Competition obedience and the meaning of life

“Where is the meaning? Where is the meaning?” My friend Phoebe is pacing around the room, apoplectic, demanding justification for my obsession with dogs. I understand her dismay: I used to have time for other activities. I used to be able to pack up with 48 hours notice and disappear for a couple of weeks on a canoe trip; I used to lead full-moon hikes. I traveled, I went to yoga class, I could spend a weekend in the desert staring at sand and be perfectly content.

Everyone I know in the performance dog world has their version of this: “Before dogs,” one woman told me, “I was a great skier.” Or, “before dogs, we went to Europe every year.” Before dogs I had more friends, more work, a fuller life among humans. Before dogs, I stayed out late.

It’s not that I didn’t have hobbies before; I did, big ones, involving outrigger canoes and static trapezes. But the old pursuits all tapered off within four or five years. Training dogs has been different. I’ve been working with Thomas now going on eight years, competing in the ring with him for six. Five years ago I took on Tabitha, then a gangly three-month-old pit bull, and I’m now showing her in Utility, too, where her excessive enthusiasm compensates, with the crowd if not the judge, for her lack of accuracy.

Seeing no end to any of this, my friend puts her foot down. “It’s time,” she declares soundly, “for you to be doing something else.” Continue reading

The long, strange and never-ending trip

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.

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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