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» Hatrack River Writers Workshop » Forums » Grist for the Mill » Perfect image

   
Author Topic: Perfect image
J
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I'm in the middle of training my 2-year old standard poodle to be a waterfowl retriever. I won't go into details about the training, because people not familiar with it tend to get upset about the methodology (suffice to say that it works and no harm is done). For the purposes of this post it's enough to say that portions of the training are very stressful for the dog and it's common for high-spirited dogs to "pop" once or twice--that is, to dig in their proverbial heels and physically resist being trained.

My dog chose yesterday to "pop"--to have it out and find out who was really the boss. At the moment of his choice, I had the fingers of my left hand under his collar (part of the training, to help guide his movements) and he jumped and spun (as much as he could with my hand under his collar) and reared up on his hind legs and flopped all of his 70 pounds onto his back. Then he wrapped his forelegs around my arm to prevent me from doing anything to get him back on his feet.

When I tried to gently dislodge his forelegs, he rolled and tossed his head and snapped at the air and thrashed his limbs. Same thing when I tried to ease my right arm under his back to roll him onto his feet. He's a smart dog, and it became clear that his goal was to force me to let go of his collar so that he could get up on his own terms.

I'm convinced that he knew that even if I did what he wanted and let go, I would immediately bring him to heel, put my hand back under his collar, and continue the drill. But even knowing that it wouldn't stop the training, he was willing to risk punishment for that singular moment of self-assertion. He was willing to take whatever I chose to dish out for the chance--even the vain chance--to say, "I control my own destiny, if only for these few seconds."

Maybe I'm reading too much into what the dog thought, but it was a poignant moment for me all the same. It was also bittersweet, because I knew that if I gave him the moment of freedom he was willing to suffer to achieve, it would change our relationship forever in ways I couldn't allow.

So, after trying a few more approaches to getting him on his feet gently, without success, I picked him up off the ground one-handed and put him back down on his back--but now in a position of forced submission that I chose, rather than the position of passive resistance that he had chosen. Then I pulled him onto his feet.

Twice more he did the same thing, and twice more we fought that fight. Each time he was more determined and more desperate. After the third and last effort, something changed in him. Somewhere deep down, he accepted submission and gave up on the idea of independence. For the rest of the drill, he behaved like a model dog. When it was all done, he lay at my feet and licked them for an hour (something he has never done before).

That dog yesterday was a perfect image of one of the great themes of fiction writing--a free-willed agent pitted against an implacable, irresistible obstacle to his will. In a literary sense, the way our story ended was probably technically tragic (even though it was a happy ending from the perspective of dog training). In any event, my dog modeled for me a kind of conflict that one of my protagonists should--now will--experience.

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Grumpy old guy
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A battle of wills is a recurrent motif in fiction and non-fiction alike. And yes, one could view your ultimate triumph over the rebellion of your dog as a tragedy, and his struggle against your dominion as right and just, but that would be from the dog's POV.

Phil.

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MattLeo
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Funny you should mention this. There's a character in my current WIP named "Dog". She's a sheepdog whose pack has been breeding and training shepherds up on the moor for so long that some of the shepherds have become quite intelligent.
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Robert Nowall
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I gather---from research and reading, not personal experience---that in the training of any working animal, you gotta make the animal know who's boss.

Pets, on the other hand, are another matter.

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J
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The dog performed beautifully today, almost like magic, with more drive and energy than I've ever seen him exert before. Again, there's a parallel here to an oppressed character--not a protagonist, but perhaps a collaborator with the antagonizing force--that I find intriguing. It's an imperfect, but compelling, demonstration of the idea that there is no zealot quite like a convert. That idea is underutilized in scifi/fantasy.
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Grumpy old guy
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Too true, J. As you say, "there is no zealot quite like a convert", and none quite so dangerous. The problem with such a character trait is that, ultimately, it is one-dimensional. The characters motives and desires are subsumed into his/her zealotry which is the antithesis of nuance.

Phil.

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