Sunday, July 28, 2013

Cleo's Debut--the Final Chapter

Temperatures in the 70s, the sun beating down, the hint of a breeze blowing, and there we stood, Cleo and I, poised to begin our very first obedience trial ever—the Beginner Novice level.  After four hours at the show, meeting, greeting, observing and weathering one new experience after another, Cleo sagged exhaustedly beside me in the heel position.  The judge waited, clipboard in hand, pen poised to mark our scores for each exercise.

“Cleo, heel!” I chirped.  She dragged herself to her feet and plodded beside me. 

The first of the series of little signs nailed into the grass read “Heel slow.”  I slowed my pace.  Cleo slowed hers.

“Heel normal.”  I returned to the original pace. Cleo didn’t.  Each time the leash tightens, it’s a loss of points.

“Left turn.”  Piece of cake.  Except I could feel Cleo lagging.

“About turn.”  This is a heel as the handler reverses direction a full 180 degrees.  It’s something Cleo is really, really good at.  Plus, it’s the spot where the judge suggested we use our single permitted phrase of praise in order to encourage the dog to keep up.  I made the turn and glanced down at Cleo.  Her jaw was locked in determination.  She looked as if she were being put through the Bataan Puppy March.  “Good girl!” I crowed.  She gave me a disbelieving glare. 

“Heel fast.”  I doubled my pace.  Cleo one-and-a-halfed hers.  The leash tightened.  I could feel the judge scratching off the points.

“Heel normal.”  No problem.

“Stop.”  Now, the trick here is that when the handler stops, the dog is supposed to sit without a command.  This is something Cleo has been doing without fail, even with distractions, for the last two years.  I was pretty confident at this moment.  Except she just stood there.  More points lost.  I looked at Kim and John, just on the other side of the fence, and rolled my eyes.  Kim snorted.  John smiled and continued his play by play on the phone for his son Jackson in South Carolina.  I started to giggle.

“Exercise finished!” called the judge.  As I turned to go to the starting point of the next task, I heard Kim laughing.  “Don’t laugh!” exclaimed the poodle woman, sitting nearby.  “She’ll be upset!”  No, really.  She won’t.

The two kind stewards strode into the ring and stood about five feet apart.  It was time for the figure eight.  Cleo and I wove around the two human posts, stopping for a sit each time we got to the middle.  I could feel her lagging, the leash pulling tight.  I slowed down.  Cleo slowed even more.  Okay, that was a mistake.  But each time we got to the center, she sat beautifully.

Next task, long sit-stay.  Cleo’s job was to sit in the center of the ring without moving as I walked the full perimeter.  This was the exercise that had given rise to one of the most exciting moments of the day so far when a Sheltie in the previous group made a break for it as its mom hit the far side of the ring.  A steward had stomped on its leash and brought it up short, but dog and handler were disqualified.  In fact, pretty much every dog had struggled through this exercise, not because they were having trouble staying, but because they all got a bit anxious and had to peer fixedly at their handlers during the full circuit.  I told Cleo to stay and set off towards the fence.  As I turned along the first edge, I stole a peek at her.  Her face was turned away from me, into the breeze, her tongue lolling contentedly.  I heard John say, “Now Joycie’s walking all the way around the ring.  Yeah!  Cleo’s staying perfectly.”  I got back to my starting point and turned to head back to Cleo.  She looked at me, calm and relaxed.  “Exercise finished!” the judge called, a hint of praise (not to say surprise) in his tone.

And now it was time for the final task: the off-leash recall.  I positioned Cleo, removed her leash and told her to stay, then walked to my position, roughly ten feet away.  I turned.  “Call your dog,” said the judge.  I did, hoping that this wouldn’t be one of those times that she simply sat staring at me as if she’d never heard the words “Cleo, come!” in her life before.  To my delight, she stood up immediately and started walking toward me.  Now, in an ideal world, the dog should bound toward the handler with joy and delight.  I was happy with plod toward the handler with duty and resignation.  Halfway across the great divide, something in the grass caught her nose.  She paused to sniff.  I waited for a second, hoping she would leave it and continue on.  Sigh.  “Cleo,” I called enticingly, “come!”  Her nose still deep in the grass, she walked toward me once again.  Hurray!

A foot from me, she stopped dead, some fascinating scent completely engaging her.  Knowing I would lose a raft of points, I called her once more.  “Cleo, come!”  Not the slightest acknowledgement.  Resigned to total failure, I stepped forward, snagged the ring of her slip-collar, and gave it a tug.  She took the last steps to me and sat in perfect position, gazing up at me devotedly.  “Exercise finished,” said the judge with a wave of his hand.  I snapped Cleo’s collar back on and started out of the ring.

