The View from the Back of the Pack: Thomas Goes to the NOC

About a month ago, at a trial up in Northern California, I spoke to a woman who’d gone to the AKC National Obedience Championship with her Basset Hound. A dog qualifies for the NOC by earning obedience trial championship points; the AKC invites the top three pointed dogs in each breed, plus more according to various other formulas. For a Basset Hound, typically a single point is enough get the dog invited; as with a Cairn Terrier, there just aren’t that many dogs vying for those three spots. If you attend the event under those circumstances, you go knowing you’ll be up against dogs with hundreds, maybe even thousands, of points, dogs who qualify routinely handled by trainers who’ve dedicated their lives to the sport.

You know you won’t win, or even make the final 50 who compete a second day. You go for your own reasons.

“My only goal,” said the Basset Hound trainer, “was not to be last. And we weren’t! We weren’t last.” Continue reading

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

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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Among the 86 percent

One evening a couple of weeks ago, I shouted to a psychotherapist friend of mine across the field at obedience practice, “Hey, what is that thing that happens to you when you fail over and over and over again? When you don’t get rewarded for behavior you think is right and you stop trying?”

“Learned helplessness,” she shouted back. “All-too common in obedience dogs.”

Working the pileRight. Learned helplessness. It refers to a discovery psycho-behaviorist Martin Seligman made in the late 1960s while messing with the minds of dogs; dogs exposed to electric shocks and offered no way out stoppedtrying to escape even when a solution became clear. A less dismal version of a similar phenomenon is what Ur-clicker-trainer Karen Pryor calls “extinction”: You,
the rat, hit the lever over and over and no little piece of food comes out. You, the dog, scratch on the box where the scent is and yet never hear the click and get the Charlie Bear. You, the human, venture into the competition ring over and over again and yet never get to stand with the judge and other qualifying teams and receive that little green ribbon that says success. You get anxious. Depressed. Eventually you stop trying.

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Maieutics

Tabitha2-CP_AKC-8064Dogs follow their handlers’ shoulders. This is something so simple, so obvious to every dog handler in every sport that we ought to wear it on t-shirts. We see it on the agility course (“her shoulders were facing the wrong end of the tunnel,” the ladies mutter as a dog goes off-course); it happens in obedience, too — a dog that lags in heeling — especially in the figure 8 — very often does so because the handler (me) is neurotically straining to see whether little doggie is in position and in the process self-defeatingly pushes a shoulder back. (I saw myself doing this on video once and hated myself for three months.)

But why? Why is this? When, exactly, did my dogs start following me at all, and how did they figure out they could judge where I was going by watching my shoulders? It freaks me out a little. This weekend I was pulling my cairn terrier Thomas around a 180 degree turn from one jump to another and instead pulled him through the two jumps into a threadle. The good news is that I figured he had his reasons so I went with it — we executed a flawless threadle! Good doggie! The other good news is that I saw the video, and it only took a little flick my my shoulder to pull him in.

There is no bad news. I won’t let it happen again.

I am the owner/handler/guardian/whatever of two spectacularly well-trained dogs, Thomas, a seven-year-old Cairn Terrier, and Tabitha, a four-year-old American Staffordshire terrier (you can call her a pit bull; she’s a rescue and probably is one). I compete with them in one sport or another nearly every weekend. I’m obsessed with them, with the game and sport of agility and the Supreme and Limitless Challenge of competition obedience, and with their furious ability to learn and play and surprise me and think and generally just be awesome. ThomasJumping1-processed

They are, however, not everyone’s idea of good dogs. Being well-trained, in this twisted world I live in, does not mean easy to walk on the street, resistant to the rattling speed of a skateboard, or complacent when they see someone they know and want to greet. I have come to understand after so many years of trying that I value drive more than control, motivation more than discipline. And so by some standards, my dogs are kind of bad. I don’t care. They are the dogs they are and not some other dogs. They do not blow me off on course or sniff or visit other people or any of that bad stuff, at least not in agility (obedience is another story; I’ll get to that). And they don’t bite. Anyone, ever. Dayenu.

Truth, thought Socrates via Plato, lies latent in every mind, but without training and debate, it won’t emerge. Only through inquiry and investigation do we bring forth all we know. That’s maieutics. (It comes from the Greek word for “midwife.”) And I think perhaps it explains the shoulder mystery. Dogs, all dogs, have within them the potential of all-dogness — boxers can herd, Jack Russells can take down criminals, cairn terriers can do a directed retrieve (and a whole bunch of other exercises basically designed to test the skills of hunting dogs). All of them come from the s ame set of wolves way back when, the wolves that came into the caves and became the dogs that could digest our food and the companions that could enjoy our fires; the ones that looked up at our towering bodies, watched our shoulders, and followed.

They have it all stored in them somewhere. We just bring it out.

(Banner photo by Kitty Jones; Tabitha heading to the tunnel by Karen Moureaux/Contact Point; photo of Thomas jumping my Mary Fish Arango.)