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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A terrier, seriously

“I would avoid any kind of terrier if you are seriously considering dog obedience competition.”

This bit of wisdom came to me from woman who trains silky terriers, and ran across it in a 1994 book by neuropsychologist Stanley Coren, The Intelligence of Dogs: Canine Consciousness and Capabilities. We repeat it now and then while we’re practicing, and run up against some crazy problem. I don’t really believe it, though, and neither does Coren, who didn’t say it himself, but overheard it at a seminar, from a trainer “whose videos show only border collies and German shepherds at work.” He uses the remark in his book as an example of how trainers have long recognized differences among breeds in learning capacity and work ethic: Poodles are easier to train than Italian greyhounds; golden retrievers learn faster than bulldogs.

Terriers, the conventional wisdom holds, are the hardest and least willing of the dog-breed groups. Stubborn is the word that comes up most often.

Good hold glove 3Certainly I know people think this — twice in as many weeks different judges have disclaimed “He’s a terrier!” about Thomas — once in the obedience ring when he appeared to be vigorously subjecting his scent articles to various scientific hypotheses, once in the agility ring when he launched off the A-frame (as if a dog has to be a terrier to do that). They say these things despite the existence of exceedingly biddable terriers — rat terriers, Parson Russells, Airedales —  that in the right hands get high-in-trials and high-combineds and win national competitions with reassuring frequency. As I said to the agility judge who uttered those words last Sunday, being a terrier is not an excuse.

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The Do-Over Dog

Abandon your sad history; meet me in the fire.
–Jackson Browne, “Under the Falling Sky”

___________________________________________Seamus only

I don’t remember the age at which my birthday became a day to stop and gape at the size of the number that represents my age and ask the proverbial question:

“What have I done with my life?”

The question first popped up on some birthday in my late 30s or 40s, and has returned on schedule every year since.

The answer requires a whole day of brooding, all of it difficult and pained and full of regret; a meditation on blown chances, squandered friendships, waste-of-time relationships and roads less traveled that I blithely chose only to find out why no one else had chosen them before: They were rocky and dusty and left me with bloody feet. Plus, they were dead-ends.

Somebody asked me a few weeks ago how I got into this mess with dogs. It has nothing to do with not having children, though that always ranks high on my regret list. It does, however, have a lot to do with the annual birthday regret party of 2006. It was three days after I turned 47 that I made the decision to call the vet and end of the life of my 17-year-old cairn terrier, Seamus, who was by then completely deaf and almost blind; incontinent and slow and growing an apparently malignant tumor on his tongue. People around me — neighbors, a boyfriend at the time — scolded me for not making the call sooner. “You prolonged his pain to postpone your own,” chided one particularly sensitive dog expert next door. I disagree to this day: I knew Seamus and he knew me, and he let me know when he was done.

I knew Seamus and he knew me. He was born on my 30th birthday.

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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.)

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