The Purpose-Driven Dog

Thomas heelingAlmost as soon as I learned that the three masses the veterinarian had found on Thomas’s spleen last spring were not cancer, not hemangiosarcoma or lymphoma, or any of the other horrid diseases that take our dogs from the appearance of perfect health to death in hours or days or months, I entered him in an obedience trial. On the day of his surgery, I had not thought I would do this, ever again; I thought I would retire him, let him live for as long as he had left without the demands of training or the stress of the ring.

It only took a few days for me to drop that notion. Thomas, as if to goad me back into working with him, started bringing me things, rolled-up socks, random toys, shoes, plastic bottles. He delivered each one of them with obedience-ring formality, held firmly in his mouth while sitting at my feet. His message was clear: The unstructured life is not worth living. Not for a human, and not for a dog.

So we went back. Why not? Thomas still tries to concentrate on his tasks and make the right decisions; I still work to make my signals clear and my handling clean and calm. We are without goals: Although we’ve had some decent Utility scores and even more impressive Open runs — not long ago he held his long sit in the heat, while all the dogs around him, some of them obedience champions, folded — we have not added to the three UDX legs we’ve accrued since May of last year. I don’t honestly expect to get more, and I toy with quitting. But the very thought breaks my heart. I suspect it would break his, too.

I am, however, devoting more time to my talented little pit bull, Tabitha, she who, one year ago this month, earned her UD in three straight trials and then promptly ripped her cranial cruciate ligament — one of the tiny bands in the knee that keeps the femur from slipping off the tibia. (In humans, the same ligament is called the anterior cruciate ligament, the one closest to the front. Dogs being quadrupeds, the ligament is identified as the one nearest the head.) In December, Tabitha underwent a tibial-plateau leveling osteotomy on her right leg, an operation in which the surgeon (in this case, Dr. Scott Anderson at ASEC), saws off the top of the tibia to alter its angle, obviating the need for a ligament. She then spent two months in a crate doped up on a tramadol, and two more under severe leash restrictions.

Then, one month after she’d been cleared for normal activities, she sprung the same ligament on the opposite leg, and we started all over again.

IMG_1020Ten thousand dollars and close to a year later, Tabitha has two knees so precisely aligned that she runs and jumps as if her legs have been equipped with tiny jet packs. It took a few trials for us to get our groove back; we have an odd ring dynamic, in which she gets manic and I get nervous, and the more nervous I get the more manic she gets, until she is speeding around the ring killing her glove. If I manage to preserve the calm, however, Tabitha performs in the ring with such exuberance that she draws onlookers to ringside to see what all the ruckus is about.

Up in Carson City, Nevada last month, where she qualified in Utility three rowdy days in a row, clutches of beaming women were waiting to greet us each time we exited the ring. “What a marvelous dog you have!” one of them said, while the others ran their hands over Tabitha’s head and body and cooed. Tabitha covered their faces with kisses and pushed her way into their laps. “You can set your boundaries with her,” I advised them. No one did. So much for terror-inducing presence of a pit bull.

Not one of those women cared that Tabitha’s scores were all in the 180s. Everyone agreed, and didn’t hesitate to tell me, that the fault for those scores was all mine. My esteemed coach, Vicki Chaney, tells me this, too: The bulk of Tabitha’s problems in the ring, she argues, trace back to me: My turns, the pitch of my voice, my secret thoughts and presumably hidden emotions, which dogs never fail to detect. Last summer we spent three months of lessons working on my about turn; I worry always that if I disappoint Tabitha with one more messy turn, I’ll be in for three months more.

I don’t know if every dog holds its handler to such standards. Thomas will put up with a lot of incoherence as along as he perceives I’m happy with him; the work itself doesn’t seem to matter so much. Tabitha, on the other hand, seems to derive all meaning from her work in the ring. There’s an urgency about her, a need for efficiency; she has no patience for my clumsy, nervous mistakes. If I do not throw my dumbbell cleanly and accurately, if I’m not conscientious about keeping my voice quiet, if I’m not pristine in my heeling footwork, she will bash and backtalk and body-slam us to a 170. Judges take a dim view of her antics, but none blame her temperament: Typically and justifiably, they also side with the dog. Even when that dog is a pit bull.

And maybe, in some part of her mind, she picks up on the extra sense of significance I feel in the work I do with her, a significance that relates back to her bleak, humble origins, and the troubled circumstances of her ill-defined, recklessly selected pseudo-breed. If competing in obedience with Thomas is a personally satisfying hobby, with Tabitha it feels like a moral imperative, an opportunity to show the world what a rescued pit bull can do if she’s properly trained and handled. She might dispute how proper her training and handling has been, but I swear I’m trying my best. She, tenacious and loyal to a fault, has pledged to stick with me until I succeed.

Photos! Diane Han of took the one of Thomas heeling with me, at Great Western Terrier. (She took some more, too, which I will post in time. She is a genius).

I took the one of Tabitha, celebrating her first UDX leg, at the Bakersfield trial this month. (She’s also wondering whether there really is a “kitty-cat” in the vicinity, and if not, why I uttered the word.)


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