Every day Robin and I take Jake the Dog to a park where we can take his lead off and let him run free to play with all the other dogs. He enjoys this a lot, but we sometimes find it a little traumatic.
"Jake!" I yelled at the black and tan dot that was vanishing out of sight over the horizon. "Jake! Come back here!"
Jake paid no attention to me whatsoever. He was in hot pursuit of what he hoped would turn out to be a delightfully smelly dog bottom that he urgently needed to sniff, and nothing was going to distract him from that essential task.
"I think his ears are just painted on," said Robin. "They certainly don't appear to be functional at the moment."
"Sometimes I think they are only ornaments," I said. "Perhaps we should talk to the dog man about it the next time we take Jake to the Disobedience Class."
So that's what we did.
"The trick," explained the dog man, "is to give him some motivation to return to you. You've got to make yourselves more attractive than whatever it is that is distracting him at the moment. He needs a good reason to come back to you."
"How do we do that?" I asked. "Should I spray myself all over with essence of dog bottom?"
"That's probably a little extreme," said the dog man. "But we do need to discover something you can do that will get him excited. Is he motivated by food?"
"Not really," I said. "Most dinner times he won't even finish his meal unless I'm there supervising him, and he doesn't seem to care at all when the cats sneak in and steal some of it."
"Hmm." said the dog man. "So the treats you have in your pocket that you reward him with when he's a good boy aren't sufficient in themselves to grab his attention?"
"Indeed not," I said. "They are just icing on the cake of his day nice, but not at all necessary."
"What about toys?" asked the dog man. "Does he like to chase a ball?"
"No, he doesn't. If I throw a ball for him he'll chase it once out of politeness, but then he loses interest. And he doesn't have an ounce of retriever in him. He never brings anything back. If I go and get the ball and throw it a second time he just looks at it and says, 'I already chased that once. Why do you want me to do it again?' Then he'll probably eat it, which is a really good way of making sure we can't play that game again."
"What about sticks?" asked the dog man. "Sticks are always good."
"He's not really a stick dog," I said. "Sometimes he'll be in a stick mood, and then he'll carry one around for a while, but his interest doesn't usually last for very long. He soon gets bored with it, and then he settles down and eats it. Sometimes he uses the splinters to pick his teeth. But if a leaf falls from a tree or a blade of grass waves in the wind, he will easily get distracted, and then that's the end of the stick he just abandons it and chases off after his new interest."
"How odd," said the dog man. "I've never met a dog that couldn't get interested in toys and sticks. But of course he is a huntaway. What they want to do most of all is herd things. I once met a huntaway who was so frustrated at not having things to round up every day, that he tried to herd a flock of ants in his back garden. He wasn't very good at it. He just couldn't get the ants to pay any attention to him no matter how loudly he barked at them. He clearly found that very frustrating and he was not a happy dog."
"Oh yes," I said. "Jake certainly has very strong herding instincts. He's particularly good rounding up schoolchildren."
"That's impressive," said the dog man, "but it's a bit impractical. You can't carry schoolchildren round in your pocket when you go to the park. People might talk. Is there anything else that he likes?"
"He quite fond of his tug'o'war rope," I said. "We sometimes play with it in the garden. He seems to look forward to that."
"And where does the rope live?"
"It's just lying in the garden," I said, "so that he can play with it and chew on it whenever he wants to."
"I see," said the dog man. "Right this is what you have to do. Put the rope away somewhere out of sight and take it with you to the park. Let him play with it there and nowhere else. Make the rope a special treat that only happens at the park, never at home. That way he'll really feel motivated to come back to you so that he can play tug'o'war."
Robin and I were both dubious, but we agreed to give it a try, and so the next time we went to the park, Robin carried the rope in a plastic bag. We let Jake off the lead and, as usual, he went racing off into the middle distance. But before he got out of sight, Robin pulled out the rope, waved it around and yelled, "Jake! Jake! Look what I've got."
Jake glanced casually back, did a double take and put on all his brakes. He skidded to a stop, scattering mud left and right (it had been raining hard earlier in the day and the ground was saturated). Wow! A rope! He came racing back and grabbed hold of it. "Tug! Tug! Tug!" cried Robin as Jake braced himself and pulled for all he was worth. "And Let go!"
Robin released the rope and Jake tumbled briefly backwards. Then he recovered himself and, with the rope clutched proudly in his mouth, he did a happy-dance, leaping and prancing, shaking his head from side to side and making the rope swing backwards and forwards. The rope ends with their heavy knots shook all over his face and body, whipping him into a frenzy in a magnificent orgy of self-flagellation. Jake was clearly in doggy heaven.
"Yeah!" he said. "What a wonderful rope. Best rope ever!"
Then he glanced up and saw another dog. He dropped the rope and left it lying forgotten and forlorn in a puddle of mud as he dashed off to greet the new most important thing in his life. Robin picked up the muddy rope. "Well, that didn't last long," she said.
"Perhaps he'll get interested once he's finished sniffing the other dog. Try him again."
"Jake! Come here!" yelled Robin as she waved the rope enticingly at Jake. Drops of muddy water sprayed over her, leaving her fetchingly spotted in grey. Jake came racing back and grabbed the rope from her, and then he danced his happy-dance again.
"It's a rope! It's my rope! It's got mud and everything! Look how elegant the knots are."
Robin and I started to feel cautiously optimistic. Jake was being much better behaved. The dog man was right. The secret was definitely in the rope
Robin, Jake and I walked further along the riverbank and we met a very wet dog called Cynthia who had just been for a swim. She was a singularly ugly pit bull, but she had a lovely slobbery personality and she was happy to say hello to all of us. Because she was a pit bull, she was wearing a studded collar. But because she was a girl, it was pink. It was really quite fetching, and Jake was clearly besotted with her.
"Hey Cynthia," said Jake, "you're a pretty thing. Would you like to sniff my bottom?"
"I don't mind if I do," said Cynthia, and they both went through the usual doggy ritual.
"I've got a rope," said Jake proudly.
"Show me," said Cynthia.
Jake picked up his rope and shook it a little and he did a little happy-dance around Cynthia. The ends of the rope whipped both of them a bit and Jake grinned. Surely this would make him irresistible.
"Huh," said Cynthia. "Call that a rope? That's not much of a rope."
She turned her back and trotted away to her mum and dad, leaving Jake alone and bereft. He was utterly disconsolate. "Typical," he said. "You show a girl your best rope and all she does is spurn you." His ears drooped and his tail went down between his legs. He was a picture of misery. He picked up his rope and walked slowly down into the river. He dropped the rope into the water. It floated off downstream, gradually sinking slowly as it got more and more waterlogged. Eventually it sank out of sight; the current carried it away, and we never saw it again.
"Oh well," said Jake gloomily, "I suppose that's that." Then he perked up a little. "Have you got treats in your pocket or are you just pleased to see me?"