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.

When I got home, still in a state of astonishment, I acted out parts of it for Billy in the living room: “The person rubs her hands all over a metal dumbbell and then the judge takes it away with a tongs — a TONGS! — and puts it in a pile of other dumbbells. And then the dog has to find it with her nose!”

Early days get ready ThomasThomas got his CD that day, winning his class with a score of 188.5. I thought that was a pretty good score. It was our sixth qualifying score in a row — three in Rally Novice, three in Novice obedience; I didn’t even know yet what it was like to fail. I started thinking that we might be a promising team.

Oh yes, I had a lot to learn. Including the fact that very few judges bother with tongs.

The last time I posted, Thomas had just earned his first leg toward his AKC Utility Dog title, which up until that point was all I needed to keep going. I had wanted that leg
before we went up to the Columbia River Cairn Terrier Specialty in Portland, Oregon on July 19 — the rare and wonderful all-Cairn obedience trial — because we’d failed there last year, and somehow I felt that if a year had gone by and we hadn’t earned at least one leg, we’d be nobodies; we’d be a joke. (I don’t think anyone in Portland thought this way; this is a self-perception issue.) But with a qualifying score to our credit, we could face the crowd.

For other reasons, too, it felt like Thomas and I were in a good place in our sometimes-fraught relationship. We’d taken the early flight the day before the show, so we had a long time to kick back. We stayed at the Days Inn near the trial site at the Portland Expo Center, which is a crappy hotel except that it abuts a huge, open fenced-in field, ideal for a little dog and his beloved ChuckIt! flying disc. We visited the Expo Center and practiced some signals and retrieves, threw around some toys. Not too much, though: We had nothing to prove, nothing to lose. I expected to stay in one-legged land for a while; I had no unrealistic expectations that the second or third legs would come quickly.

Except that they did. The next morning, in that cavernous Expo Center, where every little noise expands into a crash and every barking dog sounds like a pack, Thomas and I earned another qualifying score in the best possible company, among our deeply enthusiastic Cairn friends. There were some serious bobbles and flubs, including four missed sits, a leather scent article dropped at my feet and a hairy-scary seven-points-off moving stand for exam (“CALLYOURDOGTOHEEL!” the judge blurted the second she lifted her hands off Thomas’s back). Still, we pulled it off.

And I was happy. Crazy, mad, stupid happy.

I held out until noon before hitting the beer concession, where I spent $6 on a plastic cup full of some fine Pacific
Northwesty amber ale that tasted even better than the ice-cold Hoegaarden White some cute British guy poured for me after the brutal summer of 1996 marathon I ran on the polluted streets of Prague. It may have actually been the best beer anyone had tasted, ever.

One leg, you see, could have been a fluke. Two legs in a row meant we were for real.

The next morning at 8 o’clock, we were the first team in Utility A at the Portland Dog Obedience Club’s trial, which I only enter because it seems silly to fly all the way to Portland and compete just one day. I seriously did not care whether we qualified, and we almost didn’t: Thomas did even fewer sits than he had the day before, and I timed his second go-out in perfect synchrony with a Norfolk Terrier retrieving his dumbbell in the adjacent ring. Miraculously or not, the two terriers barrelled toward each other and yet nothing happened; they stuck to their respective tasks. Thomas also held onto his articles, retrieved the right glove, stood for his exam. And while the judge (Pauline Andrus again), had some calculating to do before shaking my hand — “wait just a second,” she said, furiously working her pencil on her clipboard — she did in the end shake my hand.

“Congratulations,” she said. “It was a squeaker!”

Thomas Second UD LegIndeed it was; we had but one point to spare. But that one precious point meant that my scrappy little rescued Cairn Terrier was suddenly MACH2 Thomas UD — the first Master Agility Champion Cairn Terrier with a Utility Dog title in AKC history.

And as with the CD, a goal that I thought would mark the end of a story, this doesn’t feel like an end at all. I can’t shake the feeling that Thomas and I have more to do in the obedience ring — get those scores up a little, maybe get a championship point or two, polish up our teamwork. I only know that so soon after cracking the code, I can’t quit. I don’t think he wants to, either. To me we’ve begun a new chapter. I’m just not yet sure what it’s about.

Photo up top from the early days of heeling practice with Thomas; I think Kitty Jones took it. Big thanks to Brad LaBroad of the Columbia River Cairn Terrier Club for the videos of each exercise, and the photo of Thomas and me with Judge Pamela Weaver at the Portland Expo Center — a feat he managed with my substandard smartphone.

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