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The Four Year-old Dog Trainer

Updated: Dec 26, 2020

I knew it wouldn't last. Zizi's mom had called to ask if she and her four year-old daughter could meet me at the animal shelter to help "train" dogs. Just something fun for a mom and her animal-loving daughter to do together. I agreed knowing the attention span of such a child meant she would join me a time or two and then move on. I had no idea what I--and the dogs--were in for.

Zizi is a spitfire, one of those sassy, smart, strong-willed kids that can at times give her parents fits. During one our first "dog training" sessions she looked me right in the eyes and without the slightest windup asked, "Do you have a girlfriend?"

I thought about what to say. "No, I'm married to a bunch of dogs," I said.

I thought she'd laugh, but she took in my words, looked around at the chihuahua, beagle, mastiff, German shepherd, English bulldog, and golden retriever playing in circles around us. She nodded, and that was that.

At one of our next sessions she got out of her mom's car carrying a bag of Goldfish crackers which she proceeded to sprinkle into the doggie wading pool so the shelter dogs could "go fishing." She didn't seem to care that her action might start a fight, and those dogs circled around the pool edge and bobbed for goldfish like apple-bobbers at a county fair. Zizi just smirked and shrugged as if saying, "See. I told you. They love it." In what would become my standard response to her, I simply shook my head.

A few weeks later, to my amazement Zizi was still coming, usually wearing something pink. I couldn't believe how the dogs, all different sizes, ages, and breeds, listened to her, did anything she asked, and I began to ask Zizi to walk dogs on leashes, issue their basic obedience commands, etc. Once, when a family of a huge Swiss mountain dog was having difficulty getting their dog not to pull on the leash, I shot a video of Zizi walking him with no problem. I said, "Hey, if a four year-old can walk him on his leash, you can, too." The shaming worked.

During the rain Zizi insisted on coming. When she was sick, she insisted on coming. One day she stood on the back bumper of my Suburban and, looking through the open rear hatch at the ten or so dogs inside, began waving her arms like a symphony conductor. I asked, "Zizi, what are you doing?"

With certainty she said, "Getting them to sing."

And I'll be a son-of-a-gun if ten dogs didn't strike up a hallelujah chorus of barking and howling that sounded awful, joyous, and beautiful. Session by session, this brassy, sassy kid began to worm herself into my heart. The dogs loved her, and I did, too.

The months turned into a year and then two. Zizi outgrew clothes but always sported something pink. She turned seven and still she came. By then I had begun to spend periodic time outside of work with her, her mom, and her dad. Sometimes they shook their heads, too, at what she said and did.

When Zizi went to horse camp, I bought her a pink western shirt. At Christmas her family invited me to a local hotel to meet the Grinch and decorate Christmas cookies. "The Grinch That Stole Christmas is my favorite Christmas movie," I told Zizi.

She was too busy making a smiley face out of chocolate chips to look up. "Me, too," she said. "He's coming in a few minutes. Get ready."

"Z, what are you talking about? Get ready because the Grinch will be all grouchy and mean?"

"Oh no," she said, "He's a nice Grinch."

"A nice Grinch? How can the Grinch be nice?"

She placed more chocolate chips on her cookie. "Actually, he's just some man wearing a costume. The hotel tells him to be nice."

I thought for a minute, nodded, and that was that.

Zizi turned eight, nine, and still helped me care for dogs. One glorious summer day Zizi's father guided us down the Snake River through the jaw-dropping beauty of Grand Teton Park. A few times we grilled at each others' homes. And then one day I had to explain that I was moving away to relocate my business to another state. She couldn't have known that leaving a town I had loved for twenty years wasn't as hard as leaving my "assistant dog trainer."

I sure miss Z and her parents and think about them all the time. We stay in touch, though, and recently I visited my old town where Zizi, now nine, invited me to come see her new business which her mom, an Ivy League MBA, had encouraged. With her mom's help Z had started a home-based pet business. She boards them, sits for them, provides daycare. Her service has a five-star rating and comments such as, "If I could give her ten stars out of five, I would." Zizi sometimes sleeps with the dogs, sends their owners photos, and draws sketches of them which she rolls up, ties with a ribbon and presents to each dog's owner while she, adult-like, gives a full report on how things went. I imagine each owner standing there like I first did: bemused and charmed.

Next summer Zizi and her parents are coming to visit South Dakota where I will show her my new business, Woofers Pet Resort. Zizi has asked about my marketing strategies and given me all sorts of unsolicited advice about how to provide excellent customer service. She is, as usual, almost always on target, so perhaps I should hire her as a consultant.

Zizi is about to turn ten. Just today I was thinking back about that diminutive four year-old girl wearing pink tights, about how tall and lean she is now, how like an adult she sounds, about how her willfulness and confidence have not changed, about how her love for animals still resides deep in her marrow. I pondered yet again the randomness or serendipity about someone like me becoming buddies with someone like her. I thought about how she kept showing up and sassing her way into my heart, and how my "assistant dog trainer" is an assistant no more.

I thought about our connection and bond and felt very thankful for this kid and her parents. And then, thinking about the wonder of it all, I responded how I always have: I shook my head and smiled.


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