The Diary of DaVinci
© 2006-2007 by Cheryl Ward
Installment 10: Moving Forward
December 13, 2007
Watch the video for
This month marks my one-year anniversary with DaVinci. This year ends
every bit as dramatically and emotionally as it began.
The pot of emotions begins to boil when DaVinci decides he prefers the
rich, rain-induced grass over his dry hay. The sugar-filled, wet grass
leaves his body as soupy and wet as it enters, leaving his high, white,
hind-socks looking like they belong to a little league player who's slid
into home a few too many times.
I need to clean him off. The hose would be the tool of choice, but he's
still petrified of the sound of water, not to mention the serpentine
aspects of the hose, even with all of our work trying to make friends
with the snake that spits water from its mouth.
I feel like his diarrhea-drenched legs could cause some kind of scalding
or burning so I place this in the category of "Needing immediate medical
attention." I could have restrained him somehow, but anytime any
situation has even a hint of confinement, DaVinci's defenses kick in and
he's ready to protect himself.
I try a middle-of-the-road approach with a bucket of warm water and a
sponge. Sam is at DaVinci's head, clicking and treating. I quickly find
he's 'hiny shy' (DaVinci, not Sam) and has no desire for me to get
anywhere near his crusty crack. I'm a bit surprised, as every day we
play the game of letting me groom him all over. Even under his tail. But
the wet sponge, a dreaded object in my hand, is way too much stimuli.
For 11 months with DaVinci, my goal has been to work with him unhaltered
and without pressure. I now feel the only way I can give his condition
the attention it needs is through restraint. My heart sinks just
I do know how to restrain a horse. I know how to 'Be the boss,' the
dominant member. But I never liked it. This is why I like positive
reinforcement training. I no longer need to be the boss or have fancy
moves or know where to stand or wave my arms at the right moment. I just
have to make sense and horses seem to thrive in an environment of logic.
If what I'm asking a horse is logical in their mind, they happily do as
I ask. It's what they want to do also.
In this case, I'm having difficulty trying to explain to him that he
wants to get squirted with the hose. He wants to have water in his
sensitive places. I'm feeling like I'm failing with my communication.
Ready, Set, Hose
I take a deep breath, fit him with his halter and a 12-foot lead and
hold my target stick. I turn on the hose and let him target his way to
the running water. Even though he's attached to me via a lead, I want to
give him as much liberty within this constraint. I encourage him to paw
at the pooling puddle of water.
I lift the hose. As soon as he hears the water hit the ground, he tries
to run. He quickly comes to the end of the lead. I immediately ask him
to target the end of his stick. I find that if I place my thumb over the
hose, causing the water to spray lightly, he's much less afraid. There's
something about the more forceful sound of the water hitting in a solid
stream that really gets to him.
With another deep breath I begin to wet him with the lightly spraying
hose. He tries to run again and comes to the end of the lead. The moment
he stops and looks as if he's slightly calm, I stop spraying. I click
and treat. I repeat this routine until he understands that when he
stands still, the hose stops spraying.
After a few times, I can almost see his expression change from pure
fright and avoidance to "Hey, this is kind of fun. Especially on this
really hot day." I spray him lightly on his chest. He reaches forward
and steps into the spray. He parts his lips to feel the water hit his
teeth. I start to laugh. He's playing! So we play and have fun with the
hose at his front, but I really need to hose his other end.
I step to his side and attempt to wet his shoulders and possibly his
hips. But that's a big no-go. We've had such a great intro to the hose
that I know it could quickly turn sour. I go back to what he likes,
sticking his face in the spray. I see that if I squat in front of him
and aim the water up I can rinse his hind legs.
So. Here I am squatting directly in front of him while he does a little
Elvis jig. Much to my delight, I see his hind legs return to their
natural white color. Mission accomplished.
Sort of. I'm relieved that his legs are partially cleaned, but very
discouraged that I had to restrain him to do it. I put him in a
situation that was not his choice to remain standing. I made him stand
and I did something to him. He doesn't appear to be any worse for wear,
but I feel like I violated my covenant with him that gives him the
freedom to choose to stay with me.
It's my deepest joy to be able to appeal to his mind and allow him to
make the decision to stand with me. I feel like I failed having to
resort to force. Ugg.
DaVinci and his Kindred Spirit
I hear the phone ring. It's my friend who's a positive reinforcement dog
trainer. I cry on her shoulder a bit and she suggests that if they can
train Killer Whales to present their tail flukes to have blood drawn,
there's got to be a way for DaVinci to present himself for a bath. It
just may take more time.
So I pour over the internet, desperately searching for "how to train a
Killer Whale," not a very common search term. Somehow I end up on Cathy
Toft's website that tells her story of her rescue Collie named Babe.
Here are the first two paragraphs I read:
"When my last rescue Collie died, I had to fill the void that Trouper
left. I got on the internet and emailed all of my friends in collie
rescue. I explained, send me the worst of your worst. I donít want a
dog, I want a project. Donít waste a normal dog on me, one that you can
get someone else to foster and then adopt out to a normal home. I want a
dog so abused, no one can deal with him and everyone has given up on
him. I want a dog that would be euthanized if a person like me were not
available to adopt him. I added, donít hurry! Take your time. Wait for
just the right dog.
