It’s Graduation Day for the Great Gatsby

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It’s official. Gatsby, our great rescue cavapoo, is now an American Kennel Club-certified Canine Good Citizen. This does not give him the right to vote or drive a vehicle, but our beloved pup — now 18 months old — can enter a therapy-dog program, starting in mid-October. He has completed 18 hours’ worth of lessons under Jamie, who has been instrumental in his transformation. When Gatsby began his weekly lessons in January, he cowered under my stool, refused to walk on a leash, and was afraid of everything. His early months as a puppy-mill dog, largely imprisoned in a crate, meant he did not even know how to run, how to be a dog, when we first got him last Thanksgiving week. As Jamie says often, “He is a completely different dog now.”

(Jamie is a legendary dog trainer in these parts, and I hope to bring a more complete story about her fascinating journey soon.)

I admit that I had pre-test jitters. To be certified as a CGC, Gatsby had to complete 13 tasks without being rewarded a treat. These included:

  • Not freaking out when a stranger walks up to me while he is on a leash at my side.
  • Sitting politely for petting by the evaluator and allowing her to inspect his paw pads and teeth and brush his coat.
  • Walking on a leash, staying calm in a crowd, and coming when called while on a 20-foot leash.
  • Reacting to another dog in an appropriate manner.
  • Handling distractions such as a ball or stool thrown nearby.
  • Not having separation anxiety if I am out of sight for three minutes, while the evaluator holds the leash.
  • Sit, lie down and stay on command.

Gatsby could run through all these with ease and aplomb. This dog loves going to PetSmart for his weekly lesson or to practice on Sunday. His tail starts wagging when he sees the front door, and he strains at the leash. Besides our home, PetSmart is his happiest place

There was only one thing lacking in his training. Gatsby would sit, stay, heel, tuck behind my feet when I am seated — all the commands he has been taught. But he would not lie down on command. On the Sunday before the big test, I took him back to PetSmart and spied Jamie in the training room with a single client. Gatsby and I found an empty aisle and went through the paces. Sit. Stay. Come! Down.

Gatsby would obediently sit at my feet and ignore my finger tapping the floor while I murmured “Down.” Finally, I asked her to try. She had more success than I did, but not much. We agreed Gatsby needed a one-on-one session with her before the pre-test. I brought him back on Wednesday afternoon and left her alone with him for 15 minutes. When I returned to the training room, she shook her head. It turns out Gatsby does not like the word “Down.” If she just pointed to the small mat on which he was obediently sitting, he would scootch his front paws down to the floor.

I tried it. Sure enough, Gatsby went down on all fours.

On test day, we arrived early at PetSmart to practice. Once again, Gatsby would do everything except lie down. I did not have a good feeling about this, though Jamie assured the half-dozen of us there not to be nervous. If our dog did not pass this time, we would try again the following Friday. Regardless, I was anxious though I tried not to communicate this to Gatsby. He would sense it and might not do anything correctly.

We walked around the store while others took the test. Gatsby sniffed the dog toys, stared up at the cats in their crates, cocked his head when a parakeet tweeted. When our time came, I pulled out the black mat and directed Gatsby to sit, while fastening the 20-foot leash. He obeyed, stayed while I walked 10 feet away, then came to me. Then came the seminal moment. I pointed to the floor, while tugging ever-so-gently on his leash (this is legal). He immediately went into the down position. Victory! I praised him effusively.

The rest of the test was a walk in the park, or rather PetSmart. We wove around the store displays, passing dogs and humans without incident. We returned to the training room, where Gatsby received his Canine Good Citizen ribbon, as shown in the photo. He was more interested in a treat now that they were allowed. I filed for his official certificate online. You can bet I am going to get that framed when it arrives.

Gatsby officially graduates today, with his photo being taken while wearing a commencement cap, which he tolerates, just barely. He gets a two-week break before therapy dog training begins. We could both use a breather.

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