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Life with Luke: One Great Year, One Fantastic Day

Luke on Day 2 at home.

One year ago I brought home a little 10-pound rat terrier/fox terrier mix from the wonderful Humane Society of Indianapolis and named him Luke.

He was three years old and had never had a home before. I could tell that he was shy around people, but that he had a good disposition, which in my limited experience is characteristic of the breed. But I didn’t know then what a great boy he was.

He wasn’t toilet-trained, so that became the first priority – and it took us quite awhile; I’d never trained a dog before. He was jealous of his food; I was the one who gave it to him, but he kept expecting me to steal it back.

Apparently he grew up on the streets, fending for himself. He wasn’t that friendly toward other dogs; I wouldn’t call him aggressive, but he’s certainly assertive, and he doesn’t care how big another dog is, Luke stands his ground.

He was good on a leash, though; I figure that was thanks to the Humane Society of Kokomo, where he was brought in after he was hit by a car. Kokomo patched him up, then transferred him to Indy for adoption.

When I got him he was used to living in a cage, being fed and treated nicely within the confines of life in a shelter. No doubt he felt the food supply was good, and he must have liked how the people treated him when it was his turn for some attention.

The day we met, he was stand-offish at first, but then he did take a chance on me, and I had no doubt from that moment that he was the one I was looking for.

Still, the first week he was here he trembled the whole time; it’s hard to get used to a new place and one primary human, especially one as ignorant as me. My family had a series of foxies when I was a kid, but I’ve never been the main caregiver before. I had to study all the training materials HSI gave me, and read a lot online. In a few days, instead of letting him sleep on a blanket in the dining room, I bought him a crate. That was a good move. He likes his house.

Still, his social development and even motor skills left a lot to be desired. He was afraid of stairs, and I live in a two-story house. He’s a little bitty guy, as you can imagine, but hardly the smallest of breeds; he could handle stairs physically, but he needed to learn. Then he got to where he’d run down, but not up!

He has made me laugh a lot this past year.

There are still things he can’t do; he has no interest in chasing a ball or wrestling over a tied-up sock; with him it’s either a squirrel or a rabbit, or no dice. He’s a hunter, though I don’t let him hunt. He doesn’t really know how to play, and maybe once they get a certain age you can’t teach them. I’ve never met a dog who wouldn’t go bounding after a tennis ball, but not this guy.

He’s learned a lot, though, this past year. One of the biggest lessons was Sit, but that only took a day or two. (Today when we visited the vet for his second annual physical, I saw him sit for the tech, then the doctor, which filled me with joy.)

He’s learned that at suppertime, he’s to sit quietly in the dining room while I get his food ready. I’ll be damned if I’m going to have a dog begging underfoot in my kitchen; I feed him canned food or some human food at night, which means I’m moving around, rinsing off utensils and putting them in the dishwasher, and he’s to sit and wait out of the way.

Considering that this is food, he doesn’t mind one bit.

But oh, the instant I’m done with the prep, he comes and sits on the little rug by the sink, still out of the way. We have a routine for this; he knows he’s not to move until I put the leftovers in the fridge. Once I pick up his dish, he used to try to follow me, but again that only took one time of being told to Sit for him to get the message. (I still reinforce it occasionally and pretend to give him the evil eye, with his dish in midair. He doesn’t move a muscle.)

Once he hears me set the dish down, though, on the other side of the breakfast island out of his sight, then he’s free to move. The first few times this meant we were getting our legs crossed up, and he quickly corrected that on his own; he politely waits for me to exit that little cramped corner – then he eats.

He never barks in the house, seldom whines (and only for a second) and isn’t as manipulative as some dogs are. Nor do I have to bribe him all the time; he gets treats, not bribes. He’s got his moves and isn’t a saint, but he knows who the alpha male is here and seems perfectly happy being #2. When my friend Bob visited a couple of weeks ago, Luke was even happier being #3.

That was a very good step forward in his socialization. Thank you, Uncle Bob.

Luke hasn’t “made a mistake in the house” in six months, and now we’re working on more freedom.

Every change in his routine is momentarily confusing to him, but he’s still young and flexible, and he thinks.

I’ve taught him one game: how we do Treats after our midnight walk around the perimeter.

1. He sits motionless on the kitchen rug by the sink.
2. I get out his treat, break it into pieces depending on the brand, put the extra piece in my pocket and keep one in my hand, then sit on the kitchen steps opposite the sink while he doesn’t move.
3. I show him the treat. I hide which hand it’s in, then put it on one knee and cover them both with my hands. Which side’s got it, Luke? (This is easy, I only have two knees.)
4. I count to three: “One. Two. Three.” But this is not sufficient, he doesn’t have permission to come yet; only when I lift up both hands is he allowed to race over.

