ABlogAbout Dexter: Pavlov’s Human

A few things happen when you spend four months living in a small room with a large dog. You begin to understand the appeal of scented candles, for one thing. Dang – big dogs stink! Dexter was smelly to begin with. Water dogs have that thick, slightly oily coat that protects them in the cold waters – and stinks to high heaven when wet. Add in the gas (smelliness proportional to the size of the dog) and you have a toxic olfactory situation. Often in the evening I’d be in the recovery room reading or watching TV, Dexter sleeping at my feet. Suddenly clear as day I’d hear a little “poot” – and I’d dive for the scented candle. Just as often, evacuation would be necessary. Dexter just continued to sleep, oblivious to the situation.

The bond is strong.
The bond between Mom and Dog.

I also learned to sleep on the floor. Cold cement covered by a thin layer of carpet, covered by few blankets?  Perfectly comfortable – sadly, more comfortable than the ancient mattress in the recovery room. Didn’t matter – even if it was uncomfortable, I’d be on the floor as soon as I saw Dexter struggling or feeling scared.

My hearing increased ten-fold. I could hear the smallest request to go outside, the quietest bad dream or the most tentative whimper of pain. The pain was the worst. How could I have done this to my sweet puppy? Clearly he didn’t understand that this pain was temporary and soon enough he’d be romping through the fields just as the surgeon’s dog had done post hip replacement.

I spent most of my time that first summer doing research, reading good books and watching a lot of bad TV. It was quiet in that back room. Life was usually hectic for me – working at a challenging job in an environment filled with Type-A colleagues. While I loved my job, I certainly cherished the quiet of the recovery room. Perhaps we were both recovering, in a way. Together in that small room, I begin to feel as though I was in a cocoon, safe and cozy with my best buddy.

Codependent Much?

Scented candles, cold floors, sensitivity to a cornucopia of sounds – all of these things happen when you live in a small room with a large dog. But mostly, by living in a small room with a big dog you form a much deeper bond with your dog than most people have. He becomes your truest friend, your most trusted confidante. You have a deep awareness of his moods, his needs and his sadness and joy – and he to yours. Your mood can often be traced to how your dog is feeling and what his mood is. The “real world” seems very far away. The recovery room takes on the feeling of being its own little world, and it revolves around the patient.

In other words, you become co-dependent. Apparently, this isn’t really a good thing. I know that every dog expert would disagree with me, but I felt certain that I could heal – or at least protect – Dexter emotionally if I just gave him enough love. Cesar Milan would tell me to treat the dog like a dog and he’d be happier. I’m sure he is right. But I just could not do that. Mind you, he was not completely undisciplined. He got in trouble – a LOT of trouble, as we’ll see – just like any dog. He got punished and reprimanded (or as they say, “corrected”) regularly. But was I really some sort of powerful alpha in his life? No, I think not. I think I was very clearly Mommy, and Dexter was very clearly a Mama’s Boy.Mama's Boy

There is a down side to this. Oh, it’s super cute that he needs to check in with me after every adventure. It’s great that all things being equal (and food not being present) he will always be at your side. It is very helpful that he’s easy to call back at the dog park, because being with Mom is the Very Best Thing. But it comes with separation anxiety on both of your parts. I certainly functioned better than he did during a separation, but his life definitely consumed my world. When the final separation came and that bond was permanently shattered, I simply did not know what to do with myself.


We had just started training Dexter when we discovered he needed surgery. He was never really trained except by accident. He learned to sit on command, by watching Zeta and her “military butt.” Zeta had been to a 30-day boot camp and sat quickly and with precision (hence the term: “military butt”). Dexter knew to sit when he saw the hand signal or heard the commant, but he sort of shuffled his back end into place trying to get his butt down in the right position. Big dogs just have a harder time sitting, or really doing anything at all quickly. It was far from “military butt.” It was lovely to watch, though I was always worried that the sit position was terribly painful for him.

Zeta always sat with
Zeta always sat with “military butt,” while Dexter sort of shuffled his but into place.

Besides the shuffle-sit command, he knew “off” and “uh-uh,” and heard “leave it!” enough times that he got it. Like any spoiled, hard-headed dog he did not always listen, but he certainly knew what we were saying. But even these few commands were a long time coming, and like I say it was not the most formal training.

As the first surgery approached, we became concerned about how much it would retard his mental and emotional growth. In order to be well trained and well adjusted, there’s a progression of experiences that need to take place, and a series of commands to be learned.  In Dexter’s case, we were sending him into isolation and fogging his senses with serious meds just as we had started to engage his brain. He was too smart and too excited about life to just sit in a room doing nothing all day. That would clearly be detrimental in many ways.

Our original trainer – the super-fabulous Kerry Ryan – agreed, and told us that we could keep progressing and have a better recovery situation if Dexter kept using his brain. She showed us a few neat tricks to keep Dexter occupied. One of these was to feed him by putting his kibble in a paper bag and wrapping it with tape. It was brilliant. It would take him a while to rip through the bag, and then the kibble would scatter. Cleaning up the kibble gave him even more to do. When all else fails, entertain him with food!

In retrospect, I wonder if this is one reason he enjoyed opening boxes of food so much. He learned early the joys of unwrapping “presents!” After all, what is a box of cereal but a brightly-colored present waiting to be opened?

Another thing we taught him was to ring bells when he needed to go out. This wasn’t just for his entertainment, it was for practical reasons. If we were sitting in the living room, we needed a way to know it was time to take him out. We didn’t want him to suffer or have accidents, and he couldn’t go to the back door and whine like other dogs. So we taught him to ring a jingle bell hung from the doorknob when he needed to go. It was a great system – we could hear that all through the house. In fact I could (and still can) hear it in my sleep and automatically get up to let him out. My ear is still highly tuned to this sound. But then, I was tuned into my dog. If he needed something in the middle of the night I knew it instantly and woke up. One small whine and I was up.

He used the bells until the day he died. I don’t know that I’ve heard of any other dogs that do this. Zeta, the smartest dog I have ever met, watched this for seven years and yet refused to use the bells. On the other hand, one week after we brought our new puppy home, he started ringing the bells. Logan rings in a more psychotic way, but he’s a pretty excitable teenage puppy so that makes sense.

Any good dog trainer will tell you to be careful with this sort of behavior. You know what’s coming: in truth, it was Dexter who trained US with the bell.

Let me explain that Dexter was a nervous shitter, and – I will remind you – a very big dog. He shit almost uncontrollably every time he got anxious – didn’t matter where or what was happening. These two characteristics in combination make for a pretty nasty situation. NO ONE wants a dog that huge crapping on their carpet. So when I say I was up in the middle of the night if those bells rang, you have to imagine the very specific reason that I was not inclined to wait. Was there a chance that he’d release a gallon of piss in the kitchen? Would he possibly leave a cow pie by the door – and then walk through it on his way back upstairs? No thank you!

So Dexter became accustomed to one of us jumping up the moment he rang a bell. Well, that was a great skill that we humans had learned! If he wanted to go out and smell the flowers a la Ferdinand the Bull (see below), RING! If he heard a noise outside and wanted to investigate, RING! If he wanted to alert us to the tragedy that was an empty tummy, RING! If he wanted us to notice him standing beside his leash, RING!

You name it, he’d ring for it.

Yes, be careful what you let them train you to do.

Ferdinand the Bull:


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