“Congratulations,” said the judge.  “You qualified.”

“You’re kidding!”  Have I mentioned that sometimes my mouth works faster than my good sense?

“Naw,” he said, good-naturedly.  “She was almost to you before you had to help her in.”

Qualifying means that out of a total possible score of 200 points, the dog and handler have earned at least 170.  It turns out, as we learned once all the other dogs had gone and we were called back into the ring for prizes, we’d earned a total of 183 points.  Percentage-wise, a pretty respectable A-.  In fact, the next highest score was the dog who won fourth place. 

I know I said it really didn’t matter to me if we did well or not, but I am so very proud of Cleo.

So I started this whole story a couple weeks ago by saying how much I love to learn.  What did I learn that Saturday at the Del Monte Kennel Club annual show?
  • If you want your dog to be fresh and perky, don’t arrive four hours early to an obedience trial.
  • I am much harder on both myself and Cleo than others are.
  • It feels wonderful to let go of expectations: Even when I thought we were failing miserably, I was having a wonderful time.
  • I really don’t need to do an obedience trial ever again.  And no one can make me.
  • It is an extraordinary gift to have a dear friend and a beloved husband cheering (and laughing) you on.

Sunday, July 21, 2013

Cleo's Debut, Episode 2

As Cleo and I made our way from the show rings back to the obedience area of the Del Monte Kennel Club annual show last weekend, a woman standing in line at one of the vendor booths spun around excitedly.  “Is that a Bedlington Terrier?” she demanded.  “You almost never see those.  Are there others here?”  I told her there were four altogether: Cleo, Lover Boy, P.T., and P.T.’s mom.  She looked at me, stunned.  Her jaw actually dropped open.  “That’s more than there were at the Cow Palace,” she said, referring to last January’s Golden Gate Kennel Club show. I can’t be held responsible for San Francisco’s lack of Bedlington street cred.  But I always tell people: We’re making a comeback.

Not that I’m necessarily one to champion plunging into the obedience world with a terrier.

Life was pretty sweet last Saturday as John, our friend Kim, Cleo and I stood watching the Graduate Novice class teams doing their thing.  It was a rare, sunny 70 degree day on the grass.  We commented on each breed’s form and style as one dog after another made graceful leaps over the jumps, retrieving little wooden dumbbells.  Happy dogs and proud owners bounced through the various tasks until, finally, all the dogs returned to the ring together for the prolonged down-stay.  That completed, points totaled and awards handed out, I figured it was time to register with the steward.  I stood politely by the table as she totted up numbers.  The task clearly required her undivided attention.  A gust of wind swept a paper off the table and she made a grab for it, missing it by a foot.  I ran it down and placed it back on the table, tucking it safely under her show program.  Not even a glance in my direction.  A woman with a poodle came up on the steward’s other side and made a joke.  The two shared a laugh.  I took in the poodle, then turned to share a look with John and Kim.  Had I been that poodle, I would have been too embarrassed to show my face in public.  Remember Kim Cattrall in the 80s?  Big, poofy hair, straight bangs?  Or maybe Madonna in her glam rock getup?  Big frizzy hair, little bitty bangs?  Take that image and slap it on a poodle.  You’ve got it.

John was getting increasingly testy as the steward continued to ignore me, but I suddenly realized that I didn’t need to register yet.  Sure, it was 11:30 and we were supposed to have started at 11:15, but it dawned on me that since we had just been watching the last of the Graduate Novice class, we still had all of the Beginner Novice B to sit through.  The Beginner Novice class is divided into two groups: The A group are the true first-timers, like Cleo and me.  The B group are those handlers with some experience, either owner-handlers who have gone through the Novice trials in previous years with a different dog, or handlers who are working with someone else’s dog.  The B group gets to go first.  There were about a dozen of them.  I sat back down with John, Kim and Cleo. 

As the morning turned to afternoon, even I started to get restless.  Initially, for the first seven or eight dogs, say, I was pretty interested because Cleo and I have practiced all of the tasks, and we know what each is supposed to look like.  Kim was engaged for a good portion of the time.  She is a dog lover and enjoyed talking with handlers, meeting different dogs, and occasionally taking a break to visit a friend of ours who was working the Rally ring on the other side of the field.  John, a truly loving husband and dedicated puppy-daddy, fought mightily to stay awake.  He checked his email.  He scanned Facebook.  He tracked down and brought back a cup of coffee.  Cleo, not a fan of the heat to begin with and having been on high alert and sensory overload for nearly four hours, finally gave up and stretched out full length on her side, all four legs straight in front of her.  She wouldn’t close her eyes, of course; she might miss something.  But she didn’t even raise her head when dogs trotted past her on their way in and out of the ring. 

