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The Beer Whisperer 

Wednesday, Dec 3 2008

On election night, when all of my friends were gathered at my house to celebrate, I got a surprise visitor. "He's yours!" a couple of my pals announced excitedly, as a black and white dog came jerking up to me. They'd found him wandering in a parking lot in Nevada, where they'd gone to help get Obama elected. "You gotta name him Hussein!"

The dog, a border collie/basset mix, had been wayward for weeks by the time my friends found him. A lady at the nearby gas station said someone had put up fliers and contacted the SPCA to try to find his original owners, with no luck. The dog was obviously very friendly, tame, and eager to find a home, so my pals took him back to Oakland.

And here he sits, right next to me, as I write this. Granted, my, er, "lifestyle" is really more attuned to the lazy bulldog or geriatric Newfoundland, not an energetic collie mix. So I have been trying to find him a good home, free from my cats and guinea pigs. (The cattle dog in him wants to chase and herd any critter he sees.) I am having no luck so far. In the meantime, I'm attempting to do something I've never done before: train a dog.

Last week I splayed all the books I could find on the subject on the bar in front of me at the Latin American Club: The Dog Bible, Dog Training for Dummies, and a book about border collies. With its superdim lighting, the Latin is actually one of the worst places to read in. But I like the comfort of the place; I guess my mood was a mix of basset hound (slow, easy, lazy) and border collie (Learn! Try! See!) so I held the books as close to my eyeballs as possible and pushed on anyway.

The Latin really is one of the coziest bars in the city. It's smallish but not cramped, with '50s dinette chairs at the tables and a ceiling covered with piñatas and other Hispanic gewgaws, as if you were standing underneath some sort of Latin American solar system. Ironically, when I walked in, the stereo was playing Big Star.

I asked the bartender for a Sierra Nevada Pale Ale, which he didn't have; he offered the Sierra Hefeweizen instead. I'd never tried that particular beer, but since I'm a fan of both Sierra and hefeweizens, I gave it a shot. While he was getting my drink, I opened up my Dog Bible.

It's interesting how much dog training has changed over the years, and I'm sure Rush Limbaugh would be the first to note that "liberalism" has influenced even canine discipline. To wit, we do not say "No" to our dogs anymore. Instead, we are to praise them when they do right and ignore them when they do wrong. Also, there is no such thing as an alpha dog; we are all part of the same pack, man.

I was just letting this sink in when I took a sip of my beer. I was immediately disappointed. "Ewwwww," I muttered. God, this was the worst beer I'd ever had, besides Budweiser. Up until that point, I'd really never met a beer I didn't like (besides Budweiser). But for one thing, unlike most hefeweizens, this one had no underbelly. It was high on the tongue, bitter in a bad way, and crisp, which is something I don't look for in a beer. Blech. So, though I felt like a diva, I did something that I've never done before, and sent the drink back. The bartender was understanding, and replaced it with a yummy Anchor Steam, free of charge. Phew.

"I don't understand it," I said. "Sierra Pale Ale is my favorite beer."

"Well," he replied, "that doesn't mean they know how to make a wheat beer." Apparently.

The happy hour crowd had begun to show up, so I pushed all my books together and kept reading. From what I've gathered so far, I am not only supposed to behave with my dog like I am on an ashram, but I am also supposed to treat him like Helen Keller. Maybe you have seen The Miracle Worker, where her teacher, Anne Sullivan, finally makes a breakthrough with the deaf and blind Keller after months of futility. She has been trying to teach her sign language by making the sign for water on Keller's palm, but Keller's all, "Uhhhh ... wha?" Then Sullivan finally takes Keller to a spigot, holds her hand under the flow, and signs "water" into her palm while it's pouring over her. She gets it!

The bartender poured a beer in front of me, and I pictured Anne Sullivan furiously signing "beer!" into the stream. Then I pictured Helen Keller beer bonging. The next day, Sullivan could sign "hangover" on Keller's temples.

Anyway, I am supposed to do the same thing with my dog, which is to say the word I want him to learn while he is doing it. So, when he sits, I say "Sit!" as he lowers his butt; when he comes to me, I say 'Come!" while he is moving; and when he is being good, I say "Good boy" during the goodness and not after. My voice is a veritable spigot, ya dig? The book made it all sound pretty easy.

The guy next to me, wearing a sweatshirt under a corduroy blazer (hmmm, are ye a poet, fair sir?), saw all my books and asked if I had a new dog. I said yeah, and that I was trying to train him.

"Ah, the fine art of Pavlovian tutelage," he remarked, I think (hope?) facetiously. He proceeded to give me a few hints, including that the process takes a long time, so I'd have to be patient. He also said to give out the reward treats intermittently, and to understand that some dogs just won't be trained. Hmmm. He had more to say, but I started to fade and tuned him out. He had been imparting so much wisdom, though, that I felt I had to give a little bit back.

"Thanks for all the info," I said, getting up and loading my books into my bag. "I have a tip for you, too," I added, pushing in my stool. "Don't drink the hefeweizen."

About The Author

Katy St. Clair


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