"One can't say how life is, how chance or fate deals with people, except by telling the tale."
May 31, 1971
"Don't accept your dog's admiration as conclusive evidence that you are wonderful."
"Any woman who does not thoroughly enjoy tramping across the country on a clear frosty morning with a good gun and a pair of dogs does not know how to enjoy life."
"Dogs feel very strongly that they should always go with you in the car, in case the need should arise for them to bark violently at nothing right in your ear."
"A dog doesn't care if you're rich or poor, big or small, young or old. He doesn't care if you're not smart, not popular, not a good joke-teller, not the best athlete, nor the best-looking person. To your dog, you are the greatest, the smartest, the nicest human being who was ever born. You are his friend and protector."
"You ask of my companions. Hills, sir, and the sundown, and a dog as large as myself that my father bought me. They are better than human beings, because they know but do not tell."
"The great pleasure of a dog is that you may make a fool of yourself with him and not only will he not scold you, but he will make a fool of himself too."
"Dogs don't know about beginnings, and they don't speculate on matters that occurred before their time. Dogs also don't know—or at least don't accept—the concept of death. With no concept of beginnings or endings dogs probably don't know that for people having a dog as a life companion provides a streak of light between two eternities of darkness."
Throughout my life, there has been one constant: dogs. I've had good dogs, neurotic dogs, silly dogs, dumb dogs, and great dogs—but they all shared one thing in common: They each taught me something. My two Rhodesian ridgebacks, Nairobi and Sheila, were my finest teachers. Perhaps these two dogs had such a profound effect on me because of timing. I had raised two sons alone; one was already in college, and my youngest had that faraway—Yay! College! Freedom!—look in his eye.
I believe I had the same look in my eye—at least the freedom part—but I am a nurturer at heart. When suddenly there wasn't a child relying on me for guidance, coaching, love, and affection, it was unsettling.
Enter the ridgebacks.
Though these dogs needed my love, care, and instruction, for the first time in my life I was fully able to listen to what they had to share with me.
I finally had the time to experience the extraordinary nature of dogs—and the good judgment to incorporate their practical wisdom into my life.
More specifically, my dogs were ridgebacks. Rhodesian ridgebacks are the breed of dog closest to my understanding of people; they're independent and stubborn. Bred in South Africa to track lions and to guard family farms and ranches, they are both aggressive protection animals and lazy hounds that like to nap in the sun. Ridgebacks are a bit of a conundrum; dutiful and reliable, they can also be quite silly and impulsive. One thing they are not is compliant. Their personalities remind me of intractable middle managers or headstrong artists. Ask them to sit and they will stare at you in return. It won't be an aggressive look. It's more—thoughtful.
Sit? Really? Are you sure that's what you want?
In that moment before the ridgeback sits—or doesn't—you are looking into the eyes of an animal that needs to decide for itself whether he or she wants to sit for you.
I can relate to that look. I have a lot in common with my ridgebacks. How interesting, then, that our obstinate, autonomous "pack" ended up in dog agility—the one sport where stubbornness isn't an asset and independence will get you nowhere.
When I told a friend one day that I couldn't meet for coffee because I had an agility class, there was a long pause before he finally asked, "Why? Are you stiff ?"
Having ridden horses throughout my life, agility seemed exactly like a hunter jumper course, the difference being that you run beside the dog instead of sitting on the horse. Since control over the dog is limited to voice and hand signals (no leashes), the burden is on the relationship between dog and handler. At its best, when dog and handler are working in concert, the experience of teamwork can be extraordinary. It can be a total high when it goes well. When it goes badly, it's awful—like dancing with a partner who keeps stepping on your toes.
Here's a description of agility from the United States Dog Agility Association:
Dog agility is a competitive sport that tests a person's skills in training and handling of dogs over a timed obstacle course. Competitors race against the clock as they direct their dogs to jump hurdles, scale ramps, burst through tunnels, traverse a see-saw and weave through a line of poles in an obstacle course configuration designed to challenge a handler's competitive and training skills. With scoring based on faults similar to equestrian show jumping, dog agility has become an exciting spectator event.
