My dog, an English cream golden retriever named Ben Jr., is blessed with superior intelligence and movie-star good looks, the Brad Pitt of the canine world. Yeah, I know I sound like yet another overly proud and obnoxious doggie parent who thinks “No Dogs Allowed” signs don’t apply to our pooches. Ben Jr. truly isn’t an ordinary dog — no brag, just fact.

Let me tell you how he acquired the nickname “smarty pants.”

When Ben Jr. was all of about six months old, I enrolled him for positive reinforcement obedient training at a neighborhood college called “I Said Sit!” For those unaware of the latest canine educational trends, it’s no longer acceptable to smack a dog’s behind with a newspaper to express one’s disapproval of a behavior. Canines must now be coddled like millennials and given their safe places, commonly referred to as crates.

At “I Said Sit” dogs were rewarded with treats for performing certain behaviors. For example, the class trainer would instruct parents to put a treat above their dogs’ heads that forced them to pull back and ultimately sit down. When the dogs sat, parents were told to say, “good boy” (or girl) and reward their dogs with a treat.

The goal was to teach dogs to sit on command, and Ben Jr. instantly figured out that he’d be rewarded with a treat for mimicking the desired behaviors. While it took the half dozen or so dogs in the class considerable time to understand and master each exercise, Ben Jr. quickly performed each one after seeing it demonstrated.

The trainers had to develop more challenging exercises to keep Ben Jr. motivated, which is why they nicknamed him “smarty pants.” He’s leveraged his education well. Whenever we visit the local pet supply store where Ben Jr. knows they keep sample treats in the cabinet under the register, he makes a bee line for the cashier, immediately sits, and puts out his paw.

“Your dog is so well trained,” I’m often mistakenly told.

As for Ben Jr.’s undeniable good looks, strangers are always stopping me to say, “Your dog is gorgeous” and asking to pet him. There have been multiple occasions when people pulled over and got out of their cars to engage with him. Once while walking Ben Jr. through is favorite neighborhood in Beverly Hills – Ben Jr. prefers to mingle with L.A.’s other beautiful beings – a stylish middle-aged woman stopped us and asked if she could pet him. After playing with Ben Jr. for a few minutes and savoring one of his signature paw hugs, she stood up and gave me a big hug.

“What’s that for?” I asked.

“I imagine when you walk your gorgeous dog, nobody notices you. I thought you probably could use a hug,” she said.

Ben Jr. at 18 months

Ben Jr. turned eight this past weekend, but it seems like only yesterday that I adopted him. He was an enigmatic dog from the get-go and looking back I’m surprised I dared to pay the steep adoption fee given his ready availability.

English cream golden retrievers are hard to come by. It’s virtually impossible to find one at a rescue because if ever one is surrendered, they will be adopted immediately. Typically, one must adopt an English cream golden from breeders, who advertise a pending litter and demand deposits before the puppies are even born.

I found Ben Jr. online at a breeder in central California. I did a Facetime call with some guy from Europe who said he worked for the breeder. Ben Jr. was quite the active dog, and while seemingly happy and playful, clearly didn’t enjoy being held. I found it odd that Ben Jr. wasn’t only readily available, the European guy said if I wanted him, I had to come immediately to pick him up because he was about to turn 12 weeks old. Mr. Europe said that dogs begin to bond after three months, and that it wasn’t good for a dog’s emotional development to remain with a breeder any longer.

I arranged for my Michigan friend Bethann, who is a doggie parent extraordinaire having raised several of them, to do a video call with Mr. Europe and she said Ben Jr. seemed fine. Turned out the breeder lied to me; weeks later the breeder sent me Ben Jr.’s pedigree certificate that listed his birthday as March 16, which meant that June 16th was the emotional attachment deadline. I adopted Ben Jr. on July 1.

Ben Sr.

As an aside, Ben Jr. is named after Bethann’s late dog Ben, a Labrador pit bull mix who inspired me to get my own dog. I’d often tell Bethann that one day I’d have my own Ben, and referred to my imaginary dog as Ben Jr. As I had only about 24 hours to adopt Ben Jr., I didn’t have much time to focus on a name, so I named him after Bethann’s dog. The other alternative was Spotty, the name of my childhood stuffed animal, but it didn’t seem appropriate for a lily-white dog.

