Even a quarantined dog can learn new tricks.
Specifically, this spring, an American Staffordshire mix named Polly has been learning how to retrieve a beer from the fridge; a trick that has been closely documented on Instagram by her owner, folk musician Alice Gerrard.
Gerrard, who turns 86 in July, is a beloved old-time pioneer and the subject of the locally-produced documentaryYou Gave Me a Song, which screened at Full Frame and made its premiere on PBS last week. You can now stream the film here, and follow Gerrard’s journey to document traditional music across the Southeast.
Polly’s journey to the fridge, meanwhile, has taken place over several Instagram videos. She’s a very beautiful dog: an approximation of eagerness, with a charismatic tail and ears that stick up like exclamation marks. Gerrard, who has had Polly since 2011, emphasizes that she’s not a perfect dog—Polly can be protective and leery, especially around men, and once she jumped out of a car window and took off into a strip mall.
But Polly has used her time in quarantine productively, and her ace beer-slinging has earned her a handful of new admirers. I’m among them, and was preoccupied for most of April with teaching my foster dog how to do basic commands like “sit” and “lay down.” The idea of a trick as advanced as “go get me a beer” was dazzling. I had to know more, so I called Gerrard at her home in Durham. She was gracious enough to answer some burning questions.
A video of Polly’s trick can be viewed at the bottom of this post.
INDY Week: Hi, Alice! Polly seems like a dog who needs a job.
She really needs a job. Doing the agility has been great for me, too, because I found I really love doing agility. She doesn’t like being out in the rain—probably because her ears stick up, and the rain gets in them—but she’s kind of bored, just lying around, so I try to find things to do with her. We’ve been practicing her beer trick.
How long did it take her to learn it?
I did a stage a day. The first was, how do I get her to open the doors? I tied a pull toy to the handle and left it there. When we go on walks sometimes, I’ve started doing a thing where—there’s ivy that climbs on trees and it’s destructive, so I started getting her to bite the ivy and put it away from the tree. She loves to do it. She’s very treat motivated.
Aren’t we all!
Yeah. And she very quickly grabbed onto the idea that I wanted her to tug on the rope and open the door. Then I had to think of a command that wasn’t something that something we used in agility, so I said “open the door.” Then, “close the door,” that was the next thing. She’d open the door and slam it—I’m working on getting her to do it more gently. Then she somehow managed to close it with her nose and I gave her treats. Then it was time for “get me the beer.”
A friend of mine—Jim Watson, he’s a dog person—suggested I put the beer in a koozie. A foam thing that you put the beer in—I didn’t know there was a name for that, but apparently there is. I put the beer in the koozie and set it on the chair. She already knows get me this, get me that. She did that very easily so I moved it to a couple different places and then I put it in the refrigerator. Now it’s just “bring me the beer.”
That’s the dream. Do you have advice for people who want to teach their dog how to get a beer?
It is! Well, I posted the video on Instagram in phases and a lot of people said “oh, man, I want to train my dog to do that but I’m afraid she’d raid the refrigerator.” The fact of the matter is, you can’t leave the beer next to a bone. Or open food.
Does Polly like folk music?
She doesn’t like the fiddle playing! I think it hurts her ears, But yes, there’s been many a practice session over here—and she likes to be right in the middle of it.
Contact deputy arts and culture editor Sarah Edwards at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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