02 March 2016

What it is: Team Small Dog goes to the dog show in 4 acts.

A thing you get with dog shows is a shrink wrapped weekend cocoon. Wrap yourself up in plastic, suck the air out, and stay tightly enclosed in dog. No matter if you had to stay up past midnight the night before, doing the wash so the best stripy shirt and lucky charm underpants are available. Packing the fifty seven things you might possibly need for just two days even though it's not exactly a far flung wilderness you're heading into, the dollar store strip mall's under 4 minutes away. Packing might be a loose term, items flung on the car floor under the dirty sneakers and probably you forgot the dog treats. But you did manage two flashlights, a decorative plastic bear and a paperback book about found street art in Indian signage. Alarm gets set for the earliest number possible and there's waking up in the middle of the night thinking you forgot to set the alarm and then waking up in the middle of the night again which is now known as the morning. There's a skunk in the driveway when the dogs need to get in the car, and finally you drive through the night, officially morning but actually, night, for a couple quiet hours, to get there by seven am sharp, the start time for your different life.

The different life might be soggy and dirty and dusty and muddy and hot and clammy. Sometimes all of the above and possibly even sweatier than the regular life. Who cares, though, because every time you go, this time you get a fresh chance to start over, a try again square one do over every time you arrive.

Is it fun? I think so, but actually I'm not really sure. This is a weird but true fact of dog shows. Trials, to be exact, but that sounds so seriously black robed and scowly and definitely not fun. Both have judges, in both you have something to prove. So there you go. Fun? They're like a vacuum suction, hard to get out of it once you're in, but not an altogether unpleasant sensation.

It isn't just the titles or the qualifiers or the tremendous fame brought about by coming in second in Masters Jumpers on a random Sunday morning in somebody else's hometown that has a Target and a taqueria pretty much exactly like the ones you just left. Not the chance to toss a hefty chunk of change straight down the money toilet, even with a Steeplechase win where President Grant smiles up at you for a few brief moments before getting pawned off at the gas station on the way home, with just enough left over for a travel mug refill of caffeine from the Starbucks girl who has the exact same dark brown haircut as the last one, to stave off the sleepies in the traffic jam ahead. Ten cents discount for the travel mug that smells like rancid soy milk from all those long sunny days where you left it curdling under the seat.

If it was all about fun, I guess there'd be less festering porta potties and thigh bruises from dragging around heavy stuff and getting stuck listening to some crazytalk Trump voting Republican tell you about her dog's pooping habits. It's not all sparkling chunks of diamonds and gold dust glittering in the sun out there on the field. Less fallout from the inevitable emotional upchuck that tends to happen when you don't tend to your mind as carefully as you should.

This is a thing I think I've finally grown out of, the emo that can happen. Mostly. Dog agility is a lot of bruised innards sloshing around out there, all the ladies and just a few dudes shoved together for two days, brushing shoulders and shedding hormones, all in the name of running the dogs. Passionate devotion can unleash sensitive emotions, turning them loose like a wildfire sparked by fireworks that someone drove all the way to Nevada to procure, just to be able to set them off in the street in front of my house. Friggin' loud and all you need is one spark in a shabby neighborhood of drought dead shrubs to send the whole place up in flames.

You know how it goes. Who said what to whom say what? For the most part, I usually keep my head down in the dirt or up in the clouds. Maybe perk up an ear for some juicy little gossip tidbit now and again. I like to whistle to myself the cheerful little motto that's taken me a while to figure out. When I whistle it bluebirds sit on my finger. Nobody really cares about you. Which is true. Although they may not care just enough to make a little remark in overhearing distance or even to your face, that due to the hormones or who you were in a past life or just that you didn't have a healthy breakfast that was at least 40% protein based, stabs a little deeper than it really should.

Did you really just say that? I'm my own biggest critic. Don't shit where you eat. This is supposed to be fun.

Fun 1.0

A long time ago, Team Small Dog having just begun, I was driving home from the dog show, after something tragic had happened in a run. Tragedy as in a first world problem, dog lady kind of tragedy. We were raw at this agility thing, and Ruby had run amuck in Steeplechase, it was the second round, it was a Regional, and everyone was watching, there were spectators cheering and something happened. I got nervous, she got nervous, it was hot out and late out, in the burning sun at the end of the day and her life force shut down inside the weave poles. This was my big global problem of the day. Something made my dog sad. I was driving and moping, and the radio announced that the crocodile hunter, John Irwin, had just died, pierced through the heart with the barb of a deadly stingray.

