Thursday, April 21, 2011

Job Application

A friend's account of a puppy at the shelter where she volunteers brings back a story.

This is Goose. He's at B.A.R.K. in Billings, MT, and he is looking for a home. Goose is a RRR -- random reservation ranch rover. But he looks a lot like someone else I know. And he's a precocious retriever. That just might mean something about the kind of dog Goose intends to be.

It's June, 2007, and the Pistons -- the offspring of Pip and Boston -- are about five weeks old. Eight adorable little fuzzy landsharks. They're precocious, by which I mean, they have responded to the interaction of their driven genetics and their enriched upbringings by teaching themselves all sorts of skills -- going outside to poop, climbing out of their pen, bossing around full-grown German shepherds.

Personalities are starting to stand out. Rosie is already ebil. Tuck (nee Ed, for Edmund Hillary) is already a genius. Maggie (nee Sally) is already sweet.

The back patio door is open, and the pups are swarming outside in the yard. I'm in the kitchen when Andy trots in, looking for attention, because that's what he does, his thing, to want to be constantly interacting with a person, and usually talk about it the whole time.

Oddman offering an opinon.

I don't know why I did it, but I wadded up a ball of paper and threw it the length of the kitchen.

This is the "fetch test" that one does when evaluating working puppies. You do it at seven or eight weeks of age, in a place free of distractions. If the pup brings back the paper ball when you call and clap encourage him, great. If he runs off with it and plays keepaway with you, well, then you know something important about his potential to be challenging. If the pup doesn't go after the ball, or is lackluster about it, he may just need another few days or weeks to reach that developmental moment. Sometimes I'm quite sure that a pup just can't see far enough or track motion with his eyes yet, but a week later it's all there.

I hate it when handlers talk about pups "flunking fetch." The test has become a shibboleth in some working dog circles, generally among people who have no clue how to administer it correctly or interpret it in context, and the sketchiest black and white notions about puppy developmental stages.

So that's the fetch test, except it wasn't, because one would never "test" a pup as young as Andy; he was simply not old enough to have reached the appropriate developmental moment.

I suspect I was seeing if I could get him to go away and stop bothering me, kid.

Instead, here is what happened.

Andy trotted the full length of the kitchen (about 18'), picked up the ball, trotted straight back to me without any encouragement, sat down between my feet, looked me straight in the eye, and dropped the ball. Then maintained eye contact.

Oh. I did not just see that.

I picked up the ball and threw it again, full length of the kitchen.

Pup trotted out, picked it up, trotted back, sat, eye contact, dropped ball. Maintaining eye contact until I picked it up again. There was no air of goofy puppy play in this retrieve. He was serious bordering on somber.

I felt my heart in my mouth. A brand-new being was making his decision about himself known to me, a rare and momentous declaration. I had to be sure.

Third throw. Andy trotted out to the end of the kitchen. He'd just picked up the paper ball when two of his brothers came rioting in the back door, a few feet from him.

Woohooo! Brudder Andy has a prize!

I figured that was the end of that. Before he could turn, there was a brother latched onto the spitty paper wad on each side of his mouth.

But it was not the end. Andy -- the male pup lowest on the puppy totem pole -- turned anyway, wrenching his brothers loose. He started back towards me, a brother on either side, and dragged them with him as they yanked on his trophy, ripping bits off as he forged on. His teeth remained resolutely clenched on the paper ball, eyes forward, undeterred.

He eventually reached my feet, sat, looked me in the eye, and at the moment that both siblings let loose of the paper, spit it out between my ankles.


One in a million. No hyperbole.

No less responsibility, as his breeder, than if I had a handicapped puppy to place. From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs. With dogs, "ability" and "needs" are the same damned thing. Dogs don't know about alienation of labor.*

And that is why -- not how, but why -- Andy went to live with Janeen, and become Audie, aka The Oddman.

Because he had to go to someone who would exploit him, know him, challenge him, adore him, and get him. Someone's whose needs and abilities were also the same as one another, and aligned with his. He was a gift, mine to give, not keep.

Five weeks old, and he applied for his dream job, trusting a headhunter to find the right position for him.


* Unless they've been conditioned to it with bribes and bad training ideology.


  1. There. Are. No. Words.

    He is truly The Best - and every day I am grateful to have him in my life.

    Thanks - from both of us.

  2. That sent chills up my spine about him fetching. I'd love to hear the story of "how" as well!

  3. He is an awesome dog.

    Now, Janeen needs to teach him how to fetch something other than a grenache. I hate transvestite wines.

  4. I agree.


    except "spine chill"
    (of the good sort)


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