’s a beautiful, tricolored purebred dog; a spectacularly fluffy, optimistic creature with true Broadway spirit and an explosive commitment to now.
I keep expecting her to stand up on her hind paws to make her Tony acceptance speech:
“I remember when I was a little puppy, lying on my doggie bed watching Beethoven’s 3rd on DVD and thinking, ‘I can do that!’ . . .”
And I mean no disrespect to her when I say that all things considered, taking the long view and giving her the full benefit of the doubt, she was a horrible bitch.
Storm clouds morph from a hazy gray to an oily, ominous rust as the volume of snow per square inch of air throttles up.
“Hola, come!” I say, holding open the car’s back door.
Because I have enough cut-up raw liver in my snow jacket pocket to open a meat market, she jumps out.
I saddle her into her little harness, lock the car, check that I have her dog license, rabies tag, hairbrush, and—the critical item—her complete attention. Then I tuck myself into classic dog handler’s heeling position, left arm bent with my hand on my sacral third chakra, body erect and as still as the truth.
Stepping off on my left foot, cuing Hola to heel, I start toward our destiny.
Miraculously, she follows.
Step, step. Head up. Sky down. My jeans feeling loose on my stress-addled torso, I can finally exhale.
We skate the iron ramp, negotiate past a boxer puppy in the outer swing doors, and I ask Hola to sit in front of the second set of doors so I can precede her.
Always lead, you see: follow a dog and you follow a doubt.
“Hola, sit.” Remember: name first, command second.
I say: “Grrr.”
Aversive sound, meaning: Seriously, sit.
As I pull the door open, seeing the ring set up for the test, with the white PVC accordion gates, the official note takers and stewards, the distracter dog for the dreaded item #8 (reaction to another dog), a dozen or so of our training buddies nervously clamped to the walls watching the empty ring, the evaluator pacing the expanse of Mity-Lite polymer matting looking for stray treats left over from Family Manners class, the industrial warehouse roofing and the rusted crates and agility equipment strewn like an A-frame junkyard in the far ring, the beautiful goldens and Labs and Havanese stress-smiling in a united chorus of Hello, world!—well, we have only one thought, Hola and me.
We are home.
Release word: “Okay.”
She trails me into the club.
What we’re doing here is a canine mystery.
If you’d told me one year earlier that the two of us could trot into Port Chester as legitimate contenders for an American Kennel Club–sanctioned obedience certification—Canine Good Citizen—I’d have thought you had rolled your brain in catnip and set it on fire.
Begun in 1989, the CGC is a test of training and temperament; to pass, a dog has to be able to sit quietly for petting and around other dogs, tolerate handling and distractions, walk on a loose lead through a crowd, prove it knows basic commands such as sit, down, stay, and come, and endure a few minutes’ separation from its owner without obvious distress.
Some dogs can pass it after a couple of classes and a pep talk.
Then there is Hola.
Everybody knew what was wrong with my dog.
I could take her anywhere, and she particularly enjoyed the works of Pixar. Obeying my whispered commands was like breathing to her, and at times I entertained the idea she could actually read my mind. Her sits were so straight you could level a cabinet with them, her down-stays so still they bordered on a trance. Sometimes I’d put her into a stay, go and have a medical procedure, visit my mother in West Virginia, and she’d still be there when I got back from the airport, patiently awaiting my release: “Okay! Good girl.”
Truth was, just one year ago, Hola had never met a word she could recognize, including her name. Friends and strangers alike were greeted with a full-body slam that was just this side of actionable. The only invitation needed was a smile, a pulse, or a Baby Bjorn. My apartment was a wasteland of gnawed dados and wee wee–stained chintz. Walks were a haphazard dance of death as she lunged at any passing Subway wrapper, unleashed Pomeranian, or Crip.
“She doesn’t mean to be bad,” said one of the trainers my wife and I consulted during Hola’s first few years on earth. “She’s just kind of high-strung.”
There are other words for what she was.
“Why is she always running around and jumping on people and not listening?” I asked the guy, who handled K-9 police dogs.
“That’s easy,” he said. “You don’t know anything about dogs.”
We’d had so much hope, my wife, Gloria, and I. It still stings me to remember with what prematernal optimism we read Jean Donaldson and Karen Pryor and Sharon Chesnutt Smith’s The New Bernese Mountain Dog, scouring hardware stores for these strange things called baby gates. She mail-ordered a Bernese-ready version of what dog people call a crate—it’s a cage—and I almost had a petit mal. It was bigger than our Toyota Echo.
Dreams die hard, and so did this one. Puppies are a pain at any price, and we marked up a lot to exuberance. Certainly she wasn’t shy. Just ask our neighbors. Many times she helped them with their groceries and tossed in a prostate exam on the house. Years passed and passed again.
At a certain point, without announcing it even to ourselves, we gave up. I gave up. We’d had our idea of what a pet should be and had been baited and switched. We’d been had by the dogs of the gods or vice versa. She was housebroken; she seemed happy; she didn’t actually bite people, with a single exception.
What I know now is that settling for a dog who is housebroken and doesn’t draw blood is like settling for a child who can talk.
And I might as well admit the exception was my wife.
Gradually—very gradually—as we stopped working with Hola, she turned into a beast. There are reasonable people who would have euthanized her for the way she treated Gloria, and to those people I have no response.
“She’s a wild one, dude,” said another of the trainers we visited to deal with this new reign of terror—the occasional growling, the passing nips, the light bruising and marks on my wife’s arms and legs that more than once had a predictable result.
“How’d that happen?” asked some woman at Ann Taylor or at the Whole Foods where Gloria worked for a year as a cook.
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