What doesn't kill you makes you stronger. So then I'm sobbing for the Crocodile Hunter and his family in their khaki jumpsuits and bouncy hair, and how I'd never see him again jumping up and down about the wallabees or wrestling a giant snake, and sobbing for me because I loved this agility thing so much, I tried so hard to make it go all right and then this fiasco thing would happen sometimes, no guts, no glory, no happy ending.

I'd have another chance, and the Crocodile Hunter wouldn't. You get that, in your different life, a chance for a do-over the very next weekend. Except for Ruby's old now, can't hear, can't see, follows us around tethered to a long piece of line so I don't lose her in the woods. You only get so many turns, in your different life.

Fun 2.0

Otterpop used to do all right. She's won medals and floofy ribbons and a plaque that's stuffed away under the bed. Maybe not always stellar but at least she was predictable. Sometimes slow off the start when she felt all eyes upon her then off like if not a rocketship, at least a really fast moped with a methed up punker at the helm once she got in that first tunnel. We could discuss the whys at length, pour me a tall one and I'll tell you about it some night after we run the last run and sit around the campfire in the sagebrush. Like the time at USDAA Nationals when Otterpop had a pretty good run in the Semi Final Round of Grand Prix. Not our best, not our worst, just pretty good. Maybe would have been a winner back at home, at a trial in some field deep in the central valley, near a Starbucks full of those girls with the exact same dark brown haircut. But we'd flown to this one, the both of us on an airplane. I bought a suitcase with little wheels.

It wasn't even on sale.

This one run, I almost sent her off course until I pulled my head out of my ass and wrangled a save. Otterpop, she'd do anything for me. But still, just pretty good. When they announced the cut of who goes to finals, I ran over to the paper to see, no, I sauntered so as not to look too anxious. I'm cool like that, dig? I waited in the back of the pack of the little dog people, the people with the corgis and jack russels and yorkies and fluffy little stubby legs, did we make it?

We were clear after all, there was a chance of making into the finals. Finals with a capital F. It's the red carpet moment of big dog shows.

There it was. Right there on the results, displayed unceremoniously, some sheets of printer paper taped to a folding table set up on the dirt. We were the next one, just below the line. Number one of almost making it in. Super close and thanks for playing. Exit through the gift shop.

My face knew how to look cool. Whatever. This is how these things go. Failure's the stepping stone to success. I heart that quote so much, so much that I want to eat it up and never, ever poop it out, I want it to live forever in my stomach bile and dissipate through my bloodstream and ooze out of my pores. It is so mine. In my heart, I could feel that stingray tail shove in John Belushi samurai style. If only I'd done better we would have run at night with people cheering and an announcer and gotten the special shirt to wear. A really ugly special shirt, one in regular life one I'd never, ever wear again because of it's high level of unflattering fit and color and fabric. No redeeming qualities to that special shirt other than being, the special shirt. A chance for a giant gold cup that would end up shoved under the bed and standing on the podium for flashbulb lights. But no chance now.

This kind of tragedy can be diverted with a nice walk out in the grass, in a cool breeze with a frisbee and some barking, it kicks in, the we'll come back and try again, another day, another time. Maybe not with Otterpop, her legs didn't have that many runs in them. Now her spine has sharp patches that make her scream if she runs too hard or jumps too high. But another time for me. I'm the one that signed us up for this.

Fun 3.0

When Gustavo had a fiasco run, I mean the worst, definitely the worst, the trauma used to spout out of my nose and eyeballs, red splatter trauma, the only good thing that at least it wasn't projectile barfing on the leash lady over there as I came out of the ring. Let's say it was with Gustavo and wow did that Masters Challenge course look challenging but it's what we've been preparing for and practicing and training for, and then we got to jump number three and a lady who ran a few moments ago with her poodle, little poodle bangs held back with some rainbow hair ties, she's awarded the poodle a stack of meaty bones out of a adorable little cooler that are within sniffing distance of jump three and that's it. Gustavo's out of the ring and to the meaty bones which are being consumed under a score table so there's a bit of a ruckus as I rush over and dive under the table where scorers are quickly tabulating numbers on the score sheets.

Gustavo's will just read, E. No Time. Elimination. All day, the anticipation of this run, reading it on the course map, talking about it with the colleagues, walking it, thinking it, then a poodle with a pony tail and some bones, that was it. All done and over, before it hardly even began.

