“Good girl, Ricochet,” I’d say, patting her head, and she’d wiggle excitedly toward me to retrieve her reward. I had never seen a dog so motivated, so focused, and so eager to please.
“Give,” I’d cue, and her jaw would immediately release the wooden block into my hand. “Light,” I’d say, and she’d tap the black knob on the wall with her nose. Then I’d praise her in my most excited cheerleader voice: “Excellent, Ric!”
I always ended our training sessions on a high note with a reward and a tummy rub. While stroking the soft and silky white fur of Ricochet’s chest, I’d often think about how interconnected our lives had become these past few weeks. Since placing all of the other puppies in wonderful homes, I had all of my time to devote to Rina and Ricochet and to settle back into a less chaotic lifestyle.
One day, while running an errand, I left Ricochet in her puppy exercise pen to give her room to move around while keeping her safely contained. I’d been gone only for about a half-hour, but when I got back, the pen was empty. Suddenly, Ricochet bounded out from the bedroom where, thankfully, it seemed she hadn’t gotten into any trouble. But I was curious to learn how she escaped from Pawcatraz!
I placed her back in the pen and then set up my video camera to record her while I stepped outside for a few minutes. The recording revealed that Miss Independent had spotted a toy outside of the pen and reasoned that the easiest way to get it was to climb over the side. As I watched her scamper her little body up and over the gate, it dawned on me that I’d need to put a cover over the top of the pen from this point on. She was too smart for my own good! At nine weeks she was going on nine years. She wanted to be a big dog so badly.
Ricochet instantly grasped and excelled at every training challenge, bucking the conventional wisdom that you can’t teach dogs complex tasks until they are at least six months old. I was excited by how quickly she learned to unzip clothing, retrieve laundry, pull a sock off of a person’s foot, and open cabinets, among a dozen other behaviors—all at just eight weeks.
Ricochet proved intelligent beyond my wildest dreams. She was progressing through my neatly constructed service-dog plan with the infectious enthusiasm of a thriving puppy and a willing student, always eagerly awaiting the next learning adventure.
“Tug, Ricochet!” I cheered, pointing to the pink braided rope hanging from our fridge handle. Ricochet wiggled around in a circle, barking excitedly at Rina.
“Rina, show her how!”
Faithful, reliable Rina—three times Ricochet’s size and fluffier in her full coat—dutifully walked by her little sister, grabbed the rope with her muzzle, and yanked, pulling the door open. See, that’s how it’s done.
“Good job, Rina. Now you try it, Ricochet!” She inched closer. “Come on! Tug!”
Ricochet grabbed the rope in her mouth, her little body wiggling with all the strength she could muster to open the door. Rina dashed to help her, and then the two dogs did something I could not have choreographed if I tried: they both grabbed the rope with their mouths, and backed up in unison, pulling the door open in complete canine camaraderie.
“Good job! You two girls are tugging!”
These were the moments that made training so rewarding, and I shook my head, still clapping and marveling at how the two dogs had worked together. Ricochet’s swishing tail showed me she had this behavior down. With Ricochet, it often only took one time, and she would commit any behavior to memory. Sometimes it seemed as if she was reading my mind and knew what I was going to ask her.
“Ah-choo!” I’d pretend to expel a great sneeze, and at just eleven weeks old, Ricochet had learned to retrieve a tissue in a single training session. Even as I lowered the intensity of the mock sneeze to a mere whisper, she got the cue.
One day, when I exploded in an actual sneezing fit, Ricochet came running with the entire tissue box in her mouth, dropping it and pulling out tissue after tissue. “Thank you, Ric,” I cooed, patting her silky smooth head.
Basking in the attention, she crinkled her eyes and wagged her tail enthusiastically.
“You are such a good girl, Ricochet. You are going to do great things, you know it?”
