I am bringing you a story today about Emma the Dog, an utterly charming nine year old Labrador retriever.
Friends called. They were desperate to get away. Their regular pet sitter couldn’t watch Emma, their nine year old yellow Labrador retriever. Could I do the job?
This is Emma the Dog waiting for her family to come home.
My resume included dog sitting Rover, a handsome Samoyed, who ate underpants, toothbrushes and the Christmas ham. Other than that, his social skills were well honed. When I took him for walks on South Street in Philadelphia on a Saturday night, guys would drop their dates’ hands in favor of petting Rover. His elegant stance and white fluffy fur made him a magnetic attraction. I loved Rover.
Of course I would take care of Emma. Emma was touted by my friends as being a great companion who liked to please. However, there was one curious thing about her resume. Emma was a guide dog drop out. During the final exam, she ran after a squirrel and flunked the final. Although she would not guide the blind, she qualified as a perfect all-around family dog. For that reason, my friends waited several years on a list before they were able to adopt two year old Emma. That was seven years ago.
When I arrived at my friends’ house, I was met by a yellow lab that enthusiastically jumped all over me, licking and pawing wherever she could. Emma looked like Marley from “Marley and Me,” but her eyes didn’t seem to be as mischievous.
My friends gave me written directions for Emma’s care, which included two unfamiliar commands she had learned as a Seeing Eye dog candidate: Leave it and park. Leave it I understood but park? When Emma was in school, her trainer took her to the park to go to the bathroom. My friends left for Delaware, and I was left with Emma, my companion for the next three days.
Emma looks in wonder at her human companion for the next three days.
As I reached for Emma’s leash, which was wrapped around the door knob in the entry hall, she started running around the house. I used the command “Emma come” but I didn’t get the response I wanted. I finally caught her collar and attached the leash. When I opened the front door, Emma bolted onto the porch dragging me behind her. I pulled her back so I could shut the door.
Once we got to the side walk, the real tug of war began. Emma wanted it her way, which meant being as rambunctious as possible, and I wanted a well-behaved animal on the lead. It was a test of wills, similar to one I had with my contractor. He would redo a job until he got it right. Emma was a different story.
She took the lead as she sniffed through the pachysandra patches, under the rhododendrons and around the pin oaks. Her body was low to the ground and her head was even lower as she strained forward on the leash, gasping for air. Emma was the horse dragging around a chariot without a driver. I was the chariot and it was a rough ride. Once she stopped and looked at a man standing in his driveway. I know she thought he might cut her free. Instead, he went into his house.
I started to laugh, which just encouraged her bad behavior. Maybe Emma had a side job with local law enforcement agents sniffing for explosives, illegal substances or missing persons. If this were the case, she had a willingness to work and the tenacity to accomplish an objective. However, she hadn’t uncovered the evidence.
Across the street, I saw a woman, dressed in the latest Prada prints, walking a prissy black standard poodle. Prissy and her handler looked like they were fresh off the runway at Westminster where they had won Best in Show. Standard poodles, on occasion, do win Best in Show. Labradors never have. The dog pranced properly, with her head held high and her fancy cotton ball tail firm. And Prissy walked at her handler’s side. I was sure the dog’s real name was something like Lola or Piper. What had I gotten myself into? Where was my old pal Rover when I needed him? Well, he was dead.
I felt like a substitute teacher on a three day assignment. My student was cutting loose while her parents were in Delaware. Emma did her business without me having to say the word “park,” and we headed for home. In the house, I took off her leash and as instructed gave her two treats. It was now two o’clock in the afternoon. Emma retreated to her cave under the desk in the study and I consulted Google on my laptop.
I keyed in “Training Labrador Retrievers” and found the following advice: “Be the top dog. Never let a dog achieve dominant status. A dog needs to know its social ranking.” It took me several hours to consume enough information to give me the power I needed for our next walk. I knew from experience Emma was a strongly built athletic animal, but I didn’t know her ancestors were used by fishermen in Newfoundland to help retrieve nets and loose fish. I needed to channel her energies.
Emma was now at my feet, staring up at me with her dark brown eyes. “Ok Emma. We’re going out for a walk.” She followed me to the door. I got her leash and said, “Emma sit.” Emma sat. I put on the collar. “Emma stand.” She got up. I opened the door, and when she went out the door I said, “Emma sit.” She sat. And I closed the door.
“Emma stand.” She stood and started to lunge forward. I stood my ground. She stood hers until I said, “Emma come.” She reluctantly came. After all she was getting nowhere. “Emma sit.” I patted her, gave her a treat, stared directly into her eyes and said, “Emma stay.” Emma’s eyes darted to the right and to the left, but they finally focused on mine. My retraining program for Emma continued up one street and down the next. The leash was making more of a “u” shape. Emma preferred it to be flat. Occasionally, she would look back at me and start to lunge toward a squirrel or crow. I would stand my ground and deliver a refresher course in how to walk on a leash.
She stopped to do her big business on a patch of grass near the curb. As I was dutifully filling the plastic bag, Emma darted across the street and jumped all over the mailman. I regained my balance and yelled, “Emma, down,” but he responded with equal enthusiasm. Then Emma bounded up into his truck and sat on the driver’s seat. I pulled her out and back onto the sidewalk.
“I don’t have any food, Emma,” he said.
“I think she wants to take a ride,” I said.
“She has lots of friends in the neighborhood,” he said. Let’s see, Donut the basset hound and two yellow labs, Maggie and Mia. I live around here and sometimes Emma and my dog play together, don’t you Emma.” Her otter shaped tail didn’t stop moving.