OMG, he’s deaf

When I first took Ben Jr. home, I was convinced he was deaf because whenever I’d talk to him, he didn’t seem to hear a word I was saying. I’d give commands, but Ben Jr. just ignored them as if I wasn’t in the room. I was all set to take him to a canine ENT specialist, but one day I noticed that when Ben Jr. was upstairs and I opened the fridge or freezer door or crinkled a package of his treats, he’d immediately run into the kitchen. Ben Jr. likes to eat carrots and suck on ice cubes, and he knows where they are kept.

Ben Jr. also understands the word “yogurt,” a treat that’s cost me dearly thanks to a friend who let Ben Jr. lick his spoon and savor the premium and costly yogurt I buy from an authentic Greek restaurant in a sketchy Los Angeles neighborhood. A painful lesson I learned from Bethann is that dogs believe in precedent.

Ben Jr. 5th birthday

When I visited Bethann and met her Ben for the first time, he astutely pegged me for a sucker and stared me down for some food I was eating when Bethann briefly left the kitchen. I mistakenly thought no harm in giving Ben a scrap of my dinner, but Bethann went into a tirade when she saw Ben feasting on the dinner she’d prepared for me. I was taken aback that the woman who decades earlier told me there was only one activity she enjoyed more than parasailing had in the intervening years acquired this scary mommy voice after giving birth to her daughter.

“Ben is not allowed to eat food off the table!” Bethann bellowed.

I’ve since learned why Bethann went into such a tizzy. Whenever I eat yogurt, Ben Jr. expects an equal portion for himself, and will stare me down with his Oliver Twist, “Please sir, may I have some yogurt” look until he gets it. It’s truly amazing how long dogs can stare a person down.

Potty training

Having an extraordinarily intelligent dog has some advantages. Training Ben Jr. to do his potty business outside was remarkably easy, but he cleverly appreciated my angst when he’d pee or poop in the house and learned how to exploit that fear to his advantage.

Several years ago, I had a family friend visiting from Toronto who didn’t show Ben Jr. the love and affection he expects. On the third day of the visit, I came downstairs to find the biggest mound of doggie poop I’d ever seen in the living room and Ben lying in front of the door of the nearby guest bedroom. His look clearly said, “What part of this message do you not understand?”

Ben Jr. repeated that stunt when I had some relatives visiting, which is why I’m reluctant to have house guests.

Ben Jr.’s potty business has always been a source of considerable stress. He let me know from the outset he would never go on command, and that he prefers to do his pooping and peeing between 1 and 4 am, possibly because there are few people around. Ben Jr. doesn’t like people looking at him while he does his business and will make you feel like a degenerate if you do.

Beach Ben Jr.

Teaching Ben to walk on a leash was a breeze, but he quickly imposed some rules. One of them was no talking on a cell phone when taking our strolls. I learned this command because whenever I took a call, Ben Jr. would aggressively begin weaving and pulling, forcing me to terminate my calls and focus on him.

The one exception is my Detroit friend Allan, whose voice has a laxative effect on Ben Jr. Within minutes of hearing Allan’s deep voice on a speakerphone while I’m walking him, Ben Jr. stops to take a poop. Understandably, when Allan recently visited Los Angeles for a week, I told him it was best that he stayed in a hotel.

Exclusive walker

Another lesson Ben Jr. imparted early on was that me, and me alone, would be responsible for walking him. I once received three complimentary coupons from what was supposedly a professional dog walking service, but without exception the three “professionals” assigned to walk Ben Jr. returned after about 20 minutes sheepishly saying, “I’m sorry, I can’t get Ben Jr. to walk with me.”

I also serve as Ben’s exclusive shuttle service. Recently, I received a call from The Wag’s Club, the luxury doggie day care place where Ben Jr. loves to hang out, instructing me that he was overdue for his Bordetella vaccine and that they had a special doggie taxi available to take him to a nearby vet. I said okay, but some 30 minutes later I received call advising me that Ben Jr. refused to go in the shuttle.

“We’re so sorry,” the manager said. “We’ve taken hundreds of dogs in the taxi and Ben Jr. is the first who refused to get in.”

That Ben Jr. wouldn’t listen to his friends at the Wag’s Club surprised me given a behavior I recently discovered he routinely engages in with them.