Immediately, my friend Lisa King who runs Colorado Collie Rescue emailed
me back. She said she had just such a dog in her kennel right now. The
dog had been with Lisa for 8 months and was one of the most abused
collies Lisa had ever encountered, and that was saying something because
a couple of years earlier, Lisa busted a big collie puppy mill. In these
months, this dog had recovered from her physical abuse, but her mental
condition was unreachable."
I am hooked. Her story sounds so similar to mine. A year ago when asked
Sam what would happen if we took a horse that was least likely to paint,
the least likely to do anything, we found DaVinci. In the same way that
Cathy Toft described Babe as a creature whose mental condition was
unreachable, I feel the same about DaVinci. I pour over
The Babe Chronicles with a box of tissue at my side. I cry both
tears of joy and of resonance feeling such a similarity between Babe and
The message of Cathy's website becomes a healing salve for my
discouraged heart. Her words are like reading a sacred text or prophecy,
holding my hand as to what I can do next with DaVinci. She writes with
life-saving clarity about all of the things I awkwardly try to put into
words and onto video.
I immediately email Cathy. She not only emails me back, but shares even
more amazing concepts and insights about her journey with Babe. She then
tells me that Babe just passed away a few months ago.
The thought enters my mind that perhaps somehow I was 'led' by unseen
forces to this information that is shaping my next step with DaVinci. I
almost feel like Babe could be reaching out to both DaVinci and I
saying, "Cathy never gave up on me and look what we did!" It's also
incredibly ironic that my first wonderful experience with dogs was with
my Grandparents giant, rough-coated Collie whose self appointed job was
to keep small children from toddling into the lake.
My gargantuan realization, derived from hours of reading and sniffling
and contemplating, is that these traumatized creatures respond best in a
'hands-off', force free environment. No leashes to pop them into place,
no chain shanks across their nose to get their attention.
Meeting of the Minds
The communication between human and four-legged becomes one not based on
control, restraint or unwanted consequences from the wrong behavior, but
one where the animal is mentally attracted and engaged. Nothing physical
is holding these two beings together. It's simply desire. The handler
wants to make meaningful contact and the animal wants to enter into that
At this moment I realize something huge. I don't think I've ever felt
anything more beautiful than to see and experience two beings from
different worlds saying these words:
I see you. I hear you. I want to be with you.
I ask myself, what is at the core of anyone's existence? I think we all
want to be wanted. We want to matter. We want to be noticed. We want to
share. We want to make a difference somehow. Babe's example shines light
into an unseen, universal vein of glimmering gold.
These damaged creatures are so shut down that only the purist of
energies can release them from their tortured existence. I believe that
energy, that vein of gold, is simply positive reinforcement.
The Beautiful Jim Key
"Trained by a self-taught veterinarian 'Dr.' William Key with only
kindness and patience, Jim was an educated horse whose abilities to
read, spell, do math and more made him more valuable than any racehorse
of his time. Together with Doc Key, an ex-slave, Civil War veteran,
horse whisperer, entrepreneur and perhaps the most famous
African-American of his day, Jim became the number one box office star
in the nation and energized the worldwide animal welfare movement,
making the phrase 'Be kind to animals' a household ideal."
So Jim was trained with only kindness and patience. Hmmm. I have a
sneaking suspicion that Dr. Key was savvy to positive reinforcement
decades before B.F. Skinner gave it a scientific name.
To read more about the horse Jim Key, visit
BeautifulJimKey.com. To order a copy of the book visit
(scroll down the page a bit).
I pause to imagine what life would be like if we treated ourselves and
each other with only kindness and patience. If we look at the journey of
Babe and her psychic twin DaVinci, it has the effect of raising the dead
into a brand new life full of things to look forward to.
On a potentially sappy-sounding personal note, these past few months
have unraveled some detrimental life-long issues I've clung to. For some
reason I've always felt that I'm alone in this world, that when the
going gets tough, I get trampled. It seemed in my past whenever I needed
help or a hand or attention, I'd have to be lying in a pool of blood to
get it. But even when there was lots of blood, if was still iffy. I
ended up with the idea that life was really hard and I had to work hard
to prove my worth.
In this particular chapter in my life, however, the instant I begin to
falter, a phone call from a friend led me to the story of Babe, and then
to amazing support and encouragement from Cathy. Even Sam and my
daughter Audra sensed I was in a bit of a funk (and I noticed this
because the kitchen was extra clean). This time when the going got
tough, I wasn't trampled. I was lifted up, reinforced and loved.
This first year with DaVinci closes in a way that means more to me than
I can relate. He lets me hose him while he's unhaltered (yes, we did
it). He lies down at my feet. He lets me kneel at his side. In this
moment, I swear I can hear him saying to me, "I see you. I hear you. I
want to be with you."
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