Chapter 2: A Polish Year (continued from “You Really Love Him”)
It was to the outside world an improbable event when I let down my guard, put aside my rational being, and let my heart act with the impulsivity of a man who had bonded deeply with his dog. It was perhaps all the more noteworthy given the vehemence, now distant, with which I had denied this dog entry into our lives. But there on the carpet, Ben straddling my chest, I could think of a no more pure expression of being in-the-moment, of being happy, of feeling loved, than I felt when I kissed Ben’s forehead.
I knew in that moment that there was nothing I wouldn’t do for this magical little creature that was filling my world with life. That is not to say our road was without tussles or speed bumps, but the bond we held so perfectly would never waver.
Ben was staying, of that there would never be another question.
With this concluded, it became time to integrate him fully into our lives, change schedules to adapt, and supplement his hand-me-downs and odds and sods with things that befitted him. First up was a collar – something “manly” (er-hem). For two years, I had walked past a spartan shop on Nowy Świat that was “filled” with tack and doggy accoutrements. I stopped in one day and bought him a black leather studded collar, thinking the studs would afford him some protection from other dogs. I thought the lamb’s wool on the inside would also be comfortable for Ben – and yes, I too remarked that such things now mattered in my brain. As a six-month old puppy, Ben hadn’t learned “respect” yet and in his friendly, charge-and-sniff approach to greetings, he had already been put in his place more than once in our short life. The studs seemed relevant for dog that didn’t know that he was small.
I also bought a choke chain….
Keep in mind, the year was 1996, Poland was still a rather conservative society, and all the dog books I was reading were still suggesting that the best way to teach a dog to heel was with a choke chain … and Cesar Millan wasn’t there to suggest otherwise.
So I bought what I thought was a medium sized chain that I hoped would fit Ben … and hoped I was doing the right thing.
On the way home that day, I also stopped in a shop in which I was rapidly becoming a mainstay: a little shop at the edge of my market that sold Polish ceramics and, in particular, Bolesławiec. In the first year that we lived in Poland, we learned about the ceramics from Bolesławiec and the “peacock” patterned tableware that so ubiquitously adorned the shelves of the Pewex shops and any other stores catering to the still very much nascent Polish tourist industry. Ceramics had been produced in Silesia for nearly 500 years, but at the turn of the twentieth-century, industrialization came to the region and the pottery changed, introducing new designs and colours … and new markets. Through two world wars, inopportune deaths, and a lot of luck, the pottery survived and for many it became a tell-tale symbol of Poland and hence the reason it ended up in Pewex shops where foreigners prized the pieces for their handmade qualities and craftsmanship. Ironically, all the Poles I knew disdained the stuff because it was “handmade” and thus the imperfections that outsiders valued as “artisan,” the Poles rejected as symbolic of a traditional, poor, and unprogressive era.
A few years before, with company coming for dinner, I had decided to stop buying throw-away housewares and had instead bought four rimmed soup-bowls and some coffee cups. Unable to find one pattern that I loved in particular, I decided to buy each piece in a different pattern. Thereafter, any time I needed another bowl or plate or whatever, I’d stop in my little shop and buy what I needed. So it was that over 18 months or so that I had a grown a small and yet haphazard and eclectic collection of dishes.
With dog collars in hand, I thought, Ben needs real dishes – no more of the make-do plastic bowls he was currently using. So I got off the bus and made a bee line for “my” shop where Anna greeted me as I entered. Anna spoke a few more words of English than I did of Polish, but each time I entered, we’d battle through a small conversation and learn a bit more about each other while I looked at her wares and picked out one or two pieces.
“I have new puppy. He needs bowls from to eat.”
“Here. I have dog bowls. Very nice. Dogs love them. Easy to eat. Very pretty, yes?”
You get the idea …
And so I returned home laden with loot for my Ben.
I will say he loved the black leather collar and he looked some kind of menacing in the studs. Next, I washed out the dog bowls and filled one with water and the other with some food and Ben bounded in like a prospector discovering a fist sized nugget on the ground. I took that as “he loved” the bowls too, but truthfully, Ben would have eaten the same food off of the pavement and been just as happy. That said, these bowls would become the mainstay and the only thing he would eat from for the next 14 years until he got sick.
Two for two, next up was the choke chain.
I pulled the weighty stainless steel links from the bag and opened my dog-training book to clarify how it worked … and was a bit flummoxed at first as I attempted to loop the chain through the large links on the ends. I slowed it down, matching my maneuvers to the pictures and finally got it to work. I then started playing with it on my arm making sure it was doing what it was supposed to do – check but not choke. I have to admit, I wasn’t sure about this, but as I played with, I made sure the downward part of the chain was looped in the right direction and I made sure the chain would release when pulled and not stick. I took a deep breath and called Ben who bounded towards me and he became nervous when I bent towards him with the jingling of the chain.
“It’s ok Ben – it’s just to help you stop pulling on the leash. I promise, I won’t hurt you,” and, with that, I looped it over his neck and attached his leash. As he dipped his head to throw it off, I knew immediately that the chain I bought was too big for him: it made him look like scrawny little gang-banger who thought that wearing 5 pounds of chain made him tough ….
Unluckily for Ben, I was as stubborn as he was, so I committed to trying it anyway; so I gave him a little tug and said “Chodź – come.”
Ben was a puller and he was a sniffer. Even at his current age as his eyesight and hearing are slowly leaving him, his nose continues to be his dominant sense. Outside, with all the smells that abounded, Ben was always pulling, straining on the leash. He’d smell an old piece of sausage and practically yank my shoulder from its socket. And most annoying was his propensity for walking on the wrong side of a lamp post or tree and wrapping the leash around it. No Boy Scout training in the world had prepared me for this bit of rigging and knots play. The books assured me this choke or check chain would do the trick, that Ben, the smart dog that he was, would quickly learn the futility of pulling on the leash.
Walking on the street, we hadn’t gone 10 feet before Ben ran at a stray leaf and the chain jerked tight and, in the process, and with a yelp, Ben just about laid himself out on the cobblestones. I cringed, but we continued. Another dozen paces and Ben bounded forward to meet another dog and I jerked back on the leash and, with another yelp, he heeled, looking back at me when done. After half a block more, Ben saw a bird and lunged and quickly lay flat on his belly when the chain checked. And that was about the end of it …. I didn’t stop with the chain but Ben quickly realized that this weight around his neck that he couldn’t throw off meant pulling was a bad idea. Each walk, he quickly fell into step with a tug here or there. It was actually quite miraculous, or so I thought.
Did I mention that Ben is an incredibly smart dog?
A week later, and not thrilled about using the chain more than necessary and thinking Ben had quickly learned the lesson intended, I decided to walk him with just his regular collar. Within 10 feet of leaving the door, Ben was jerking and leading me again. There was little in the way of change in behaviour except that he was more tentative at first when he pulled. However, when he met no resistance, he ignored the lead and just did whatever he wanted.
The next walk, it was back to the chain and after being checked once, he was calm again. A few walks again – and no chain– and he again regressed. And so it went, back and forth, for weeks. It was clear that Ben, clever dog that he was, had learned the difference between walking with and without the choke chain. Like he knew the difference between a slippered foot and stocking foot, like he knew the difference between people who liked to be licked and those that didn’t, Ben could discriminate collars … and he adjusted his behaviour accordingly. We both had learned that choke chains, at least in my unlearned hands, sucked.
Continued next … Chapter 2: A Polish Year – A First in My Life