Okay, that's the technical description. But honestly, this can be a hilarious sport when things go awry on the course. There is nothing funnier than watching red-faced women and men chase their dogs, crash into obstacles, and stumble into inelegant falls. Sometimes the dog goes one way, the handler another, and they stare at one another across the field—both looking surprised and confused. How did you get over there?
The dogs, for their part, give their owners perplexed looks if they're sent in the wrong direction, and look equally perplexed—even hurt—if handlers act frustrated or lose their tempers. "Isn't this supposed to be fun?" the dogs seem to be asking.
Yes. It's supposed to be fun. But it only gets fun when you get good at it or at least get used to accepting failure and surrendering to the joy that can be found in the sheer effort of trying. To excel at agility you need to be kind, patient, clear-headed, and fairly self-deprecating. If anything goes wrong, which it usually does, it's your responsibility. The dog is just following directions.
I ended up in dog agility partly because I wanted to have some fun with my young, spirited dog Nairobi. Though I wasn't conscious of it at the time, it was also an escape from a complex romantic relationship that was dominating my life. On the surface, everything was fine; my advertising agency was flourishing, I had begun work on a novel, and I was in a committed relationship with my boyfriend, Henry. But something was off. My big love was turning out to be smaller than I'd hoped for. I didn't see it—I felt it. Too many arguments, breakups, and strained silences had accumulated between us. I was frustrated, restless, but I ignored my feelings. When I did focus on what was happening between Henry and me, I simply vowed to try harder. I forged on. I overrode my instincts.
Then I met my teacher, Irina, and things unfolded quite differently than I'd planned.
Irina: renowned agility handler and teacher, Eastern European, funny, experienced, well-traveled, a bit of a philosopher, compassionate, loving in a tough-love way, completely in tune with dogs—slightly wary of humans. Irina was always very nice to my dogs. "Nice" isn't the word I'd choose to describe her interactions with me, but I matured under her constant challenges to my misconceptions about animals, myself, and the people in my life. She taught me more than dog-handling skills, more than just how to understand the animals under my care and be a more responsible pet owner—she helped me form a blueprint for the right way to live.
For five years, I studied and practiced the sport of dog agility. I began with Nairobi when he was a year-and-a-half, and when his five-month-old cousin, Sheila, joined our family, she began training with us when she was mature enough. I don't enjoy competition so we never competed in the sport. We just studied together. We're still studying. Both dogs have thrived. And so have I, though as I occasionally fall hard in the dirt or chase after one or the other of the dogs that has taken off after a squirrel, I'd say I'm still learning.
I'm making a "good effort," Irina would say.
Classes began around Nairobi and Sheila—two wonderfully different and complex dogs—but as time went on, it occurred to me that I was the one being trained.
Bit by bit, the dogs trained me.
Class after class, Irina trained me.
The parallels between what I was teaching the dogs and what I was learning about myself became too clear to ignore. As I tried to understand how dogs think or how they're motivated, I began to admire the utilitarian simplicity of a dog's life. Clearly, they had a lot to teach me about living simply, with deep enjoyment, and acceptance. And in my conversations with Irina, I began a journey of self-discovery and self-mastery that would impact every area of my life.
Agility became a metaphor for life.
Obstacles became challenges to overcome.
Handling my dogs became a test for my strength, commitment, bravery, and creativity as a person.
Dog behavior became a guide for following my instincts and using my common sense.
Training my dogs became a way to train myself to become a confident, assured leader, and to assume the position of the alpha dog in my own life—to follow my own lead.
Know Your Dog
To excel in dog agility, you have to know your dog—his personality, limitations, and motivation.
In reality, it's fairly easy to know a dog. A dog already knows who he is.