After taking Ben Jr. for our usual walk around the block after picking him up from a blissful day of playtime, he saw a young woman sitting on the curb and pulled away to nestle his head in her lap. I was horrified, and I apologized profusely.

“No problem,” the woman said. “I love Ben Jr.”

“How do you know my dog’s name?” I asked.

“I work at The Wag’s Club,” she said. “On my break I like to cuddle up in the Zen room with Ben Jr. We all do.”

Ben Jr. on 9-1-1 FOX set

This is the same Ben Jr. who years ago when I got a bit maudlin one night after having a tad too much to drink and cuddled up with him in his oversized doggie bed to tell him how much I loved him and how much he meant to me. About an hour later, I awoke alone in the doggie bed, with Ben Jr. having gone upstairs to sleep in my bedroom.

Fatal mistake

The trainer I worked with at “I Said Sit!” warned me that the biggest mistake I could make was to let Ben Jr. think he was the alpha dog. The trainer recognized Ben Jr.’s tendency to take the lead when walking tethered to his leash, and he taught me how to curb the behavior. Whenever Ben Jr. attempted to take control, the trainer instructed me to immediately pull Ben Jr. in a different direction.

I religiously followed the trainer’s rule for years, but one day Ben Jr. was particularly aggressive trying to lead. He seemed like he was on a mission, and I was curious where he wanted to go. I made the fatal mistake of letting Ben Jr. take control and lead the way.

We walked for about two miles, wandering through various neighborhoods Ben Jr. had never been through. He walked quickly and with determination. We ended up at Centinela Feed, the dog pet supply store we visited a day earlier where the staff gave him treats. Naturally, Ben Jr. was expecting more of the same.

The alpha dog

From that day onwards, Ben Jr. insisted on visiting Centinela Feed daily. The staff knows Ben Jr. and fortunately is gracious about indulging him with treats. Ben Jr. has taken it upon himself to determine the routes we take to the store, and it’s never the most direct way.

if I don’t indulge him, Ben Jr. asserts his inner UAW and goes on strike, firmly parking his behind and becoming as unmovable as a car with its emergency parking brake engaged. Bystanders find Ben Jr.’s sit down strikes amusing and enjoy watching my frustration and humiliation. For a time, I thought Ben Jr.’s walking disobedience was unique to him, but as the videos below make clear, it’s an adoption hazard with golden retrievers.

Ben Jr. insists on walking about two hours a day, but he doesn’t like to keep to a set schedule. Sometimes he prefers to walk in the early morning, often it’s the mid-afternoon, and occasionally an evening walk is in the cards. Understandably, it’s near impossible to make plans. Accepting invitations always comes with the caveat, “It depends on when Ben Jr. wants to go for a walk.”

Waking me in the middle of the night has become a near constant, but it’s not always to go potty. Ben Jr. prefers the cool Southern California nights and enjoys lounging on the patio.  He knows full well I’m not going to take a chance and risk him taking a pee or poop in the house. He awakens me, I get up to let him outside, and when he decides he’s ready to come in, sounds a heavy bark to awaken me again to let him inside.

An eight-year-old dog walking for two hours can work up a hearty appetite, and sometimes Ben Jr. demands bigger rations than recommended by the maker of his veterinary grade kibble. Ben Jr. signals his demand for more food by standing near his bowl and gazing at me. Chez Starkman is open 24/7 to accommodate Ben Jr.’s culinary needs and demands.

It’s reached a point where I’ve begun calling Ben Jr. “Your Highness,” a reference which causes him to wag his tail with abandon. Given his English DNA, Ben Jr. instinctively understands and respects the monarchy.

Ben Jr. has educated me on the importance and acceptance of humility, and I wouldn’t give him up even in exchange for Jeff Bezos’ wealth. Bethann rightly says dogs are God’s cruel joke; they commandeer our hearts, but they live very short lives. I give thanks every day for Ben Jr.’s health and well-being.

Still, I no longer dream about how wonderful it would be if Ben Jr. could talk for just five minutes so that perhaps I could get him to be more flexible about scheduling our daily walks and maybe convince him to let me sleep through the night.

My biggest fear: Ben Jr. would tell me I have to move out.

Golden retriever parents can so relate to this video …

… and this video

An English golden trains one of his own.

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