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It's Nelly's World

Education

alec vanderboom


A little learning is a dangerous thing. Or maybe, only if your name is "Melissa." Last name "Pierson."

Nelly and I proceeded jauntily on our walk down the road. I was planning on a good hour, wherein we walk on-leash for about a half mile, then we loose the restraining device in order to trespass through some lovely woods for thirty minutes, then I spend ten minutes swearing at myself for my rank idiocy in not installing a foolproof recall in that white blur that's now only intermittently visible far off in the distance. She occasionally turns to see what I'm up to, and if it's looking for her, that's her cue to go flying off after something she pretends requires her immediate attention. Then I get tricky, employ some bit of blind luck, and get her back on leash, then we go home. Successful walk, exactly as planned.

This time, we weren't more than five minutes from the house when I spy what seems to be a "learning opportunity," aka sqashed squirrel, ahead in the road. I have been trying to compose a long poem about roadkill for some time, and may yet do so, but until now my efforts have been pitiful, filled with self-righteous anger--all I mean to point out is how curious it is that these relics of former life so often end up in supplicating positions, their paws outstretched in permanent prayer to a heaven that--whoops!--didn't see them. Over time they merge with the pavement, a patch of skin whose fur rises momentarily as a car stirs it into being by rushing past, then flat and gray once more.

This one was, I now have reason to hope, a little fresher. Nelly strained at the end of her leash (I have also been lax in teaching proper loose-leash walking, which I would have been forced to do had she been the fifty-pound dog I had wished for; instead, I rely solely on my laziness and some equipment in the form of a front-clip harness). Just prior to the walk I had finished my second reading of Jean Donaldson's fierce and inimitable The Culture Clash, about which I will have more to say. In the last chapter she states unequivocally that one must run through the "grades" of training: don't ask a kindergarten dog to do graduate-level work, or he'll fail. So what did Melissa think to do in this perfectly timed situation? Well, since I do precious little training, I felt I had to use what the universe offered. I thought, "What a splendid opportunity to use the Premack Principle!" [This is--cribbing here from a psychology glossary--a principle of operant conditioning identified in 1965 by David Premack. It says that a behavior that occurs reliably, or we might say, "naturally," can be used as a reinforcer for a behavior that occurs less reliably. Your kid wants ice cream? Of course he wants ice cream. When he cleans the toy room, the sudden appearance of a sundae will guarantee future toy-picking-up behavior.] Needless to say, I did not (because I could not) use it in a way that would have really benefited my desires for Nelly. I should have (if I could have) gotten her to come toward me before going to something she really wanted. But all I could do, and it was difficult enough, was to get her to sit. Bingo! I let her go to the squirrel.

She couldn't believe her luck. She picked that baby up, and then all she wanted to do was trot right home with it. I obliged; after all, this was her reward. Plus, I smugly recalled, this is a dog who primarily buries things. There's a rubber frog squeaky toy emerging from the dirt under the yew right now. The first piece of raw food I ever gave her, a chicken gizzard, was stared at for a while, then dispatched to the potted palm. I often find her bones buried in the couch, in our bed.

My dear, dear Nelly. Always with the surprises. That's her with her prize, up top. Soon, all that remained was a tail and a glistening sac of--what? I daren't ask. Even the head, a crunchy accompaniment to a fine, ripe repast, gone. Now she lies in her favorite spot of an evening, at the feet of the computer user. Every now and then a delicate . . . odor arises from her hindparts. The miracle of digestion, a little lesson in biology for me. Perhaps I have learned something more, too, eh?

What Nelly does not know at this moment is that as of tomorrow, her diet is going to get a lot stricter. Not only in terms of extracurricular snacks. But all that lovely raw meat, the lamb and chicken and beef bones, all the yogurt and fish and eggs, all that beautiful variety that made mealtimes a delight--no more. Processed kibble and dead cans. Doctor's orders.