Middle Age and the Perils of Positive Training

I turned 50 this year, and my dogs didn’t even get up with me when I woke early to be depressed on my birthday.

While it could be argued that I have very few real reasons to be depressed – good life, great kids, still working in a recession – I also have ample reasons to be depressed if you just look at it the right way.

I am old. 50 is old, and anyone who says it’s not is either older than me or in complete denial. Or both. Just because you’re in your early sixties, and 80 is really old, doesn’t make 50 “not old.” Snap out of it.

The fact that the spell checker wants me to write, “50 are old” brings up another point. I have gained so much weight in the last few years that I am now a plural to my computer. I had imagined spending my birthday being feted by admiring crowds, gaily swirling in my designer skirt as my champagne glass bubbled away. This dream was interrupted by the snoring of spouse and dogs, and so instead of fete-ing I schlepped downstairs to load and run the dishwasher, plough through work e-mail, pack school lunches and feel sorry for myself in my big, not-baggy-anymore sweats. It seemed at the time that I should get at least as many Weight Watchers “points” as I had years, but instead I miserably measured the milk in my coffee and raised my fist to the Gods, swearing revenge should I ever actually remember to take revenge. Things tend to slip through the cracks these days if I don’t write them down.

I blame all this “positive training” stuff for my sorry state.

In the old days of dog training, no one ever gained a pound nibbling on choke collars as they trained their dogs. A person could spend hours perfecting a straight heel or recall or retrieve, and not once find themselves with the sudden realization that they’d just consumed 1500 calories worth of metal link.

But the same people who faked the moon landing also conspired to bring positive training to the forefront just as my metabolism headed for early retirement. Had cookie-based methods been the vogue in the 1970s when I first started dog training I would have been prepared, perhaps warned by some lumpy, middle-aged mentor to beware the pitfalls of edible reinforcements, her telltale lack of osteoporosis a clear sign of her cheese-induced downfall.

Instead, I innocently made my way into the world of clicks and smiles, cheddar and tortellini, blind to the impending peril it implied.

“My, what good eye contact you have grandma!”

“Yes indeed. My secret is keeping the cheese up near or even in my mouth, bringing the dog’s eyes right to mine!” And grandma swallows yet another piece of full-fat dairy, completely unaware of what ominous morsel has just made its way down the hatch.

Now more than half way through my 50th year, the promised wisdom that comes with maturity has finally shown itself and I have realized that none of this is my fault. I don’t need to change what I’m doing, I need to blame someone.

I’ll start with Karen Pryor, without whose influence the storing of actually yummy food on one’s person would undoubtedly not have become so socially acceptable. Had she stuck to the damn dolphins I might well have been living in Europe right now, benignly sitting by some doting, elderly prince’s throne and looking fabulous in my black dress and pearls. My perfectly trained though slightly cowering Salukis would drape gracefully by my side, diamond encrusted choke chains hanging from their necks.

Ian Dunbar, the bastard, also deserves some blame. If not for his charisma and the popularity of his training methods and videos, no one would know to ask for the good stuff, and we’d all feel delightfully guilt-free as we shoved canine rumps to the floor, then offering a few measly pieces of dog chow, dug out of the pockets of our size 4 jeans. “Yes, yes!” we’d exclaim expertly, “this kibble shows how much we care without allowing the dog to be dominant by exercising free will.”

The list of those responsible goes on (see www.dogwise.com), and frankly The Machine, as I’m now seeing this movement to be, is more powerful than I’d ever imagined. I eye my dogs. I want them to know that I’m on to them, that I now understand the conspiracy at hand. They want me nibbling away, mindlessly sharing goodies with them and then rewarding again, unaware that I’ve already done so. They want me to be old and slow, both mentally and physically. Man’s best friend indeed.

And what about me? What is a trainer to do, slouching toward her 51st birthday, battling years and gravity and habit and brainless middle age? Will I learn? Can I change this wretched state? Is it possible to teach an old dog new tricks?

Well yes, of course, if you use the right cookies.

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