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The Heidi Chronicles, Part 14: learning to 'speak'

I_want_the_ball

This is Heidi. Earlier this year, she was "discovered" in the park by a pet talent agency; since then, she has embarked on a one-dog quest to break into the business. This is her Hollywood story as chronicled by Times staff writer Diane Haithman.

Heidi and I still await our audience with hottie Chihuahua Rusco from "Beverly Hills Chihuahua." She plans to wear her prettiest bandanna, green with her name in rhinestones, very "BHC." In the meantime, we return to Heidi’s studio training with Sue DiSesso, which to date has served to prove Sue’s tenet that it takes a year to studio-train a dog, five years to train the trainer.

While I have great confidence in Heidi, I’m still not sure I’m going to make my deadline. When we first met Sue in May, I’d envisioned us driving to her training ranch in Newhall — too soon to expect a limo — where Heidi the house dog would instantly prove herself smarter than the pros. And of course she would acquire the most important skill for a German Shepherd, the "speak."

Instead, the process began at my home. Sue wanted Heidi to start in familiar surroundings. Ideally, training should occur three times a day, for 20 minutes, like that was going to happen. Always in the same place; always the same reward treat, for consistency. We also needed a designated "bed" where Heidi could rest to clear her doggie brain before attempting a new behavior, like a temperamental actress flouncing off to her trailer.

Heidi’s "bed" is a purple yoga mat at one end of her "rehearsal" space, a backyard deck. Rules, rules, rules. Don’t play with Heidi’s big velvet ears; they might break — plus, petting a dog on the set encourages others to do likewise, which could mess with her concentration. Then, there’s her waistline to consider: The calories she consumes in treats must be deducted from her daily food intake — in fact, Sue said, the dogs at her compound are weighed weekly.

Well, forget the speak — Heidi hadn’t even learned to go to her bed and this studio training thing already seemed impossible. And Heidi preferred to sit at my feet, protecting me from this new stranger who wanted her to abandon her bodyguard role to do odd things like hold a leash in her mouth (see photo) or touch an object with her paw.

"The hardest thing is to keep the dog from being too attached to the owner," Sue said. Why is that, I wondered, as I allowed my precious Snookie-Boo Bear-Honey Lamb to put her head in my lap and nuzzle my hand.

And the biggest shock for the dog: Sue did not want to play with the red ball. The ball-obsessed Heidi clearly did not understand this. In fact, she decided several times during the training session that Sue might not notice a 70-pound dog trying to slink back into the house to fetch her favorite toy.

Sue stood firm. "We don't put the ball in the proceedings," she said, blocking Heidi’s path into the kitchen, because using a play item for work would be too confusing. Of course, by this point it did not seem that Heidi, or her owner, could get more confused.

But while I’m not sure Heidi was buying it yet, I couldn’t help but be inspired by what Sue said next. The training process, she said, "bridges the gap between human and animal. The more they do, they more fulfilled they feel. If it's not fun for the animal, the animal is not good for the industry."

Sue’s own eyes were shining as she talked about the flash I’d see in Heidi’s baby browns when she finally started to understand. I envisioned the key scene from "The Miracle Worker," when Patty Duke, as Helen Keller, makes the connection between running water and teacher Annie Sullivan signing the word "water" into her palm. Could we accomplish a similar miracle? I decided it was too soon to ask Heidi what she thought. We’ll wait until she learns to speak.

-- Diane Haithman

Photo: Heidi, with trainer Sue DiSesso, wonders whether learning to hold a leash in her mouth is worth giving up her red ball. Credit: Diane Haithman
 
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