Obedience Training

March 20, 2021   •   By Emily Hodgson Anderson

Wouldst thou approve thy constancy, approve
First thy obedience, the other who can know,
Not seeing thee attempted, who attest?

                        — John Milton, Paradise Lost, 9.367–369

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I’D LEAPT INTO puppy ownership the way many of us do: a long and tentative thought process followed by an impulsive move. One day there was a notice of a litter on Petfinder, then a trip to the shelter and a tiny girl puppy who crawled, trembling, into my lap. She had a white blaze, a spike of hair protruding from her head, and a tiny black nose that would turn pink as she grew up. I walked out holding her in my arms, only to realize, once I got home, that I was in possession of almost no supplies.

My approach to pet ownership was prophetic. I had imagined my dog as a companion who would stare at me adoringly, who would romp when I wanted to romp, and snuggle when I wanted to be still. I’d learn quickly, however, that puppies have a mind of their own. Housebreaking aside (and that’s a big aside), her energy in those first few months was relentless. She chewed; she whimpered; she howled. She tangled herself in my feet when I walked; she contracted a parasite and shit in every corner of the house. She never wanted to sleep when I did, or if she did want to sleep, she certainly didn’t want to sleep alone. Something on the internet told me that she had separation anxiety and would need Prozac if she were ever to function by herself.

In a moment of panic, I abandoned the internet and called a long-distance friend who specialized in training Labradors for field trials. Was there an alternative to pet antidepressants? She recommended obedience school. Specifically, she recommended a trainer approved to teach something called the “Koehler Method.”

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Prior to my puppy’s nervousness, the world’s first version of separation anxiety occurs in Book 9 of John Milton’s epic, Paradise Lost. Eve incites it, in the context of a lengthy conversation with Adam about how best to run their garden home. Even in paradise, they have work, though it is work of such a nature that it hardly seems such, and Adam reminds her that their task is far from “strict.” Eve, however, wants to get their garden tidy, and she remains insistent that their pruning and tending can be more efficiently accomplished if they split up. The part of this exchange I find most fascinating is the sheer length of their discussion, as well as her response to Adam at the end. He finishes by saying, well, if you think this way, then “go, for thy stay, not free, absents thee more.” And Eve replies, “with thy permission, then […] the willinger I go.”

Except, I always think, he never gives her permission.

I called my friend back the next day. Okay, I said, there are two registered Koehler dog trainers in Southern California. Each one, however, involves about a 45-minute commute, in good driving conditions, from where I live.

Well, she responded, you asked for my advice.

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The Koehler method is a mode of dog training named after William Koehler, a man who began his animal training career in the military, at the Pomona Ordnance Base. In 1946, he started teaching public classes and private sessions, and, as the current Koehler Dog Training website indicates, his method has been a recognized form of obedience training ever since.

While the Koehler method has various identifying characteristics, the most singular remains its focus on producing dogs who behave “reliably off leash.” In Koehler’s theory, control of your dog off leash is the most telling indication of obedience, though “control” becomes something of an oxymoron as your dog’s training matures. Koehler promises the ability to stop a free-standing dog with a single command, but also suggests that you won’t need this ability once you have it: your dog will choose, of his or her own accord, not to chase that squirrel, run out that door, cross that street. The Koehler method produces dogs who can be trusted with autonomy, who can make “better choices for [themselves].”

Koehler dogs can, in other words, execute safely the workings of free will. 

Koehler was also famous for being “movieland’s most experienced dog trainer.” Koehler had graduated from the military to head animal trainer for Walt Disney Studios, where he handled some of cinema’s best-known dogs. Celebrity, however — among any species — apparently comes at a cost. As indicated by the defensive tone of the introduction to his 1962 book The Koehler Method of Dog Training: Certified Techniques by Movieland’s Most Experienced Dog Trainer, Koehler’s techniques were registering as controversial with readers and owners even decades ago. Koehler advocates using choke chains and throw chains, types of negative reinforcement that many trainers nowadays forgo. “Because it proclaims the kindness of adequate discipline when needed to correct a fault that cannot be condoned, the book might disturb some folks who have nothing to offer but their own emotions,” Koehler states. He’d long been the last resort for people with dogs so problematic that it was either his training methods or euthanasia, and he defends his most extreme procedures in the context of that choice.

Luckily, I’d grown up as a WASP-y New England kid, so keeping my emotions in check was no big deal. While my family didn’t practice any kind of organized religion, Puritanical ideologies were in our blood. Discomfort was a mark of character, self-denial a virtue to be praised. We walked to school through blizzards and hail, and I moved to California convinced that “self-care” was merely a West Coast rationalization for sloth. Rhetorically, characterologically, it was clear to me which sort of “some folks” the aspiring dog trainer should be. I called the listing in Ontario, California, and signed us up.