Once Ricochet had learned basic behaviors, we would continue to hone them so that she would be solid in all situations. A well-trained service dog doesn’t waver in her task no matter the surroundings, noise, confusion, or chaos. There was still plenty to perfect by adding distractions, duration, and different environments, but with her natural aptitude, I was confident she would carry out her service duties regardless of the occasion.
In addition to her quick mind, Ricochet had an uncanny sense of balance. She loved to climb into our kiddie pool, so one day I invited her to get on a boogie board, not expecting much. But, true to her nature, Ricochet surprised me. She climbed onto the board and balanced like a pro, her eyes bright and curious. Luring her with dog-training treats, I enticed her to turn all the way around while balancing on the unsteady board. Even with four legs, the confidence and focus required to do a complete 360 on a floating board was more than impressive. She truly was a prodigy.
From my experience, I believe that dogs know far more than we’ll ever know they know. However, I had never seen a puppy learn as quickly as Ricochet. At times I almost thought she was telepathic. She was performing additional behaviors, including Hit It, High-Five, Hold, Retrieve, and Speak. As if her big sister’s obsession had rubbed off on her, Ricochet found shoes irresistible, and I could no longer leave them lined up by the door. So many toys, yet shoes and newspaper were still the number-one playthings! When supervised, she also enjoyed watching a modern marvel of motion: the toilet flushing, which provided lots of free entertainment.
I worked on exposing her to everything and anything. Every day was a new adventure. I wanted Ricochet to meet all kinds of people and to be comfortable around wheelchairs, crutches, and anything else she may encounter as a service dog. She was doing very well, but sometimes her boldness got the better of her. One day we were at a barbecue by a boat launch. Rina and Ricochet were swimming in the water when a woman paddled by them in a kayak. Unflappable and curious, Ricochet saw this novel thing in the water, and rather than avoid it, she put one paw up on it, then the next . . . then all four! In an incredible display of balance, she walked across the kayak and right into the woman’s lap where she proceeded to sit as comfortably as can be. The woman was a good sport about the antics of her uninvited copilot, and we all had a good laugh.
With Ricochet’s keen sense of balance on the kayak, and her eagerness to get on the boogie board in the kiddie pool, I decided to try her out on a surfboard, curious to see if she’d get on it. One day, I decided to test the idea at Fiesta Island, a dog-friendly beach with gentle waves from the speedboats just off the shore. Ricochet and I waded ankle deep into the chilly water while Rina happily nosed through seaweed and explored her surroundings. As I steadied the board, Ricochet jumped on with a squirt of Cheez Whiz as her incentive. Spying a small wave from a passing jet ski, I asked Ricochet if she was ready. With her paws firmly placed, I said, “Go,” and I released the board, watching Ricochet ride the entire wave with an easy grace.
“Great job, Ricochet!” I yelled. But she didn’t hear me. She had leaped off the board at the shore where Rina awaited, and the two buddies were off, tearing through the shoreline, making crazy eights in the sand, leaving a cloud of sand in their wakes, and having fun together doing what dogs do best.
When they returned, I wanted to give Ricochet a try on another wave, so I put her leash back on and started walking toward the water. But she put the brakes on and simply wouldn’t move. When a dog stops and refuses to move, I call the behavior “planting” and consider it a form of communication. Some people may interpret it as a sign of stubbornness, but I knew Ricochet was trying to tell me something. I believe in partnerships with dogs, so I took her feelings into consideration. She obviously didn’t want to go back in the water for whatever reason. Maybe it was too cold. Maybe she was tired. I wasn’t sure why, but I respected her decision and wasn’t going to force her to get back on the surfboard.
The weeks passed with Ricochet excelling at most everything she did. However, one day when she was about sixteen weeks old, we were working to retrieve a leash, and something suddenly changed. She seemed distracted and was slow to respond. I didn’t think much of it at the time. After all, every dog can have an off day. But I soon realized it wasn’t just one day—it was every day after that for many, many months. Despite my efforts to motivate her, she had zero interest in anything, including training that had previously been fun.
