Whether you’re a dog lover or not, you know that having a well-trained dog can make a huge difference. In this Chicken Soup for the Soul story, author Ann E. Vitale shows us that sometimes it’s not the dog that learns the most. From Chicken Soup for the Soul: What I Learned from the Dog, find out the key lesson that Ann learns while teaching her 4-H dog club students one summer.

Written by Ann E. Vitale, published in Chicken Soup for the Soul: What I Learned from the Dog

A boy can learn a lot from a dog: obedience, loyalty, and the importance of turning around three times before lying down.
~ Robert Benchley

Every Monday evening, from April until late August, for twenty-eight years, a 4-H dog club met in my yard. I taught young handlers how to train their dogs with a minimum of tears and absolutely no bloodshed. At least, that’s all I thought I was teaching.

I taught young handlers how to train their dogs with a minimum of tears and absolutely no bloodshed.

As many as twenty bright, active, eager children ranging in age from seven to eighteen hung onto the leashes of assorted ages and sizes of canines that were frequently boisterous and sometimes considerably less than enthusiastic about their owners’ plans for the hours ahead.

Each spring I surveyed the collection of newcomers and returnees with one thought in mind. “How can I help this youngster succeed with this dog?”

The kids started out with great goals for the summer, but their attention often flagged with the repetitious basic obedience. They had to master “sit” and “stay” and the other exercises that gave them control over the dog. I coached them in patience, perseverance, and commiserated with their frustration. They knew that the reward for enduring several weeks of the monotony of “heel,” “down,” and “wait” was the exciting introduction of low jumps, barrels, tunnels, and a seesaw for an obstacle course.

Girl training dog to sit

In short order, “My dog won’t do that” was replaced with shouts of “Mom, watch us!” when the family cars arrived to retrieve kids and dogs.

In addition to the training, the members had to keep expense records to appreciate the cost of maintaining a pet. They had to demonstrate that they could trim toenails, clean ears, and inspect for fleas. And the written records were displayed at the county fair. They didn’t get a ribbon if the project book wasn’t completed.

On the last page of the book was the question, “What did you learn in dog training this year?” The rest of the page was blank in anticipation of a few sentences or a story.

The most memorable stories ranged from the hilarious to the poignant.

From an eight-year-old boy: “I learned to use the pooper scooper and that Mrs. Vitale doesn’t like messes in her yard. But now that I know how, my father makes me do it at home even if it’s my sister’s dog.”

When my mom and dad start yelling at each other, I take my dog and go to my room and sit on the floor and hug her.

From an eleven-year-old girl who began the year giving commands to her dog in a timid, barely audible voice: “If I hadn’t been in 4-H Paws and Tails and showed my dog in a show, I would still be too shy to do anything. Now I pay for my own ice cream cone instead of making my sister do it.”

One of a trio of sisters whose parents were going through a difficult divorce wrote: “When my mom and dad start yelling at each other, I take my dog and go to my room and sit on the floor and hug her. I can cry on her and she doesn’t mind.”

And the most intriguing from a sixteen-year-old boy, who spent four years lackadaisically hanging out at dog club with his Collie, but didn’t show much concern with advancing his training skills: “What I learned from Mrs. Vitale in several years of dog training helps me when I teach Red Cross swimming to the little kids.”

Teen training dog

I wasn’t sure I wanted to know exactly how training collars and leashes translated into teaching swimming to primary school children. When I crossed paths with him one day, I asked what he meant by that sentence.

“I saw,” he said, “that sometimes when you demonstrated something to the whole group, some of the kids got it and some didn’t pay attention. Then you would go and give them directions individually. And some didn’t get it even then and you had to take their hands and help them hold the leash right. I do the same thing when I teach the little kids. Some get it when I show the group how to do something, some I have to talk to one-on-one, and some I have to move their arms to show them how.”

For the kids, the blue ribbons and the accomplishments of getting a pup to walk the teeter-totter, or a hyperactive Terrier to stay in place for five minutes, satisfied their goals for the year. They didn’t know that the dog was a vehicle. That sometimes, what they learned wasn’t about the dog.

*****

Ann didn’t think she would make an impact on someone’s life outside of their relationship with their dogs, but learning that she could (and did!) is a lesson for any of us. And did you know that there’s a weekly newsletter all about pets? Sign up for it and others by clicking here (link to http://tinyurl.com/SoupNews). And to see the latest titles that we’ve published head to www.chickensoup.com.

Reprinted by permission of Chicken Soup for the Soul Publishing, LLC © 2009. In order to protect the rights of the copyright holder, no portion of this publication may be reproduced without prior written consent. All rights reserved.

More from Chicken Soup for the Soul

Chicken Soup for the Soul: Walk On
Chicken Soup for the Soul: Dealing with the Truth
Chicken Soup for the Soul: Finding the Real Me

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