I smiled and Emma gave the mailman one last lick before we turned to go home. All I needed about now was a doggie play group with Emma as the alpha animal. A woman came toward us walking a little shih tzu. Emma stood still, but I knew her personality was about to release all over this cute little dog with two purple bows in its hair. I pointed to Emma and said, “Enthusiastically friendly.” The woman picked up the shih tzu and said, “I hope you don’t mind, but I am in a hurry and it would take 10 minutes to untangle their leads.”
I nodded politely. I was relieved. We’d been out for at least an hour. Emma was almost heeling without my using the command. It was a quiet walk home. When we arrived at the door, the phone was ringing. My friends wanted to know how things were going, but they didn’t want me to let Emma know they were on the line. She might cry I was told if she heard their voices. But Emma was fine. She was on vacation too, after all.
Later that evening, Emma started to paw my hand and wag her tail. It was time for a trip to the front lawn before bed time. I walked to the kitchen with Emma at my heels. I picked up her special collar that was compatible with the invisible fence which had been installed to contain her energy. Emma responded properly to the sit, stay, and stand commands before she frolicked on the front lawn. Maybe I was making progress. She kept her eye on me. I think she wanted my company. When I opened the front door, she followed me inside. Two treats and a dog cookie and Emma was ready for bed. Before I turned out the light, Emma made whimpering sounds as if she wanted to climb into bed with me. But I made sure Emma slept in her dog bed right below my head.
The next thing I knew it was seven o’clock in the morning. I looked down at Emma and she was still asleep. Rover would have wakened me with his cold nose at six and demanded a walk. Emma woke up as soon as my feet hit the floor. She was patient, however. I got dressed and we headed out the door before breakfast. Our walk had its usual stops and starts but there would be fewer of them. When I saw the mailman or a contractor with a truck and an open door, Emma and I walked across the street and around the corner. If I saw a fru-fru dog, we headed the other way. The same for a yellow lab that was unattended in a yard. Call it avoidance? I call it calm. Emma’s energy was channeled, and I was now able to absorb the beautifully landscaped lawns that surrounded the equally attractive stone houses. When we got home, Emma had two treats and breakfast, and I had coffee and a muffin. I’d read to maintain dominance over a dog it was important to eat before the dog and to go out the door first, too. But I ignored the advice.
Emma rested on the stairs, while I read and watched SportsCenter on ESPN in the study. I was immersed in a very peaceful existence. Emma soaked in the sun but at the same time she had a good view of the street. She watched for her parents, my friends, to come home. There were paw marks through the wallpaper and into the plaster that told me she had waited on the stairs before. Emma got excited this day for another reason. Her barking brought me to the living room window where I saw a yellow lab walking with a woman. I thought it might be Maggie or Mia. So I put Emma’s special collar around her neck and we went outside.
Emma stayed in the yard and her friend, Maggie, and owner, Susie, joined us. As the dogs played, I kept an eye on Emma because I didn’t want her to eat grass or other undesirable things. The command “leave it” protected her from herself. I learned from Susie that Maggie also eats underpants. So it wasn’t just Rover. But she did like to walk on her leash. I also learned that the two dogs to stay away from in the neighborhood were a Rhodesian ridgeback and a big black lab. Both, according to Susie, needed choke collars to keep them in line. Fortunately I had seen neither dog.
After Susie and Maggie went home, Emma brought me her ball from the porch. When I threw it high in the air, she leaped toward the sky and caught it again and again with tireless accuracy. I found a large stick and threw it across the yard for Emma to fetch. She fetched it, sat down on the grass and chewed on the bark. After a brief tug of war, I won. No more sticks. When Emma started eating grass and looking at me out of the side of her right eye, I knew it was time to retire to the study. Grazing was for sheep and cattle, not for Emma.
The following day, her parents were scheduled to come home. I designed the day to include three stop and start walks, two of which were successful. On the third, Emma and I walked through the neighborhood and turned down a street that paralleled a park. It was there we met a friendly golden retriever and her owner, a man in his 60s. Emma and the golden romped happily until a large black lab with tags jangling, no leash and no handler tried to join them. The man turned to me and said, “This dog isn’t nice.” And, I said, “Thank you for letting me know.” Susie had already warned me.
Emma and I left for home. When we got to the far end of the park, I looked back and saw a black speck growing larger and larger as Emma and I walked faster and faster. I think Emma thought she had finally taught me how to walk on a leash. When the black dog caught up with us, he sidled up next to Emma’s left side and nipped at her neck. Emma started barking and pulling hard on the leash. In fact, she pulled so hard, her collar came off with the leash. I held them in my hand thinking, now was her chance to run. I was terrified she would. But that wasn’t what she wanted.
Emma turned to me with pleading eyes. I put the collar back on her, and we continued to walk briskly with the big black lab still at her side. My mother, who grew up with dogs, once told me to walk at the side of a strange dog, never in front, and to always keep both hands within the dog’s sight. Emma barked and the big black lab barked and continued to nip at her neck. When we arrived home, something in the yard caught the big black lab’s attention. We slipped into the house without injury. Emma was calm. I was not.
Emma’s parents came home that night. They had never seen the big black lab. There was nothing to worry about. Emma’s vacation was over and so was mine. I hugged Emma and left for home. When I arrived, the trash man had left my empty cans near the curb in front of my house. Or at least I thought they were empty. Someone had lobbed a plastic bag of dog poop into one of the cans.