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It turns out that that property in Ontario was the site of Bill Koehler’s original Southern California kennel. The man I would be working with, Pat Smith, had purchased it from Koehler in the ’90s when the Koehlers had retired to Washington State. I didn’t know this when I registered, and the place, when I first sighted it, was not prepossessing — all adjacent strip malls, dirt, and heat.

I’d signed up for private training sessions on Saturdays, since I couldn’t manage the commute to group classes during the week. My then-husband and I went to most of the sessions together — eight, maybe 10, weeks in total to complete the novice course. It took an effort to drive out there, and I’d had to promise Pat up front that I’d do a minimum of 20 minutes of training each day between our lessons. I knew that, like an omniscient god, he’d be able to tell if I did not.

Pat and his wife Marilyn were religious, I believed. I’d seen Bible verses printed in their little sign-in shed on my first visit, Christian iconography here and there. But in all our time together, we never talked about anything but dogs. Our sessions each had a clear goal that Pat would demonstrate and then ask me to repeat: from drills on a long line, to encourage my puppy to stay close to my side; to leash work involving heeling and abrupt changes of direction; to off-leash work requiring careful attention from both of us; to prolonged sit-stays. Still, it was true: I liked the training method because it involved persistence, a very Protestant ideal. My dog liked to work, as well. She was always excited when I pulled out her leash and training collar, always bouncing as we set out. Each week we’d go home with specific homework and come back to show Pat what we had learned.

In between, we practiced on our home sidewalks, at a local park, and by the baseball field as the team warmed up. We had a great training session near the football field while the marching band rehearsed, the color guard threw flags, and the tubas sounded like things possessed. We practiced in a church parking lot, too, the stained-glass windows casting color on the asphalt, both of us oblivious to their scenes.

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Our locations for training were influenced in part by the charge that we should seek out distractions, not avoid them. The Koehler obedience manual — The Koehler Method of Open Obedience for Ring, Home, and Field, first published in 1970 — has a memorable black-and-white photo of a German Shepherd, sitting at attention while surrounded by a cat, an agility board, a plate of food, a duck, a bag of dog treats, and a horse. “In addition to visible distractions,” the caption reads, “this area is covered with tempting scents.” The dog sits stoically, staring straight ahead at the cameraman or trainer or me. My goal, similarly, was to tempt my dog so that I’d have the opportunity to intervene. “Open wide the favorite gate,” reads a passage in Koehler’s manual. “Prop it lest a roughish wind spoil your moment. […] [Y]ou’re not heeling, you’re hoping — that he’ll spot the open gate.” A bolt, a break, a correction, and she’d be one step closer to the statuesque Shepherd who demonstrates obedience by willfully ignoring the temptations that encompass him round.

Logically, I understood. In practice, as I set about finding scary trash cans, small children, and brazen squirrels, I came to feel that I wasn’t always playing fair. I was teaching my dog self-control, and every time I had to discipline her (in the etymological sense of “teach”), I was theoretically bringing her that much closer to disciplining herself. But as I would wait with her on that sidewalk, I didn’t know if I should be happier when she bolted away from the monster tuba, or happier when the previously scary skateboard zipped by and she didn’t turn her head. If she didn’t bolt, had I failed in my job as a trainer, since I hadn’t anticipated some supreme temptation yet awaiting her canine will? If she did bolt, had I failed in my job since her reaction proved that she wasn’t yet fit to govern herself?

It was during these sessions that Paradise Lost started weighing heavily on my mind. I teach the epic about once a year, and students (and the poem’s original readers, too) regularly get tangled in the Miltonic presentation of predestination versus foreknowledge and, specifically, Milton’s contention that the two are not the same. “If I foreknew, / Foreknowledge had no influence on their fault, / Which had no less proved certain unforeknown,” states Milton’s God, in describing his knowledge of original sin. What God means is that free will still exists among mortals, even though he already knows everything they are going to do. God knows Adam and Eve are going to succumb to temptation, but that doesn’t mean he makes them do it.

