Authors: Martin Kihn
House of Lies
The author has changed names and physical characteristics,
and combined some characters and events, in order to preserve
the anonymity of certain people in this story.
Copyright © 2011 by Martin Kihn
All rights reserved. Published in the United States by Pantheon Books,
a division of Random House, Inc., New York, and in Canada
by Random House of Canada Limited, Toronto.
Pantheon Books and colophon are
registered trademarks of Random House, Inc.
Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
Bad dog : a love story / Martin Kihn. p. cm.
1. Dogs—New York (State)—New York—Anecdotes.
2. Bernese mountain dogs—New York (State)—New York—Anecdotes.
3. Bernese mountain dog—Behavior—New York (State)—New York—Anecdotes.
4. Dog owners—New York (State)—New York—Anecdotes.
5. Human-animal relationships—New York (State)—New York—Anecdotes.
6. Kihn, Martin. I. Title.
SF426.2.K49 2011 636.70092′9—dc22 2010035355
Jacket illustration by Chae Kihn
Jacket design by Peter Mendelsund
There’s a book to be written on Zen and the art of dog training. Training requires total concentration. If you’re not all there, neither is your dog. If you’re jumpy, so is your dog
A New Leash on Death
To love and admire anything outside yourself is to take one step away from utter spiritual ruin
—C. S. Lewis
The American Kennel Club started its Canine Good Citizen certification program in 1989 to encourage dogs and their companions to be better members of society. To get certified, a dog must pass ten tests of obedience, good manners, and grooming. The AKC considers these ten tests to be “only the beginning,” but anyone who has ever loved a dog may have another word for them.
And I don’t mean for the dog.
S IT JUST ME,
” I ask my ninety-pound copilot, framed in the rearview mirror like a hairy Warhol Marilyn, “or is everyone losing their minds?”
I’m sorry to say
, she seems to be sorry to say,
it’s just you
“Did we miss our turn? I can’t see the signs.”
, she says,
Now I will advise that when you’re going somewhere that is not so easy to get to, don’t let me drive.
There are few guarantees in life like the one I will make to you now: you will get lost. Very lost. So far from your destination you’ll be looking out the window as darkness descends, watching street signs change into another language. During my days as the world’s most ungrateful management consultant, I tooled around London in a rented Ford Fiesta with one of the firm’s partners, who spun on me after a string of boneheaded turns and said, “Who was it that hired you again?”
Losing her religion, my copilot—a five-year-old Bernese mountain dog named Hola—stretches herself out on the backseat of our alarmingly small car and moans softly, serenely, like a butterfly being sawn in half by wind.
“You’re not helping,” I say to her, as the Sprain Brook Parkway is glazed with a silver coat of fear.
Neither are you. Did you bring any cheese?
“If you’re driving,” says the guy on 1010 WINS news radio, “think about getting off the road. We have a severe weather warning. It’s going to get ugly out there.”
Not as ugly as White Plains, New York.
A gray blanket stuffed with old malls, it claims to be thirty minutes north of Manhattan. Ninety minutes after setting out, Hola and I finally slide into the parking lot of the Port Chester Obedience Training Club, where we’re scheduled to take the Canine Good Citizen test ten minutes ago.
The PCOTC is a legendary facility that relocated from Port Chester to an industrial district in White Plains without changing its name. It readies little woofers and their handlers for everything from crate training to all-breed shows, and five years earlier, Hola had the distinction of being the only dog in her puppy kindergarten class to be invited to leave. Twice.
Let it not be said that my dog is not a legend in the canine obedience world.
She’s a beautiful, tricolored purebred dog; a spectacularly fluffy, optimistic creature with true Broadway spirit and an explosive commitment to now.
I keep expecting her to stand up on her hind paws to make her Tony acceptance speech:
“I remember when I was a little puppy, lying on my doggie bed watching
on DVD and thinking, ‘I can do that!’ …”
And I mean no disrespect to her when I say that all things considered, taking the long view and giving her the full benefit of the doubt, she was a horrible bitch.
Storm clouds morph from a hazy gray to an oily, ominous rust as the volume of snow per square inch of air throttles up.
“Hola, come!” I say, holding open the car’s back door.
Because I have enough cut-up raw liver in my snow jacket pocket to open a meat market, she jumps out.
I saddle her into her little harness, lock the car, check that I have her dog license, rabies tag, hairbrush, and—the critical item—her complete attention. Then I tuck myself into classic dog handler’s heeling position, left arm bent with my hand on my sacral third chakra, body erect and as still as the truth.
Stepping off on my left foot, cuing Hola to heel, I start toward our destiny.
Miraculously, she follows.
Step, step. Head up. Sky down. My jeans feeling loose on my stress-addled torso, I can finally exhale.
We skate the iron ramp, negotiate past a boxer puppy in the outer swing doors, and I ask Hola to sit in front of the second set of doors so I can precede her.
Always lead, you see: follow a dog and you follow a doubt.
Remember: name first, command second.
Aversive sound, meaning: Seriously, sit. Hola sits.
As I pull the door open, seeing the ring set up for the test, with the white PVC accordion gates, the official note takers and stewards, the distracter dog for the dreaded item #8 (reaction to another dog), a dozen or so of our training buddies nervously clamped to the walls watching the empty ring, the evaluator pacing the expanse of Mity-Lite polymer matting looking for stray treats left over from Family Manners class, the industrial warehouse roofing and the rusted crates and agility equipment strewn like an A-frame junkyard in the far ring, the beautiful goldens and Labs and Havanese stress-smiling in a united
—well, we have only one thought, Hola and me.
We are home.
Release word: “Okay.”
She trails me into the club.
What we’re doing here is a canine mystery.
If you’d told me one year earlier that the two of us could trot into Port Chester as legitimate contenders for an American Kennel Club–sanctioned obedience certification—Canine Good Citizen—I’d have thought you had rolled your brain in catnip and set it on fire.
Begun in 1989, the CGC is a test of training and temperament; to pass, a dog has to be able to sit quietly for petting and around other dogs, tolerate handling and distractions, walk on a loose lead through a crowd, prove it knows basic commands such as sit, down, stay, and come, and endure a few minutes’ separation from its owner without obvious distress.
Some dogs can pass it after a couple of classes and a pep talk.
Then there is Hola.
Everybody knew what was wrong with my dog.
I could take her anywhere, and she particularly enjoyed the works of Pixar. Obeying my whispered commands was like breathing to her, and at times I entertained the idea she could actually read my mind. Her sits were so straight you could level a cabinet with them, her down-stays so still they bordered on a trance. Sometimes I’d put her into a stay, go and have a medical procedure, visit my mother in West Virginia, and she’d still be there when I got back from the airport, patiently awaiting my release: “Okay! Good girl.”
Truth was, just one year ago, Hola had never met a word
she could recognize, including her name. Friends and strangers alike were greeted with a full-body slam that was just this side of actionable. The only invitation needed was a smile, a pulse, or a BabyBjörn. My apartment was a wasteland of gnawed dados and wee wee–stained chintz. Walks were a haphazard dance of death as she lunged at any passing Subway wrapper, unleashed Pomeranian, or Crip.
“She doesn’t mean to be bad,” said one of the trainers my wife and I consulted during Hola’s first few years on earth. “She’s just kind of high-strung.”
There are other words for what she was.
“Why is she always running around and jumping on people and not listening?” I asked the guy, who handled K-9 police dogs.
“That’s easy,” he said. “You don’t know anything about dogs.”