On Practice, and Keeping Track

20151010-botc-ob-0100-lrA couple of months ago, we were enjoying a little streak of moderate success. Under conditions I had previously not thought tolerable to Thomas — live gophers popping up about the ring, for instance — we at long last broke into the 90s in Utility. Thomas had begun hitting every sit, every front and finish like he hasn’t since he was a good little Novice dog. He was holding his mouth still on his retrieves, and resisting the urge to bat his articles around as if they were sleeping prey he hoped to wake up and chase.

Most important, we earned another UDX leg, the first one since May of 2014, to bring us to a total of four.

Nobody actually asked me what I’d been doing differently, which did not stop me from offering my secret, loudly, to anyone within earshot: We’d been practicing more. Yes, yes, I know — I was meaning to be funny. News flash! Practice makes perfect. (Except in our case, not perfect. But at least better than before.)

The streak was not to last, which doesn’t mean it wasn’t real, but does mean that maybe there have been holes in my plan that took a bit of time to manifest. I had noticed with both of my dogs that directed jumping was our weakest exercise, and not surprisingly, because I don’t have room to practice it at home; I wasn’t getting out in the park often enough to teach them confidence about the go-out and to reinforce the notion that, yes, my small friends, you must observe my hand signal before you take a jump. I had taken stand-for-exam for granted, a fact of which I was rudely reminded when Thomas stretched up into the lap of a judge he particularly likes.

This past weekend Thomas and I set up in the ring for the directed retrieve, which was the first exercise in Utility B that day, when it struck me that we really hadn’t practiced gloves much in the past week. Still, I sent Thomas with the most positive expectations, and I was shocked when he refused to move off his spot, as if he had forgotten how to follow my signal to retrieve his glove.

He hadn’t forgotten, I’m sure. He could have done it just fine outside the pressure of the ring. But the judge and my nerves and the people and the foul smell of the pee-soaked grass and the noise of banging crates somewhere over in Building 4 overwhelmed what he knew; it all got in the way of his ongoing calculus about what might be safe or successful or even worth doing. I hadn’t charged up his glove retrieve with toys and food and triumphs, and so when he heard the word “fetch!” he simply couldn’t muster the nerve to comply.

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The Purpose-Driven Dog

Thomas heelingAlmost as soon as I learned that the three masses the veterinarian had found on Thomas’s spleen last spring were not cancer, not hemangiosarcoma or lymphoma, or any of the other horrid diseases that take our dogs from the appearance of perfect health to death in hours or days or months, I entered him in an obedience trial. On the day of his surgery, I had not thought I would do this, ever again; I thought I would retire him, let him live for as long as he had left without the demands of training or the stress of the ring.

It only took a few days for me to drop that notion. Thomas, as if to goad me back into working with him, started bringing me things, rolled-up socks, random toys, shoes, plastic bottles. He delivered each one of them with obedience-ring formality, held firmly in his mouth while sitting at my feet. His message was clear: The unstructured life is not worth living. Not for a human, and not for a dog.

So we went back. Why not? Thomas still tries to concentrate on his tasks and make the right decisions; I still work to make my signals clear and my handling clean and calm. We are without goals: Although we’ve had some decent Utility scores and even more impressive Open runs — not long ago he held his long sit in the heat, while all the dogs around him, some of them obedience champions, folded — we have not added to the three UDX legs we’ve accrued since May of last year. I don’t honestly expect to get more, and I toy with quitting. But the very thought breaks my heart. I suspect it would break his, too.

I am, however, devoting more time to my talented little pit bull, Tabitha, she who, one year ago this month, earned her UD in three straight trials and then promptly ripped her cranial cruciate ligament — one of the tiny bands in the knee that keeps the femur from slipping off the tibia. (In humans, the same ligament is called the anterior cruciate ligament, the one closest to the front. Dogs being quadrupeds, the ligament is identified as the one nearest the head.) In December, Tabitha underwent a tibial-plateau leveling osteotomy on her right leg, an operation in which the surgeon (in this case, Dr. Scott Anderson at ASEC), saws off the top of the tibia to alter its angle, obviating the need for a ligament. She then spent two months in a crate doped up on a tramadol, and two more under severe leash restrictions.

Then, one month after she’d been cleared for normal activities, she sprung the same ligament on the opposite leg, and we started all over again.

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The Clarity of Crisis

Last Sunday, Thomas did as well as he has ever done in Utility. In the order of exercises that begins with scent articles, always a tough one, he worked the pile efficiently without visiting the judge. He returned his glove straight and fast and obeyed his signals in spite of much hubbub in his line of sight, where Novice competitors were getting their ribbons. There were fronts and finishes in all the right places, and sits to go with them. It was a sign to me that the adjustments we’ve made lately in training —  reeling in his retrieves with a retractable leash, heeling with a light lead held low in my right hand — are working. It was also a sign that we’re both less nervous in the ring.

