Sunday, July 15, 2012

...To Say Nothing of the Dog

For many teenagers, and frankly for most of the rest of us, the destination, not the journey, is the primary focus.  Where will they go to college?  How good will their end of term or end of year grades be?  What will they do this summer? This weekend?  This evening?  When I was in acting conservatory, one of the most annoying girls in my class said one of the most profound statements I’ve ever heard.  As we sat around the student lounge one morning avidly counting the days till vacation, she suddenly blurted out, “My God, we’re wishing our lives away.”  The statement stunned us all into silence, and it has stayed with me for over thirty years, reminding me to enjoy the moment, to treasure the journey as well as the destination.

Dad, Mom and Cleo near Bodega Bay
Photo by David Smith
In the last two weeks, John and I have enjoyed two very different vacations, one with Cleo, my two sisters and their husbands, and one for just the two of us.  The first involved one sister and her husband flying into San Francisco from Washington, D.C. just before the Derecho storms hit the east coast, knocking out power and flattening trees in seven states.  My other sister flew in from Denver, leaving raging wild fires and smoke-filled skies for the towering redwoods.  Her husband, already in California for a business trip, met the other three at the airport while John and I had the comparatively easy Monterey to Sonoma County drive with an anxious, panting, drooling puppy dog.  Cleo clearly prefers the destination to the journey.  She was in seventh heaven being doted on by six adults.

John at the Roadhouse
Photo by David Smith
After we had piled our supplies into the rental house and chosen bedrooms for the weekend, we strolled down the narrow lane to the roadhouse we’d spotted as we drove in.  Noticing that there was music there every Saturday night but not on Fridays, my brother-in-law David turned to John.  “Want a gig tonight?” he asked.  Does a duck paddle?  As the four women-folk waited outside (three two-leggeds and one four-legged), the guys popped inside to enter into negotiations.  In less than ten minutes, they were back.  John had a gig.  Between David’s skillful negotiations, Paul’s mention that John was three times voted best musician in Monterey County, and John’s assurance that he wanted to play only for tips, the management was quickly won over.  It was a magical evening of the unplanned and unexpected.

The next day, we decided to go for a hike, but discovered that before we could, John needed to procure some hiking boots.  A quick Yelp indicated a likely spot, so six adults (to say nothing of the dog) climbed into the rented hearse-shaped mini-van and set out for the boot shop.  A quaint spot presented itself for some lunch, light shopping and cattle admiring.  Then we realized that we were unexpectedly near the inn where my sisters and I had stayed last year in celebration of a milestone birthday.  We detoured to show our husbands the beautiful setting.  That led us to remember that the little town where The Birds had been filmed was close by, so we zig-zagged over there to see the famous locations.  From there we made a bee-line to the boot shop, and after navigating three u-turns on a narrow highway because we couldn’t find the road we were supposed to turn on, we noticed that the street sign was handwritten on a ragged piece of cardboard stapled to a stake.  REI this was not.  When we finally found the “boot store,” it turned out to be a tiny outbuilding behind a small house in a postage-stamp-sized beach community perched on a cliff above the ocean.  It was, in fact, the workshop of a woman who designs and hand crafts beautiful, unique sheepskin moccasins and boots.  She admired Cleo (and thankfully made no jokes about lambs making lovely footwear) and we got a detailed tour of the workshop.  We left empty-handed.  But a romp on the beach was an absolute must for a little girl who had been so patient despite the unrelenting anxiety of riding in a car all day, so we climbed down to the sand and took a soul restoring stroll.  On the way back to our house, we dove into a winery for some last minute tasting, where several people stopped to pat and admire Cleo until we were thrown out of the tasting room (she was actually sleeping sprawled out on the carpet when they told us she wasn’t allowed inside).  Such a lovely day of journey with no destination in sight.

The family minus Paul and Cleo
Photo by Paul Berger
The lesson was repeated last week when John and I traveled up to Ashland, Oregon, for the Shakespeare festival, finally opting, by the way, to leave Cleo at home with a new sitter who is a colleague from school.  They got on famously.  It was a far sight better than the chaos of a week with seven dogs.  After the play our first night there, we wandered into a likely sounding bar for a nightcap.  Though deserted when we arrived, ten minutes later it was packed with actors and crew from the festival shows which had just ended.  It turned out we had chanced into the post-show hangout.  We returned there each night, striking up acquaintances with crew members and actors of shows we had seen or were shortly to see, with the bartender and with the owner.  Another unexpected destination arrived at by being open to the journey.

So with all of this, you might think I would finally internalize the lesson.  I am not always quick on the uptake.

