Signals

close up bearThe lack of training, and more importantly the lack of treats going along with the training, has not ceased Bear’s signalling. His learning is less direct. He is re-evaluating the situation and how the high-value treats are distributed to maximize consumption of dried cow liver. A common strategy in this new day of no direction for Bear, which also happened to be a common strategy of yore, is to simply signal Maggie whenever she is around.

Bear sleeps on his couch. Maggie walks in from a run or from meandering around town, heading home like a fishing boat without navigation somehow finding its home port. First Bear’s ear twitches, followed quickly by a quick sniff. His eyes open and he struggles to roll from his back without flopping onto the floor. If you look at the right time you see a subtle grin from Bear as he spots Maggie going to the kitchen.

In no apparent hurry, Bear goes through a down- and up-dog before shaking off the last remnants of sleep, sauntering over to Maggie. She stares into the fridge, stricken with first-world fridge-blindness. Bear takes one sniff of Maggie’s knee, confirms it is indeed Maggie, and proceeds to signal, pawing Maggie’s calf.

bear on porchInstead of the atta-boy and a treat he expects, Bear receives a deafening “OW!” from Maggie. She glares at Bear then quickly connects the dots to me, glares at me, asking, “Why is he signalling?” She doesn’t voice it, but her stare also wonders why he doesn’t know that we aren’t playing that low blood-sugar for high-value treat game anymore? And on top of not playing anymore, why would he signal when I’m not low? I see these questions, or really accusations, in Maggie’s eyes glaring at me, thankful she is not equipped with laser eyes.

And it wouldn’t take much to uncover the pile of resentment for not only beginning the training in the first place, but also for even getting Bear at all. Think of all the shoes, books, and belts that would have been spared had the entire process never begun.

Bear doesn’t know we aren’t playing the game, and it’s been a reliable strategy in the past, so why not continue pawing Maggie at every opportunity. And I can’t fault him. In fact, I can’t help but hold out a secret hope that the years of training won’t be for naught, but rather simply some sort of time delay capsule, and that Bear is in the final stages of making sense of the game.

I think of the time Bear signalled an in-range Dec during training, only to get a small reprimand for a false positive. And then Maggie staggering upstairs searching for sugar. I think of the time nine-month old Bear jumped on someone I was meeting with at PSU, receiving a scolding for such rude behavior. And then hearing back from the victim of Bear’s rudeness that she was in fact hypo-glycemic, and was very low at our meeting.

bear by doorI cringe at all the lost moments for Bear. I thnk of the times he nailed it, smelling the low and signalling, only to be punished for his good work. My neck tingles as each scene unfolds in my mind, tensing in the end with punishment in place of a celebration. Each time learning of his good work well beyond any positive spin could occur. I wonder how much damage those instances did to the training process. Certainly as much or more damage than his Parvo incident.

I did throw in the flag on this low-signalling game. But what should I do with the middle of the night barking? Is it a low-blood sugar scent from Maggie or Dec that Bear is calling to attention, or is it the half loaf of Dave’s killer bread kicking down his back door that he needs relieve? In these days of no training, turns out I still drag myself downstairs, checking blood sugars in the dark, and more than half the time, giving Bear a dried cube of cow liver.

Coming to Terms with It

IMG_20150729_072442296It’s been a long time. I’ve wondered why go on with it. I was walking Bear down to the park, off-leash, meandering from tree to bush to ice-cream wrapper in the street like when you arrive at the airport early, you have to get to the gate but plenty of time to get there. It’s a summer afternoon with nothing on the agenda save for making dinner.

Across the street the postman finishes his deliveries. Pulling away from the curb he spies Bear sniffing under a rhododendron bush with a Popsicle stick planted near the base. The postman stops and jumps out of the truck so excited to see Bear.

Pointing at Bear, he says, “Your dog really loves to sleep.” Bear looks up, smiling at the postman, and wags his way over to him for a treat and some pets.

2016-02-13This moment, seven blocks from Bear’s couch, where he normally laid paws up in the air snoring, more than any false positive or missed low-alert, solidified in my mind Bear’s likely life trajectory. At the end of his work day, the postman recognizes Bear, not as the maniacal protective dog barking at him through a closed door, but as the dog that snores away on a couch, nary a movement while the postman clangs around on the front porch. He was probably just excited to see that Bear was in fact a living animal, not a decoy stuffed-animal laying infinitely motionless on the couch.

The postman climbed out of his truck, treat in one hand and other hand extended for Bear to lick, excited to see a living version of Bear. It was as if he’d witnessed a resurrection, once dead on the couch, now trotting around the neighborhood searching for treasure. At this moment it occurred to me Bear was solidly in the “pet” category as a dog living in our home. Up until this moment, I’d held out hope that Bear was not yet completely a pet, that he might veer towards that “service-dog” category. I thought that maybe he’d miraculously begin signaling low blood-sugars for Dec and Maggie.

Muddy day chasing the ball.

Muddy day chasing the ball.

And it wasn’t a sad moment. Rather, the weight of scent training and checking everyone’s blood-sugar after Bear pawed or let out a high-pitched bark had suddenly been lifted. We could go on our less complicated lives. No more slightly hidden anxieties as the diabetics lolly gagged, pretending to make their way to a kit to check blood-sugar after Bear gave a signal. Suddenly I was happy that Bear was able to walk down the street off-leash, because he is one big dog, and my shoulder gets sore tugging at his 110 pound mass.