Shadow puts her front paws up on the bed and noses my ear. I turn to scratch the narrow stretch between her eyes and she plants a dog kiss on my nose. It’s a good start to the day.
I toss back the covers and swing my legs over the edge of the bed. She raises a paw to shake -- another morning greeting. A few minutes later, I’m on the porch, doing my morning stretches and weights. Shadow joins me, does her own stretches -- her version of downward facing dog and a series of tail wags -- before circling and reclining on the workout mat to wait patiently for our morning walk. She knows the schedule and nudges me if I deviate from it.
After my morning coffee, I grab a few dog treats and we’re out the door. Shadow knows the ritual -- one treat at the start of the walk and more along the way as she completes her obstacle course. I give her a biscuit and she looks at me as if to say, “You always know just what I want.”
When we get to the woods, she shifts gears, leaps ahead of me, lurches toward the downed tree -- the first challenge on her obstacle course.
She jumps over the log, circles back, then walks the length of her balance beam.
“Good girl!” I tell her. She gets another treat.
The next obstacle is a log pile, which she leaps over, turns, and leaps over again.
“Good girl!” Another biscuit. She knows the course so well now that I don’t have to cue her. The third is a broken tree which she leaps; the fourth, another downed log for a higher leap, over and back. Finally, the finale: the stump of a recently cut tree. She just learned this one, so sometimes still waits for the cue.
“Sit on the stump,” I tell her. She circles it a few times, excited for the next treat, and then climbs up, perching like an elephant in the middle of a circus ring.
“Good girl! You’re so smart,” I tell her.
Shadow’s mastery still amazes me. When we adopted her more than five years ago, she was about two years old, bruised and scarred, timid, afraid of her own shadow. Abused, neglected, and broken-spirited, she was afraid to go outside, afraid to sleep anywhere but by the front door, unfamiliar with the comfort of a dog pillow.
I tested her on basics. Before long she sat, came and stayed, but, unlike most labs, she didn’t fetch, didn’t chase squirrels or balls, didn’t play. She was loving and appreciative but didn’t seem to learn quickly. Five years later, she’s running her “through-the-woods” obstacle course on our twice-daily walks, proud of her every accomplishment.
This rescued dog, my morning greeter, hadn’t lacked intelligence; she just needed time and a safe place to learn.
New tricks during a pandemic?
There’s a saying that you can’t teach an old dog new tricks, but Shadow’s not the only one who has learned new things. COVID-19 put a lot of us into situations where we’ve had fewer distractions and the comfort of home in which to learn things we might never otherwise have tried. Some people took online guitar lessons or watched YouTube videos to learn how to make home repairs. Others took online courses in subjects they’d never had time for before, or got outdoors and tried camping, fishing, cross country skiing, or ice skating,
With time and motivation, we can continue to learn new tricks as we get older. Most people my age had never heard of “Zoom” before the pandemic, but have gotten pretty familiar with it by now. And then throw in necessity and loneliness. Can’t visit the grandkids? Well, you’d better FaceTime or Google Meet so they don’t forget what you look like!
Some families “saw” more of each other during the pandemic than they might otherwise have. Yes, we missed the touches and face-to-face encounters, but we adapted and tried new things: reading a bedtime story via Zoom, organizing a remote scavenger hunt, playing games virtually, even working out puzzles or lessons online.
The high school friends I meet with every year for a weekend reunion had to cancel what would have been our 19th annual get-together in 2020, but we’ve met monthly via Zoom, our last meeting celebrating our recent vaccinations.
Before the pandemic, we could have called our family and friends more often instead of texting, but being quarantined, we craved the sound of their voices now more than ever. And seeing their faces and interacting online helped make 2020 tolerable. It’s just too bad no one has found a way to create a satisfying virtual hug.
We “old dogs” have learned some new tricks -- some that we’ll continue to practice after things are more normal. Throughout the pandemic, Shadow’s “normal” has only gotten better as she continues to enjoy the morning head scratches, nose kisses, and “good girl” rewards. But I think the excitement she exudes on her obstacle course is the true sign of her self-satisfaction with my old dog’s new tricks.