(Benjamin: continued from What’s in a Name)
In 1996, the world was only seven years removed from the Berlin wall coming down and the country was still navigating its dynamic and very rapid transition from a “socialist” post-Soviet bloc nation into whatever it imagined it wanted to become. As such, the pet food industry was non-existent in Poland, which kind of sucked if you had a secret kibble addiction or a love of bacon-carrot-liver pâté. It also made life with a dog a whole lot different than any Purina commercial we grew up watching.
Having said that, dogs were still more common, at least in Warsaw, than anywhere in Canada I have experienced. This was true even though homes were on average a quarter of the size of those in Canada and the notion of owning a freehold, detached home in the city was as realistic as me owning a home in Ottawa’s Rockcliffe Park, Vancouver’s Shaughnessy, Toronto’s Forest Hill or Westmount in Montreal … and at the time, Warsaw would have ranked as Canada’s third largest city.
Perhaps, then, it shouldn’t surprise that the most ubiquitous dog in Poland was the Dachshund. On the one hand, this made sense with so many family apartments measuring 500 square-feet or less. What didn’t make sense was that, as a whole, large dogs, including Mastiffs, Alsatians, Pyrenees, Rottweilers, and Dobermans, made up an equally large number of companions. The Poles love dogs, of this there is no question. They treat them as family and the dogs are integrated into their homes and lives … though based on the number of times I stepped in dog crap there, I can’t say they equally loved picking up after them.
Yet even at all this, there was no pet food market in 1996.
A year of contemplating pet ownership and watching Magda and Aida had prepared me for this reality. Still, my reality was now setting in, so Magda provided a crash course in canine cuisine and the ever resourceful cook in me was literally off to the market the next day in search of supplies – and I saw the neighbourhood butcher and green grocers with a fresh set of eyes, looking at base cuts of meat and offal and limp veggies and imagining possibilities. Ground beef (non lean), liver, rice or kasza gryczana (or “kasha”) with added veggies like apples, carrots, parsnip or broccoli were the main ingredients I started with. It wasn’t elaborate, wasn’t particularly well-thought out, and was often random and based on what I had in the fridge or was already buying, but I learned early that dogs needed more fat in their diet than we humans … and that they are in fact omnivores. And Ben has always loved his veggies. To this day, I swear the dog knows what broccoli sounds like, and he’ll wait patiently at the side of the island while I pare off the stems of the broccoli and trim off their tough outer husk and turn them into bite sized pieces of broccoli marrow. Ben will do pretty much the same tricks for broccoli as he will for cheese.
Every week for the first year, I would make Ben his food and put half in the fridge and the other half in the Stalinist icebox that was my freezer: a beast of ill-conceived aluminum and Freon that I’d have to chip the ice out of every few months. Beyond this, Ben would get table scraps and anything else he could lay his ravenous teeth into.
Ultimately, the training of him to not snarl when eating was incredibly successful and was the result of systematic repetition and persistence. It started with me putting the plate down and taking it away again while he was eating. I wanted him to at least get comfortable with me being near him while he ate. In need to convince this starving little monster that I possessed (and provided) the food and, yes, that I was in control … but I also wanted him to know certainty that he could trust me, that I would feed him when hungry and that I’d always give the food back. Most importantly, he would learn to trust that I was fair and consistent and so he didn’t need to panic or ‘react.’ At the same time, the smart dog that he is, he quickly started to connect his own behavior with what got him rewarded and that which he wanted.
I don’t consider myself a genus or master dog trainer that I took Cujo and conjured a dog that I could put a piece of cheese between my lips and he would delicately take it. (I know gross – and I want to be clear, I didn’t make a habit of this. It was an object lesson to reinforce what he was already learning and it cemented our trust. It was, for all intents and purposes, a ‘trick’). I took instruction from any and every source I could find it – which was challenging because living in Poland, there were few English resources available to me. And, very early on, I pleaded with my Dad to find me and send me anything he could. I read, for example, Woodhouse’s No Bad Dogs and also boned up on canine anatomy and care – and I was ready to give him CPR through the nose if, god forbid, the need would ever come.
Once the dog training books “arrived,” Ben’s training hit high gear, but we kept applying what we were learning to his food etiquette. For example, once he learned “sit,” I started to apply it to his eating as well, getting him to “sit” in front of his food bowl and wait. This was reinforced once we learned “stay” too. I’d slowly place the plate in front of him while holding my hand out in a “stop” motion until he stayed. If he lunged, I took back the plate and repeated till he “stayed.” When he mastered this, then I started creating more distance between him and his food and getting him to stay. The key for Ben was the “release,” which in his case was “Ok.” It was harder to do, but ultimately he got it and he would “stay” – alternating between a fixated stare at the plate and looking at me while straining at an invisible cord and waiting. He was like a sprinter in the blocks waiting for the starter’s pistol to go off … and with “ok” he would lunge for the food and things would disappear like grubs into a castaway’s mouth.
Our kitchen table in Warsaw was a small table with a bench on one side that, yes, sat in our tiny kitchen. I’ll confess that once Ben got “mannered,” he’d sit on the bench beside me like a child and watch us eat … and in between he would get scraps from my fingers. I know, I know … the fact that Ben is a whiner late in life is my fault and I screwed up with the kitchen table. But damn if it wasn’t cute and it didn’t seem so “wrong” since I was cooking his food anyway. I’m confident Cesar Millan would chastise my behaviour, but I don’t care – this was my relationship with Ben, and everything was going great. The one thing I did do right, though, is that fact that to this day, regardless of want and ability, Ben has never once snatched or even licked food left on any table. He’s done much worse and I’ll get to those stories, but somehow, this starving little puppy learned table manners.
Teaching him not to eat discarded food that littered the streets of Warsaw, however, was another matter. Ben and I had it out a few times over the crap he’d discover off-leash … heck, sometimes he’d even discover it on-leash. Fish-heads attached at the spine to the tail like some Warner Bros. cartoon were the worst – but he found bones, luncheon meat, tissues, food wrappers, dinner rolls, you name it … if it even remotely resembled food, touched food, or had food on it, and if Ben could get to it, it was fair game in the mind of this street-smart dog . I can’t tell you the number of miles I ran chasing this dog with purloined food in his mouth … which somehow he could chew and swallow while running figure eights and avoiding me. On the occasions I did catch him, it would end in an alligator wrestle of me trying to pry his sharp little teeth open as I pulled the crap out. These were neither Ben’s nor my own most shining moments – truthfully, and regretfully, these were the moments in our life that I regret the most. These were tough lessons for both of us to learn, but we did learn and we survived. More than anything, it taught me that dogs have a tremendous capacity to forgive … even our muddling attempt at trying train and raise them. I have learned a lot from Ben in this regard and he gave me the ability to forgive the fumbled learning of my parents as they did their best to raise me into who I am today.
I will say that Ben’s relationship with food remains a cornerstone of his personality … and for myself, a foody who, every three months, still makes Ben a more sophisticated version of his original dog-food, it’s a match made in heaven.
Continued next … Chapter 2: A Polish Year – Tooth-Fairy