People are a bit more complicated. We often disguise our nature—even to ourselves.
At the beginning of a new chapter in life, you don't have enough information to truly assess how a potential experience might affect your day-to-day life or impact your future. But that has never stopped me from trying. Whether it was having children, falling in love with a complex, difficult man, or bringing a dog into my life, I began the process with tremendous enthusiasm—and very big dreams.
When my boys were born, my imagination ran wild. This child is uniquely gifted! He'll play the violin, excel in sports, and go to Stanford! But every child is a complete unknown, a mystery; you can hardly imagine who that child is or will become—and how that child will change you.
As my sons grew, and I began to know and understand them, my fantasies about who they would become simply faded into memory. I deferred to their natures; I accepted that they were completely—and authentically—themselves.
They did prove to be uniquely gifted—just not on the violin.
When I first began dating Henry, I was swept away with the sheer romance of "us." Our relationship was madly passionate, and I believed our love was destined for greatness. We'll both write best-selling novels, move to Europe, and host fascinating dinner parties! We'll speak fluent French and Italian! As our relationship developed, though, there were signs that my vision of our potential was highly exaggerated. Whatever wonderful qualities we had as individuals, as a couple, we were nowhere near wonderful.
I showed good sense when it came to accepting my sons true selves, but with Henry, I stubbornly held fast to my original idea of who I thought he was—or wanted him to be.
But you can't ever fathom what a relationship will come to mean to you. You can't see the end at the beginning.
You can only have the experience.
I HAD BIG DREAMS FOR every dog I've owned, too. We' ll take long hikes together, embark on amazing adventures! I'll train these dogs perfectly!
This was especially true of my Rhodesian ridgebacks, Nairobi and Sheila.
But every cute puppy is also a complete unknown. And you can hardly imagine what that dog will become, or how that dog will change you.
The only thing you can be sure of is that it will be an adventure.
A DOG SHOW AND SHOWING-UP ARE TWO VERY DIFFERENT THINGS
Before I started dog agility, I made a short, awkward detour into the dog show world. All the littermates of my young dog, Nairobi—who was just over a year old—were beginning to rack up their American Kennel Club championship points, and my breeder put the pressure on to start showing Nairobi.
Competition makes me anxious, but having my dog judged was even harder to contemplate.
And frankly, I had good reason to be insecure about submitting Nairobi to the scrutiny of the AKC judges.
My dog had a very big flaw.
In most respects, Nairobi is a perfectly formed, beautiful example of a Rhodesian ridgeback. He has a deep red coat, one white paw, and a white-and-black spotted chest, which is permissible in the AKC definition of the breed. He's a compact, muscular male, not huge, but breed standard with a perfect ridge running down his back. He happens to have a goofy personality, but that shouldn't disqualify him from anything. What set him apart were his ears. When he was about six months old, his ears started to "sprout" (a kind description)—outward. Most ridgebacks have long, smooth ears that lay flat to the head, but occasionally a puppy will be born with unruly ears—like Nairobi's. I didn't realize I was supposed to tape his ears under his snout so that they would grow properly. By the time my breeder told me about the taping, Nairobi's ears had already done a pretty good job of growing outward, so that when he cocked his head, the sight resembled the cornette that Sally Fields wore as the title character on the television show The Flying Nun. I tried taping, but it was too late, and honestly, the whole process reminded me of Chinese foot binding. I wasn't all that into it. As a result, Nairobi's ears took on a life of their own. My breeder advised me to have him wear a special hat that would help correct the problem, but one look at his miserable face, and I decided that Nairobi's ears would just have to be his unique attribute. Still, every time I saw his ears take flight, my heart sank. It was like the first time one of my sons wasn't liked or accepted, or wasn't deemed as successful as his peers. From preschool to high school, I'd fought the competitive mother syndrome. I tried to resist both the impulse to brag when my kids accomplished something and the feeling of shame when my kids exhibited any deficits. To a certain degree I succeeded with my children, but here I was with my dog, caught up in the same kind of competitive pressure. It's a character-defining moment when you accept that your child isn't perfect, yet you still have the will to encourage the best in them.
