The Clarity of Crisis

Last Sunday, Thomas did as well as he has ever done in Utility. In the order of exercises that begins with scent articles, always a tough one, he worked the pile efficiently without visiting the judge. He returned his glove straight and fast and obeyed his signals in spite of much hubbub in his line of sight, where Novice competitors were getting their ribbons. There were fronts and finishes in all the right places, and sits to go with them. It was a sign to me that the adjustments we’ve made lately in training —  reeling in his retrieves with a retractable leash, heeling with a light lead held low in my right hand — are working. It was also a sign that we’re both less nervous in the ring.

Good scoreWe still didn’t qualify, only because we failed the second half of the last exercise, which was directed jumping. Thomas did his first go-out and took the bar jump without any fuss, but on the second one he stopped halfway out, suddenly, as if something had bitten him. Then he turned to go the rest of the way, and stopped again. I told him to sit, but he was flummoxed, and took the bar jump a second time.

It seemed odd — if you can do one go-out, why not the second? But it wasn’t alarming. So many of Thomas’s bobbles in the ring over the years have been inexplicable. I tamped down my disappointment as quickly as I could, rewarded him and carried on.

A little while later, though, it struck me that something was off. Thomas kept lifting his leg — on trees, on blades of grass, on nothing — straining to pee. I’m used to Thomas marking; walks with Thomas are long, slow affairs, during which he analyzes many objects from different olfactory perspectives before selecting an angle at which to deliver a few carefully metered drops. But this was different; it was like he couldn’t get those drops out. Nothing had changed in his mood, and he didn’t seem to be in pain, so I took him into the Open ring. He popped over the broad jump effortlessly. Then he squatted and tried to pee. I scooped him up, left the ring with apologies and drove him home, where he deposited a large, warm pool of urine on the living room rug and stood next to it, stricken. I rushed him to the emergency vet.

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The Problem With Stay

My back was turned, so I didn’t see what happened. This is by design: I never look back when I’m leaving the ring in group stays; I worry that, like Lot’s wife, I’ll reduce all I’ve worked for that day to salt. But I did hear the scream, and I recognized it instantly as the voice of my dog. I also knew from its ferocity and pitch that something bad had happened. In the millisecond that passed as I spun around to rescue him, the following scenarios reeled through my mind:

1. A dog had passed too close to the ring gates and Thomas had turned to attack him.

2. Thomas had, inexplicably and without precedent, attacked another dog in the long down, thus disqualifying himself from the ring for good.

3. Another dog had attacked Thomas, who had sustained injuries of unknown severity, perhaps crippling him for life. Or, at the very least, giving him a permanent and very bad feeling about groups. 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

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.)