Shortly before 1 PM, the Beginner Novice A class got to do our walk-through and orientation to the course.  We registered without a hitch, the steward even being almost cordial.  Mercifully, Cleo and I were to go fourth.  In a desperate effort to wake her up, I ran her over to an open patch of grass and did a few exercises.  How do I put this?  She lacked her usual √©lan.  She plodded through some heeling exercises.  Dragged herself towards me on recall.  Lay down gratefully on command. When I danced around in front of her acting goofy, trying to get her riled up, she just stared.  We went back to the ring.

As dog three, a Sheltie, entered the ring, John’s phone rang.  It was his son, Jackson, calling from South Carolina.  He was about to go on watch, but wanted to check in.  Towards the end of the Sheltie’s very fine performance, Cleo and I got into the “on deck” position.  The two other stewards wished us luck, the judge called us in and wished us luck, we crossed to the starting point.  This put us only feet from Kim and John, our backs to them.  I heard John, on the phone with Jackson, say, “Okay, they’re about to start!”  The judge asked if we were ready.  As we would ever be. Off we went.

To be continued…

(Oh, come on!  Just one more week…)

Rested and ready for action!

Sunday, July 14, 2013

Cleo's Debut, part one

Even before I became a teacher, I believed that the best possible day was one on which I learned a ton.  Whether I was in rehearsal gathering loads and loads of information on my character or in classes absorbing book-learning or poring over the Sunday New York Times, I felt full and happy.  Yesterday was just that kind of day.

One year ago this weekend, Cleo became a certified Therapy Dog.  Partly to commemorate that anniversary and partly to redeem myself, I registered us for yesterday’s obedience trial.  A year ago, I registered for the trial, too, but chickened out at the last minute.  I was convinced I was going to make a complete fool out of myself and that I would be opening up my baby girl to ridicule and shame.  Okay, maybe a little projection there—shame?  Really?  So this year, with a great deal more confidence, I showed up ready to have a good time. 

Several things went into my new attitude.  Sure, Cleo’s training has been going well, but let’s be honest: I’m not one of those people who works concertedly at polishing her training every day.  This last week, I made sure to take her, several times, to the site of the trials so that she could associate the location with the exercises we do and so I could work with her on paying attention to me as she’s walking through grass—not exactly an easy thing for a terrier to do, let me tell you!  Mostly, though, I rely on our weekly classes to keep her tuned in to obedience.  Still, I was pretty confident that she could do everything required of her for the Beginner Novice trial.  A lovely boost to my attitude was getting an email from a friend with oceans of experience in all things Bedlington who described his first obedience trial as “an exercise in humility.”  Well, shoot!  I thought.  If his first outing wasn’t perfect, why should I be expecting Cleo’s and mine to be?  Perhaps the most important contributor to my new-found positive attitude was the sudden realization that I wasn’t nervous about the process at all!  I really didn’t care if we totally blew it.  I didn’t feel that either Cleo or I had anything to prove.  I was just out to enjoy the whole thing.  Who in the world have I become!?

So the schedule yesterday was this: a new participant’s orientation at 9:30 AM, a group of dogs that included all two Bedlingtons showing at 10:45, the Beginner Novice trials beginning at 11:15.  Part of the reason I was so excited to be at the show yesterday was that the two Bedlingtons showing were Cleo’s dad and her younger half-brother.  I had never met either of them in person, so to speak.

  Due to my ever-present background noise of anxiety about not being able to see well, I decided to get to the show grounds by 9 so that I could easily find the location of the orientation.  I left the house at 8:30 for the ten minute drive to Carmel Valley.  I’d thought of everything—slip collar and flat collar, grooming supplies, treats and snacks for both of us, water for each in separate containers, hat and sunscreen, wallet with ID, cards with info on how to buy The Educated Dog (just in case), phone with the PDF of the show schedule pre-loaded.  We were at the gate when I realized what I’d forgotten.  Cash to pay for parking.  I almost never carry more than a couple dollars.  It’s not out of design, just out of forgetfulness that I might need to buy something that I can’t use plastic for.  The very kind fellow in charge of parking waved me through with a cheerful, “Just bring me ten bucks when ya can get it!”  The day was off to a good start!

