About a month ago, at a trial up in Northern California, I spoke to a woman who’d gone to the AKC National Obedience Championship with her Basset Hound. A dog qualifies for the NOC by earning obedience trial championship points; the AKC invites the top three pointed dogs in each breed, plus more according to various other formulas. For a Basset Hound, typically a single point is enough get the dog invited; as with a Cairn Terrier, there just aren’t that many dogs vying for those three spots. If you attend the event under those circumstances, you go knowing you’ll be up against dogs with hundreds, maybe even thousands, of points, dogs who qualify routinely handled by trainers who’ve dedicated their lives to the sport.
You know you won’t win, or even make the final 50 who compete a second day. You go for your own reasons.
“My only goal,” said the Basset Hound trainer, “was not to be last. And we weren’t! We weren’t last.”
I appreciated her ambition, but was pretty sure I couldn’t match it. When Thomas and I headed to the National Obedience Championship in Perry, Georgia on the last weekend in March, I knew the chances were high we’d come in last. And that’s what we did. We came in last. But for the handler who scratched after two runs because she suspected her dog was lame, we emerged from the 8th ring on Saturday with 393 out of 750 points, the lowest score out of roughly 140 teams.
This isn’t about being a terrier, or even a Cairn Terrier, a breed that, judging by past results in the sport, is probably less keen on obedience than a Border Terrier or Airedale, albeit likely better at it than a Scottie (and an impressive Scottie beat us by more than 60 points). This was about being Thomas, a dog who likes what he’s used to and is extremely sensitive to what he is not. Sun in his eyes, wet grass under his feet, gophers that tempt him out of the ring for a kill—these are challenges a Southern California dog learns to conquer. Hard pale flooring, banging wire crates and feedbacking loudspeakers alarmed him. As much as I tried in advance to get Thomas familiar with the glare of the lights and the echo of an indoor arena—I even bought the “Dog Show Sounds” CD and a length of thin mat—in the presence of a judge, under the pressure of a toy-and-food-free ring, launching off a plastic floor over a black-and-white bar was more than he was willing to do.
We had other problems, of course: Missed finishes, slow returns, laggy heeling. The NOC format is brutal. You enter one ring, perform two or three exercises, and then you wait—for an hour, for 10 minutes, for what seems like four days—then tackle the next ring with its own combination of Open and Utility elements. From a distance, I imagined this might be motivating, like Denise Fenzi’s ring entry game: get in, get out, reward, move on. What I didn’t know was how difficult it would be to revive Thomas after a wait and get him sparked up again, and what it would take to repeat that drill from morning until evening. We were worn down by the fourth ring, when we’d been at it for three hours, and would endure four or five more.
Yet there was beauty, too, in what Thomas managed to do: Two accurate and quick glove retrieves, a decent drop-on-recall, a rock-still long sit-stay among hundreds of strangers. If I had reservations about sending my focus-shot terrier out to his articles at 5 p.m. after nine hours of competing, I was also confident that he had the heart to try. “This is hard,” I said to the judge as I reached for the second article. But as Thomas dutifully selected each correct item and walked gingerly back to me, I understood that there are worse fates for a dog than being asked to do something hard. Short of being neglected or all-out abused, the worst fate for a dog is to be bored. Thomas might get scared sometimes, or tired or fed up with paying attention. But he is never, ever bored.
To prove to myself that his exhaustion wasn’t physical and his limbs and spirit were still sound, I found a grassy field outside where we could break all the rules. I threw his Frisbee, watched him launch into the air to catch it and then dare me to a game of keep away. As he darted and wove and rolled and barked, he reminded me to put the day behind us.
Which wasn’t, in the end, all that difficult. My real reasons for attending the NOC had nothing to do with ribbons or placements or even coming away decently accomplished. Nor did I go strictly for Thomas, although from this point forward everything I do with dogs will be in some way about this dog who taught me everything. I went for the same reasons you study music even if you can’t carry a tune, or go to ballet class despite short legs and no coordination, or practice painting absent a natural eye for color. Studying a discipline lets you in on how it works from the inside out; it teaches an appreciation for mastery the uninitiated will always lack.
Competition obedience with dogs is an old-fashioned, slow and arcane sport. Exercises are repetitive and exacting; judges remain on their feet calling the same commands for hours. Dogs lose their focus and motivation; handlers lose their cool. My heart ached for the man in the final 20 who sent his dog to the wrong glove, and the woman whose Shetland sheepdog didn’t seem to see her down signal; to have come that far and slipped up on a trivial mistake maybe stung sharper in some ways than scoring predictably in the bottom 25. But later, I couldn’t see the disappointment in their faces, or defeat in their dogs’ gaits. I understood that they’d hung in as long as they did precisely because they don’t take their ring failures to heart. To keep going that long, a dog needs to believe he’s succeeding. Their dogs believed they’d won.
I also thrilled ever more sincerely to the performances of teams that, late on Sunday afternoon, still heeled as if they’d just set out after their morning coffee and biscuits. As I sat sore-legged in my cheap folding chair taking notes, Petra Ford and her black Lab, Zeal, floated through the ring as if they were heeling on water, and Susan Westover’s golden retriever, Doozie, executed a retrieve so perfect and joyful it was as if there were nothing in the world more gratifying than nailing a precise front with a still mouth on the dumbbell. When Kori Bevis clapped her hands over her mouth with emotion at the news that she and her Lab, Cedar, had won the day, I appreciated as I couldn’t have before the gravity of that moment. It wasn’t that she and her dog had accomplished what I couldn’t imagine; it was that they had accomplished what I could. I knew precisely what they’d done, and what it meant. I realized that I have never loved this sport more. And I resolved to be back.
First photo by me, a selfie, on the day Thomas got his 2016 OTCH point, under the bright, high-altitude sunshine of Carson, City, Nevada. Second photo of Thomas heeling in the mist and fog by Gadabout Photography, Monterey, California, August 2016.