Without any warning or apparent reason, she lost her spark. The fire was out, and only the ashes of her mind’s brilliant firework remained. She was apathetic, unresponsive, subdued, and indifferent. As the weeks went on, it seemed like depression set in for her, and frustration set in for me. We were at a standoff. A wedge had been driven between us, and the more I pushed her, the more she resisted. I knew what she was capable of, but she refused to be the exceptional dog I knew she could be.
“Come on, Ric! Go get the can!” I encouraged.
She normally loved pulling the garbage can down the entire length of the blacktop driveway, holding a rope in her mouth that was tied to it with a determined look on her face. This time, instead of bolting up with enthusiasm, she simply lay in the grass and looked up at me.
What’s going on?
As her lack of interest continued for weeks and weeks, desperation launched me into the full-time role of activities director, trying different approaches on a rotating basis. The focus of my days grudgingly became how to motivate Ricochet. I tried training in environments where she was most confident. I changed rewards and incentives. I bought high-value treats, like liver and cheese, as well as Frisbees, squeaky toys, and stuffed toys. But Ricochet was content to play alone. None of the things I would normally use to motivate a service-dog-in-training worked on her. There were plenty of possibilities but even with my training background, I couldn’t find the right one.
I felt like a guilt-ridden mom, afraid to admit out loud that my child was driving me crazy. The milestones we should have been checking off given Ricochet’s enormous potential read instead like a diary of dysfunction:
January 15: I think Ricochet might have attention deficit disorder. She has no attention span whatsoever. She used to love the pool. Today she spent about a minute jumping in the water and then took off to chase a bee. Other dogs her age can stay focused on toys and tasks for much longer than she can. She doesn’t even have a favorite toy or anything that interests her.
February 5: Ricochet is not cuddly or lovey like Rina was. Many times she’s happiest wandering off by herself. Service dogs needs to be with people, not alone.
February 8: Prima-dogga? Today she wouldn’t get in the car when we were going out. She takes her own sweet time to do things the way she wants to!
The only thing that interested Ricochet anymore was digging. And gophers. Or digging to get the gophers. My yard looked like a mini Grand Canyon, with mounds of dirt and holes where there was once a lush green lawn. Ricochet’s landscaping work was a daily visual reminder of the upheaval that she was causing in our lives. I couldn’t leave her unsupervised for five minutes or she’d unearth a pile of fresh dirt. Poor Rina couldn’t play freely in the yard because I had to fence it off. There was dirt everywhere from the gophers and Ricochet’s incessant digging. Every morning, I’d try to sweep the dirt off the driveway, but it kept coming, much like the exasperating routine with Ricochet that had me losing my patience on a daily basis. I hated to admit it, but my prodigy had become a problem. I was starting to resent Ricochet and missed having sweet, helpful Rina to myself. Rina had never been this troublesome as a pup. On the contrary, Rina was always excited to perform a task. She loved to work. I felt guilty comparing the two dogs–and I knew it wasn’t fair–but I couldn’t help it. My propensity as a pessimistic person was to see the glass as half empty, and my negativity was spilling over toward my feelings for Ricochet. Negativity had a stranglehold on me and it wouldn’t let go.
Thinking a change of scenery might help, I took Ricochet to Del Mar Dog Beach for some off-leash fun. As I was setting up our gear on the sand, I noticed she was gazing intently at something down the beach. I watched, and she quivered with excitement, her gaze locked on the shoreline, her eyes following something. Then I spotted it: a sandpiper darting back and forth at the edge of the water, its beak poking holes in the sand.
There were always birds on the beach. This wasn’t new, but it seemed a switch had flipped back on in Ricochet. Her red-tufted ears were pricked and alert, and her deep brown eyes were so intently watching the sandpiper’s every move. She was energized and entranced. It had been so long since I had seen her like this, barely holding back the energy coiled inside and ready to spring. This was the dog I was missing. This was the dog I wanted back. So I did something I shouldn’t have. I took off her leash and released her.
