When Dog Training Classes Are More About Your Break Up Than Anything Else

by Jess Keefe

“It’s all about the three D’s: Duration, Distraction, Distance.”

Our instructor Carol is addressing the group in a smooth monotone while her demonstrator dog, an old grey Akita, sits patiently by her side. All around the room, dogs complement their owners like old oil paintings of hunting troops in 1800s England (minus the muskets). The stately vizsla, the regal German Shepherd. All the dogs sit still and look up at their owners, awaiting a human cue. My dog, however, the inscrutable fluffy mutt he is, scratches his neck with his back leg then flops over to lay on his side, tongue on the linoleum like a suffocating trout, his hot little breaths on my calf like a metronome.

I lean over to the owner to my left, a slight dude with a dark beard and round Coke-bottle glasses that make him look like a startled lemur.

“Three Ds,” I repeat with a snicker, miming what I think is an excellent representation of massive tits. He smirks placatingly and adjusts his legs away from me. Making friends already.

I signed up for these relatively expensive level two dog training classes without taking level one because my Eddie’s already an introductory-level Very Good Boy, for sure, and I didn’t want to spend even more money on level one. I got my dog five years ago from a foster home, after he was rescued from a kill shelter in Kentucky, after he was found in a cardboard box on the side of the road. Three months old, he had fur like the Downy bear and a face like a kindly Ewok. He had a naturally dopey, relatively relaxed demeanor, and the ex-boyfriend and I trained him well. He doesn’t chew, and he doesn’t bark. He doesn’t poop in your shoes or nip at your ankles. He can be off leash without darting into traffic or panicking parents of young children, pushing their SUV strollers down the narrow sidewalks of the neighborhood.

But here’s the thing: I had just broken up with my live-in boyfriend of six years in comically explosive fashion. And when the relationship I’d spent years crafting like a really over-the-top and compensating-for-something sandcastle (spiraling turrets! flying buttresses! Other expensive architecture stuff that evil Cardinals might commission!) only to have it collapse under the pressure, I felt hotly furious and desperate to be living my best I-don’t-need-you-anyway life tout de suite. So I thought, Why not start by training my dog to be a cinematically well-behaved companion? My best life starts with that, surely! I could see it all unfolding right away. He’d bring me the paper and my slippers (doesn’t matter that the only paper I receive at my apartment is Jehovah’s Witness literature, and the last time I owned slippers I was 12 years old).

On our walks, people would stop us to compliment his rigorous attention and focus. And I’d chuckle warmly and say, “That’s right, he’s the best. I trained him myself because I’m also the best and an independent woman and like, yeah. Beyonce!” This fantasy buzzed between my ears like a warm brain bath as I filled out the convoluted ASPCA online registration form and submitted my credit card information purely from memory.

I must’ve been too distracted to notice the fine print about “nose work” and “guide dog” training involved in this class. I just assumed it was a general Better Dog class. But no. Nope. Turns out it’s very, very specific in a way that poor Eddie doesn’t need or grasp.

Carol’s laying it on thick today, our third class so far, each piece of instruction another layer of cream cheese on a towering training sandwich I was failing to assemble properly. “By now, you should be walking 20 steps or more with loose leash and your dog’s full attention. Remember to delay the rewards until you have sustained eye contact!” The owners around me all walk in little circles, their dogs at their sides with leashes slack in perfect J-shaped loops. Eddie and I aren’t making it more than five or six steps without Eddie joyously jumping up toward my hips in a ridiculous Air Bud formation, too happy to keep it to himself. He has no idea what we’re doing or where we are, but the one thing he does know is that it’s the greatest thing that has every happened and he can barely fucking contain himself.

“If your dog is getting too excited, try taking a little break. Command the focus back to you,” Carol announces to the class, but clearly means just for me.

Carol’s always on about “hand targets” and “clicker training.” Homework consists of stuff like this: “Place a closed food container on the floor and walk your dog past the container at a distance where your dog can focus mostly on you. Use a lure as needed 1–3 times, then do it without lure.” Now that probably doesn’t even sound very hard to you, but you’ve got to remember I’m a lazy piece of shit idiot person. “What’s a lure! Where am I going to get a container!” I scoff at the email while Eddie tenderly licks the window, trying to taste the shrubs beyond the glass, certain he’ll make it happen with just a little persistence.

I found myself slowly but surely giving up. Eddie whined constantly because he didn’t understand why he was in a huge room with several other dogs but he wasn’t even allowed to sniff even a single butt. He sensed my rudderless-ness and lack of confidence, and I genuinely think he came to pity me. He’d look at me, head cocked, as I tried to instruct him to approach my left side. “Heel!” My voice would quaver like a middle school nerd giving a presentation, and his eyes would soften. Then he’d rush my face and lick me. “I’m sorry, I’m sorry,” he seemed to say. “Your weird squiggly energy is making me uncomfortable.”

Eddie and I ended up dropping out. Figures. I couldn’t master the three D’s in my relationship, and I couldn’t master them at school with my dog either. A couple hundred bucks down the drain, another instance of the my-life-is-in-shambles money-wasting that inevitably follows any of my major emotional meltdowns. But I think it’s going to be okay. Eddie’s still a level one Good Boy, and I’m just focusing on my knitting now. I’m going to be the best knitter ever and sell stuff on Etsy and my ex-boyfriend will come across my perfectly graphic-ed Etsy shop and think to himself, “wow, she’s really something special, how did I manage to mess that up so badly. I’m going to buy like 30 of these misshapen hats as I wallow in regret.” Or at least that’s the fantasy I’m currently rolling with.

Jess Keefe is a writer who lives in Boston. Get this: she even has a Twitter.

Photo of Eddie courtesy Jess Keefe.

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