(This story is part of a continuing series, Learning Grace, about a girl and her dog. The first part begins here.)

The first time I poured food into a bowl and set it on the floor, Grace ate like the fat man in a hotdog-eating contest. To be fair, her only mealtime experience before me had been first scrambling for an available teat, and then shoving and shoveling her way through a mound of food alongside five hungry siblings. Judging from her girth it clearly hadn’t been a problem for her, but now that she was at my house she’d have to learn some ground rules.

So day two began with her first training session.

Fortunately for me, a food-motivated dog is an eager learner, and mine was voracious. Upon waking, I let her sample a few treats, then I held one above her nose and pushed it back over her head. She tracked it with her eyes and automatically rocked back into a sit. Once her butt hit the floor, I said sit so she could assign the action with the word. Until she knew what the word meant, saying it first was just human noise.

We did that a dozen times or so, took a break to run off some energy, and then tried again. And again. And again. After one of our breaks when she wasn’t particularly paying attention to me, I casually walked toward her and said, “Sit.” I could see her eyes light with recognition. She immediately dropped back into a sit, and I quickly gave her a reward before going bonkers with excitement. “You did it, Grace! You did it!” She bounced, matching my enthusiasm, and we celebrated with abandon. But was it a fluke? I wondered. To make sure, I became still and waited for her to calm herself. Then I said, “Grace, sit.” She snapped to attention, dropped her butt to the floor and looked up at me with those sweet, expectant eyes, the ones that suggested that I was the center of her universe. Me and the raw, grain-free, wild-caught salmon treats.

I was completely blown away. My baby dog was sitting on command in an hour! Yes, I know it’s the easiest trick in the book, but it was also the first step in our journey of communication. And both of us seemed so earnest in our desire to understand one another.

Sitting perhaps meant that she had some measure of control over herself. And it was about to be tested. I picked up her food bowl and her eyes widened with anticipation. I poured dry kibble into it, and as it plinked and swirled against the sides, she began convulsing with mealtime flashbacks. She was fighting off imaginary competition, hurling herself with such force, I was afraid she’d hurt herself. But then I said the magic word. She stopped, confused. Her butt rocked backward, slowly, unsure. When it met the floor I said, “Good sit” and gave her a couple pieces of kibble. Then I moved the food bowl toward her. She jumped up in anticipation and desperately tried climbing my leg. I quickly pulled the food away and made a noise like Cesar Millan had suggested, a disapproving staccato uh, uh, uh. She stopped, tilted her head one way, then the other. I said the word again, gently, like a two-syllable song. “Si-it.” She eyed the bowl, then me, and put her butt on the floor like a show dog. “Good sit.” I moved the bowl toward her. She sprang up. I pulled it away. “Grace, sit,” I said in my best alpha voice. She did. This time as I moved the bowl toward her I kept repeating, “Good sit. Good sit. Good sit.” I was able to get the bowl to the floor before she tore into it like a vulture on the savannah.

I’d like to think that my girl is advanced—as in off the charts, top of the class—because at the next mealtime (and every one thereafter) when I told her to sit, she did and proceeded to wait for me to put the bowl on the floor. I was elated.

Her eagerness to learn and the speed at which she progressed made me high. Seriously, I became a junkie. On day three, we’d accomplished a reliable down. She was rolling over by the end of the first week, giving her paw to shake and high-fiving soon thereafter.

As amazed as I was by how much she could learn, I was even more stunned by what she didn’t know. Like walking on a leash. I mean, you see it every day. It’s what dogs do. But Grace didn’t have a clue. She’d sit down in the middle of the street not quite understanding what I wanted her to do. And she was in the middle of the street, by the way, because until she’d gotten all of her shots, sidewalks and their adjacent grassy areas were potentially Parvo-invested, disease-carrying cesspools. So we’d take to the streets in the early mornings, usually around 5 AM when she woke me up, and by the light of the moon I coaxed my little girl as best as I could, at times lifting her butt off the pavement (aka “charging up the butt”) and moving her hind legs in a walk-like motion while repeating, “Good walk, Grace. Good walk.” She looked up at me with her soft, brown eyes as if to say, I’d like to walk back home and pee on your Tempurpedic.

Potty training was another challenge. OMG! Forget crate training. Perhaps because my dog had spent the first weeks of her life urinating all over herself and laying in it, she had no problem doing so in her crate. If she was supposed to be repulsed by the behavior as all the manuals will tell you, she failed. Instead, week after week, I took her into the yard and waited patiently while she sniffed it. I even walked in tiny circles in one corner like some book or video had suggested I do to inspire her. To no avail. Then, just when I thought she didn’t really have to go, I’d take her back inside where she’d find a spot on the floor that wasn’t protected by a tarp or wee pad and promptly squat over it. Sheesh. It seemed as though I was forever cleaning up after her. I had visions of her being the only adult dog in the history of the world that wouldn’t pee outside.

She also didn’t know how to fetch—and for god’s sake, she’s a retriever. I simply couldn’t believe I would have to teach her absolutely everything. I started making lists of things I wanted her to learn—both short term and long term. As she napped, I combed through YouTube training videos in search of new tips and tricks.

For the first three weeks, I was a virtual recluse because I was afraid to leave the house. I hated the thought of Grace trapped inside that crate. Let’s be clear: she was fine; I was the one having the problem. The first time I locked her in it and left the house, I stood outside expecting her to bark and whine and injure herself trying to get out. She didn’t. I walked around the block, fretting, and arrived home to a dog that was happily sleeping in her padded cell with all her toys. I began stretching the time I was away, even going to the grocery store for provisions!

Potty training was accomplished by setting a timer. Every half hour I took her outside until she peed. And when she did, you can be sure I squealed and carried on as if she had won the Super Bowl. Eventually she came to prefer to the victory celebration over my huffing and puffing with the antiseptic spray and paper towels.

Once she was potty trained, I began letting her explore the first floor of the house. I moved the gate that had been confining us to a portion of the living room and used it to create a small puppy jail. This was where I put her when she was a spastic child and I simply didn’t know what else to do with her. Like, for instance, the time she jumped up on me and ripped my favorite shirt. I was so exasperated with her that I was either going to kill her or put her in jail.

In between playtime and training sessions, I simply marveled at her while she slept.

Oh, this dog. She got me.