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.

One of the revelations that seizes you when you set out on your first long and winding UDX road is how difficult it is to keep all of a dog’s skills sharp over the extended period of time you have to compete. This is especially true with a dog that lacks drive for structured tasks, and whose confidence easily breaks down. Tabitha, my drivey if opinionated pit bull, can get through the UDX routine, albeit sloppily, with minimal rehearsal — she responded to my week’s inattention to the directed retrieve exercise by making two trips to the glove this weekend, the second being necessary after she realized, with apparent shock, that she’d forgotten to pick up the designated object on the first speedy effort. (I was delighted to learn that this error is only points off.) Thomas, by extreme contrast, needs constant reassurance that he’s not only capable of performing a given task, but also that the task has inherent value. (“Is it gonna be fun?” as Laurie Anderson imagines her rat terrier asking in her beautiful movie, Heart of a Dog. “If it’s not fun, I’m not interested.”)

This, I think, is a more specific analysis of the Cairn terrier mind than the old “terriers are stubborn,” adage. The “stubborn” label annoys me, not just because it misses the mark, but because it attaches a blanket negative to a behavior that’s much more complicated, and less boring, than mere stubbornness. Thomas is never stubborn about chasing after a tennis ball, and bringing it back if he thinks I will throw it again. Nor is he ever reluctant to dive down into the Earthdog tunnel in pursuit of a rat, even with a foxtail stuck in his foot on a 90-degree day. His refusal to budge when I sent to him to his glove wasn’t stubbornness. It was fear. Fear that he would make a mistake, fear that it wouldn’t go well somehow, fear, above all, that it wouldn’t be fun. And what isn’t fun to a terrier is downright terrifying.

It made me nervous, too, that directed retrieve exercise, because I was stunned when I pivoted to that glove to realize that not only had we not practiced it enough, I didn’t know that we hadn’t practiced it enough. It wasn’t in my mind that morning; I wasn’t thinking, “I’m a little worried about the directed retrieve, because we haven’t trained gloves all week.” I was thinking we’d been building drive into every exercise on such a regular basis that we were prepared for anything. I was wrong. I need to not be wrong again in that same way. I need to keep better track.


Yesterday, after nine years and 11 months of working to train a Cairn terrier in competition obedience, I decided to change the way I keep track. I put away my old training journal, the one with the long, philosophical musings about what we did that day and how it went; the one I sometimes go back and read because I just like my writing so much and think Wow! I really ought to write a book. I’ve decided, at least for now, to give all that up; I will muse no more. Instead, I will tick boxes on a spreadsheet. A spreadsheet with abbreviations so I can get three weeks on a page; a spreadsheet with columns and rows and color coding. A prosaic, dull and banal solution; the terrier in me hates it. But on a spreadsheet I can see at a glance where our training gaps are before they widen. I can address it before I find myself in the ring underpracticed. I can avert future surprises. (And no doubt this is another one of those duh moments — other trainers have done this for years. But we all find our way to righteousness in our own time. I needed a decade.)

I do all of this, in this late spring of 2016, knowing that my gifted Novice A terrier is closing in on 11 years old; though his energy is good — better than it was last year, in the aftermath of his splenectomy — he is unmistakably aging. On sunny days, I can see cataracts forming in his once-dark black eyes; he sleeps more and endures less. That he continues to work through problems with me is a testament to his essential gameness and good nature; I have to remember always how far we’ve come, how little I knew when I started, and how tenaciously he has risen to all the challenges I’ve thrown him.

But I also understand that what I do with Thomas now is not just writing the story of Thomas, which will necessarily end not long from now, because dogs are heartbreakingly impermanent creatures. I’m writing the story of myself as a dog trainer, who refused 10 years ago to give up on a nearly feral Cairn terrier rescued from a shelter; a dog that, for the first two years I knew him, wanted nothing more than to just run away. That’s not anything I can contain in a spreadsheet. What I’ve learned from Thomas fills volumes in my heart. They will live as long as I do.

Photos, of Thomas actually retrieving his glove quite willingly, above, and Thomas heeling, by Steve Southard of Southard Photography. All rights reserved.

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