Good scoreWe still didn’t qualify, only because we failed the second half of the last exercise, which was directed jumping. Thomas did his first go-out and took the bar jump without any fuss, but on the second one he stopped halfway out, suddenly, as if something had bitten him. Then he turned to go the rest of the way, and stopped again. I told him to sit, but he was flummoxed, and took the bar jump a second time.

It seemed odd — if you can do one go-out, why not the second? But it wasn’t alarming. So many of Thomas’s bobbles in the ring over the years have been inexplicable. I tamped down my disappointment as quickly as I could, rewarded him and carried on.

A little while later, though, it struck me that something was off. Thomas kept lifting his leg — on trees, on blades of grass, on nothing — straining to pee. I’m used to Thomas marking; walks with Thomas are long, slow affairs, during which he analyzes many objects from different olfactory perspectives before selecting an angle at which to deliver a few carefully metered drops. But this was different; it was like he couldn’t get those drops out. Nothing had changed in his mood, and he didn’t seem to be in pain, so I took him into the Open ring. He popped over the broad jump effortlessly. Then he squatted and tried to pee. I scooped him up, left the ring with apologies and drove him home, where he deposited a large, warm pool of urine on the living room rug and stood next to it, stricken. I rushed him to the emergency vet.

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The Different Dog

“Sometimes you win, and sometimes you learn,” agility competitors like to say, and I agree. There are no losers in dog sports; it’s all about your relationship with your dog! We are process-oriented, not fixated on results. Just go out and have fun! That’s what matters.

securedownloadWell, yes. Sometimes you win, sometimes you learn. Sometimes you qualify and sometimes you learn. And sometimes after a long, long stretch in which you were supposedly learning, but actually losing, something happens that slams into your head like a loose tree limb in a hurricane and says, “When will you ever learn?”

This happens no matter what kind of dog you have, I’m sure. But as I’m still showing my Novice A terrier, and the only dog I’ve trained since is a terrier, I can only confirm that it happens frequently with a terrier, and it happens in ways that have everything to do with what training a terrier means.

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Competition obedience and the meaning of life

“Where is the meaning? Where is the meaning?” My friend Phoebe is pacing around the room, apoplectic, demanding justification for my obsession with dogs. I understand her dismay: I used to have time for other activities. I used to be able to pack up with 48 hours notice and disappear for a couple of weeks on a canoe trip; I used to lead full-moon hikes. I traveled, I went to yoga class, I could spend a weekend in the desert staring at sand and be perfectly content.

Everyone I know in the performance dog world has their version of this: “Before dogs,” one woman told me, “I was a great skier.” Or, “before dogs, we went to Europe every year.” Before dogs I had more friends, more work, a fuller life among humans. Before dogs, I stayed out late.

It’s not that I didn’t have hobbies before; I did, big ones, involving outrigger canoes and static trapezes. But the old pursuits all tapered off within four or five years. Training dogs has been different. I’ve been working with Thomas now going on eight years, competing in the ring with him for six. Five years ago I took on Tabitha, then a gangly three-month-old pit bull, and I’m now showing her in Utility, too, where her excessive enthusiasm compensates, with the crowd if not the judge, for her lack of accuracy.

Seeing no end to any of this, my friend puts her foot down. “It’s time,” she declares soundly, “for you to be doing something else.” Continue reading

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The Problem With Stay

My back was turned, so I didn’t see what happened. This is by design: I never look back when I’m leaving the ring in group stays; I worry that, like Lot’s wife, I’ll reduce all I’ve worked for that day to salt. But I did hear the scream, and I recognized it instantly as the voice of my dog. I also knew from its ferocity and pitch that something bad had happened. In the millisecond that passed as I spun around to rescue him, the following scenarios reeled through my mind:

1. A dog had passed too close to the ring gates and Thomas had turned to attack him.

2. Thomas had, inexplicably and without precedent, attacked another dog in the long down, thus disqualifying himself from the ring for good.

3. Another dog had attacked Thomas, who had sustained injuries of unknown severity, perhaps crippling him for life. Or, at the very least, giving him a permanent and very bad feeling about groups. Continue reading

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A Lesson From Sage

 

Thomas articles in rain-1About a month or so ago I had reached that point of despair that makes me want to write about dog training. Thomas and I had racked up our 5th consecutive failed attempt at a UDX leg, this time not because he backed up and threw the dumbbell at me or failed to negotiate his go-out or ran up to the small white boards that signify a broad jump and stopped like, “what's that for?” Those were last month’s problems. That was before my training partner Tawn, who is awesome, figured out 14 ways to build drive into a broad jump under all circumstances; that was before I started making him hold all his toys — flying disc, tennis ball, yellow rubber thing — and deliver them square front if he wanted them thrown. We fixed his dumbbell retrieve and his broad jump and proofed his signals and worked over his go-outs.

 And then his drop-on-recall broke.

Oh — and at a trial out in San Bernardino last month, a Bernese Mountain Dog dared to lope by near the ring during signals. How can a dog possibly drop on command under such clearly dangerous circumstances? I cannot imagine such a thing would be safe. Even though the Berner was a good 20 feet away and on a leash. Attached to a human who was wearing sensible ballet flats and a split gabardine skirt covered by a grooming apron.

