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It's Nelly's World

Special Delivery

alec vanderboom

I had just finished eating my cup of Yo Baby (someone got paid a lot of money to come up with that name, and in my opinion earned every dime of it). My son is too embarrassed to be seen eating something so called, but I am not; besides, it's what passes for lunch in these parts. What is embarrassing is that I was eating it while sitting on the bed, which is where--second only to the living room floor in front of the woodstove--I do most of my work. Imagine: at my age, a Slacker! Slacker mom. Slacker dog trainer.

Nelly lay at my feet, drilling me with the intensity of her stare. If a gaze had the power of an act, this one would have caused gobs of whole-milk banana yogurt to arc through the air and land in her mouth with a decisive splot.

She was lying there so quietly, so intently, because I had trained her to, back in the day several lifetimes ago when I had the time and will to train my dog; to cut up a billion tiny pieces of lamb roll, to locate the clicker, to sit and focus on only my dog for ten minutes. (Ten whole minutes! Wherever did I lay my hands on that much time?)

I trained her to lie quietly, and hope patiently, for tidbits to be thrown, any time anyone in the household was eating, because the alternative was worse. When she came to us as a puppy, the sight of people eating at a table and not inviting her up onto it was a dreadful, horrid situation that caused fits of uncontainable emotion in the wee hairy beastie. She would shriek, and dance around on her hind legs, and finally chew the edge of the table in her frustration, and then shriek some more. Oh, the effrontery of the humans.

I quickly asked training guru Jolanta what I could do, because I love my dining table dearly, and also guests thought we were Terrible Dog Parents, the kind who didn't know how to lay down the law. (What law? says Nelly. I know no laws. I am stateless!)

Jolanta said I could easily train an alternative behavior: reward whatever it was I did want her to do. And what was that? All I could think of was quiet: no one can long retain their sanity in the presence of Nelly, um, vocalizing. (Did I mention Nelly is a screamer?) So I shaped quiet: quickly clicking for a brief cessation in the noise--she had to catch her breath before the next aria, after all--and being a smart, quick sort of doggie, she got it. I didn't much care what she was doing with her body, so long as it wasn't hurling herself at the legs of a dinner guest or chewing the edge of the table. Soon Nelly started trying everything she could think of to make the treats fly faster: sitting, standing, lying. "Down" has become a default position for her; she's gotten more tidbits for that, by design and happenstance both, so that's the behavior she throws first when she doesn't know what else to do. Hence, at dinnertime, she did a Down, was quiet (my only objective), and got a treat. The birth of a behavior. The "down" here is what they term a "superstitious behavior"--don't you love that? It occurred in conjunction with the other behavior she was being rewarded for, so she assumed it was part of the deal.

Do you have any superstitious behaviors? Of course not. You are rational; I should have known. But this is True Confessions Land for me. When I rode motorcycles, before my reincarnation, it was a time when my fashion was to wear my mother's Vassar College Class of 1952 gold ring, which had been passed on to me upon my own graduation from that august institution. (I mean that, too.) One day, early in, I realized that on every occasion I went riding and wore that ring, I hadn't crashed. Ergo, it was the ring that had prevented my becoming grape jelly on the pavement. I mean, smart, right? Very soon, that ring had to be on my pinkie, under the soft Italian leather gloves I'd treated myself to, every time I rode, or else I'd get the vapors. I swear, if I had lost that ring, I might never had gotten on my bike again.

I think I might start wearing that ring again.

Anyway, I had believed I would soon shape another behavior in Nelly--like, say, going to lie down on a rug in another room as soon as the dinner plates appeared--because, let's face it, having a little dog at your feet holding her breath and pinning you with her eyes for an entire hour doesn't make for peaceful meals, either. But what with one thing and another, I let it go on. Entrenched. Firmly there. Not to say that I couldn't change it now, but . . . It's a whole lot of work.

What I am aiming to do instead is to let this behavior extinguish, because I will remove the reward from it. No more little tidbits for lying quietly. And hope that she doesn't replace it with a reversion to the old habit of singing for her supper, since I'm too depleted to actively train a replacement behavior. (When will I learn that you reap what you sow? Gah.)

I ate my yogurt in two minutes (it's such a baby cup anyway, yo) and ignored her stares, then set the cup on the end table next to me. The heavy spoon wanted to tip it, but I balanced it against a stack of books. Nelly sighed--What the heck is going on around here now? They don't give me any food anymore!--and jumped off the bed in resignation. She curled herself up in her bed on the floor next to the table, and I reached again for my pencil.

I touched the stack of books, which nudged the spoon. The cup toppled. Nelly woke from her nap to find the yogurt-fragrant cup an inch from her mouth. All she needed to do was stick out her tongue and contact the sweetness of life. She looked up at me: Whence came this bounty, straight from a dream? She started licking.

For the first time in so long, I actually laughed out loud. And spoke to my dog: "Nelly, sometimes opportunity drops right out of the sky, and lands in front of you." Sometimes it's as obvious a treasure as a sticky yogurt cup. Sometimes it's more disguised. But sometimes, every once in a while, the skies rain nourishment. And all you need to do is swallow.