“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.
But 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.
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.
About a month or so ago I had reached that point of despair that makes me want to write about dog training. Thomas and I had racked up our 5th consecutive failed attempt at a UDX leg, this time not because he backed up and threw the dumbbell at me or failed to negotiate his go-out or ran up to the small white boards that signify a broad jump and stopped like, “what's that for?” Those were last month’s problems. That was before my training partner Tawn, who is awesome, figured out 14 ways to build drive into a broad jump under all circumstances; that was before I started making him hold all his toys — flying disc, tennis ball, yellow rubber thing — and deliver them square front if he wanted them thrown. We fixed his dumbbell retrieve and his broad jump and proofed his signals and worked over his go-outs.
And then his drop-on-recall broke.
Oh — and at a trial out in San Bernardino last month, a Bernese Mountain Dog dared to lope by near the ring during signals. How can a dog possibly drop on command under such clearly dangerous circumstances? I cannot imagine such a thing would be safe. Even though the Berner was a good 20 feet away and on a leash. Attached to a human who was wearing sensible ballet flats and a split gabardine skirt covered by a grooming apron.
Like I said, there was despair. And so I wrote — I wrote and wrote and wrote, filling up reams of notebook pages with scrawly longhand and covering envelopes with scribbles, none of which turned out to be anything I wanted to type into a nice font on a computer and put up on a blog. It was too despair-y for that; I needed to chill. I needed to go back to the woodshed, think some matters through. I needed to watch the Olympics.
The judge could not believe how badly I threw the dumbbell. On the first attempt, it fell short of the jump. On the second, it flew low and banged into it. On the third, we both had to duck.
Finally, with my confused dog (Tabitha this time, my sensitive AmStaff), agitating at my side, the judge picked up the dumbbell and walked slowly toward me. “Just . . . get it . . . over . . . the jump,” she said, with what sounded to me like grave concern. “Do it any way you can.”
I grabbed the dumbbell by the bar and hurled it. It bounced, then landed far to the right. Tabitha went over the jump after it.
In that long instant I realized what a mistake I'd made: All morning, I’d been using Tabitha's dumbbell to work the broad jump — throwing it as she flies over and having her bring it back to me on the right side of the jump.
So Tabitha, being the quick study that she is, did not bring the dumbbell back over the jump, as she'd been proofed to do. Instead, she turned wide to the right and brought the dumbbell back around the jump. Then she sat, perplexed, at my right side. Why would she not? Good dog. I suck.
I feel bad when I do these things. No, it’s worse than that: These episodes haunt me. I walk around the following day with a dark feeling I can’t put my finger on, and when I do, I hate myself. Sunday, on the straight heeling pattern with Tabitha, I went left when the judge said right — and not for the first time: I have trouble in the ring with right and left, even when I’ve practiced the routine. “It’s my dog-show brain,” I told the judge, by way of apologizing. "My head gets so muddled." As if that would cause him to form a better opinion of me. As if he were busy forming an opinion of me at all.
The thing is, I really thought I’d at least solved the dumbbell-toss issue. I’ve suffered great humiliation over my inability to throw objects or hit them with a bat or racket. Softballs, tennis balls, Frisbees — all have brought me some degree of shame since childhood. So with the dumbbell, I have practiced. Pitching it into the center of a hoop; trying to hit a target. I watch people and try to channel them. I take tips from the best dumbbell tossers in the region.
And for the most part, it has worked. Most days, I can throw a dumbbell just fine. But then come those moments when, inexplicably, my mind reels, my fingers spasm, my confidence seizes up. Like a nervous golfer lining up for a putt, too aware she's got a birdie on the line, I focus too hard, think too much, and lose all ability to gauge the precise moment when my fingers should release. The dumbbell flies high into the sky, and lands nowhere near where the judge says it should be. I get another chance, and another, but now our ring flow is wrecked.
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!”
Thomas 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 Frisbee. 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. In the video below, you can see me, jumping up and down. You can also see Thomas go to greet the judge, and the only other handler I know personally who has put a UD on a Cairn Terrier, Missi Hanson, on the right side of the frame, cheering like mad.
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!”
Indeed 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.
Last week started out wretched. “A friggin’ terrible week,” as a friend of mine put it, “and it’s only Monday.”
On Sunday, I read the news that a performer with Cirque de Soleil’s show KÀ in Las Vegas, a 31-year-old mother of two, had fallen 60 feet to her death. I did not know Sarah Guillot-Guyard, but up until not long ago I was an obsessed amateur aerialist — I even taught, for a while — which means I had teachers and students and still have friends who make their livings in the air. I took that loss, the first of its kind in Cirque’s 30-year-history, hard and personally. I was able to imagine too much: Her terror on the way down, the shock and grief of everyone who knew and loved her, her children in the aftermath.
On the same evening a New York Times news alert flashed on my screen: “Nineteen firefighters killed fighting Arizona wildfire.” I thought they’d got the number wrong — nineteen? I write about wildfires now and then, and read about them a lot, and because of Norman MacLean’s magnificent book Young Men and Fire I have a visceral understanding of how living creatures suffer when they don’t survive a fire. Thirteen Montana smokejumpers lost their lives in the 1949 Mann Gulch fire, a tragedy MacLean wrote about in somber detail. It is not a good way to die. It is not a good way to leave behind wives and children and colleagues and a town full of friends. Many of them will go a long time before they can imagine a day when they don’t spend most of their time trying to understand what the people they loved went through in the final moments before they perished.
