Competition obedience and the meaning of life

“Where is the meaning? Where is the meaning?” My friend Phoebe is pacing around the room, apoplectic, demanding justification for my obsession with dogs. I understand her dismay: I used to have time for other activities. I used to be able to pack up with 48 hours notice and disappear for a couple of weeks on a canoe trip; I used to lead full-moon hikes. I traveled, I went to yoga class, I could spend a weekend in the desert staring at sand and be perfectly content.

Everyone I know in the performance dog world has their version of this: “Before dogs,” one woman told me, “I was a great skier.” Or, “before dogs, we went to Europe every year.” Before dogs I had more friends, more work, a fuller life among humans. Before dogs, I stayed out late.

It’s not that I didn’t have hobbies before; I did, big ones, involving outrigger canoes and static trapezes. But the old pursuits all tapered off within four or five years. Training dogs has been different. I’ve been working with Thomas now going on eight years, competing in the ring with him for six. Five years ago I took on Tabitha, then a gangly three-month-old pit bull, and I’m now showing her in Utility, too, where her excessive enthusiasm compensates, with the crowd if not the judge, for her lack of accuracy.

Seeing no end to any of this, my friend puts her foot down. “It’s time,” she declares soundly, “for you to be doing something else.”

I could have sloughed off this comment, I suppose, had it not conspired with the voice in my own head nagging the same complaint —  that I’m wasting time, that I ought to  be contributing to the betterment of the world in some more concrete way. If you have any kind of social conscience or sense of responsibility to our wounded planet, the single-minded intensity of dog training can leave you with the heavy guilt of misspent days. (I can see it now, my dismal epitaph: “While the climate changed, she ran around with dogs.”) Competition obedience is a costly time sink, and its rewards are strange and mercurial. You can’t count on this sport to make you happy all the time, or even most of the time. It most certainly won’t make you rich, even if you’re really, really good at it, which I am not.

The JoyBut oh, the joy, the joy! The absolute, pure and unreasonable satisfaction that comes with completing an assigned task in the obedience ring with any dog, let alone a terrier. A few weeks ago, Thomas and I were at a show where the ring was oddly non-square; its center was between two posts. A lot of dogs couldn’t find glove two on the directed retrieve, nor could they find the place they needed to run to before directed jumping. And yet Thomas, whose go-outs are generally weak, ran straight to that mysterious center and sat the instant I asked. He had no trouble with the glove, either, and because Thomas feeds on my sincere and soaring happiness — success begets success — he excelled, in his terrier way, at everything else.  Thomas, when pleased with himself — when he’s found the toy he was looking for, when he catches his flying disc — emits a funny little satisfied snort. That Saturday, I heard the snort during the fast portion of heeling.

“Thomas is peaking,” I told my husband Billy when I got home, and I meant it. His heeling was getting better with every trial, and our scores, which have long been stunningly low — “squeakers,” as judges like to call them — were nudging up into the higher 180s and even, a few weeks ago, the low 190s. We got nine obedience master points. I wasn’t having to work so hard to keep him focused; our celebrations between exercises were mutual and honest.

Someday I will grasp that these trends don’t always last. But in that moment, it was as if I had bored a little tunnel through the miasma that separates humans from other species. It was a tunnel only the diameter of a straw, but enough that I could look through and detect his little flash of confidence as he decided on the right scent article; I could see as he responded to my signals his own pride at reading me right. We were connected, in some small but profound way, this odd little creature I pulled from a rescue eight years ago, and me, a woman whose life began to turn around on that July evening in 2006 when I took him to Tawn Sinclair’s Novice Obedience class in West Los Angeles, and began training him, with a clicker and food, to look me in the eye. He used to bolt out of class at the slightest frustration, and he refused to let me catch him. But now he stands across the ring from me waiting, with bright expectation, for me to raise my arm in the down signal.

Mostly he does, anyway. Sometimes he gets itchy, as he did a few days ago, and forgets to look, and misses a signal. Then he feels bad, and I feel bad, and he feels bad that I feel bad, and everything goes to hell. Thomas lags behind in heeling; he panic shops and grabs the wrong article. Gloves get delivered to the judge; sits, fronts and finishes disappear. I try to divine why: Did the neighborhood fireworks last night ruin his sleep? Did we train too much? Or did the moment of itching just rattle his confidence?

I don’t know; I will never know. What I do know, though, is that this is not a trend, either. We have been here before, and we will get back, to that place of transcendent understanding we both fight so hard to find. Maybe it isn’t world-changing. Maybe it doesn’t have to be. Wrapped up as we are in our anthropocentric lives, where our movie animals have to speak our languages, I think there’s a kind of grace in our learning to speak theirs. I am happy enough to live now and then in that.

Awesome photo of Thomas and me celebrating “exercise finished” by Robert Moray. Thank you Robert. It was a good day.

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