Cleo and I made a quick tour of the rings in evidence.  Then we made another.  In very short order we found ring 11, the one where we would be doing our obedience trial in another couple hours.  What we didn’t see was ring 2 where the Bedlingtons would be showing.  Or, frankly, any number lower than 10.  Nor could I find anything resembling a check-in desk.  A woman nearby was working with her dog, a Border Collie, and I asked her where to check in.  She was a fount of information, reassuring me that I would check in at the ring shortly before my “go” time.  My anxiety notched down to yellow alert.  I thanked her and turned to leave, then spotted a classmate in a Rally ring with one of her Golden Retrievers.  This woman is a wonderful trainer and her dog looked like he was having the time of his life.  I stopped to watch them, rapt, until I realized that the woman next to me, standing with her Shetland Sheepdog, had asked me a question.  “I’m sorry?” I said.

“Do you do Rally?”  Ah, no.  But I think it looks really cool.  Within no time, she had given me the lowdown.  In Rally, the handler directs her dog from task to task as designated by little signs placed around the course.  She can speak to the dog offering command, correction, encouragement, or praise.  It is, said my informant, bonding and teamwork incarnate.  The last team having gone, she, leaning heavily on her cane, limped off with her Sheltie to learn their score.  It was at some point here that I suddenly realized that there must be another whole group of rings—the ones where people were actually showing their dogs.  I explained this possibility to Cleo and we decided to go on an explore.  We headed in a likely direction and, after weaving through a forest of RVs, we crested a small hill to see, laid out below us, the tent city of owners, handlers, grooming tables, show rings and camp followers peddling their wares of dog toys, training paraphernalia, grooming tools, gourmet organic dog food, dog advocacy materials, and gelato.  A little overwhelmed, we determined to make a circuit of the perimeter.

As another good omen, the first person we saw was Pluis, our trainer.  She was clearly decked out as an owner of show dogs, not in her usual training class civvies.  Cleo didn’t care; she was ecstatic to see Pluis and flung herself onto her shoes in adoration.  Pluis, in her usual manner, praised Cleo for so cleverly and fortuitously attending a dog show, then asked me if there were Bedlingtons showing.  Two, I told her!  “Perfect!” she exclaimed.  I came very close to flinging myself on her shoes.  She just has a way of inspiring devotion.  “And you are…” she continued questioningly.  Beginner Novice A.  “Very good!” she smiled, then leaned down to pat Cleo again.  “Break a leash!” she cried, heading back towards her own dogs.

We continued down the rows, peering into tents for the telltale alien noses and arched bodies of the Bedlington.  From a distance, I saw the bright yellow canopy reading “Terrier Group.”  We forged toward it and stood quivering at the entrance.  Two elegant, eminently graceful Bedlington Terriers stood on grooming tables.  I recognized the far dog in an instant.  An elder statesman in streamlined blue, a grand champion in lamb’s costume.  Cleo’s daddy, Lover Boy.  I was twitterpated; I was in the presence of a star!  I got a little misty-eyed!   And on the near table, a huggable, beautiful liver boy named Petey, Cleo’s half-brother.  His petite and curly mom took an active interest from the comfort of her crate.  Cleo, intrigued, stood on her hind legs and sniffed at her kin.  They peered down at her from the lofty heights of their perches.  The humans shook hands.  I delighted in hearing stories from Paul about his canine charges.  It seemed as though Petey took an immediate shine to Cleo, though she, as is her wont, became instantly shy as soon as she noticed that he was looking at her.  Each time we saw him, all day long, he certainly perked up in her presence.  Both of them showed me the gentle kindness that is the trademark of every Bedlington I’ve ever met.  Paul and I made plans to meet after we were both done—him with his 10:45 showing, us with our 11:15 trial.

The time was drawing near to the signing-in moment, so Cleo and I went back to ring 11 and watched the Graduate Novice class trial.  John joined us, then shortly afterwards, our friend Kim.  It was eleven o’clock.  Cleo and I waited politely by the steward, waiting for her to acknowledge us so we could sign in.  Within minutes, we expected to make our debut.

To be continued…

Sunday, July 7, 2013

Terrier? Water Hound? Mountain Goat?

John, the canine mountain goat and I have been frequenting a new spot on the beach for the last couple of months.  It’s an exciting, wind-swept series of dunes that lead down to the rock-strewn water’s edge.  The three of us pretend that we’re crossing the Northumberland moors as we trudge through the ice-plant.  Cleo responds to the wind as to nothing else.  You can tell that something is coming alive deep in her DNA.  As it’s highly unlikely that we’ll ever get her to her deepest roots in Bedlington, UK, we try to make the most of what we have at hand.  If that’s some sand dunes and a freshening breeze off the Monterey Bay, so be it.

