“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.
There is a lot of pressure at dog shows, most of it self-imposed, to do what everyone else does. Sometimes I arrive at 7 a.m. for an 8 a.m. ring time and see everyone else already out of their cars and unpacked. I see border collies, goldens and Rottweilers all on Flexi-leads prancing around in heeling patterns, targeting stanchions, dialing in glove pivots. And I think that’s why I’m flunking. I just don’t work hard enough. I need to commit! I need to get up earlier.
So I do. I start showing up for shows not an hour, but an hour and half before ring time, or even two hours. I bring out my target plates and my Plexiglass rods and my practice jumps, and do what the big kids do. Perfect that broad jump! Rehearse those go-outs! Remind my little dog that when I send him to his dumbbell he’d better not bat it around with his bratty little paws, better not roll it in his mouth, better not stand out in the field dickering around as if no one had taught him the urgency of the word fetch.
And yet for all that effort, in the past few months, Thomas has been about as consistent in the ring as a roulette wheel in Vegas. Which is not to say we never qualify. In September and February he nicked 190 in Utility — just a half point away, both times. In August he broke through the 190 barrier in Open, even after melting down in Utility (an iridescent scarab flew past his head; he was duty-bound to dispatch it). But the sad fact remains that we haven’t qualified in both events since May. The three UDX legs we’ve earned so far just sit there on his American Kennel Club record, inert and static. Pointless.
What did I used to do? I ask myself. What was I doing two years ago, when Thomas became a Utility Dog in three consecutive trials? I can’t remember, can’t summon it up somehow. I only know that it happened back then, and that if it happened now it would seem like a miracle.
On the second weekend in March, Southern California got hit with a heat wave so brutal it fried the newly flowering poppies in the Antelope Valley. I would have stayed home and battled for space in the Venice Beach surf, but I had entered a three-day show with both dogs and damned if I was going to waste all that money. But when I got to the Del Sur Kennel Club’s show in Valley Center, I found conditions even worse than I expected. It wasn’t just hot, it was windy, with gusts lifting tarps and sending up cyclones of leaves — a weather-condition Thomas finds paralyzing.
I did my best to prepare him. I worked to build drive into articles, gloves, stands for exam; I familiarized him with the go-out stanchion; I threw his toys over jumps. He seemed in good spirits, even in the ring, and some exercises went kind of okay. He got just one point off signals one day; a half point off articles the next. But each time, he made some fatal mistake. And they weren’t the kind of mistakes trainer Connie Cleveland calls “effort errors,” where the dog tries but gets confused. They were “talk to the paw” errors, where Thomas knew exactly what he was supposed to do but consciously declined to do it. Lying down halfway back to me with his glove in his mouth, for instance. The correct glove. One judge I know calls it flipping me “the terrier finger.”
I didn’t understand it. All that warm-up! All that practice! Shouldn’t he be programmed to perform these moves by now?
I resolved that day to give up. Thomas is nine and a half years old. At this rate, we could maybe finish his UDX when he’s 22, a Guinness Book of World Records survivor. But I considered it more honest to admit that we’d never finish it at all.
Sunday came around and we failed again in Utility. The temperature was in the high-80s, I was tired, pissed off, and ready to go home. I didn’t want to stay for Open. But the Open class only had six dogs entered. Six dogs: The absolute minimum for the first place dog to earn any points toward an Obedience Trial Championship, or OTCh. I had two friends in the class, both chasing points. And while out loud they were saying “You have to do what’s best for your dog!” from their hearts emanated another message, and I could hear it: Please stay. We need points.
I wasn’t worried about Thomas; Open doesn’t go on for that long. I just personally didn’t want to endure another failure. Nevertheless, I caved to the implicit pressure of my nice, hardworking, up-at-the-crack-of-dawn handler friends, and I didn’t scratch. I planned to lazily bounce Thomas out of his X-pen while the dog before us was finishing up, let him pee on a tree and throw him in. No rehearsals. No drilling; I didn’t have the energy or heart. I’d train in the ring if I had to; as Cleveland says, no one ever went to jail for that.
It turned out I didn’t have to. After a couple of absent-minded toy tugs, Thomas was set. He aced the first exercise, the dreaded drop-on-recall; he brought both of his dumbbells back, even angled hard right on the return over the high jump to compensate for my off-center throw. He cleared the broad jump and landed a decent front and finish; on the heeling and figure eight, a mere two points off.
Only half the class made it to groups, but one of them was Thomas, and he sat in the heat with the other two dogs for three minutes without a flinch. After that, the five-minute down-stay was cake. It was our first qualifying score in Open since August. We came in third, and my friend Betty and her smiling border collie Rose got the two points they deserved.
And man oh man, did I feel good.
Didn’t I learn all of this before? One July two years back, for instance, when after three throws of his flying disc Thomas nailed Utility for the first time? Up in Portland, where there was no room to practice anything, and he finished his UD in two back-to-back shows, in a super-distracting indoor arena? Yes, I had. But I had also trained another dog, a perpetually amped pit bull named Tabitha, who without a thorough pre-ring workout will (and did, actually, this very weekend), get the zoomies with her glove. Or while heeling. Or, you know, whenever she thinks she can fit it in.
I don’t know how many times I have to fail before I remember that no two dogs respond the same to any given routine. I don’t know how many entry fees I have to sink before I remember to listen to this dog, in this moment, and resist the influence of other dogs and other handlers when that influence conflicts with what Thomas has already taught me. I don’t know how many lessons I have yet to learn — the list right now seems infinite.
I do know, however, that I’m staying in the game just a little longer. On this weekend we learned. One of these days, on our own terms, we could win.
Photos by Steve Southard of Southard Photography.