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.
It’s so, so hard to get a Utility Dog Excellent leg. It’s unbelievably hard, harder than I ever imagined. We have failed so much, fixed so much — it’s been a constant parade, actually, of breakdowns and remedies; I liken it to solving a Rubik’s cube: You work so hard to get all white squares lined up on one side, only to find you have three greens and a red infiltrating the blues. For a while our problem was broad-jump refusals (Thomas would run up to the boards and look puzzled, like “who put those there?”); then came the era of dumbbell tossing, during which Thomas — only in the ring, of course — would back up, growl, throw the dumbbell at me and bark. There have been wandering stand-for-exams, misdirected jumps, signals missed because someone nearby was folding up a wire crate. There were gloves delivered to judges or ring stewards, because — well, who knows? Because Terrier.
But on this simmering spring morning at the Del Sur Club trial in North San Diego County, Thomas and I were on track. We’d earned a 188.5 in Utility, our best score ever, and despite laggy heeling in 90-degree heat, in Open we’d managed not to suck. I admit when I heard his screech that this also came to mind: How all this hard work could be blown in an instant, in a stupid long down stay gone awry.
“Group exercises,” as they’re known — a three-minute sit-stay and five-minute down stay with handlers out of sight — have been causing a lot of controversy these days. Not long ago, I heard about a show in Virginia where an American Staffordshire Terrier broke and attacked a Yorkie — a rare incident, says the American Kennel Club; there have only been two in the last three years. Nevertheless, the AKC recently updated its rules to explicitly require that judges excuse intemperate dogs and stewards carry slip leashes to lasso them. For a lot of people that’s not enough: There’s a movement afoot to eliminate stays altogether, or to transition to the United Kennel Club style, in which one dog holds an “honor stay” while another dogs works.
I think that’d be a mistake. If you think of competition obedience not as an end in itself, but a path toward cultivating the ideal companion dog, the group exercises pay off in ways no other skill does. It’s because of the training that goes into stays that Billy and I have control over Tabitha when she hears the hideous rumble of skateboard wheels on asphalt; it’s in the practice of group stays that Thomas has learned to abide the presence of bulldogs, Bernese Mountain dogs and golden retrievers, despite his manifest hatred of these breeds on the sidewalk. At the first all-breed obedience “test” in the United States, at Mount Kisco, New York in 1933, the five-minute group down-stay mattered so much that it counted for 65 points — more than the heel on leash, the heel off-leash and the dumbbell retrieve combined.
It’s asking a lot, for sure. For Thomas to lie down in a group of unfamiliar dogs, almost every one of them bigger than he is, requires enormous reserves of confidence and self-control, reserves he has built up gradually over seven years of conscientious work. It also requires trust. By leaving and not looking nervously back, I signal to him that he is safe. And he always has been. Thomas fails groups sometimes. He has stretched out lazily during more than one long sit; he’s been made nervous by jumpy labs. He’s even left the ring to jump in a lake and chase fish. But he’s never had an actual conflict with a dog.
Until, that is, we were one group stay away from a UDX leg on this hot San Diego morning.
I ran back into the ring, yelling my dog’s name. This was wrong, of course, but it wasn’t exactly thought out. The judge told me to stop running and yelling and I did. Then I took in the scene: A black miniature poodle no bigger than Thomas was being wrangled by ring stewards. Someone said, “The poodle attacked him!” Someone else said, “Is he okay?” The rest was a jumble of panic. I remember repeating the words, “He’s just a little dog,” and “It’s not fair! It’s not fair!” I felt my throat constrict like I might cry. My knees shook so hard I thought I might lose my balance.
Thomas, however, was still in his down-stay, and he was fine. He looked up at me with pleading eyes, but he did not say “Get me out of here.” Instead, he asked “Did I screw up?” On the judge’s instructions, I took him out of the ring and rewarded him, to reassure him he had not.
Later, in the parking lot, a witness told me the story: The poodle, an intact male, got up and stood over Thomas during the down stay. Thomas told him to back off, which the poodle did. I was right that it wasn’t fair, but the judge took pains to make it fair. She let Thomas come back in the ring and repeat the exercise on his own.
Dramatic as the whole incident was, I’m not sure anything disastrous happened here. Nor do I believe that sensitive judges and prompt ring stewards could have kept it from happening. The poodle got up; Thomas and the ring crew responded, the incident was over. Only one thing rankles me: The poodle was not a first-time offender. In fact, my source told me, he had pulled the same stunt the day before, on a spectacular, reliable sheltie, who sat quietly and endured the insult. The judge didn’t know this; it wasn’t her job to know. Only the handler knew. So why did she go in the ring and show the dog again, knowing he was likely to break? I have theories; none of them airtight. But all my guesses give me pause about professional handlers in the obedience ring.
When Thomas had his chance again at groups, he laid down alone in the ring with the lovely, willowy judge, who was kind enough to allow me to place him in the shade. When it came time for the sit, the judge told me she’d call me back if he laid down; there was no point in continuing with just one dog. She asked me if I was ready. I said “Ready!” She told me to sit my dog. I said, “Good sit!” He tucked one hip under his body — his endurance sit, as I’ve come to understand it — and the judge said “Leave your dog.” I did. I stood behind the big tarp they’d put up to block handlers from looking at their dogs. And I counted. People tried to talk to me, but I wouldn’t let them. I had to count. I wanted to get to 180 seconds so I could breathe again. But I only got to 120 before she called me back in.
I turns out I’d counted too slowly. Thomas was still sitting. We had qualified. UDX leg two: In the bag.
Photo of Thomas in groups (is that corgi really sitting?) taken by Billy Mernit at Ventura Summerfest, 2010; groups at the Southwest Obedience Club Practice Match (coming up again April 19!) by John Oshiro, 2012; photos of stays in 1937 from Blanche Saunders’ book, The Story of Dog Obedience (Howell Book House, 1974); Cairns, Westies and their overlords below, by Shell Lewis, whose agility-champ Cairn, Skippy, sits obediently on the right.