18 December 2016

Running Dogwalk and the Brain Sickness

(originally published in Clean Run Magazine April, 2016)

I've never thought of myself as being particularly obsessive. I consider myself a normal, rational person with a sensible, gray station wagon who enjoys the company of dogs greatly. Greatly everywhere and greatly all the time. So greatly that I'm always greatly muddy with great amounts of cookies dribbling out my trouser pockets and that my fuel efficient compact wagon has no seats for humans due to all the dog crates. That's not obsessive, right? That's just dog lady? I know people who are obsessive. Maybe to the point of bordering on freaky. I may even have them living in my house. Obsessiveness is an extremely useful trait for things like pulling weeds. All the weeds. Really all the weeds. Even the teensy, tiniest ones that are barely visible to the human eye that haven't even sprouted yet, but will. Just you wait.

Lots of people have interests and hobbies that topple over to the dark side of the moon, the place where the freaky begins. Dogs do this for some of us, suck out the crazy, like a turkey baster deployed to extract the ooky bits out of a festering wound. That's when you find yourself explaining to the heavily tattooed and bearded checker at the grocery store intimate details about your dog's recent urinary tract infection. Because he said, "How's it going today?" In the throes of obsession, there might not be any editing.

The good news is, the obsessive mind blocks out all other things, and suctions itself like one of those giant lipped parasite worms to the actions required for producing a job more than well done. Done the best. Done with magnificence and flair. Even if it's just a quick tidy of the living room. And you have to leave for the airport. Twenty seven minutes ago. But the plastic owls and snow globe collection on the cabinet, so CLEAN. Gleaming like a surgical suite. Used a q-tip. And an extra bit of vacuuming done, too. Everywhere. Under all the things.

The bad news is, that plane might be leaving without you. But really, that's not me.

The dog crazy part, super easy to slip into, this is a thing I'll admit. I drag at least one dog along everywhere I go, perhaps scooped under an armpit or following along at my heels or stuffed into a totebag. My whole life is based around our walkies schedule and it pains me to wear clothes that aren't shorts with tennis ball sized pockets accessorized with tall green rainboots.

Not being obsessive, usually I'm more of a sloppy big picture type than detail oriented. Details are hard. I am broad, swooping spray can strokes sprawled on with a crazy, fluffy tail. I talk by waving my arms around, and change course mid way through conversations and projects. I even change course mid way through courses because my brain ran over there into the wrong side of the tunnel. My socks don't match and this doesn't even bother me.

Dog training's no doorbuster sale at the Dollar Store where you just barge around at top speed in those mismatched socks and throw all the sparklies into your basket. I try to use patience and follow all the steps, but they don't necessarily follow ordinal numbers like stacking cones, big numbers always on the bottom. I don't want to be like that. I really, really try. But there's a knack that my knickers just knick off.

That said, training a running dogwalk seemed like a really good idea at the time.

Maybe decided makes it sound like I gave it a great deal of prudent thought, lists of pros and cons carefully lined up in little columns on a spreadsheet until the running one had more line items than the stopped one. Interviewing each candidate up close and personal, the great partisan debate between running vs. stopped. A very first world problem to be worked out here, deliberating over whether the dog should run fast over the yellow bits, or stop on them with a minimum of one toe holding tight. I had been thinking about it, sort of. Maybe along the lines of, hoping Banksy had good contacts when she grew up and became a champion. Beyond that, perhaps a bit fuzzy round the edges, a blob of vaseline smeared on the lens of what they'd actually look like.

Also, I've never made a spreadsheet in my life. Isn't that what backs of receipts, tape, and sharpies are for?

Really what happened was that one of my friends, who incidentally has super long legs and is a very fast runner, was training her border collie puppy running contacts and she casually threw out, "You should teach Banksy to do a running dogwalk."

And I thought about it for a minute. "Naw. That would never work, she's too fast. I'd be totally screwed." I imagined myself trying to keep up with Banksy as she ran down the planks. Very tortoise and the hare and not in the charmingly illustrated fable telling metaphor kind of way where the tortoise is the colossal winner of all things based on it's slow, plodding gait. More like, the hare is kicking some serious tortoise ass there and leaving it in the dust. Bye bye says the bunny.

