Thursday, March 31, 2011


The magic of competition obedience isn't solely about the dog, the exercises and that scary, eagle-eyed person with the clipboard.  It's also about the cast of characters who enrich the environment.  Many of whom never venture into the ring.  Mark Shults was one of those.

In the beginning, the very beginning with my Novice A dog Honeybear, I trained with Precision Canine.  Sandra Shults was one of our instructors.  (Some who are reading this are blessed with Sun Mountain border collies from Sandra's breeding program.)  Mark was her husband.  He'd show up at practice with Sandra and their border collie, Ott -- the first border collie I ever saw, the dog who hooked me on the breed.

Mark didn't train, didn't show.  Oh, he had the hots to show a mastiff in obedience.  He got the dog, but Mark sat better than he trained and the dog never made it to the ring.  But it was Mark sitting on the sidelines at class who was such a delight, such a breath of fresh air.

You see, Mark viewed life through a prism unavailable to the rest of us.  Once he told me, "Willard, when you get your next dog, you should name him YOU.

"You sit!"

"You come!"

"You heel!"

In 1992, as Honeybear (HB) finished her CD and prepared for Open A, I found a great way to practice out-of-sight sits and downs. At Paradise Valley Park, where HB and I trained, there were cement block outdoor bathrooms, men's on one side, women's on the other.  I figured out I could put HB on a stay in the shade of a big tree on the women's side, go inside, stand on the toilet seat and watch my dog through a screened high window.  She couldn't see me, but I could see her.  If she started to sniff , I'd roar, "Honeybear, don't sniff!" The sound would bounce off those cement block walls and Honeybear was convinced it was the voice of God.

Mark was an accomplished cartoonist; he could have made a living at it.  By and by he learned of my stays-practice arrangement. A few days later a cartoon came in the mail.  I'm standing on the toilet seat, on my tiptoes, looking out the window.  The dog is on a longline (which in reality I didn't use).  I'm holding one end.  The line snakes around the building and in the door behind me. And there's the dog, seated behind me, tail wagging, looking up, wondering what in the world this guy is up to.

That cartoon is framed and hangs on the wall of the room where I write. (It also appears on page 111 of REMEMBERING TO BREATHE.)

Unfortunately Mark chose to be a painter, not a cartoonist.  About two years ago he fell and broke his neck.  He spent his final years in a wheelchair.  Recently he went into cardiac arrest and died.

Everyone I've told about Mark's death has responded with, "He was such a nice guy."  Indeed.


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