She sprang into motion, hitting her top speed in three seconds. Her ears were blown back in the wind and her coat fluttered with her strides. Her mouth was open, with her tongue lolling to the side in an expression of bliss. She looked like freedom incarnate. This was the dog I remembered! She had come back to life.
She careened into the waves, the sandpiper popping up into the air and skirting around her. The little bird wisely decided to fly farther down the beach, but Ricochet had no intention of letting it go alone. I watched as she sprinted to catch up with the bird, only to bump it to a new place and another chase. I couldn’t help myself, and I laughed and clapped, encouraging her on. “Go, Ricochet! Get that bird!”
She looked absolutely free in that moment, and it was a beautiful sight.
For a few minutes, I ignored the reality of the situation. I was so happy to see Ricochet engaged in something with all her heart again that I didn’t want to think about it. I wanted to watch the dog I once knew and enjoy the moment. But I couldn’t block my thoughts for long. The problem, of course, was that chasing birds is a dangerous pastime for a service dog.
“She can’t chase birds,” I said aloud, but without conviction. Then I spoke the words again and this time I felt their heavy weight: “But she can’t chase birds.” If she were attached to a wheelchair and was overcome with the urge to leap after an avian adversary, the person in her charge could be injured. My heart, which had felt so light for that fleeting moment–running and melding beside this spirited dog–now sank. I had a new challenge in front of me: I was going to have to train her to control her impulses.
Unfortunately, her love for chasing birds was not a momentary weakness born to that freak day. It was a full-fledged passion for anything that she could chase. From then on, if I took her to an off-leash park or anywhere she was off leash when we came upon birds, she would chase them. Even though she never bolted after a bird while on leash, if I couldn’t get her desire to chase under control, there was absolutely no doubt that I would have to release her from the service-dog program.
One day I sat Ricochet down in front of the parakeet cage at the pet store and settled in cross-legged in front of her. Anytime Ricochet would glance in my direction, I would mark the behavior with a click and give her a treat.
She did, but with resignation and boredom written across her expressive face. But every time she looked at me, I rewarded her with a treat.
Two of the parakeets squabbled, flapping and scolding one another.
“Watch me,” I said again when Ricochet’s eyes shifted in the birds’ direction. I noticed her eyebrow whiskers twitch as she looked back to me. “Good,” I said and then gave her a second treat. Gradually, she kept her gaze on me for longer periods without trying to sneak glances at the birds.
“No birds, okay?” One eyebrow went up. Her whiskers brushed out. I stared into her eyes. “What’s going on in there, huh?”
If I could teach her to give me her full attention whenever birds were around, then we might get past the problem. We began to make some progress. I could feed pigeons at the beach right in front of her. However, when she was off leash it was a totally different story.
When the weather warmed, I got out our surfboard, thinking we could give surfing another try. One day my friend Sarah and I took her to Coronado Beach, and with the sun breaking through the clouds, I motioned for Ricochet to turn around on the board while Sarah steadied it. With my arthritis I wasn’t able to manage Ricochet in the water, but Sarah could in the knee-deep water. Ricochet was wearing a lime green rash guard and a focused look on her face. She had one great ride, coasting all the way into the shore before she jumped off. She did ride in standing backward on the board, but at least she did it.
“Well, Ricochet, we’ll need to work a bit on that part,” I said with a laugh. “But I do believe you’re getting the hang of surfing.”
I turned her around to face the direction she would be riding and gave her a quirt of Cheez Whiz as a reward. We took her out again. Looking over our shoulders, we waited for the next wave. We were knee-deep in the water, and although it was a little rough, the waves weren’t too big.
As another wave approached, I called out, “This is the one!”
With that affirmation, Sarah released the board, and Ricochet was on her way.
