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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A Lesson From Sage

 

Thomas articles in rain-1About a month or so ago I had reached that point of despair that makes me want to write about dog training. Thomas and I had racked up our 5th consecutive failed attempt at a UDX leg, this time not because he backed up and threw the dumbbell at me or failed to negotiate his go-out or ran up to the small white boards that signify a broad jump and stopped like, “what's that for?” Those were last month’s problems. That was before my training partner Tawn, who is awesome, figured out 14 ways to build drive into a broad jump under all circumstances; that was before I started making him hold all his toys — flying disc, tennis ball, yellow rubber thing — and deliver them square front if he wanted them thrown. We fixed his dumbbell retrieve and his broad jump and proofed his signals and worked over his go-outs.

 And then his drop-on-recall broke.

Oh — and at a trial out in San Bernardino last month, a Bernese Mountain Dog dared to lope by near the ring during signals. How can a dog possibly drop on command under such clearly dangerous circumstances? I cannot imagine such a thing would be safe. Even though the Berner was a good 20 feet away and on a leash. Attached to a human who was wearing sensible ballet flats and a split gabardine skirt covered by a grooming apron.

Like I said, there was despair. And so I wrote — I wrote and wrote and wrote, filling up reams of notebook pages with scrawly longhand and covering envelopes with scribbles, none of which turned out to be anything I wanted to type into a nice font on a computer and put up on a blog. It was too despair-y for that; I needed to chill. I needed to go back to the woodshed, think some matters through. I needed to watch the Olympics.

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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.)