How many times does this happen? In my case, so many. A lot. Chalk it up to bad training, funny dog, shit happens. Gustavo, who runs away in a crazy zig zag pattern involving a couple freebie tunnels not even in the course, until I air traffic control him, light sabers in hand waving wildly, over to the exit gate.

It can be something about the poles. Or the teeter. Or the table. A tarp that's blowing in the breeze. There's a 50/50 chance that crazyland can happen out there. Which is a 50% chance that it won't. So the odds are better than a lottery ticket from the liquor store across the street or most Kentucky Derbies.

Oh that table. Not so nice to lay down on, much cozier to spin in a couple circles before hiding underneath.

Sometimes it's just the vibe. One spot where we compete, we spend a day parked in the dirt, backed up to a rotting trash pile behind a mobile home park where a chihuahua pack holds court from a pile of plastic bottles and we see spooky little kids peer out of dirty windows covered with flowery poly-blend sheets. Where Gustavo cannot tread near one end of the arena. A few times in his life, he's made it past the spook zone, but most of the times, most runs of his life on that field, he recoils in terror, or occasionally just stops dead in his tracks, looking at the sky or the wall or whatever he sees, communing in his mind with some mother ship that only he can see.

It used to be, this kind of thing sent me running back to the parking lot and the privacy of my front seat, where I could sniffle and fume and bang my head against the steering wheel. So much hard work. So much! We've trained for distractions like this. But not hard enough or not good enough, because, This. Time after time, the course is thwarted at jump 3. Or 5. Or 7. Or wherever. With what feels like a hundred voodoo glow skulls watching, all staring in judgement at Why. Why does she run that dog? They never even get around. Hardly ever. I would say, equal parts poor Gooey, equal part the hard work gone down the drain, and equal part wondering, did everybody see that? Now they think i'm a Loser, the kind with a capital L. That lady who said something about it, either to be kind in a middle school, tight pants girl sorority kind of way or maybe to just fill up an awkward blank space, her off the cuff comment went down my gullet like a handcuffed lobster before it got boiled alive.

Here's what the life coach would say. You can find them on the internet, everybody's a life coach these days. Maybe I can be yours. She'll say it with really tasteful yet chunky accessories and a flattering neckline. Always good hair on those ladies, same kind of mousse as all those girls that work at Starbucks. Her advice, I can see it printed out now on an inspirational poster with seahorses or a mysterious snowy vista that has a little stone dwarf house off in the distance.

You so worried that they think you're a loser? Get over it. There's no they. It's just you. Ego's the alien growing in your chest cavity that's gonna pop out and eat Sigourney Weaver's face unless she blasts it first with the flamethrower. And you're the Ripley here. Nobody really cares about you except you.

A fact that's easy to forget in the moment, until you practice it and get used to it. There's the train, don't complain thing. There's your fun. I'm the only one who cares that we just faced disaster. Again as in, first world problem dog agility disaster. Here in the different life, the one we thought we were escaping all the shit that happens in the regular life. No cops shooting kids here, nobody's building an anti-Muslim, anti-rapist border wall, sea level isn't rising at the dog show. Just a few hours of different, that's all I wanted.

It diffuses pretty fast, because Gustavo's the cutest, sweetest, little dog you'll ever meet. His fur is really soft, and he has little white rings around his eyeballs, like a creature invented by Wes Anderson that's emblazoned on rain boots and desert plates and stuff you'd buy at an organic kids clothing store in France. He has a tremendous terror of coyotes that keeps him safe in the forest where also many shapes of tree stumps horrify him and stop him in his tracks. He suffers a medical condition that sends ammonia through his bloodstream, where it does funny things if it gets to his brain. He gets medicine for it, and became a vegetarian. He doesn't see ghosts anymore, officially. But he does, sort of. It's just him. He's the kind of dog that even if I was weeping because I can't figure out how to get him to be good at agility, I can pick him up and sigh into his fur and it smells like grass and begonias and the expensive kind of wheat bread, and he gives me a tiny kiss and would like to stay in my lap all day.

This is during the different life, just you and your dogs. It's the uplifting life, the non clinically depressed one, the gum exposing ear to ear giant white stripped teeth grin one, the one with bouncy hair and a tight ass and an ankle that never hurts. Where everything is based on, you're going to run around this square with your dog as fast as you can and almost become like one animal together, one with six legs and two flabby arms and shared blood and one giant endorphin rushing brain. The fun life.

