Tuesday, May 31, 2011


On January 17, 1994, we were awakened by the bed shaking.  I thought it was Honeybear (my Novice A golden retriever) leaning against the side of the bed, scratching.  But a moment later Barbara said, "It's an earthquake."

Indeed it was.  We were in a Holiday Inn Express in Costa Mesa, California, and we had been awakened by the Northridge earthquake.  We had come to Southern California to compete in Open B at a show hosted by Shoreline Dog Fanciers of Orange County.  It was held on January 16 at the Orange County Fairgrounds.

Honeybear's run that Sunday had been uninspired.  Her piece de resistance of listlessness had been the heeling pattern.  She stayed about a foot behind me all the way -- except on the fast where she dropped back to two feet.  Our score was 189.5, one of HB's worst performances, ever.

When we arrived back in Phoenix, I told our story about the earthquake.  And about the other disaster, Honeybear's lackluster performance.  Several people ventured similar theories:  "Dogs have a sixth sense.  Maybe Honeybear sensed that the earthquake was coming and that affected her performance."

Nice try.  Had I chosen to buy that, it might have been a comfy excuse.  Time would reveal, however, that what Honeybear had sensed -- and there was nothing extrasensory about it -- was that I was boring the hell out of her with my training methods.  And it had come back to bite me in the ring in Costa Mesa.

Fast-forward five years.  Alameda Park is a narrow stretch of green in downtown Alamogordo, New Mexico -- if there is such a thing as a downtown in Alamogordo.  The park is flanked on the east by White Sands Boulevard and on the west by the tracks of the Union Pacific Railroad.  We had made the 459-mile trip as part of the final leg (we hoped) of OTCH Quest '99.  Honeybear needed one point to become a member of an elite club -- dogs who go from Novice A to OTCH.

There was another Phoenix-area competitor there that weekend.  In Remembering to Breathe I referred to her as Hangdog.  We'll stick with that here.

Actually there were two sets of railroad tracks flanking our ring, which was set up in the middle of the grassy area.  In addition to the Union Pacific tracks to the west, there was a kiddie-ride train running parallel to the boulevard.  Both sets of tracks were a considerable distance from the ring.

Several Union Pacific trains passed through that morning and didn't seem to bother the dogs.  Except that Hangdog came huffing out of the Utility A ring fuming that the train had caused her dog to bring back the wrong article.  Later, Hangdog swore the dog went went down on the sit "because that little train over there made her do it."

A few months ago a local club held an obedience fun match.  They had a special ring set up for Novice and Open sits and downs.  Late in the morning Hangdog had her dog in that ring.  She had been at the end of the line as the group filed in, which put her dog close to the side ring rope.  At the same time, one of the most astute trainers in our area brought her young Belgian Terveuren to a position just outside the ring, in line with the row of dogs but about 10 feet from Hangdog's poodle.  Standing close, her dog on leash, she worked quietly with her young dog.  Soft praise, encouragement, an occasional treat. Near the end of the long down, as usual, Hangdog's poodle got up.  Scowling, Hangdog quickly pointed to the handler with the Terv and loudly announced, "It's because she's out there!"

Oh, give me a break!

Hangdog, across more than two decades in our sport, has been one of the people who have heightened my awareness that we have in our midst a few poor souls who are perpetual victims.  Every time their dogs flunk it's clearly the fault of something external to their training, their competence, their self-eteem.

Somebody slams a car door. A squeaky-wheeled cart goes by.  There's a kid over there with a hamburger.  Someone drops their watch in the grass 100 yards away.

What we have here are fragile egos.  So fragile that the person's self-esteem is inextricably bound to their dog's success. The dog flunks.  The person has just been victimized by something, someone, far beyond their control.  It's inconceivable that the error emanated from a hole in their training.

Sorry, I'm convinced that when my dog, any dog, makes a mistake in the ring (assuming that dog is not sick or injured) 99 percent of the time it can be traced to a hole in that dog's training.

So after nearly every trial I listen to these poor souls' indignant ramblings about how they were victimized this time.  I listen but say nothing.

Inside, I'm saying, "Good God!  Stop whining and go train your dog!"


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