About 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.
I said I wasn’t going to. The homophobia of Russia and the authoritarianism of Putin and the Pussy Riot of it all. It’s sort of like how I keep saying I’m not going to watch NFL football, but I’m always there if the Vikings or Green Bay are doing well, and for the playoffs through the Super Bowl. Always there by myself with the dogs with my beer and cheeseballs, calling Billy in from his writing room to catch the re-run of a really spectacular play.
And so it is with the Olympics, which I have loved and followed with personal attachment since childhood when I had aspirations of the gymnastics persuasion. There was no luring Billy in during heart-thumping thrill of Nordic cross, nor for the luge nor the skeleton. He would not budge even to see the formidable supermom with the glittery eyelids, or the Czech woman named Eva who stomped out a gold in the snowboard cross (wicked race, that one; sort of like NFL football except the crashes aren’t intentional). Before all that, though, I had managed to get him in for snowboard slopestyle. Specifically, I got him to watch Sage Kotsenburg, the 20-year-old from Park City, Utah. The guy who decided mid-air on his last jump in the finals to add 360 to a 1260 and make it a 1620, even though he’d never done that before and had a gold medal on the line. The guy who, after he landed and stood waiting for his scores, showed the world that the whole time he was riding over all those sick jumps he’d been chewing a piece of gum.
Uptight 50-somethings willing to humble themselves can learn a lot from 20-year-old “loose characters,” as the announcer put it, like Sage Kotsenburg. He won that gold medal, but he doesn’t always win; in a news conference after the event he laughed about bombing out at the X Games and not winning anything big since he was like 11 years old. He was stoked, but not arrogant; comfortable, but not overconfident. He was totally in his body, his true self, all his limbs relaxed and his breaths deep and full. He was so relaxed that the Russians thought “stoked” meant “drunk.” He was like that on the slopes, he was like that in the spot he did later with Jimmy Fallon, he was like that in the interviews and press conferences. And dude, he killed ‘em all.
I think my dogs would like Sage Kotsenburg. I think my dogs would like it if I were Sage Kotsenburg, or could at least emulate the Kotsenburgian sureness that all will be okay because it is always okay. That whatever it is, it is what it is, whether you stick your landing or fall on your butt. Nothing important is riding on anything, because in the end a gold medal isn't as important as whether you enjoyed yourself getting it. Shred and have fun. That's it.
At the Palm Springs shows in early January, when I stood on the lip of the downhill despair course I would descend through mid-February, a trainer I admire saw me in the practice ring and yelled at me. “Stop sucking your stomach in,” she said. “Let all your air out!” Her point was that my cadaverous stance and pinched gait was doing nothing to help my dogs’ faith in the unwavering benevolence of their universe, which in the ring consists of little more than the judge and me and a bunch of paraphernalia like gloves and metal things they have to pick up. If your leader is stiff and trembling, something is clearly wrong and you’d better keep an eye out for what that something is. Maybe it’s that Bernese Mountain Dog. Better not lie down.
Last Friday before running an agility course with Tabitha, I imagined for a minute or two that I was at the top of the slopestyle course, facing down the beast. Any tension in my body could kill me; any distraction would throw me off course, careening end-over-end into the big orange hurricane fence. Running Tabitha is hard for me; she is big and strong and determined, and if I get in her way she will take me out (and in true bully fashion, feel very, very sorry for it). So I figured I’d at least make sure I had a blast. I let my belly stick out, my shoulders slouch. I let all my air out on the start line and let the dusty breath rush in as I released her. Tabitha knew it was for real; she exploded off the line.
We killed it.
Now the question is whether I can bring that same spirit to the obedience ring with Thomas, and whether it will work. I’m not even sure I know what stomping it out means in the Utility ring. I do think maybe it’s worth finding out.
I bought those photos of Thomas and me from Steve Southard, who took them at Valley Hills Obedience Club's trial in December, when it was raining.