The distinction mattered to Milton, for political and personal reasons both. As a Puritan on the losing side of the English Civil War, he needed to feel himself “sufficient to have stood, though free to fall,” and if free to fall, then free to rise again. But students also get tangled in the fact that God plants the very tree that marks man’s fall and fault. Adam explains God’s reasoning to Eve thus: obedience is meaningless unless tested, so if you are obedient simply by default and not by choice, the virtue doesn’t hold. Still, it is hard not to feel that God sets them up, hard not to notice how the enlightenment that follows disobedience can hurt. Milton’s epic ends with both parents shedding tears, barred from their garden by a flaming sword. They bear the inheritance now of effort: the promise of difficulty in tilling the ground to grow crops that previously flourished, the agony of childbirth for a process required to fulfill God’s mandate that we populate the earth.

Back to our sidewalk, featuring an old ice cream sandwich, a pile of poop, a hotdog bun with flies. Maybe I do have more of those “emotions” that Koehler cautions the trainer against. I seem to feel a doggy pull of desire, a postlapsarian guilt, a sadness that doesn’t come from my pup. She loves the sandwich yet forgives me my correction, moving seamlessly from correction to task. She doesn’t know what in the world could be more interesting than what’s on that sidewalk, but the fact that I’m telling her to look at me suggests that something could. She doesn’t know I’ve engineered her temptation. She trusts me, every time.

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Milton himself wasn’t the most trustworthy of men. He wrote Paradise Lost in 1667, as a “reformed Puritan” who had newly declared allegiance to the king. Ostensibly a retelling of the war in Heaven and the Biblical creation and fall of man, his epic easily reads as a political allegory too, with Royalists invited to read Milton as a now-devoted subject of the crown, Oliver Cromwell as the rebellious Satan, and Charles II as the omnipotent God who punishes disobedience and restores glory and order to us all. And yet, the epic also has the potential to reflect on the “lost” paradise of Cromwell’s Republic and the alternate forms of government that Milton and his kind had hoped to maintain. Even Milton’s first readers often found Satan the most charismatic of his characters and saw his God as tyrannical, hard to like.

I love teaching the epic to undergraduates because Milton is so good at playing to both sides. And Milton himself may not have known, fully, where his sympathies resided. By the time he wrote Paradise Lost, his work of “long choosing, beginning late,” he was in his 50s and completely blind. He composed the poem orally and dictated it to his daughters to be transcribed, and throughout the poem, his blindness provides a constant source of anxiety and fear. His agony doesn’t simply concern the condition of his blindness, as Milton hopes to claim the disability as a sign of grace, of proof that, as his life is harder than that of others, so he must be more important to this world than most. Suffering, however, can also simply be punishment for past crimes. As a royalist, Milton should believe in the monarch as God’s deputy on earth. As a Puritan, Milton supported the execution of a king. Might not his blindness be the result?

Every time I read the epic, Milton seems trapped between these readings, desperate to prove his election, tortured by his guilt. And yet, in either reading, suffering resonates as a requirement of attention. To be noticed by God, in any capacity, is to feel pain.

No wonder those of us who grow up in his tradition feel at times the need to hide. My dad, my gentle and most beloved teacher, once told me that his job as a parent was to discipline me: to see and show me my mistakes.

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After a full course of novice obedience lessons, we drove to Pat’s property for our final exam. My dog had mastered, to a point, heeling off leash, sit-stays for a long duration, the drop-on-recall, and various other techniques. The point of the exam was to walk her through these skills one final time in front of Pat; it would mark the end of our training-treks to Ontario, though not the end of the rituals we had rehearsed. “Once a dog has a solid course of novice training,” Pat had told me, “it sets. The dog can get rusty, but the skills are ingrained.” He’s been right: over a decade later, she’ll periodically ignore me, but when I go back to our basic routines, she proves that all her training habits remain intact.

Her ignorance these days, then, is willful. She races out the door after that squirrel by choice.

I don’t remember a lot about her exam. I do remember that the morning began atypically gloomy and that, as we drove east, the clouds piled up. By the time we got to Pat’s house, it was windy, wet, and cold, and my little dog became bedraggled as she marched through her tasks. Our last test was an off-leash sit-stay from a distance, in which I stood about 30 yards in front of her and was supposed to ask her to come. I placed her on her stay, turned heel, and walked off.

When I turned back, she was sitting there, small and solitary, her coat matted with water, her little face peering ahead. Would it have been so hard to stay together? Would life have been so different if one of us had not strayed? I waited a few moments before I issued the recall, the two of us getting ever damper in the rain. Her anticipation was palpable, the moment of connection, rich. I felt that “invisible string” I conjure up for my children; I felt her eyes fixed on me from across the field.

The sky darkened, and still I stayed.

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Emily Hodgson Anderson is a professor of English at University of Southern California. She is the author, most recently, of Shakespeare and the Legacy of Loss (2018).