"Poor Bess," the Wonder Dog
Bess died in my arms, Friday afternoon, July 24, 1981, following a lethal injection from the veterinarian and was buried at home. She would have been fourteen in November.
During her lifetime she had retrieved daily and Sunday papers over 5,000 times until a week before her death when her arthritis became increasingly severe and she could no longer climb even the shallow slopes between the street and the house without frequent falls and difficulty regaining her feet. Her last two months she limped and hobbled but her tail still wagged in joy as she triumphantly carried the paper to the door -- for her, at that moment, the most valuable possession in the world.
Retrieving did not come entirely naturally to Bess; for many months she seemed to be a "Labrador Chaser," dashing after sticks thrown but never bringing them back.
Her master didn't know that most Lab puppies twitch and convulse during sleep in their early months. He also didn't know how much house training can be an on and off again process, with cycles of successes followed by failures. To him, obviously there was a causal link between her "seizures" and her failures in becoming house trained.
He took her to a round of veterinarians for her "seizures"--all of whom found nothing wrong--before he finally found one who said her distemper shots had not taken and she needed another series. To her owner at that time, that finally explained the likely, reasonable cause for both behaviors.
To her master it seemed as if she was completely housebroken twice--and lost it completely twice due to the "distemper"--until it finally took on a third, mutually recriminating and frustrating time.
Many scholarly psychoanalytic papers have been written about the influence of toilet training on the formation of guilt in people. Perhaps as many have been written by philosophers and comparative psychologists on why it is impossible for animals to feel guilt. The analysts are probably more right than they realize; the philosophers never considered nor did the comparative psychologists ever examine an animal that had been housebroken three times.
Guilt was one of the hallmarks of Bess. A minor transgression, whether her master was present or not, could cause her to slink around for hours, her face and belly to the floor and tail between her legs, her face making a ludicrous, grotesquely smiling caricature of one of those flat-faced aquarium catfishes.
Her master then would find the evidence of her sin, often a foil meat tray on the floor. The kitchen wastebasket (or any food, anywhere) continually called to Bess the way the serpent and apple tree called to Eve.
It was difficult to lift her anguish and remorse until a child psychiatrist friend who saw Bess in one such mood on a camping trip suggested a cure that proved reliable and quick: a ritual scolding or pretend spanking immediately followed by acts of atonement--usually fetching something that was thrown for her several times. This instantly restored her spirits.
Bess's "distemper" set in motion something else--a worry in her owner that she was brain-damaged and a resolve to teach her as much and in as many way as possible. Some of her weaknesses aided her in developing strengths.
Bess had no sense of limits about anything she liked: she liked to eat and might have done so until her skin burst if the food was there. She liked being petted and--if there was a limit of satiation--it was far beyond the endurance of most people's arms. And when finally trained to fetch, she'd run near the point of exhaustion but still demand more. She was trained before each feeding so the food treats would have maximum meaning as a reward. She'd do anything for those food pellets
Her owner became like the Sorcerer's Apprentice who cast a spell he couldn't stop; once Bess found retrieving, she demanded her daily sessions. While he preferred relaxing with a glass of wine after a day's work at the state hospital, her needs dominated. As soon as he was home, before a second sip of wine, Bess was grabbing any and everything in the house, piling objects at his feet, offering mutliple choices on what to throw for her to retrieve. For many years, if there was to be any peace in the house, Bess had to run and retrieve for at least a half-hour a day--every day, fair weather or foul, below zero or above 100 degrees, and always at the same speed, flat out, thirty miles an hour.
Her owner, a clinical psychologist, was motivated for the task of training for a variety of reasons, not all of which he fully realized: As a doctoral student he'd been impressed by the experimental literature on brain damage and the effect that prompt, extensive retraining can have in minimizing some impairments. He'd also developed an interest in comparative psychology (the study of behaviors of animal species) and in learning theory including Skinner's operant conditioning. As the graduate assistant and lab instructor for a comparative psychology professor, he'd often tutored fellow grad students learning to apply Skinnerian techniques (operant conditioning, behavior modification) with various species but he'd never done that himself; Bess and her condition gave him a chance to validate himself.
And finally, he was in psychoanalysis at the Menninger Foundation and, although he didn't realize it at the time, Bess was going to prove--or disprove--his talent for parenthood.
Her owner was a totally inexperienced trainer who believed (quite mistakenly) that Bess was not an easy dog to train. She was very impulsive, eager, and any delay in being sent to fetch resulted in her quivering on tip-toes, every muscle straining, almost dying in the wait to retrieve. She was so fast that within a few seconds she could outrun the range that her master could sling a training dummy; dog and master moved their daily exercises to a pond near their home and Menninger's children's (psychiatric) hospital where the water's resistance slowed her down.
Bess at times was also a very stubborn and know-it-all dog, he believed her "brain-damage" was the cause, and she could break away from the command to "Sit!" to search endlessly in an area for a dummy that had not yet been thrown.
Her master would become furious and more demanding and punitive until his analyst was able to help him realize his grandiosity in wishing for the greatest dog as well as the influence of many thorns in his relation with his own father.
About the same time, he asked an acquaintance with experience in training retrievers to observe Bess and owner in one of their sessions.
At the end, he gently observed, "I've seen a lot of very well-trained dogs who could do a lot of things but sometimes their spirit's been all beaten out of them. Your dog's got a lot of spirit and she loves working. I kind of hope you let her keep having fun retrieving and don't train that out of her."
Her master, from that time on, tried to use his sessions with his analyst for unraveling the relation with his father rather than his sessions with Bess.
At her peak, her years between three and ten, she followed both hand signals and whistle calls to make many right and left turns, go farther out or return, on land and water. She'd weave an intricate trail wherever she was directed before getting her retrieving dummy and returning it.
In early evenings, when Bess and he often went out for her exercise, small groups of children with their aides from Menninger's also walked along the path bordering the pond. They'd stop and watch. Bess waited for an arm to point and the command "Go!" and then dash as if shot from a cannon, soar out over the pond, and hit the water with a mighty splash. She'd follow commands making multiple turns before her dummy was thrown in to fetch. Often instead of asking her to swim back, she'd be told to go to the opposite shore and sit so she could put on a show for the kids: "Bess, look right" (She'd look to her right.) "You see that dam down there?" (She'd look again.) "Good! When I tell you, I want you to run all the way around it and bring the dummy back to me. You got that? Good. GO!!" A similar variation was to have her look to her left at a bush some distance away near the pond's bank, then jump in at that point and swim back from there.
Children watching Bess's show exclaimed, "Bess, the Wonder Dog!" and attributed magical powers of wisdom and understanding to her. Her neck was hugged and an ear was lifted many times as a child whispered a confidence to this hairy, black Sphinx. When Bess responded--as she usually did--with an affectionate lick of the child's face, that satisfied the child and was probably the wisest answer she could give.
Continued in Part II: http://justlabradors.com/forum/showthread.php?84-Poor-Bess-Part-II