Confession: I once interned as a newspaper copy editor.
I was part of a dedicated and somewhat cantankerous crew whose day began in the very early mornings at the Rochester (Minnesota) Post-Bulletin. We gathered ‘round the copy desk to select stories from the wires and trim them down to maybe a tenth (or twentieth) their original length, read and edit our local reporters’ stories, write headlines and cutlines, and design pages.
One thing I learned that summer was that copy editing focuses largely on cleaning up other people’s messes. Accuracy. Spelling. Grammar. Style (as in committing the Associated Press Stylebook to memory, so I could know when the word “street” should be written out or abbreviated “St.,” and when titles like “president” should be capitalized and lowercased). The goal was to make sure everything was correct, standardized and easy-to-understand. As perfect as possible.
As the weeks went on, I became aware of my tendency to carry the obsession for perfection beyond the walls of the newsroom and apply it to things like behaviors and decisions. I felt myself becoming more and more critical in general. So, although I had some aptitude for copy editing, I resolved never to seek the position again.
Fast-forward twenty years. My family adopts a dog from the Humane Society. We quickly embark on some training, which begins with “Sit.”
The next command we learn? “Lay down.”
Lay down? I thought. As in “Lay that blanket on the couch?”
I wanted my dog to lie down, not lay something down. (In the present tense, “lay” requires a direct object, as in “the blanket.”) Dog training conventions aside, I couldn’t shake my journalism training. (Or grade school English classes, for that matter.)
So I insisted we use proper English to train our dog: “Leo, sit. Leo, lie down. Leo, stay.”
Leo didn’t seem to mind grammatically correct English, and my family bought in. All was well.
Before you think I’m a total crank, let me be the first to admit (or my husband will tell you anyway) that I have my own linguistic shortcomings. I make my share of mistakes in writing, and I am happy to end a sentence with a preposition, but where my Achilles heel really emerges is in pronunciations. Words like “archipelago” and “integral” have plagued me for years, and I sometimes find ways to talk around them. (It doesn’t really matter whether I pronounce them correctly or not, because we end up laughing about it either way.)
Anyway, I’d been enjoying Leo, the grammatically sound dog, for about seven years when I decided to start him on skijoring. As I wrote recently, skijoring involves harnessing dogs (or horses), so they pull you on skis. After trying it out using our regular rigged-up leashes and harnesses, I understood the need for real skijoring equipment and ordered up.
While waiting for our new harness, line and belt to arrive, I started watching training videos on YouTube. One of the first things I learned is that a skijoring dog needs to be told to walk forward until the line connecting skier and dog is taut.
The command for this task? “Line out.”
I set up a chair in the kitchen and placed a treat on its seat. I walked a leash-length away from it, put Leo in a “sit” beside me, gestured to the treat on the chair and said, “Line out!”
He looked at me and slowly lay down.
I got him to his feet, put him back in a sit and tried again: “OK, Leo. Line out!”
He slowly lay down again, looking at me as if I must be confused.
I got him to his feet—“Leo. Line out!”—and gently shoved him toward the treat. He looked back at me as if I was crazy.
Sigh. It was apparent that every time I said, “Line out,” my dear, sweet, grammatically correct dog was hearing, “Lie—nout!” He must have thought, “Hmm! Variation on ‘lie down.’ Okaaaayyyy … ?” (And, by the way, who knew he was this well trained?)
Over several sessions, I probably got him to fifty percent accuracy on “line out,” but that was as good as it got. At least half the time he defaulted to a tentative “lie down”—despite the delicious treat awaiting him on the chair! And despite having one minute earlier successfully responded to “line out.”
Finally, my husband, Mr. Pragmatic, said, “You’ve just got to change that command.”
“But this is the Command,” I said.
“It’s not like you and Leo are going to enter international competitions where other racers will look at you funny,” he replied.
We brainstormed what might be a good alternative command. I thought “Forward march!” had a nice ring to it, but the family vetoed that one.
So yesterday, I decided to use a word I’ve always dreamed of having reason to use with a dog. I set up a chair in the hallway, put a treat on the seat and sat Leo beside me.
“Mush out!” I said. And off he went. Over and over, to the treat on the chair, with 100 percent accuracy almost from the get-go.
Now we were getting somewhere.
It just so happened that yesterday was a beautiful day, 16 degrees under a bright blue sky. So after our indoor practice, I pulled on my new skijoring belt, adjusted Leo’s harness and clipped us to each other with the official tether, which is part bungee cord (read: much-needed shock absorber). Out we went into the sunshine, tromping into our snowy alley. I clipped on my skis and sat Leo down beside me.
“Leo!” I said, gesturing down the alley, ready for the ride of my life. “Mush out!”
And there he sat, looking at me and smiling his toothy doggy smile.
And again … nothing.
“Leo,” I said, feeling just a little bit crestfallen, shifting gears to the everyday command we use when we’re setting off for a walk or trot. “Let’s go!” And off he went, sniffing after the rabbits, dashing hither and thither, with me ping-ponging down the alley behind him.
Would you like to read a happy ending … which is really just the beginning? Skijoring, take 3: “Worth the quarter century wait.“
If Japan is more your speed, here’s a link to information about my memoir, The Same Moon, and Inaka, an anthology on rural Japan.
Interested in writing about your own life? I’m teaching Memoir Moments and Haiku with You, and offering writing coaching — more info here.