We got home from Ashland on Wednesday.  On Friday, Cleo was scheduled to take her Canine Good Citizen and therapy dog tests.  For more than a year, we have been going to obedience classes so that Cleo would be ready for this moment.  I had poured over all of the requirements, feeling confident about some, downright panicky about others.  In fact, I was so wound up about the tests that I suffered intestinal rebellion all of Thursday, not managing to leave the house until late afternoon so that we could do a little training at the venue in which the tests were to be conducted.

On Friday morning, recognizing just how wrought up I was, John resorted to the one technique he knows always calms me down—we clipped Cleo to her leash and set out on a walk. 

“What are you so anxious about?” he asked me.

“She might jump up on someone.  Dogs who jump up will be disqualified.  The rules say so.”


“Or she might start barking at the other dogs.  She’ll sound so vicious.  She won’t show that she ‘can behave politely with another dog.’  That will disqualify her for sure.”

“Would that be so bad?”

“No,” I admitted.  “I guess we could just keep training for another year and try again next summer.  Or test with someone else.  I just really wanted her to be an official therapy dog before another school year started.”

“She’s going to pick up on your anxiety,” he warned.  “How about thinking positively.”

“Well, I really do think she can do this.”  As soon as I said the words aloud, I realized I believed them. I also realized that I didn’t care, deep down.  While I wanted the legitimacy of official certification for the sake of the school, there was and is no doubt in my mind that Cleo is a magnificent therapy dog, kind, sensitive, loving, funny, patient and cuddly.  “Actually,” I said to John, suddenly feeling much calmer, “I really do think she’ll be fine.”

We were the first team to arrive at the venue.  The coordinators were still setting up.  It was a pleasant surprise to see that one of the assistants was a friend from school.  Cleo and I dropped off our chair, blanket, and snacks and took a walk to blow off some steam.  When we got back, other teams had arrived.  There were twenty of us in all.  The tester explained how the day would unfold.  Cleo and I, team number five, would be starting our test with the basic set: Accepting a friendly stranger, sitting politely for petting, allowing the stranger to groom her, walking on a loose leash, sit, stand, down, stay and recall.  By the time we had watched three of the first four dogs pull on their leashes while “heeling,” have to be hauled into a sitting position, and jump up on the tester, I leaned down and whispered to Cleo, “We’ve got this, baby girl.”  My confidence soared when one of the dogs in the other group, testing for supervised separation in which the dog is left with one of the assistants while its handler waits out of sight, began to whine, bark and finally howl.  The test administrator called to his assistant, “Get the handler back and we’ll try it again later.”   I obviously take other people’s rules far more seriously than they do themselves. 

"Reaction to Another Dog"
Photo by Ellen Mitchell
Suffice it to say that of the twenty dogs, nineteen passed.  The one who didn’t was a Pug who refused to lie down.  But I will hasten to add that Cleo was easily one of the five best dogs there.  She did everything beautifully, though she did jump up on people during the “Walking through a crowd” part of the test.  She was just very eager to greet everyone.  But the thing that just amazed me was how calm she was with all of the other dogs.  The only time she barked was when she thought another dog was behaving badly (she is a bit bossy, not uncommon for a terrier).  She dislikes it when other dogs rattle their collar tags, growl at each other, lunge for someone else’s snack, or become too boisterous.  Even then, as soon as I told her to hush, she did. 

And so, the day has come.  After nearly two years of planning, dreaming, training and loving, Cleo is officially a Canine Good Citizen and a certified therapy dog.

The surprise is that the goal, though pleasant, isn’t nearly as satisfying as I expected.  The journey, on the other hand, our weekly obedience classes and, more than anything else, daily life with Cleo, is more inspiring, more fulfilling, more precious than even I imagined it would be.

Official Therapy Dog
Photo by Ellen Mitchell


  1. Congratulations! You and Cleo are officially a Therapy Team!

    Thank you for another eloquent post. I will attempt to remember your so very salient points about the journey. I have one semester left till graduation from Saybrook. My partner became my husband last month, and we are embarking on, among other things, a honeymoon/prospecting trip to Eugene and Portland. I am trying to plan what I can, and not worry about the rest. But for you, I say--well done, Joyce and Cleo! Brava, ladies! Brava!

    And I still have your books. Hope that is OK--I may need them to get through my comp exam this semester.

  2. ...and...I have fond memories of that time-travel novel, too...

  3. One semester to go! That is something to be proud of, Maria. And congratulations! I am so happy for you both. Here's to lots of Contradancing!!

    I have not missed the books. They're much better off in your hands.

    Cleo and I thank you for your bravas.