Like I said, there was despair. And so I wrote — I wrote and wrote and wrote, filling up reams of notebook pages with scrawly longhand and covering envelopes with scribbles, none of which turned out to be anything I wanted to type into a nice font on a computer and put up on a blog. It was too despair-y for that; I needed to chill. I needed to go back to the woodshed, think some matters through. I needed to watch the Olympics.

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The Inner Game of Dog

Tabitha Retrieve-lightenedOn the first attempt, the dumbbell fell short of the jump. On the second, it flew low and banged into it. On the third, the judge had to duck.

Finally, with my confused dog (Tabitha this time, my sensitive AmStaff), agitating at my side, the judge picked up the dumbbell and walked slowly toward me. “Just . . . get it . . . over . . . the jump,” she said. “Do it any way you can.”

I grabbed the dumbbell by the bar and hurled it. It bounced, then landed far to the right. Tabitha went over the jump after it.

In that long instant I realized what a mistake I’d made: All morning, I’d been using Tabitha’s dumbbell to work the broad jump — throwing it as she flies over and having her bring it back to me on the right side of the jump.

So Tabitha, being the quick study that she is, did not bring the dumbbell back over the jump, as she’d been proofed to do. Instead, she turned wide to the right and brought the dumbbell back around the jump. Then she sat, perplexed, at my right side. Why would she not? Good dog. I suck.

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The long, strange and never-ending trip

The first time I watched a dog go through the routine of the Utility sequence, I sat still in awe and choked back tears. The dog was a Belgian Malinois, handled by a woman with short, curly dark-blond hair, who looked to be about in her 60s. It was December 10, 2008 at the Long Beach Convention Center, where the Kennel Club of Beverly Hills used to hold their annual trial.

I miss that show and its busy, Christmas-y vibe. Because it was scheduled alongside the National Obedience Invitational, you got the sense there that something ultra-important was happening, that lives were being changed, careers and fortunes being made. And that was true, they were. I just didn’t suspect that one of the lives changing was mine. I merely wanted to put a Companion Dog title on a Cairn Terrier — something I’d long meant to do — and get out.

Then I saw the Malinois and her handler, floating so beautifully from one station to the next, performing each exercise with a clarity and precision I didn’t even consider might be possible with a dog. It looked to me like an extended magic trick. And I wanted to know, as I do with all magic tricks, how it was done.

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Grief, hope and the Utility dog

Last week started out wretched. “A friggin’ terrible week,” as a friend of mine put it, “and it’s only Monday.”

On Sunday, I read the news that a performer with Cirque de Soleil’s show in Las Vegas, a 31-year-old mother of two, had fallen 60 feet to her death. I did not know Sarah Guillot-Guyard, but up until not long ago I was an obsessed amateur aerialist — I even taught, for a while — which means I had teachers and students and still have friends who make their livings in the air. I took that loss, the first of its kind in Cirque’s 30-year-history, hard and personally. I was able to imagine too much: Her terror on the way down, the shock and grief of everyone who knew and loved her, her children in the aftermath.

On the same evening a New York Times news alert flashed on my screen: “Nineteen firefighters killed fighting Arizona wildfire.” I thought they’d got the number wrong — nineteen? I write about wildfires now and then, and read about them a lot, and because of Norman MacLean’s magnificent book Young Men and Fire I have a visceral understanding of how living creatures suffer when they don’t survive a fire. Thirteen Montana smokejumpers lost their lives in the 1949 Mann Gulch fire, a tragedy MacLean wrote about in somber detail. It is not a good way to die. 0226500616.01.LZZZZZZZIt is not a good way to leave behind wives and children and colleagues and a town full of friends. Many of them will go a long time before they can imagine a day when they don’t spend most of their time trying to understand what the people they loved went through in the final moments before they perished.

Then I spoke to my friend who was having the friggin’ terrible week. A friend of hers, an acquaintance of mine — someone I’d enjoyed talking to over the years as a source and a mentor — was missing in the Wyoming mountains. Randy Udall was due back from a solo backpacking trip on June 26. It was July 1, and the search teams that had been deployed to find him had turned up nothing. My friend held an image of him dragging himself to safety and, after devouring a grizzly bear, emerging from the wilderness with great stories for future generations. Instead, on July 3, Randy was found dead on the off-trail route he’d planned to follow in the Wind River Range. It seemed he’d had a heart attack or stroke. He was 61.

As it happens, July 3 is also the day my mother died, 30 years ago, after an eight-month battle with colon cancer that had spread to her liver. She was roughly at the age I am now, and just a year older than my father, who had died suddenly of a heart attack just 18 months before. It’s wrong to say that the anniversary of her death made the week worse, as I carry the unsettled grief of her passing and the circumstances that surrounded it with me always. But 30 years is a long time; it disturbs me to know that a wound so old can still feel so fresh.

It consoles me, too. As long as that wound stays open I won’t have lost her completely. Continue reading

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