Another reason we love this spot is because it’s so private.  Nine times out of ten, we’re the only people there.  It’s even rarer that we see another dog, which is fine by Cleo.  Isn’t that remarkable?  I grew up on the East Coast.  Several summers, we vacationed at Atlantic City (pre-casinos).  Really, though, it hardly matters where you go.  If you’re at the shore (which is what East Coasters call the beach), all you’re hoping for is an unoccupied patch of sand that’s large enough to lay your beach towel on.  Here on the Monterey Peninsula, a beach is packed if there’s a person every hundred yards or so.  Of course, the water is shockingly cold all year ‘round, and during the summer, you’re more likely to be fog bound than sunbathing.  This summer has been an anomaly: We’ve had a stretch of several weeks of sun with temperatures in the 70s and 80s.  Everywhere you go, you hear people exclaiming, “We’re having a real summer!  This is so weird!”  As we read about folks getting second degree burns from the sidewalks and pavements of what the newspapers call “the West,” we can’t help but feel a little guilty.  Is global warming giving us a paradise as it makes conditions untenable for large swaths of the rest of the country?

Yesterday, the weather turned.  As I write, it’s 62 degrees and cloudy, and my wind chimes are tinkling softly in an intermittent and bone-chilling breeze.  The poor tourists are trying to figure out what’s hit them.  You can always tell the tourists in Monterey; they’re the ones shivering in diaphanous sundresses or tank-tops and short-shorts while we residents are reaching for our down vests—which we pair with flip-flops, of course.  There has to be some nod to the fact it’s July.  Today, Cannery Row is jam-packed with blue-lipped families who gaze about themselves and ask each other, “This is California?  I thought it was supposed to be warm and sunny here.  And where are all the palm trees?”  I want to buy them all some hot cocoa and wrap blankets around them.  John, Cleo and I love our tourists, though for different reasons.  How can we not appreciate what they bring to our local economy?  Cleo just loves people, especially when they stop to admire her.

Yet even with hundreds of visitors and all of the population of the Monterey Peninsula, we can still find completely empty stretches of coastline just minutes from our house.  I do admit that our favorite haunt is hardly what one thinks of when one thinks “beach.”  As I say, the beach itself consists mostly of a jumble of tide-smoothed rocks.  For us, that’s another of its draws.  Cleo has developed a mountain goat-like sure-footedness as she runs atop the rocks, pausing to stick her nose between them and snork in a fascinating scent.  There is a small open patch of sand, except during the very highest tides, where she loves to run at top speed, circling around us, feinting and doubling back, charging in to tag us, then flying out for another exuberant circle. 

Her absolute favorite activity, though, is boulder climbing.  Just off the beach are huge, craggy granite monoliths.  Sometimes they are completely cut off by crashing waves, and then the three of us gaze into tide pools and wonder at the sea anemones, the tiny fish, the hermit crabs.  When the tide is all the way out, we can walk to the granite giants and climb to the top point where we take in the Bay spread out before us and breath the air that has not encountered a human being for over five thousand miles.

The other day, we were at the halfway stage: The tide was coming in, but hadn’t yet completely cut off the granite boulders.  However, it hadn’t gone so far out at the last ebb that the tide pools had emptied.  They were deep enough that John and I didn’t trust ourselves to pick our way over the partially submerged and decidedly slippery rocks to get to the boulders.  Lower to the ground and with four legs to give her confidence, Cleo didn’t share our caution.  She started out across the tide pool.  Hm, a little too deep.  Veer right for a shallower path.  Over and up she went, scampering to the highest point.  She regarded us over her shoulder, looking perplexed.  “Why aren’t you guys following?”  With an almost perceptible shrug, she began to pick her way along the boulder, following her nose.  Waves crashed on the far side, the spray flying straight up towards the sky.  Cleo sniffed on.  In my mind’s eye I pictured a rogue wave sweeping up the far side of the boulder and dragging my girl off the rock and out into the Bay.  “That’s far enough!” I called to her.  She turned to look at us.  John whistled to her.  She wheeled and bounded back the way she had come, plunging confidently, if barely in control, down the side of the boulder and leaping for a rock in the middle of the tide pool.  Either she misjudged the distance of the rock or the depth of the water, because she belly-flopped into the tide pool.  Completely unconcerned, she pulled herself onto the rocks and presented herself at our feet, excitedly spraying water in all directions.

Born of a line that sprang from Northumberland to a family living in Texarkana and transported across the country to become so completely at home on the Central Coast of California.  What a wonderful thing it is to be so adaptable.

Here's video corroboration!