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It's Nelly's World

Bridges

alec vanderboom

It's nice to stop talking for a while and let nature have a few words.

--A boy, age 9

***

Sometimes you have to listen to the wisdom of your child. Like when he stuns you with something you should have known, as you walk through the woods in Ohio. You have paused on a little wooden bridge, and all around is the sounding quiet. The water trickles beneath you; the brown leaves quiver on the branches. Your dog is far away, but near. You want her to come back soon, though, so you can get to Skyway for some fries on a silver tray hanging on the car window.

We were in Akron last week, where I renewed my love affair with the Cuyahoga River valley--O place of mysterious ravines, and odiferous waterways!--and thus with my appreciation of the man who saved this area from its certain destruction at the hands of greed incarnate (aka developers). This man was the late John F. Seiberling, who had the vision, and the passionate love for this Ohio land in his blood, and the position--in the U.S. congress--to do so. My Thanksgiving contained a silent prayer of thanks to him. We said it together, in the middle of the deep woods at Oak Hill, in the Cuyahoga Valley National Recreation Area.

On the long drive from New York to Ohio, the wheels of the fast-moving car loosed my thoughts. I had long wondered why Nelly had pulled a Cujo on her little "brother," Monty the Boston terrier, two years before. It had seemed so bizarre, so untoward. But suddenly, now, as I was thinking about my older sister and our long-simmering antipathy, it came clear: resource guarding. Nelly had a bit of a Problem in this regard, viewing meaty bones, open dishwashers filled with food-bedaubed plates, the kitchen floor and its crumbs, any dog toys, and my entire person, as resources she must guard at all costs from the incursions of other dogs. She could act pretty vicious. And so did my sister and me, snarking just as vociferously. What was the resource we were fighting over? Parental love. That's when I realized that human jealousy and canine resource guarding are one and the same thing.

Before I came to this, on I-80, I had spent the previous month--far too short a time for the task--belatedly trying to crate train Nelly. I thought I could condition her to the cue that when people sat down to eat, she should retire to her crate. Not. (Though we did make some progress; with a few more months, and many bowls of cut-up grilled cheese sandwich crusts, I think I could get her there.) Now, though, I knew I just had to prevent her from taking possession of anything she deemed so valuable she would pin Monty to the floor for the temerity of wandering too close to it. I thought if I could avoid bloodshed for a whole week, it would be a miracle. I didn't sleep the whole first night wondering how I was to pull this off.

As it turned out, I did. And completely missed the other big danger--did I mention Nelly is a screamer? My family went around with a shell-shocked look on their faces, or their hands over their ears, for whenever the dinner hour approached, or we dared to put on our coats, Nelly would start vocalizing--loudly and sharply--her distress. Boy, she calls it like she sees it. Whence this impatience, little girl?

My younger sister, who has never worked with a dog or heard of B. F. Skinner, floored me in much the same way as my boy did on our walk in the embracing woods. "What if you didn't give her whatever it is she wants, when she screeches like that?" Bull's eye, dear one: unwittingly, she had described one of the four quadrants of operant conditioning, and exactly the one that a knowledgeable positive reinforcement trainer would suggest. Negative punishment. (She did not, surprisingly, suggest positive punishment, which is where our entire world, alas, is oriented.)

I had no good response to her suggestion. Because it was correct, because I had been lazy, because Nelly's screaming is so entrenched, well practiced, and damn near instinctual with her. Also because, in daily life, I could never get to the point of actually doing anything, like going out the door or giving her dinner, because I'd always have to be giving her a chipper no-reward marker like "Too bad!" and pulling the food bowl away, or turning back from the door. I'd be a prisoner in my own home.

Not to mention, in this particular case, I would have missed the movie at the Highland Theater, the absolute best theater in the whole world, where you can get a drink at the bar, and a one-dollar bag of popcorn, and sit in a booth at a table and watch the silver screen that is the proper size, meaning the width of the whole building. All the while a neon glow from the art deco bar warms your back. And it was Nelly's screaming that made me need to leave and get a drink. Got it? Round and round it goes. Life. For which I am thankful, quite thankful, anyway.