And it's a character-defining moment when you realize that your dog has ears that make him look like the Flying Nun.
So, ears and all, I bucked-up and enrolled Nairobi in a handler class to prepare for our first show. The class was held in a parking lot deep in the San Fernando Valley. It was close to sunset when we arrived, and when Nairobi and I got out of the car, we were faced with ten gorgeous Rhodesian ridgebacks and their owners. Nairobi lifted his head up, sniffed the air, and then bounded excitedly toward the group. These ridgebacks, on the other hand, had self-control; they didn't look at one another let alone the leaping young dog trying to get their attention.
The trainers began the class by explaining the basics of handling in the show ring. I'd watched my fair share of Westminster dog shows, and I honestly didn't think it looked that hard.
Piece of cake, I thought.
I watched as the ridgebacks and their owners trotted around in a circle, one-by-one. I thought they looked good, but they weren't even close to Nairobi. My pride swelled; he was much more talented than the other dogs! Then it was our turn. Suddenly, butterflies swirled in my stomach. My palms were sweaty. Nairobi pranced in anticipation. After a few good steps, he broke into a run, leapt happily at the other dogs sitting calmly in a circle, and jumped up to kiss me on the face, smashing his skull into my cheekbone.
Tears sprang to my eyes from the pain, but I kept on. I felt like an utter fool. Worse, my happy dog was completely oblivious. I was filled with shame—and appropriately mortified when I recognized that feeling.
We barely made one round of the circle before the trainer called out: "Okay, Carol! That's good for a first try. Take a rest."
We slunk back into the crowd of ridgebacks.
Next up, "stacking": this is where the dog is supposed to plant two front feet under its shoulder, extend its back legs, hold its head up—and freeze. I got Nairobi into the perfect position—four legs perfectly organized —and then he moved his front leg half an inch. I leaned down to put the foot back into place, and his back leg shifted. I put his back leg into position, and he moved his front leg. I straightened up for a moment and checked out the other dogs; they were stacked perfectly, like statues.
I leaned down again to get Nairobi into position, and in response, he turned and gave me a big wet slurp: This is fun!
I spent the rest of the class in a bent-over position adjusting Nairobi's legs.
WE ATTENDED THREE HANDLING CLASSES altogether, and each one was as bad as the first. I felt alternately anxious, awkward, and competitive—and absolutely silly for feeling that way. I chatted to a few of the owners after classes, and they tried to be supportive, but it was clear to everyone, including myself, that Nairobi and I were really quite awful at this.
Nairobi, for his part, thought the classes were great. He expressed his nature effortlessly: exuberant, joyful, energetic, and free of self-consciousness. And he treated every class like date night. He'd stare longingly at the female dogs in class, trying to seduce them, and puff himself up to stare down and intimidate the rival males.
Unfortunately, if he didn't learn how to stack properly, Nairobi would never get a chance with the saucy ridgeback girls. They could only mate with males making their AKC championship points. At the rate we were going, we'd be lucky to accrue a polite goodbye, let alone points. I didn't have the heart to break it to him.
WHEN IT CAME TIME FOR our first dog show, I was nervous. I tried talking some sense into myself. This is just a dog show, Carol. There's absolutely nothing to worry about.
It didn't work.
The only comfort was that Nairobi's ears seemed under control that day. In fact, he looked quite beautiful; his coat was glossy red, his temperament frisky and playful. I adored him and felt quite proud.
I met my breeder at the show, and she was all business, giving me last-minute instructions, and offering some insight into the dog show process. Nairobi seemed overjoyed to see so many dogs, but all I saw were dog owners sizing him up, calculating whether he would be serious competition.
Ha! Just wait until we get to stacking.
