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.
I feel bad when I do these things. No, it’s worse than that: These episodes haunt me. I walk around the following day with a dark feeling I can’t put my finger on. Sunday, on the straight heeling pattern with Tabitha, I went left when the judge said right — and not for the first time: I have trouble in the ring with right and left, even when I’ve practiced the routine. “It’s my dog-show brain,” I told the judge. “My head gets so muddled.” As if that would cause him to form a better opinion of me. As if he were busy forming an opinion of me at all.
The thing is, I really thought I’d at least solved the dumbbell-toss issue. I’ve suffered great humiliation over my inability to throw objects or hit them with a bat or racket. Softballs, tennis balls, Frisbees — all have brought me some degree of shame since childhood. So with the dumbbell, I have practiced. Pitching it into the center of a hoop; trying to hit a target. I watch people and try to channel them. I take tips from the best dumbbell tossers in the region.
And for the most part, it has worked. Most days, I can throw a dumbbell just fine. But then come those moments when, inexplicably, my mind reels, my fingers spasm, my confidence seizes up. Like a nervous golfer lining up for a putt, too aware she’s got a birdie on the line, I focus too hard, think too much, and lose all ability to gauge the precise moment when my fingers should release. The dumbbell flies high into the sky, and lands nowhere near where the judge says it should be. I get another chance, and another, but now our ring flow is wrecked.
Thomas got his first UDX leg this past Saturday at the Hidden Valley Obedience Club’s trial in Escondido, California. It was a brisk, lovely morning; I felt relaxed and light, and Thomas was full of happy drive. We fell into sync from the start and stayed there, helped along by a judge so taciturn she lets you forget she exists. Even under a different judge in Open, everything flowed so easily: We got 16 points off
in each ring, which is the best we’ve ever done in Utility, and the second-best ever in Open.
I was thrilled — so thrilled that, for a day, I let it go to my head. I thought, well, yes, this is the way it’s going to be from now on. My well-trained little doggie, working with enthusiasm and accuracy, cranking out UDX legs like Tom Thumb donuts at the state fair. He’s got it down now, yes he does. We’re in.
Naturally, the very next day, Thomas reminded me that he has his own kind of problem with dog-show brain. It kicks in, I believe, when his handler gets cocky.
The sequence on Sunday began with directed jumping, which both of us usually find bracing. Except on this day, Thomas couldn’t do a go-out. He couldn’t do a go-out even though he’d done two the day before in the ring right next door. He couldn’t do one even though we’d practiced them in the morning outside the ring. He couldn’t run straight out between the jumps to the other end of the ring because — I don’t know. He might not even know. He couldn’t. He just couldn’t.
Open was even worse. He spit his well-tossed dumbbell out at my feet. His drop-on-recall was listless; his heeling laggy. In group sits, he melted to the ground. In the long down, he sat up.
The list of excuses is long and imprecise: He was tired, yes, but not a half-hour later he went crazy when I got out his Frisbee. It was hot, and we were both functioning on the bad sleep we’d endured in the noisy Motel 6.
Then again, maybe Thomas — a deliberate little dog if ever there was one — was just thinking too hard. “It’s my dog-show brain!” he might have said to me if he’d had one of those little boxes on his neck like Dug the dog in Up. And I would have understood.
All photos by Dogma Photography, at Hidden Valley Obedience Club’s training grounds, 2012 and 2013.