It’s past my bedtime, but here I sit because Angus is playing and it is such a joy to watch him. We had storms earlier in the day and he didn’t get an evening walk, so he’s full of energy. Right now he’s busily retrieving his toys, one by one, from his toy box in the corner of the dining room.
Blaze-orange tug rope. Electric-blue tug rope. Rubber ball. Red Kong. He trots back and forth and soon toys are scattered across the living room rug. He chooses something and rolls onto his back, feet in the air, completely content as he chews — wait, what is that?
I ask him to drop it and he spits out a soggy pink hair scrunchy. All those toys, and this is what he wants.
But he’s good-natured, and when I take it away he just picks up something else instead — a knucklebone, which he doesn’t gnaw but works at with his tongue, trying to get at the marrow.
At home, this is Angus: mellow and happy, content in his skin. He has no anxiety; he trusts us completely.
Outside in the world, things remain a bit more fraught. Dogs, I have read, go through a fear period at about 14 to 18 months, and while it seems he should be past that (he is almost 19 months), a few weeks ago he suddenly balked at walking under the railroad bridge when a train was thundering above us.
And he still won’t use the pet door, which has swung back and hit him in the head three times.
And then, of course, there are squirrels and rabbits. He’s not afraid of them, but they do send him into a frenzy. Our neighborhood right now is overrun, and the other night we saw a rabbit in every yard, like furry sentries. By the time we got to the corner Angus was in such an anxious state I could barely hold onto him. That was the night we were walking with a new pet sitter, who was going to stay the weekend. I wanted to show her what she was in for, and thanks to the rabbits, Angus put on quite a show.
The next morning Doug and I headed out of town, me already fretting, even though when we left Angus was lying peacefully on the porch. “I hope she can handle him,” I kept moaning. “I hope he behaves.”
That evening, the pet sitter texted me. “Walks went well!” she wrote. “Angus responded really well to my redirects tonight and he didn’t pull at all. One thing that worked well was to make him sit every time he saw a squirrel, and then when he was calm I let him watch the squirrel for as long as he wanted.”
She made him sit calmly? He didn’t pull at all? How did she get him to listen?
The next day, another update. “Angus did VERY well, lots of challenges this morning (rollerblader that just had to keep passing us, two dogs off leash). We also did some more ‘squirrel training.’ Every time he saw a squirrel I had him sit and then gave him treats.”
A friend of mine who trains golden retrievers suggested a while back that I ask someone to video me while I’m walking Angus to see if I’m making him nervous. In other words, maybe his excitability is not entirely in response to the outside world — maybe it’s partly in response to me being anxious about him.
And while I do not think I could bear to watch a video of myself, she has a point. It can’t be coincidence that Angus is well-behaved with the dog trainer and the pet sitter, but less so with me. Treat him as if you expect him to do well, I’ve been told. But that’s a tough one — how can I do that and remain vigilant at the same time?
Back in the living room, Angus drops the knuckle bone and closes his eyes. It’s late. He rolls over to look at me, then flops back down. He’s a big docile black-and-white beanbag.
Oh, this dog, so aware of everything around him, so attuned to the world, so sensitive and observant. He has a lot to teach me, if he can just get me to listen.
Laurie Hertzel is the senior editor for books at the Star Tribune. 612-673-7302. @StribBooks