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Pavlov’s Revenge

June 17, 2010

The literature for the Invisible Fence suggests that if your dog crosses the electronic barrier, he will get an electric shock similar to the static charge you might get when you touch something metal after shuffling across a shag carpet.  A little snap and crackle, but no pop – more startling than anything. I should have read a bit further before strapping the collar around my right thigh and crossing the no fly zone.  That “mild static” charge nearly set my shorts on fire and had me howling, cursing and hopping into my neighbor’s yard.  Then, using the same false logic that has me clicking on a light switch to find the flashlight during a power outage, I quickly unstrapped the collar from my thigh, and carried it back into our yard, getting the second jolt directly against the palm of my hand.  Mild static charge?   My expectations hadn’t been that misaligned since my proctologist had mistaken a gas powered leaf blower for his thermometer.

When I regained consciousness, I went through the user handbook and noted two things. The first was the bolded warning never to test the device against bare skin, especially on sensitive areas such as one’s palm, wrist, thigh, tongue, iris or genitals.  The second was a reminder that the control box in the basement shouldn’t be on 10 unless the dog consistently ignored the warning tone and subsequent shock. Ours was set on 13.  I put it to 8. I let the dog test it. After only a handful of missteps, there hasn’t been a tossed ball, squirrel, Frisbee, rabbit, raw filet, running kid, or any combination thereof that has tempted him into the red zone.

Two years ago, when he was just 8 weeks old, we adopted our purebred mutt from the North Shore Animal Shelter. He’s now an 88 pound mix of Lab, Coon Hound, and Great Dane. Well, he was a mix then too, just not 88 pounds worth. He has a thunderous bark, runs like the wind, and at heart is convinced he’s nothing larger than a lapdog, the latter quality of which can be very startling to guests sitting on our living room couch.

He is gregarious and fluctuates between paradoxical exhibitions of acute intelligence and incomprehensible obtuseness.  On one hand, he has learned to trigger the motion detector on the canister that holds his food. He can open the sliding glass door  when it’s not locked and is able write poetry in Cantonese using a single paw and a piece of charcoal.

One the other hand, I am frequently reminded why “Einstein” wasn’t in the top ten list of names under consideration when we were naming him. He barks at the lamp on my bedside table and is prone to streaking in and/or out of the house before the sliding screen doors are open.  He has a propensity to sit on the pepper plants in our vegetable garden when I shout, “OUT OF THE GARDEN“(my current theory is that these pepper plant squats are a type of seasoning for all the licking he does in that region).  In an inspired demonstration of a near complete loss of his canine wits, he streaked past me last week as he and the neighbor’s dog were losing their minds in our back yard. He sprinted and crashed into the cords holding up our $20 Badminton set, getting hopelessly entangled. Without so much as a pause, he continued the chase, dragging the lines, net, and plastic posts with him around the yard, stopping briefly to bark at the net behind him.

But even in the frenzy and total abandonment of that chase, tongue out, drooling, barking at the dog racing ahead of him and the debris dragging after him, he braked at the invisible border. Pavlov never sleeps, and I am guessing 8 is only a little more forgiving than 13.

But there are limits to limits.

A cat recently took residence in our neighborhood. In its first appearance, it crossed the lawn divide in our cul-de-sac, and raced back into the shadows when our dog started barking maniacally on our front lawn.  A few encounters later, it passed by running, but with distinctly less urgency.  As it figured out the dog  was somehow shackled, the run became a brisk walk, and the brisk walk became a swagger. And with every increment of calmness and confidence this nefarious cat manifested, the barks became inversely more frantic and unrestrained.  The cat’s trajectory even became bolder. It left the safety of the island and trekked closer to our front lawn. Once it actually stopped on the road and started licking itself as the dog leapt back and forth at the electronic border, simultaneously pulverizing a hydrangea bush and wearing a hole in the recently reseeded front lawn.

Then, whether out of frustration or as part of a brilliant strategic initiative, the barking and leaping dissolved into sitting and growling.  The cat would stop and lick, walk back and forth, then prance away. The dog would growl and occasionally pee in the general direction of the cat, killing off any remaining lawn seed that he hadn’t trampled into oblivion when he was in the bark and hop stage.

And then, in the warmth and sun of a cloudless June Sunday, the cat stopped on the edge of the drive, and lay down on the asphalt, its front paws stretched forward, its head tilted sideways facing our lawn, its hindquarters belly up, rear legs splayed open.

The dog sat at the top of the lawn – silent, quivering, calculating. He looked over at me and then back at the cat. I could see the tempest within him.

“It’s not worth it,” I explained to him. “I’m in sales. I know how you feel, but you need to trust me on this one.” And I sat down at watched him weigh his alternatives. I tried to talk him down.  I wooed him with a chew toy.  I told him about a couple of fat cat execs who had once pulled the catnip out from under my quota and several quarter-ending  deals preened with  promises of “check’s in the mail” that perpetually languished just out of reach.

“Grab your bone, and let it go. With any luck that cat will get run over by the UPS truck.”

Using sign language, he spelled out something about Leonidas and Spartan pride, and then he bolted. He never hesitated at the impact zone. His plan was almost flawless, and if he hadn’t yelped when the collar engaged, there wouldn’t have been enough of that cat left over for a violin string.

The back half of the cat reacted first, flipping over away from the lawn, and taking off east. It’s front half spent a millisecond not believing what it was seeing, shrieked, and took a full step west before it decided to join its other half, which was already 2 steps gone. Running downhill, the dog had generated an impressive amount of speed, and missed the cat by a millimeter. He tried to change course too quickly and spun out, uprooting a swath of perennials before getting back on his feet and bounding into the neighbor’s yard after the cat. He barked, growled, and cursed as the two of them vanished down by the creek.

Five minutes later, the dog ambled up the neighbor’s driveway. The cat had escaped, but had easily lost 5 of its 9 lives in the process. The dog, on the other hand, was looking downright blissful, as if he’d spent a weekend in the Oval office during the Clinton administration. He peed in several places on the center lawn, walked back toward the house, and sat down,  just on the other side of the electric fence.

“Was it worth it?” I asked.

He wagged his tail and waited patiently for me to take off his collar and drive him back. He looked like he could have used a cigarette.

I haven’t seen the cat since.

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