"Oh, come on. Just try it," she replied. "It'll be fun."

I thought of this for a minute. It kind of made sense, not having to teach those stupid stopping kind of contacts, two feet on and two feet off and always being irritated when the feet aren't lined up or stopped or whatever. And running contacts are just so cool. Everyone flying along and the dog sails over that yellow like a dangerous submarine missile and the judge is huffing and puffing to get up there to view it. Awesome!

I'm pretty easy. For no good reason other than it sounded rad, and rumor had it you got an a-frame for free in the deal, I changed my mind to ok. Really. That's all it took. In case you've been quandering this idea yourself.

So I signed up for an online class with my patron saint of running contacts, Silvia Trkman. And that was the beginning of the end.

Running dogwalks happened at a funny time in my life. Funny as in, code word for not really ha ha ha. My knee had crapped out and required surgery. Some monkey wrenches got thrown at my business and my business kind of tanked. My puppy was crazy some of the time. And I was turning fifty years old. My personal vision of being a successful twenty six year old who moves like a wrinkle free gazelle while dressed in little belly button exposing shirts was just that. A vision. A misty vapor from the past that could only come to life conjured up in a seance. Like the myth of skinny jeans. I'd turned old, couldn't run, was nearly unemployed and was having a hard time training my border collie.

But there was one thing I could do. Walk out on the field and throw the ball, and my dog would run. She'd run really fast up and over those planks and coming down the downhill ramp, she'd extend like a racehorse on the home stretch, and in that stretch she'd hit the yellow part of the plank with her feet.

This was something that was going to go right. Everything else might have been falling apart, but I was going to do this thing. Get these running contacts.

I think this is where I started down the rabbit hole. Falling and falling, just like Alice, into another dimension where nothing else matters except chasing a darn white rabbit. Talk about a tale fraught with confusing philosophical life themes. Darn white rabbit. DWR. You think it's a coincidence our code for running dogwalk is RDW?

I think not. The truth is out there.

Basically, the whole idea is pretty simple. All you have to do is make sure your dog remembers, while running full tilt warp speed over a skinny, shoulder high bridge, to touch some feet in the yellow colored rubber on the very end. You start with the dogwalk lowered down flat as a pancake, throw a ball to get your dog running really fast, and click the clicker at the exact moment they splat their feet on the yellow part. The thing is, you might have to do this 50 million times. With a whole bunch of very precise steps and increments. Without making errors. And figure out what to do when they don't hit the yellow part. Which is going to be a lot of the time.

It's hard to see, dog feet whizzing by like a Tesla stealth sedan on it's way back to the magic millionaire castle on Fantasy Island. Especially when you're caught behind in the dust. This fact means it's helpful to also become a cameraman and video editor of Oscar nominated excellence to see it on slo-mo playback. Or at least learn the digital editing skills that most toddlers are apparently born with now. So there was the procurement of a video camera and learning how to use it for the sole purpose of endlessly fascinating movies of slow motion dog running. How many little movies? 147 to date and still counting. Good film has a narrative arc, and the narrative here was, will the back feet hit the yellow this time? Will this be the time she splays her legs open in wild abandon and full extension, and lands them squarely in the middle of the contact zone? And will it happen in 5 strides?

You get the picture. This is niche entertainment not appealing to everyone. Only the obsessed.

I started going to work late. I don't have a yard and I was using up all my money renting dogwalk time from a friend. Up the mountain to her field I'd go, bright and early, ice, sun, rain, it didn't matter. And then speed home in time to edit the video and and study it carefully, posting it so that Silvia could take a look from the mothership in Slovenia. Silvia was the leader of what soon became clear was a bit of a cult. We had a secret language that was spoken only by the other RDW fans all around the world. My RDW buddies and I were like ship wreck survivors marooned on our island, swapping our stories of joy and failure, and ways to keep the planks from jiggling. Our planks that lived in a world traveler's dream of gardens, arenas, front yards, and snow covered fields, propped up on crates, sand bags, tables, chairs and chicken coops.