“You can do it!” I shouted, and that’s when I saw the flock of birds gliding in overhead. I felt my heart clench.
“Leave it!” I called, but Ricochet was off the board in a flash, running at full tilt down the beach. There was no point in yelling at her, she wasn’t going to listen. She would come back when she was too tired to chase birds anymore. When she got back, I put her leash on so we could attempt a couple of more waves. But she stopped and planted herself and wouldn’t budge. She obviously had the same lackadaisical attitude toward surfing as she did for her training. Since it was apparent from her behavior that our surfing session was over, I unleashed her. Sarah, with surfboard in tow, and I, with a heavy heart, trudged out of the water.
“I just can’t do this,” I turned and grumbled to the sand and sea. I knew then that I should release her from the service-dog program. I looked down the beach and saw Ricochet leaping up in the air in sheer joy after the flying birds. I was mesmerized by her enthusiasm, but perplexed on how to transfer it to her training.
But something inside me was speaking too. When I watched her streaking after the birds those few times when I let her loose, I felt a twinge of happiness to see her doing something she loved. I stood there on the beach watching the elation pulse through every fiber of her being. I saw her crouch and coil then leap after the birds. I saw the strength of her muscles and fit body as she streaked after the flock when they flew off. But this just frustrated me more. Was there a career for the Fastest Bird Chaser? I would most definitely have to release her from service-dog work if I couldn’t cure her chase drive.
Not ready to give up on her, I decided to take a break from service-dog training and try more sporting activities to motivate her through fun. I took her to fly ball, agility, and lure coursing—anything to bring back the dog I knew. Lure coursing was doggie nirvana for Ricochet. It’s a sport in which a dog chases a mechanically operated lure—in this case a plastic grocery bag—that’s being whipped around a grassy area at thirty-five to fifty miles an hour. I watched her take off from her mark with unbridled enthusiasm, galloping at top speeds, twisting, turning, and tracking the bag with intense focus.
The next morning I was hopeful that she would be receptive to training since her energy had been released and her mind had been focused on a task. Since Ricochet loved battery-operated toys, I bought one that looked just like a puppy. I knew her ears would perk up when she heard me say, “Go!” But this time she raised one eyebrow and then the other, and gave me a look that said, “Really? We just bought that at Petco.” She yawned and rested her head on the ground. Our routine was like a continuous loop of Peanuts cartoons where the teacher drones on: “Whaa, whaa, whaa, whaa, whaa, whaa.” Ricochet wasn’t listening to a word I said. She simply walked away from the task—and from me! What happened to the puppy who once stared so attentively at every move I made? I missed Ricochet’s eagerness to engage with me: I missed our connection.
Suddenly my mind raced back to my childhood. I was six or seven and my dad was giving me a “swingy ride.” I loved when he lifted me up and whipped me around so I could try to kick the ceiling with my feet. When I was about ten he said to me, “You were my shadow.” Were. I didn’t ask why he chose the past tense. When had I gone from an are to a were? The same pattern was repeated with my husbands. We went from “I do” to “We did.” One day I realized my husband had left for work and he hadn’t even said good-bye. Had he the day before? I couldn’t remember. Why hadn’t I noticed? I feared this was the same kind of divide that had eroded between me and Ricochet.
In another effort to introduce more novelty into Ricochet’s training, I decided to try dock-jumping. I knew Red and her new family would be attending the event, so I thought it would be a good day in more ways than one. In this sport, dogs competitively jump off of the end of a dock into the water for distance or height. Being the water-loving dog that Ricochet was, I knew it would be perfect.
But Ricochet didn’t think so. Rather than leaping into the pool with wild abandon as the other dogs were doing, she came to a pensive halt at the edge of the dock. From very early on, she had displayed an analytical mind, thinking everything through before she did it. For instance, if I threw a toy into the pool, Ricochet would not immediately hurl herself in after it on impulse or for instant gratification; she would sit at the edge, calculating in her mind how far she had to jump, how much energy she’d have to expend, and in which direction the toy was floating. It was rare that she would just react to something without thought except to chase a bird. And here she was thinking once again.