Fun 4.0

When I got a border collie, my thought was, maybe this dog show grayness would stay at bay. No glow skulls. No dead flowers sent by the U.S mail. Maybe a dog that comes pre-programmed with a work ethic, maybe this is the ticket to not dying a crocodile style death by stingray tail each and every leisure weekend. Maybe the problems could be occasional dropped bars or missed contacts, normal stuff like that. Maybe this would be like what it's supposed to feel like, this different life that so far, that's only existed in tiny little pieces, just enough to staple the heart tears shut each time they rupture open.

Banksy and me, we've not been trialing long enough to know. Will we feel the wind like champions, or is the different life still a magical unicorn quest, a holy grail made of clouds? Will her speed make up for our crash and burns? So far it's been humbling, to drive home from agility class where the theme of the night was missing all the contacts and barely making it through a sequence alive. I throw the shroud of dismal over my night and I wonder why I put so many rotten eggs in my agility basket on the late night drive back over the mountain, my wild once-a-week evening out on the town.

These days, the days of Fun 4.0, going to the dog show has devolved into more of a non event. Those special Motel 6 weekends are few and far between, special fancy treats for the competitor on a budget to stay the night in such a fine establishment as they are. The dogs sit in the car all day then get shoved into a smoky hotel room with hoseable laminate flooring where fancy ladies in leopard print shorts conduct business just outside the door. Where we'll barely sleep on the sheets we brought from home so as to avoid disease, where it's costing me $60 to not sleep and needing $8 worth of that Starbucks in the morning. I'll bring home a credit card receipt for a souvenir.

A weekend or two ago, I entered a Sunday for a trial at the field where Gustavo can see ghosts. I didn't pack anything. I set my alarm for 5, and jumped in the car with the dogs after making 2 travel mugs of plain old homemade coffee. Grabbed a banana on the way out the door. Drove straight into the sunrise past the shriveled almond trees and tin foil windows, past the taco trucks and se venden chivas, til we pull in just as the first course was being walked, everybody damp and sleepy in the tule fog that looms up from the ground.

The dogs slept in the car all day, and I waved at the kid who peered over her fence from the trailers that butt up into the dusty parking area, maybe wondering about all these white ladies with their yoga pants and oddly colored sneakers that pop from a mile away. All ball caps and pony tails and cheery voices chirping to their dogs. I suspect we all look and sound the same, all of us in our big comfy vehicles that fit the right amount of dog crates. I'm the one with somewhat of a limp, and a marginally clean shirt because I didn't feel like doing any laundry the night before.

We stayed there long enough for 4 or 5 runs, by the afternoon that 5am wakeup call was peeling off my brain cels and may have resulted in some really bonehead handling moves, hopefully none causing permanent damage to poor Banksy. I used to obsess on these, on the car ride home. Why didn't I do the rear cross? Now I just listen to LCD Soundsystem and sing along and dream up an alternate universe where money is no object and we really do have a campfire singalong in the sagebrush. The dogs don't care about anything, they snooze on their blankets and know that we'll probably stop at the beach pretty soon for a run. Off we go, driving back into the sunset, until we try again next time.

Really, not a bad day. I think it was fun. Regular life pushed out of the way for a few hours, while we were at the different one. And in a few weeks, we'll try again.

Was this fun? Here's more posts about fun in honor of Dog Agility Blog Action Day.


maryclover said...

Love the history. And yes it was fun. I too now have a pre-programmed, speedy, made for agility dog, Peyote, who humbles me on a weekly basis. We aren't close to trialling, aren't even close to fun matches, but I think we will continue to have fun.

Anonymous said...

Terrific writing!

Anonymous said...

when i used to participate, i thought they were aptly named trials. because EVERYONE seemed to think they were there to judge everyone else. i love agility, and it is fun to get in synch with your dog. too bad you have to go to trials to get to run interesting, challenging, fun courses!

Jenn said...

*Raises a glass*
Cheers to this. Well said!

Terry A said...

I so very much LOVE your writing, this captures the truth of what agility can be like more honestly than anything else I've ever read. And narrating the journey (yes, journey!) from being devastated to being able to sing along on the ride home and stop to play at the beach, just comforting and true.

Agility Foot said...

"...this different life that so far, that's only existed in tiny little pieces, just enough to staple the heart tears shut each time they rupture open." made me cry. Love your blog.

team small dog said...

I heart agility. Many of us can relate. Today it's raining and we couldn't go do some dogwalks and the hardest weave pole entries I could invent and that made me sad but then we went for a walk by the sea before work and that was a-ok, too.

Elf said...