We all had the sickness, we were all enveloped into the coven, slurping the Kool-aid up with long, thirsty tongues. Because how else would we get our dogs running over that yellow zone with back feet hitting, most of the time?

It's not like I was a complete beginner at this. Gustavo has running contacts, and teaching him to run that dogwalk wasn't easy. The same routine, a lot of early mornings, stopping at a friend's field on the way to work and taking apart the dogwalk and putting it back together, breaking fingernails and really a lot of work for a few minutes of running. His isn't super consistent to this day, misses happen. And I know why. I know I skipped some steps. All those broken nails and bruised shins and showing up lates grew tiresome. Even though Gooey's fast, he's little, and what I've found is there's a huge difference between running him at top speed and a running a border collie sized torpedo twice as big. Think horn rimmed art school kid on a somewhat dangerous Vespa joyride vs. truly life threatening murderous crotch rocket biker in a skin tight leather crash suit coming up behind you in the rear view mirror. Coming up fast.

After my knee surgery, I hobbled around the field on my crutches. My training buddies and I compared feet separation notes via texts that looked spy code corrupted by smiley face heart emoji virus. We poured over Silvia's advices. I memorized the training DVD and started to speak with a Slovenian accent. I'd stay up late watching my classmates from other countries run their dogs in slow motion on youtube. Gyoooowhoawhoawhoa Gyoooowhoawhoawhoa Gyoooowhoawhoawhoa was normal background music in my living room, because the slow motion playback of my super original dogwalk word, Go Go Go sounds like drunk evil spirits satanically flushing goats up up from their graves. I killed my borrowed video camera from overuse and missing training days caused painful withdrawal symptoms like headache and bloating. All this while raising the planks 11cm after every 3 successful sessions of 80% excellent hits.

There were missteps. The era of the front foot hits, the equivalent of mixing cocktails with bottom shelf liquor. Vaguely barfy. The time I panicked and tried to train a stop. Think Van Halen and the Dead Kennedys when they switched singers. Not like replacing a drummer. Just a bad idea for so many reasons. Any ill timed clicking caused poor Banksy's eyeballs to spin out of her skull. What a mess. But we persevered. My knee doctor shook his head. I spent more time online with Slovenia than I did trying to rebuild my business. Because who wants to go to work when you could be training dogwalks?

It's been about a year now, that I've had this sickness. I may admit to obsession. I managed to find time to train other things useful for dog agility, stuff like jumps and handling and weave poles and a start line stay. Maybe I got the brain sickness for some of those, too. We've even put the running dogwalk to use in real life, competing in a handful of trials. Where the very first thing I do is find a course map to study the dogwalk approach and exit jump strategy. Which sometimes entails an emergency text back to the mothership. Call to hand or collection turn?

It's still very much a work in progress. There are good days and bad days. It has a mind of it's own, this thing. On the bad days, I drag my gloomy cloud around behind me seeing sea levels rising everywhere and the demise of civilization as we know it. Hopefully, nobody asks how my day's going, because the answer could be terrifying. "Ugh. My dog's leaping off the plank on stride 4 because she's looking over at me." The horror of it all.

But on the good days? When I send her into that tunnel and take off running, yelling, "Go Go Go!" over my shoulder and my damaged tortoise legs pump as fast as they can, trying to beat her to the end? And I see her back feet hit the yellow just right, and she sails along to the next obstacle like it's something she's done a million times? Absolutely magnificent. A priceless artifact of truth and beauty. Wouldn't trade it for all the black dogs on Led Zeppelin IV. Elation is the only word when things go right.

I'll watch the video that night on my computer, hitting replay over and over. Gyoooowhoawhoawhoa Gyoooowhoawhoawhoa Gyoooowhoawhoawhoa. Satan's goat call. Counting strides, looking for the clues as to how to make it even better.

Which just makes me want to train some more. I wake up in the morning with running dogwalks on the brain. So it's back to the practice field bright and early, dragging my jumps and tunnels around for the perfect setup. Late for work already. Double check that I turned the video camera on, and there we go. Our world has taken flight, and we're flying above it, faster than the speed of light. Hopefully, it's a hit.

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