Monday, February 20, 2012

Why word choice matters

My dog, Bindi, is a three-year-old Australian Kelpie. In case you're unfamiliar with the breed, imagine a herding dog on crack.

Then dial it up six notches, add a genius level IQ, and remove the off-switch.

I originally acquired her two years ago to serve as an aid for a deaf elderly dog I owned. It took less than a day to teach her the commands to locate him when he wandered off in the woods and herd him back to me.

These days, her skills are utilized mostly by my housemates, who regard her as a sort of electric blanket to be grabbed while snoozing on the couch watching action flicks.

Feeling guilty about the wasted talent, I decided two weeks ago to teach Bindi a new trick.

"Bindi," I called, grabbing a fistful of dog biscuits. "Sit!"

She sat, of course, and waited for the next command. With my free hand, I made a finger-pistol and pretended to shoot her. "Bang! Bang!"

My plan was to roll her gently into a "play dead" position.

Her plan was to tuck her tail between her legs and flee the room.

"What the hell, Bindi?" I called. "Come back."

She slunk back into the room, looking like I'd just run over her tail with the lawn mower.

"It's not a real gun," I assured her, letting her sniff my hand. "See, it's just my fingers. We're only pretending it's a gun because it seems like kind of a cute way to teach you to play dead."

She listened carefully, cocking her head to the side and perking her ears up. I gave her a biscuit just to show there were no hard feelings. Then we were ready to try again.

"Bindi, sit!"

She sat. I cocked my finger and fired. "Bang! Bang!"

She tucked her tail, slunk across the room, and leaped onto my housemate's lap. From there, she eyed me with deep suspicion.

"I don't think she likes this trick," my housemate said.

Baffled, I retrieved my manual on dog behavior while dialing the number for a local dog trainer.

I'm kidding. That would be the logical move. What I really did was post a joke on Facebook about my dog failing to distinguish a gun from a finger.

After a few silly comments and "likes," a friend piped up as the voice of reason. "She probably thinks you're saying 'bad,' since she doesn't know the word 'bang.'"

Oh.

And duh.

I raced back to the living room and switched tactics. "Bindi sit!" I made the finger-pistol again. "Pow!"

I toppled her over with one hand and held her in the play-dead position. No whimpering. No tail-tucking. I let her back up and tried again.

"Pow!"

And just like that, my dog got the trick.

Considering what I do for a living, you'd think I might be smarter about choosing my words carefully. I'm a slow learner sometimes, I suppose. Thankfully, my dog isn't.

In case you want evidence, here's a ten-second video of Bindi executing her trick. Feel free to applaud and praise, or just share an instance when you realized the value of choosing your words carefully:

11 comments :

Sarah W said...

I have more than enough examples of bad word choices, especially since I've become addicted to Words with Friends.

But I can't remember any of them right now because I'm cooing over Bindi. Such a pretty puppy!

Malin said...

Aw! Poor confused dog! I'm glad your friend realised what was wrong with "bang". And I'm very impressed. Took me a whole lot longer to teach our last dog how to play dead. (I used "DIE" which might be slightly more omnious than "pow")

Mary said...

Your pup is so smart! My two, well, the little one ignored me completely and went to sleep while the other one merely cocked his head at me, confused as usual. He's not the sharpest stick.

Teri Anne Stanley said...

That's too awesome.

I have a 5 month old coon hound pup, who has the whole "sit and wait until you tell me to come get a cookie" thing down, but not "keep your damned paws off the kitchen counter" thing. We'll work on playing dead next week.

Rick said...

This is sort of missing the point, but I never knew that you got Bindi to essentially be a service dog to another dog - how cool!

Also dammit, I want a dog...

Matthew MacNish said...

Kelly somehow didn't manage to shut the front door all the way the other night, and my dog, Nesta, got out and ran around the neighborhood all night. She must have thought it was a real party.

Sarah Allen said...

I agree with Rick. I want a dog! Yours is freaking smart, obviously. The video is awesome :)

Sarah Allen
(my creative writing blog)

Elizabeth Poole said...

Awwwwwwwww she's so cute! I love it when you post pictures of her. We're going to get a dog within a year or two, and I've thought about getting an "Bindi dog" as I call them, just because she's smallish, but adorable and smart.

Geoffrey Cubbage said...

Guess it's a good thing you pronounced "sit" very clearly for her, huh?

Harley May said...

Oh, Bindi. I love you so.

Frosted said...

I stumbled on this post while looking for Kelpie images. I loved your description of the breed--it perfectly describes our two-year-old, Geordie.

Strangely enough, I tried to teach him the bang bang trick but he took it as an invitation to instead chase a tennis ball. Definitely a crack dog:)