I almost always lift up my hands at the count of three, but if not, he stays put. What he’s learned is One, Two, Three and Hands Up.

He grabs his treat, races back to the rug (where food jealousy is allowed), he chews – and sits back down for the rest of the pieces and the Game again.

I don’t know which of us is entertained more, him or me.

We might have a little petting afterward, then since it’s midnight and time for bed, I wave my hand and he runs back to his little house in the living room and curls up on a football blanket. I lock him in for the night and he has doggy dreams.

TODAY we had a fantastic day. All week I’ve been re-familiarizing him with Car Ride; to him it’s a big jump from the garage floor to the back seat, but he can do it. Today it was time to go see Dr. Kay again.

I knew from last year how good she and her staff are, but in October 2009 he peed 3-4 times; not this year. I rejoiced; he’s generalized the learning, no marking up indoors!

He got a blood test, shots, sat nicely around these new people he’s only seen once a year ago, didn’t bark and only trembled a little when we put him on the examination table. The doctor and staff of course are experts in loving care, they reinforce but don’t bribe, and he did great. He’s gained a pound and a half, but is still a lean little guy like a ratboy should be. Best of all the doctor spent 30 minutes with us, so I got to tell her all his progress, what his issues still are, and when we talked about his two runaway episodes, which were minor but worrisome the first time, that he doesn’t always come on command if I take a chance and let him loose, she found me some info about a dog park 45 miles away where he can run safely. Terriers need to run, and though I take him for regular walks on his leash, I want him to run freely and safely. I occasionally go to the city where the dog park’s located, and she also had an idea about the county fairgrounds, which are much closer.

All in all I felt she listened carefully to our story together for the past year, provided guidance and resources, and gave us both a great experience. Then he got a bath and a pedicure, like going to the doggy day spa!

Still, with this dog I worry about overstimulation, and when I got him home, instead of returning to his regular programming (outside in the sun on a longish tether), he wanted to go inside for a nap.

I fed him early, took him back out for an hour’s tether time in the sun, and as the day began to close I got his leash for our sunset walk around the neighborhood – where for the first time he did not come at the sound of the back door opening, nor when I called him. I went to fetch him and found two strangers plus a dog in my yard. No wonder he was yapping!

They were a grandma, a 12-year-old girl and an ugly little pugdog that Luke was being his usual assertive self with; not aggressive, but a little worrisome to me because I don’t want him in fights. Who were these people thinking they could come on my property? This is a small town, we don’t do that here. And he’d already had quite a day.

The grandma and the girl were very nice, and both aware that they were on my property with a foreign dog and apologizing, but we talked, I reassured them and kept an eye on Luke with the pugdog. They’d nose each other, then defend themselves with barking and growling, then quiet down and sniff each other’s butts before starting on another round of noisiness. (The smart little girl, who said she wants to be a veterinarian when she grows up, said she couldn’t understand why dogs would want to sniff each other’s butts. I did not tell her why.)

It turns out grandma and little girl and pugdog often visit Luke in my yard, “because he always looks so lonely” on his tether. I didn’t take offense at that; he likes being outside and I give him plenty of attention. But this meant Luke and the pug weren’t confronting each other for the first time, and these okay humans were dogpeople. I still didn’t like how Luke was acting, which didn’t look happy to me, but grandma said, “Oh, he’s very friendly, always wags his tail, these two like each other.” I was fairly amazed.

Maybe I’ve misinterpreted Luke’s behavior when we’ve encountered other dogs; he’s always seemed to me on the verge of fighting, but here was grandma saying no, this is great.

It’s been a year of learning for me too.

After another few pleasant minutes, I put Luke on his leash and, after checking with grandma, we headed off in the opposite direction for our sunset walk. Everything was back to normal, just Josh and his buddy making our rounds in the village, stopping every 20 feet to sniff someone else’s scent or leave some.

Maybe I’ve just been a worrywart; it’s an adult’s job to worry about the kid. It’s taken him all year to warm up to people, and he still doesn’t like strangers to pet him; I saw that again with the little girl. Let him approach you.

But he was good with Bob, and he truly is starting to generalize his lessons as he needs to (didn’t pee at the vet’s this year), and the girl said he licked her hand once. When Bob was here, Luke even licked Mike the carpenter’s hand, after raising holy hell for “invading our space” like I hired him to.

Today was the first day, after a year of living here, that Luke licked my face.

That, and his five-star healthy reports from Dr. Kay, made it a fantastic day.

I freely admit, I’ve had a lot to learn this past year, and I’m not done yet.

But even a death row inmate can’t be all bad, if a dog’s willing to lick his face.++

Luke's face, with its little vanilla drip from his forehead to his nose.