A Dog Is A Dog Is A Dog

A second chance is one of the most miraculous and elusive gifts we can give. But why is it so hard to forgive–not only the ways in which we let others down, but also the ways in which we disappoint ourselves?

Over the past two years, there has been an aspect of my life in which I have been unable to give myself a break. Worse, by being so hard on myself, I let down someone else who is very important to me. Cody. Four years old, he is my “middle” Dalmatian–bookended on either side by his mother, Breeze, and his younger brother, Mac. He is sweet, cuddly, smart, bossy with the other two, and listens to me only some of the time.

In addition to having him as my secret favorite in our pack, I show him in the Obedience ring. Obedience is a series of performance classes in which the dog and handler work as a team. At our level, Cody and I must execute a series of difficult exercises in sync with each other: heeling patterns; figure eights; a recall with a full body drop by him on my signal; a dumbbell retrieve over the high jump; and a broad jump with a one hundred and eighty degree turn at the finish; and finally, a sit and stay that lasts for three minutes, followed by a down and stay of five minutes, in a line-up of the other competing (and unpredictable) dogs–and with me totally out of sight.

Flying over the broad jump, getting ready to turn

To pass and thus earn a “leg,” the required score is one hundred and seventy points out of a perfect two hundred. Three legs earn the dog one of the many obedience titles. Sometimes, dogs train for years to achieve these. Cody and I practice every day in the driveway, enjoying each other to the max, and take lessons as well. In his three years of showing, he has earned scores in the mid and upper 190’s, earned two titles and two further legs, and is thought by many to be a very good working dog. He trots along by my side, looking happy, with his tail wagging hard.

However, in 2013, he began to have grand mal seizures. They were terrifying to watch, and very hard on him physically. We began to treat Cody with several medications, and over a six-month period, the seizures stopped entirely. He opens his mouth quite willingly for those five critical capsules, and he will remain on them for the rest of his life.

Signal for the drop
And he’s down!

But along with the success of the medication came the frustration of side effects that are difficult to deal with. He grew clumsy, and maybe a little woozy, because the drugs contain a sedative. He was less able to pay close attention to what was asked of him, both in and out of the ring. While this doesn’t matter when he is curled up in my lap for a nap, it matters a great deal when we are performing.

He began to make mistakes, not executing the exercises through which he would have breezed previously, earning scores lower than his potential had initially indicated. He has become unpredictable, and I never know what he is going to do. At our Regional Specialty Show this past October, he jumped up on the ring steward and kissed his face, and then ran out of the ring when he thought he saw Brad on the other side of the ropes. Both were understandable. Both disqualified us.

It is hard to say what the effect of the medication and the antics in the ring are upon him. Does he care about not earning those high scores? Does he care that he isn’t achieving his titles? Would he just as soon be retired and relax into middle age? What I want–my working dog back by my side–may not be the same as what Cody wants. These are the questions I am beginning to ask myself.

Practicing his dumbbell retrieve over the high jump

His inconsistency in the ring has produced another side effect that affects how we perform, and this time it is of my creation. Though showing Cody was once a joy, I now cannot predict what he will do, and every class is filled with intense anxiety. I sweat and bite my nails and find it difficult to smile. While practicing at home is akin to playing–filled with tag wagging and joy–I am miserable throughout our time in front of the judge.

Undoubtedly, I communicate all this to Cody. I once had a similar problem with Mac, whom I show in Conformation, where my nervous energy was transmitted right down the lead. Finally, I learned to relax before our turn came, doing deep breathing exercises and reminding myself that Mac’s needs were the most important–not my own. In this ring, too, a steady and compassionate hand is needed.

So, who is it that is really failing this time around, Cody or me? Who is the one who doesn’t enjoy competing anymore? Who should retire from the ring?

A well-deserved hug of praise

If I could accept Cody for who he is now–a gutsy dog struggling with a difficult illness–rather than how he was back before his epilepsy began, I might defeat my all-consuming anxiety. If I could stop blaming both myself for my nerves and him for a less than perfect performance in the ring, we might be able to bond there as a team once more.

Other handlers do it. I watch them and their dogs make mistake after mistake and yet they never seem rattled. They leave the ring with a smile. After all–as friendly competitors remind me–a dog is a dog is a dog.

This coming weekend, Cody and I will be participating in two obedience trials, seeking a second chance after our failure at the Regional Specialty this past fall. I know that it’s up to me to dig deep for the all-important sense of humor that all the best handlers have tucked in their pockets. This time around, I’m determined that Cody have a relaxed teammate, someone who loves him no matter how he does, holding the end of his leash with a smile. Wish us luck!



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