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Training Harry

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Felled by a flu that we passed around like preschoolers playing "Hot Potato," my husband and I accomplished just two things this winter vacation: We trained Harry -- our rescue dog -- and we rented a lot of movies, including "Hope Springs" -- the one where midlifers Meryl Streep and Tommy Lee Jones figure out how to install new spark plugs in their 31-year marriage.

Trust me, teaching old dogs of any species new tricks isn't easy -- a point driven home by both Harry and the movie.

Harry came into our lives just before Thanksgiving. He was on death row at a high-kill Los Angeles animal shelter, put there at age three by his owners because he "cowered a lot," as they wrote on the owner-surrender form. Turned out he not only cowered a lot, but also lunged, growled and snapped at pretty much every human, canine and plant form that wandered into his space. Alone during quiet family time, he was the dream dog -- sweet, attached, and always available for a cuddle or tummy rub.

The problem is our household is rarely ever alone or quiet. My kids' friends are constantly over, we entertain a lot, we have overnight house guests at holidays and the neighbor's two Golden Retrievers come through our back door looking for treats, pretty much every day.

Harry was having none of it and I was beginning to wonder whether he would be the first-ever dog of my life that I had to re-home. I come from a long line of people who make commitments and stick to them. Divorce is a stranger to my family. We believe in finding solutions, not escapes.

For the record, ours has always been a two-dog household -- always from shelters or rescue groups. To a pooch, there have been issues and we've always figured things out. Not throwing in the towel at the first sign of trouble is key to accepting a rescue dog or getting married.

When things get dicey, we always turn to trained professionals for help. In Harry's case, we called a trusted dog trainer who has worked with our last five dogs. She came over for an evaluation and even she was a little skeptical. A sweet dog, but maybe not the right dog for us, she allowed. Harry's problem, she diagnosed, wasn't likely a reaction to having been abused but rather "just who he is."

"Just who he is" may be the least retractable of all offenses in a relationship. It's a death sentence that you can't take back. "Just who he is" says that the problem wasn't created by an event so there is no event to undo. It says the only thing that has been altered was not the offending behavior but rather your tolerance for it. It is the snoring that you once found so comforting that now drives you insane. It is stopping at the grocery store expecting gratitude but getting screamed at for buying the wrong brand of creamer. After 20 years of marriage, how is it he doesn't know what brand we use? It's "just who he is," that's how.

I knew we couldn't live around Harry's anti-social behavior. It came down to this: Do we believe that people -- and dogs -- can change?

I guess I'd have to say I do. It's why I knew that Tommy Lee Jones and Meryl Streep would work it out. The will to change, of course, has to be there. But sometimes just small tweaks in behavior can go miles toward making a difference. Volunteering to make the drugstore run when my 101-degree fever bests your 100-degree temperature is good. Stopping for wonton soup without being asked pleases me to no end. And renting a sappy movie about a relationship in trouble, I know you're thinking of ways to snap us out of our bi-annual funk.

So yes, we dutifully listened as the dog trainer coached us. We held Harry's leash the way she showed us and told him "eh-eh" -- the universal reprimand for dogs -- when he lunged for the Chihuahua on our street. Still his insecurity-fed behavior was a problem.

And then the trainer pulled out the big guns, the intensive couples counseling of dog training: a citronella collar. Citronella is the stuff that keeps mosquitos out of our camping tent. In this case, a little remote sends a shpritz of citronella up near the dog's nose when he misbehaves. That coupled with an "eh-eh" stops the bad behavior.

Harry was a quick learner. After just a few squirts, a mere "eh-eh" now stops him in his tracks. He passed his final exam at the dog park yesterday where dog after dog came over to greet him and he stayed calm. He even allowed a woman to pet him. And miracle of miracle, Harry didn't so much as growl as the flower delivery guy just brought me the flowers my husband sent.

Nice work, both of you.

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