Then I spoke to my friend who was having the friggin’ terrible week. A friend of hers, an acquaintance of mine — someone I’d enjoyed talking to over the years as a source and a mentor — was missing in the Wyoming mountains. Randy Udall was due back from a solo backpacking trip on June 26. It was July 1, and the search teams that had been deployed to find him had turned up nothing. My friend held an image of him dragging himself to safety and, after devouring a grizzly bear, emerging from the wilderness with great stories for future generations. Instead, on July 3, Randy was found dead on the off-trail route he’d planned to follow in the Wind River Range. It seemed he’d had a heart attack or stroke. He was 61.
As it happens, July 3 is also the day my mother died, 30 years ago, after an eight-month battle with colon cancer that had spread to her liver. She was roughly at the age I am now, and just a year older than my father, who had died suddenly of a heart attack just 18 months before. It’s wrong to say that the anniversary of her death made the week worse, as I carry the unsettled grief of her passing and the circumstances that surrounded it with me always. But 30 years is a long time; it disturbs me to know that a wound so old can still feel so fresh.
It consoles me, too. As long as that wound stays open I won’t have lost her completely.
I’m not trivializing any of this by including it in my dog stories, because dogs aren’t trivial to me. In a dark patch a couple of years ago I took to joking that dogs are keeping me alive. It was really only half a joke, and one my mother would have understood. There were always dogs — her dog, neighbors' dogs, the abandoned puppies she was always finding and nursing to health and tearfully adopting out to happy homes. But there was one dog in particular, a silver miniature poodle named Charm, that had her heart. She had bought that dog when I was seven, over my protests — this was supposed to be my dog, and I was hell bent on a cairn terrier. But mom needed a dog for herself. Their bond ran thick and deep, as the pictures I have of her playing the piano while the dog crooned in her lap still attest.
My mother was an obstinately cheerful person, emotionally strong as a soldier, but still I think that dog was what kept her above the line throughout everything — abuse and divorce and loss and disappointment; her own mounting griefs, her own bad weeks that started on Monday.
Charm died at 16, just three months before my mom did. Her decline after that was precipitous.
"I would avoid any kind of terrier if you are seriously considering dog obedience competition."
This bit of wisdom came to me from woman who trains silky terriers, and ran across it in a 1994 book by neuropsychologist Stanley Coren, The Intelligence of Dogs: Canine Consciousness and Capabilities. We repeat it now and then while we're practicing, and run up against some crazy problem. I don't really believe it, though, and neither does Coren, who didn't say it himself, but overheard it at a seminar, from a trainer “whose videos show only border collies and German shepherds at work.” He uses the remark in his book as an example of how trainers have long recognized differences among breeds in learning capacity and work ethic: Poodles are easier to train than Italian greyhounds; golden retrievers learn faster than bulldogs.
Terriers, the conventional wisdom holds, are the hardest and least willing of the dog-breed groups. Stubborn is the word that comes up most often.
Certainly I know people think this — twice in as many weeks different judges have disclaimed “He’s a terrier!” about Thomas — once in the obedience ring when he appeared to be vigorously subjecting his scent articles to various scientific hypotheses, once in the agility ring when he launched off the A-frame (as if a dog has to be a terrier to do that). They say these things despite the existence of exceedingly biddable terriers — rat terriers, Parson Russells, Airedales — that in the right hands get high-in-trials and high-combineds and win national competitions with reassuring frequency. As I said to the agility judge who uttered those words last Sunday, being a terrier is not an excuse.
Coren, who notoriously ranked 79 dog breeds by their overall ability to work with humans, backs me up on that. The miniature schnauzer, which the American Kennel Club classifies among terriers, comes in 12th out of 79 on his list. You might argue that the miniature schnauzer is not a terrier in England; well, then, Coren has the Yorkshire terrier at 27th. The cairn terrier, a breed Coren himself has owned and known and loved, is tied with the Kerry blue at 35th, seven spots above the Australian shepherd. So there.
Abandon your sad history; meet me in the fire.
–Jackson Browne, “Under the Falling Sky”
I don’t remember the age at which my birthday became a day to stop and gape at the size of the number that represents my age and ask the proverbial question:
“What have I done with my life?”
Or, perhaps more vividly:
“What the fuck have I done with my life?”
The question first popped up on some birthday in my late 30s or 40s, and has returned on schedule every year since. The answer requires a whole day of brooding, all of it difficult and pained and full of regret; a meditation on blown chances, squandered friendships, waste-of-time relationships and roads less traveled that I blithely chose only to find out why no one else did: They were rocky and dusty and left me with bloody feet. Plus, they were dead-ends.
Somebody asked me a few weeks ago how I got into this mess with dogs. It has nothing to do with not having children, though that always ranks high on my regret list. It does, however, have a lot to do with the annual birthday regret party of 2006. It was three days after I turned 47 that I made the decision to call the vet and end of the life of my 17-year-old cairn terrier, Seamus, who was by then completely deaf and almost blind; incontinent and slow and growing an apparently malignant tumor on his tongue. People around me — neighbors, a boyfriend at the time — scolded me for not making the call sooner. “You prolonged his pain to postpone your own,” chided one particularly sensitive dog expert next door. I disagree to this day: I knew Seamus and he knew me, and he let me know when he was done.
I knew Seamus and he knew me. He was born on my 30th birthday.
“Learned helplessness,” she shouted back. “All-too common in obedience dogs.”
Learned helplessness refers to a discovery psycho-behaviorist Martin Seligman made in the late 1960s while messing with the minds of dogs; dogs exposed to electric shocks and offered no way out stopped trying to escape even when a solution became clear. A less dismal version of a similar phenomenon is what Ur-clicker-trainer Karen Pryor calls “extinction”: You, the rat, hit the lever over and over and no little piece of food comes out. You, the dog, scratch on the box where the scent is and yet never hear the click and get the Charlie Bear. You, the human, venture into the competition ring over and over again and yet never get to stand with the judge and other qualifying teams and receive that little green ribbon that says success. You get anxious. Depressed. Eventually you stop trying.