“Aw, that’s so cute,” one woman said. “Your dog is really thinking about the jump.”
Overthinking is more like it, I thought. Why won’t she jump? Where’s her drive?
She finally threw caution to the wind when she spied Red in the water. Only then did she deliberately belly flop right on top of her sister, causing a commotion and distracting Red instead of retrieving the toy like she was supposed to. I apologized for my belly-flopping anti-prodigy who was now drying off in the sun instead of participating like the other dogs. Envy clouded my vision as I watched the other dogs and their handlers, working together, jumping, laughing, and enjoying the day while Ricochet snapped at flies.
The most frustrating part for me was that Ricochet had so much innate talent and yet she refused to use it. She just sat there without any interest whatsoever, in activities that were supposed to be fun. The times I took her surfing, she did really well . . . on two or three waves, that is, and then she would plant herself and refuse to surf anymore.
The harder I tried, the more emphatically Ricochet refused to participate. Unfortunately, I didn’t have the energy to clear the hurdle. My arthritis was flaring, making it extremely painful to even crawl out of bed in the mornings. As I was making an appointment with my rheumatologist, I thought about my own limitations and how they affected me so greatly. It occurred to me that maybe Ricochet’s lack of interest was a side effect of something physical. But after a detailed array of tests, the vet couldn’t find anything physically wrong with her.
Desperate for an answer, I also tried a few alternative approaches with Ricochet, including chiropractic and energy healing, but nothing revealed anything significant. The only difference was that my wallet was lighter and my heart was heavier. On the day that Ricochet refused to get in the car again I knew the situation was out of control. Thinking that maybe Asia, the animal communicator I had worked with earlier, could talk some sense into Ricochet, I set up a call with her. I sat with the receiver in my hand, staring outside at the piles of dirt mounds that were now my yard.
“Asia, please explain to her that she needs to have more enthusiasm.”
“She doesn’t understand what you mean,” Asia said.
“Tell her it’s like when the other dogs jump into the pool to get toys. They do it every time without hesitation. That’s enthusiasm,” I explained.
Asia laughed softly, seeming to choose her words with extra care. “Ricochet says that’s ridiculous. She doesn’t understand why they are willing to do the same thing over and over. Once it’s done, why would you do it again? Ricochet wants to do new and out-of-the-ordinary things, not the same dumb stuff again and again.”
The same dumb stuff? Dumber than digging fifty holes in my yard?
This wasn’t easy to hear because training is the same stuff over and over, but at least it has a meaningful purpose. I was at my wit’s end. She had an infinite amount of ability and zero motivation.
“I’m telling her that it’s like being an Olympian,” Asia said, explaining to Ricochet that athletes repeat behaviors until they are perfect and then keep repeating them until they can do them perfectly every time, no matter the circumstances. “I think she understands,” Asia told me.
For a few days Ricochet seemed more responsive and I thought our session had worked, but within a few days, she was back to being indifferent and unengaged. It was time to admit the painful truth: Ricochet and I were no dream team. My high hopes for an exceptional dog had come crashing down with a thud. The sense of disappointment and loss were all too familiar to me.
I had spent a year of my life trying to rekindle Ricochet’s spark to no avail. But really, what did I expect? My life was a running loop of loss and disappointment—a déjà vu of discontent. Why did I think my relationship with Ricochet would be any different? Maybe I was the source of contagion, tainting this magnificent dog with my legacy of dread.
I had fooled myself into thinking that the white mark on Ricochet’s chest was a sign of significance, but now I chalked it up to simple genetics. My heart ached with the realization that I had made a grave mistake in choosing her. And even worse: If destiny were at the helm, had Ricochet made a mistake by choosing me?
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