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.