We were ready. After weeks of preparation, success was only a few short days away. We had trained hard. What could go wrong? Elsa, like most golden retrievers, was intelligent, alert and quick to learn. She had attended obedience classes from the age of six months and by the grand old age of seven years she had ‘been there, done that, and…’ well, you know what I mean. Suffice to say she had mastered far more complicated exercises than ‘food refusal’. In fact it wasn’t even the first time she had performed the food refusal exercise and come through it with
Did I mention that Elsa was a golden retriever? Put a Goldie in the vicinity of accessible sausages and you have a sausage-fest. Goldies have a passion for food, any food and let’s face it sausages weren’t just any old food. For her to walk past a plump, succulent sausage without even a second look would be nothing short of a miracle, but three weeks and two and a half kilos of plump succulent sausage later I believed we were ready; the technique perfected.
It was a simple enough routine - I tell her to sit and stay, I walk away from her, I turn to face her, I wait for a second or two, then I call her to me. Elementary stuff. Puppy-hood stuff even, except, between me and her lay, The Sausage, and to get to me she had to pass it. But hey, no problem, we were ready. Right?
On the day of the competition we arrived at the hall in plenty of time. As we ran through our usual warm-up routines Elsa was keen and alert. I was quietly confident. When it was time for the judging we walked sedately onto the floor for the first of the exercises. She worked well and listened carefully to my commands. Taking our turn at each of the exercises we sailed through Seek Back and Send Away then Scent Retrieval. It was looking good.
Then it was time for the Food Refusal. As soon as she saw the small mat that the sausage was to be placed on she began bouncing with excitement. As each of her peers took their turn the tension grew until she was whining softly to herself. Just keen that’s all. I told myself, but there was a definite tremor in my confidence. So I reminded myself of how much she loved to work and that she was probably just wanting to get on with it and I felt… worried.
At last it was our turn.
I walk onto the floor with Elsa at heel like the beautifully trained dog she pretended… I mean she is. We take up position at one end of the hall and I give the command;
‘Elsa, sit, stay.’
I walk away. I pass the sausage and get to the other end of the hall where I turn to face her and wait. Elsa, quivering with suppressed excitement, sits waiting for the recall command.
Just keen don’t worry. With my confidence registering point eight on the tremor scale I give the command.
And she leaps into action with such speed her claws are scrabbling for purchase on the hall’s wooden floor. When she at last moves forward it is horribly obvious that all her attention is now on the sausage not on me.
‘No. Leave. Down,’ I yell
The three commands, hot on each others heels are never-the-less just in time. She drops down nose comfortable resting on the mat and 5 cm away from the sausage.
Back in control - of myself - I clear my throat. (Did it sound like a growl? Personally I don’t believe it did despite what they said later!) The other competitors and their dogs are now absolutely silent, watching, waiting. I try not to notice them and focus on Elsa.
I remind her to, ‘Leave it.’
And then, ‘Come.’
She rises slowly to her feet but her head seems too heavy for her neck and she has trouble lifting it from the mat where the sausage is nestled. At last she begins to drag herself forward but it becomes obvious that her feet are now caught in some Treacherous Treacle Trap and she has trouble moving her legs as well as her head. Two tiny steps, three, the silence is total; her reputation is on the line. Three and a half strides… and the sausage was gone! It happened so fast I didn’t have time to draw breath. In fact it happened so fast I’m still not sure how she did it exactly.
The crowd went wild with delight and Elsa, grinning in immense satisfaction, was off on a lap of honour around her fellow competitors. They all congratulated her with ecstatic yelps on the audacity and speed of the strike and she thanked them graciously, lapping up the adulation as her due.
‘ELSA, COME’, I screamed over the noise and thus reminded of my existence she started back to me. On the way, however she suddenly remembered her manners and made a rapid detour, to the other side of the hall, to thank the kind person who had provided the sausage and made it all possible, checking out his pockets at the same time, then she came back. Perfectly of course and sat in the perfect return position with a perfectly huge smile on her face and her magnificent tail sweeping the floor behind her.
As I was saying, the whole problem of working with an intelligent, alert and quick to learn dog who has attended obedience classed from the age of six months is they are simply too smart for their owner’s good. I scowled at her. Elsa on the other hand was absolutely delighted with her performance. She looked up at me and her grin said as plain as any words, ‘Technique Perfected!’