Nairobi and I entered the ring along with the other dogs and their handlers. My mind went blank. Competition of any kind affects me that way. I took a deep breath, but I caught the disapproving eye of my breeder in the crowd.
I immediately stopped breathing.
The judge directed us to trot in a circle, and we all set off in formation.
So far so good.
Without warning, Nairobi suddenly tugged hard against the leash, which snapped under the strain. There was a collective gasp as Nairobi ran playfully up to every ridgeback in the ring, greeting them with enthusiasm. The handlers were horrified, the dogs ignored Nairobi—but he was undeterred. With a crazed, wide-eyed expression, he then ran toward the horrified judge, jumped up, and planted a wet tongue kiss on her face. A few people laughed as I grabbed Nairobi's collar and dragged him out of the ring.
My face turned bright red, but I didn't have the heart to be mad at him. He was just a silly, funny dog—who made me look ridiculous. I have some pride, and I did feel uncomfortable, but I didn't miss the humor in the situation.
Get over yourself, Carol.
My breeder was kind about the incident, but I could see that she was disappointed. I was just relieved it was over—and vaguely hopeful that our failure would translate to a reprieve from the show ring.
As I drove home with Nairobi fast asleep in the back of the car, I started to frame our dog show fiasco into a story. It was funny. Really funny. Henry was going to love it.
"Maybe you should try agility," the trainers suggested, encouragingly over the phone. "It will help Nairobi mature."
I'd only seen agility competitions on television—those funny exhibitions on Animal Planet where dogs jump over fences, weave through poles, and race through tunnels—and the sport appeared to involve true teamwork between dog and handler. It wasn't about dominance nor was it about obedience; instead it involved working side-by-side with an animal to achieve a goal. The dogs looked like they were having a blast and, unlike the control required for show dogs, agility dogs looked, and acted, a little wild and crazy.
I liked the idea. A lot.
Agility sounded like us.
The process of getting to know your dog can set off a chain reaction of personal introspection: Who am I? What's my true character? What kinds of work, play, or people suit me? What do I stand for? What's holding me back from happiness?
But asking the questions is a whole lot easier than answering them.
"How was the dog show?" Henry asked a few nights later while we were having a glass of wine in his kitchen—dinner simmering fragrantly on the stove. The connection between us felt liquid: warm, exciting—filled with anticipation and promise.
"Imagine this scene," I began. "We're surrounded by perfectly behaved dogs. Nairobi has his nose up, sniffing—a big dog-smile on his face. I was nervous, but I was trying to stay focused as we entered the ring—glances all around as everyone checked out the competition."
Henry's lips turned up in a small smile. He was entertained. I loved that.
"So," I continued, "the judge, a lovely, dignified woman wearing a conservative dress, pearls, and blazer, walks into the ring and tells us to proceed in a circle."
I could feel Henry's enjoyment of this story. It was a high for me, these moments when I could paint a picture that pleased him.
"We start trotting around, and Nairobi starts leaping. I try to settle him down, but I don't know, he just kept picking up speed—and snap! The leash broke and he was off !"
Henty gave a low chuckle.
"I'm chasing him like an idiot; he's whirling away from me, enjoying the attention, scampering and jumping around like a happy rabbit, and then he headed straight for the judge! He jumped up and kissed her on the face!"
There was a big smile on Henry's face.
"It was so embarrassing—and I felt awful for the judge. She must have been scared for a minute. But Nairobi was so pleased with his performance—he acted like he'd won best in show!"
We enjoyed a warm moment of laughter together before Henry announced with finality, "Well, that's the end of your dog show career."
"For the moment," I answered, bristling at the way he'd assumed control of my decision. His response felt like ice on my hot skin. It was one thing for me to give up hopes for Nairobi in the show ring; it was a whole other thing for Henry to proclaim it.
"But I do think we're going to try dog agility," I added, perhaps with a bit of challenge in my tone. "My handling trainers suggested it."
"What's agility?" Henry asked, frowning.