“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.
Well, 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.
The first time I watched a dog go through the routine of the Utility sequence, I sat still in awe and choked back tears. The dog was a Belgian Malinois, handled by a woman with short, curly dark-blond hair, who looked to be about in her 60s. It was December 10, 2008 at the Long Beach Convention Center, where the Kennel Club of Beverly Hills used to hold their annual trial.
I miss that show and its busy, Christmas-y vibe. Because it was scheduled alongside the National Obedience Invitational, you got the sense there that something ultra-important was happening, that lives were being changed, careers and fortunes being made. And that was true, they were. I just didn’t suspect that one of the lives changing was mine. I merely wanted to put a Companion Dog title on a Cairn Terrier — something I’d long meant to do — and get out.
Then I saw the Malinois and her handler, floating so beautifully from one station to the next, performing each exercise with a clarity and precision I didn’t even consider might be possible with a dog. It looked to me like an extended magic trick. And I wanted to know, as I do with all magic tricks, how it was done.
“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.
Certainly 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.
Abandon your sad history; meet me in the fire.
–Jackson Browne, “Under the Falling Sky”
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.
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.”
Right. 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.