By Lalitha Krishnan
Pretty is everybody’s and nobody’s dog. She already had a name when she sagaciously landed on my doorstep. Her timing couldn’t have been more perfect. I needed a dog right there and then. I’ll tell you why soon.
I speak for my family when I say our lives were made richer by pet dogs Chokli, Chingoo and Kajal. They governed our lives for over 18 years before leaving for that happy space in the sky. Our biological kids have long left home. After the dogs’ passing, my spouse and I realised we don’t have the physical or emotional strength to do it all over again. We hadn’t holidayed together freely for years to come. Freedom came at a terrible price.
Last year, I came across an Operant-Conditioning Dog-Training workshop run by a team of German dog trainers at Commando Kennels in Hyderabad. The course was headed by a renowned trainer, Katja Frey. Dog training has been on my bucket list for years. I signed up in the blink of an eye and was particularly exhilarated when I trained with chickens first and then dogs. The whole idea of positive reinforcement to train is relatively new in India and a far cry from existing models. Following the COVID19 outbreak, I signed up for Katja’s online follow up: ‘Documentation & Planning Workshop of Training Specialist program’. Here I was in Landour, zooming with my instructors, wishing I still had my dogs to practice on. Who do you think came and sat on my doormat in plain sight? Pretty. Of all the homes and doormats in Mussoorie, she chose mine. I didn’t recognise her but my already dog-weakened heart did a little leap at the sight of her curled up outside my door.
She looked hungry. I could tell by her body language that she was traumatised. Her spindly tail was between her legs and she was half crouched as though threatened by her own shadow. Her unusual looks didn’t help. The neighbourhood kids commented that she looked like a hyena and made a face when they said so. It makes me wonder if we are programmed to only like beautiful beings and reject the unconventional. A large segment of the breeding industry rests on this premise. For all the people in the community that are kind to strays, there are more folks out there who will throw stones or beat dogs that look like Pretty. Pretty is a dog beneath her skin with all the potential to love unconditionally given half a chance. I thank the ex-pat who named her Pretty to give her some self-confidence. It struck a chord in my unruly brain and I decided since she was there for me, I would be there for her. Pretty and I started training together almost immediately. Or should I say my training commenced? She used to show up every other day. Then she started arriving on the dot. As my day-plan changed so did her stance. From a cowering creature, she transformed into one who leaps up to lick my face. She comes when I call, and between you and me it is I who goes to her as soon as she arrives. I make sure she gets her exercise and she inadvertently ensures I get mine. I document the training; it helps me analyse where we’re making mistakes or improving. More often than not, it is I who err.
A few days into training, Pretty brought along her pup. He has the brightest eyes and is all legs. Then she came with a sibling. Then friends. Some days we have six dogs on our porch pulling each other’s legs and playing silently as dogs do. I am training her son and the strays among them too. I see Pretty training her son with mock attacks. They’re wagging their ways into our lives and adding some cheer in Covid 19-time.
Pretty barely leaves now. She’s teaching me so much I’m and wondering if this is what I want to do for the rest of my life. Train strays. She’s still the outside dog. Convenient. My friends swear I have adopted her. If only dogs would talk.
(Lalitha Krishnan is the creator and host of ‘Heart of Conservation’ podcast from Landour, Mussoorie.)