Building Confidence

Claire had a private training lesson yesterday at PetSmart. Sean Blocker, the lanky and personable young Senior Pet Training Instructor, listened to Darlene’s concerns about how much Claire is barking lately and noted that, in dog days, she is in her pre-teen years. “I don’t know about you, but it wasn’t a pretty sight when I was that age,” Sean said. His prescription in the meantime was to build our three-and-a-half-pound Yorkie’s confidence.

Step One was to introduce Claire to a long blue “agility tunnel,” to see if she would venture into it and gain confidence in a strange, new environment. When I took a photo from one end, I could imagine the tunnel as the last place a little dog might want to explore. All that blue, with a little hole at the end. But Claire didn’t waste much time before trying it out. Darlene crouched at one end of the tunnel and rewarded Claire with liver treats when she scampered through. Even when Sean rolled the tunnel back and forth while Claire was in it, she went straight for the treats and then strutted around the training pen as if she knew she had impressed us.

Thus encouraged, Sean and Darlene took Claire out into the main store, where shoppers and their dogs wandered through displays full of animals and weird merchandise, like “SUV Snuggyloos” pads to prepare a place for your pet to ride a gas-guzzler in style. Claire didn’t like the look of the Snuggyloos. She took a threatening stance and barked fiercely at them. “Because she’s so small, that could be a natural response,” Sean observed. His recommendation for scary scenes, including big dogs looking for snacks, was to whisk Claire away to safety, so as not to prolong experiences likely to deplete her confidence, nevermind shorten her life.

The PetSmart fish tanks presented a perfect confidence builder. Claire strained toward them like a pointer, watching the fish and bubbling water without barking. Sean rewarded her with a click of the clicker, to mark the good behavior, and a treat. “Instead of being scared, she’s being encouraged to be in this new environment,” he explained.

You can learn a lot from a dog. I am amazed every time a trainer introduces us to a new level of awareness about what’s going on inside that furry little head. Confidence? I would have offered dozens of possible explanations for the barking problem before hitting on that one. This challenge of helping an animal gain confidence is completely new terrain for me. As we drove home from PetSmart, I vaguely wondered what sorts of training tricks might build my own confidence in life. Perhaps in response to that wondering, tonight I did something I’ve never done before.

After dinner with our Casper friends Tom and Tish, we split up for different destinations and I ended up on my own, strolling back toward the Barclay. I had my iPAQ with me, which I use for music only on planes; I have never listened to music outdoors with it. I plugged in the ear buds and sat on a bench on 16th Street and listened to a French favorite of mine, Francis Cabrel. A young man with a knapsack sat on the bench across from me, smoking a cigarette and reading the Rocky Mountain News. When his cigarette was finished, he carefully stubbed it out on the pavement and placed the butt back in the Malboro box, a display of good citizenship that made me want to thank him on behalf of the neighborhood. I listened to four or five tracks from Cabrel’s “Hors-Saison” CD, gradually feeling more and more comfortable sitting on a bench at night, watching the Friday night LoDo daters and drifters amble by. The bench gradually became mine, and the view settled into a cinematic visual for the Frenchman’s songs. In all the years we’ve lived here, I have never sat on that bench at night listening to a CD. So maybe it was like Claire’s first view of fish, or her first run through a blue tunnel.

I wonder what else waits out there that Claire and I have never done. Adventures big and small. Confidence builders for man and beast.

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