Getting schooled

Getting schooled
Zach Hively - 05/18/2023

Injustice plagues us. So very, very many injustices. A man can feel overwhelmed by the great variety and scope of injustice out there. Partly this is because, being a man, he is unfamiliar with experiencing any injustice more severe than a bad umpiring call. Mostly it is because he can do very little to fix all the injustice, and he would much rather fix the injustice than think about it. Unfixed injustice makes him uncomfortable.

If you sympathize with this man, he’d rather not talk about it. Feelings make him uncomfortable too. But I – I would recommend identifying one single injustice you CAN fix. Preferably a personal injustice. Taking direct action against it will do wonders for your self-esteem, much more than wanting to fix the whole world but ending up falling asleep on the couch.

My chosen injustice is this family I see in town with an impeccably trained border collie, the kind who locks eyes on its human and reads their minds and can go into public places without stealing someone’s french fries or attempting to play tug-of-war with their forearms. 

I love my dogs very much, and I almost never forget to walk them or feed them. They are Very Good Dogs. But when I watch this border collie, I suddenly and deeply appreciate those old “My kid can beat up your honor student” bumper stickers.

You adolescent Einsteins would be safe with my older fella, Hawkeye, who has never beaten up anything tougher than a tree branch. If your kids are smart enough to throw a tennis ball, Hawkeye will be their friend. He has border collie-like focus on anything thrown. He also has no desire to interact with strangers outside of this throwing-things arrangement, which means he and I understand each other.

My younger dog, Ryzhik, on the other hand – he really COULD beat up your honor student. He would not do so out of academic inferiority. He would, however, do so out of sheer and boisterous friendliness, and a strong misconception about his own body mass. 

I am fairly helpless to prevent this ballistic playfulness; Ryzhik knows all his basic commands, but he knows them best in two languages that I don’t speak: Russian; and English with a Russian accent. You see, his foster dad was from Russia. 

“I have been teaching him in English, too, so that he is learning how to listen to you,” his foster dad explained to me. “Also, we have not been calling him by his name. We have been calling him Ryzhik. It is a cute nickname. You pronounce it well. But you are not needing to follow his name with saying ‘and squirrel.’”

I have now spent the better part of two years perfecting my terrible Russian accent, the better to communicate with my dog. This does not help when Ryzhik is joyously beating up a schoolchild, though, or a grandma out for a walk – honor roll or not.

So: to mend the sense of injustice I experience when I see the border collie intensely NOT gumming the skin off some elderly pedestrian, I took Ryzhik to a professional dog trainer.

I anticipated learning some insightful hacks to create more effective two-way communication with my dog, which I could then use to tell him to sit down and get over here and drop that old lady RIGHT NOW YOUNG MAN and other useful things. Ryzhik is indeed very smart; I just needed him to learn to listen to me through my thick American accent, thus becoming not only a Very Good Boy but an immaculately well-behaved one too. Let him become someone else’s injustice – let them envy me and my dogs!

Little did I know I would be the one getting trained.

First up, I learned that I most definitely was not using enough treats in my daily routine. I thought that a command well executed was its own reward, plus massive amounts of praise and physical affection. Nope! Turns out that I, like my dogs, need more than that. What my dogs want most are pellets of salmon and peanut butter the size of your typical pencil eraser. These are how I let my dogs know they are safe and loved. And after a successful training session, I give myself pieces of chocolate. This is how I know I am safe and loved.

Second up, I learned that there was far more to my early childhood education than I ever suspected. One of my earliest school memories is showing up one day and being expected to conduct long division. But did you know I had multiple years of schooling leading up to that triumph? It must be true, because dog education is founded on the same principles. 

Whatever early schooling Ryzhik had, we’re starting fresh. Which is fine by Hawkeye – he gets treats simply for hanging out with us. He really likes training. As for fixing injustice? The biggest injustice is how little I’ve worked with Ryzhik up til now. But that’s all changing, and I will keep you posted on our progress. Just as soon as I get my arm back.

– Zach Hively

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