15 March 2017

The beginning of the end, part one.

An era marks an ending. One door shuts, and it stays shut. A half full glass person would tell you, SO lucky, because another door is opening. A dog gets to go home to the rainbow bridge! How lucky is that? I look at my shaky legged, mostly blind dog, slowly wobbling her way across the room so I can carry her down the stairs. Rainbow bridge my ass. This is the end of an era.

I didn't get Ruby to be a performance dog or a partner in agility crime. I got her to be a friend for Timmy, my little black dog and because I thought she might fit in a purse. Timmy was my wingman. Timmy went everywhere with me, slept with me and the mice on my packing crate when I lived in a corner of a warehouse art studio and slept curled on the end of every couch in our San Francisco couch surfing years. He was my ride along dog, shotgun in the front seat of my old truck with the door that only opened from the inside with the magic touch of a special pair of pliers. Happy as a clam to be smuggled into the Reno Nugget in a duffle bag for the last time Johnny Cash would ever sing in public. Timmy would pee in terror at the sight of anyone who wore motorcycle helmets and wallets on long pocket chains, yet bravely defended me when we were chased down the block by a screaming, knife wielding junkie. When me and Timmy settled down in Santa Cruz, in a real house with a little picket fence around it, I decided he needed a dog buddy.

Ruby seemed like a good fit. Why, I have no idea. She was feral, some kind of terrier, and had a lot of spring. I used to volunteer at the shelter, and she came in, somehow fitting my inexplicable vision of a Lassie to my Timmy. Legally Blonde was the movie dujour, and I think I wanted a Bruiser Woods. A Beverly Hills chihuahua. Another go everywhere dog so I'd never have to have a go at it alone. When Ruby came in, I called one of my friends, a dog walker who knew everything about dogs.

"Are there bat shaped jack russells that come in black? Do you think these would be good dogs?"

She didn't see any reason why not. At least not that she told me. And so I brought her home.

Ruby may be a rat terrier, she may be something else. It's a thing we'll never know, and neither of us care. She didn't come wired with domestic dog skills. Eating out of bowls was bogus, she preferred leaping up to the refrigerator or across kitchen counters in single bounds to help herself to a pizza or a loaf of bread. Once I busted her on top of the kitchen table in the middle of a giant chocolate Easter cake, amidst a pile of Peeps and an explosion of chocolatey goodness. Walking her on a leash was like taking a flying tasmanian she-devil out for a stroll. Running free on the beach tired her out some, except that running humans were her favorite prey for a small black dog take down. If she smelled food within a mile radius, she vanished instantly, right before my eyes. Ruby was lawless, and she was fast.

I'd taken Timmy to a training class just once, from a slow moving man in the park who showed us how to fill up a coke can with pennies and shake it in our dogs' faces. Timmy was mortified, peed on the spot. I didn't want to buy one of the special collars he was selling out of the trunk of his car, a fancy pronged affair with medieval neck poking spikes. That pretty much did it in for me for dog training, one class was enough. We just muddled along, Timmy was content to do whatever I did and that worked ok for us.

Ruby was something altogether different. She came from exotic wild jungles, she could swing through trees by her toes. A wonder woman who could run for miles without taking a breath, especially if she was chasing a motorcycle or on the scent of a fish gut pile. Her spiderman skill of reaching the top of our refrigerator in a single bound was breathtaking. If I tried the can of pennies thing, it just made her jump higher. I needed professional help.

Our feed store had classes with most popular teacher in town. Every Saturday morning, she creaked into the parking lot where class was held in a old Ford Econoline. She'd climb out like an ancient gunslinger, armed with a spray bottle of vinegar.

"Works like a charm," she cackled in her gravelly 2 pack a day voice. The van doors opened to a load of stacked up crates, and the first dog to utter a bark got an eyeball full of her spray bottle. Then silence. I'd never seen anything like it.

The teacher had a lot of secrets to dog training. She'd been a champion obedience trainer since Herbert Hoover and had yellowy white hair firmly cemented into the shape of a lemon meringue pie, with a little sun visor poking out the front. She ran a tight ship. Most of the class was spent heeling in little figure eights while she barked out orders from a patio chair. Everyone had a turn being an eight, while somebody else heeled. The dogs were stored on little squares of carpet while they waited their turn, leashes tied to the fence.

The theme of the class was pop 'em good with the choke chain. There weren't any cookies, although she did have a jar of cat food onboard the van for exceptional behavior. I think everybody was scared of her, dogs and handlers both. The biggest bonus of class was a baby tunnel, wedged against a wall. A spin through the tunnel earned a piece of cat food, definitely our favorite part of class.

Ruby did all right, especially at running through the tunnel for the cat food, but she didn't like to lie down. The exasperated teacher took her from me once, grabbing the leash in her gnarled claws. "You gotta pop 'em good," she croaked, trying to pull Ruby down to the asphalt.

She pulled and yanked, yanked and pulled. Ruby held on like a sack of river stones and wouldn't budge, very showdown at the OK Corral. Ruby may have been a manic terrierist hell beast, but the yank and pull standoff broke my heart. After it became apparent that the deadlock might last for hours, I couldn't take it anymore and somehow wrestled her back from the teacher. Failure. I'd never train this feral beast. We kept going to class, but I kept Ruby far away from the teacher. And snuck her extra cat food pieces every time she didn't run away from me.

One cool summer night, at a backyard potluck barbeque, a friend of a friend started telling me about the dog training class all the cool people were going to. They went fast instead of slow, and ran through a tunnel. The real kind, just for dogs. It was like that agility stuff on tv, and the teacher was really nice. I figured this would be a breeze. Ruby was already good at going fast and running through the tunnel. And she'd never have to learn to lie down. Actually, with a dog like Ruby, we'd probably be the stars of class. Not the ones getting barked at for not laying down or heeling all crookedy in the figure eights.

On the first day of agility class, I marched in with all the confidence in the world. I had this one. I was showing up with quite possibly the most talented dog agility had ever seen, and we were going to crush this thing. We had the winning combination of my cat food feeding dog training skills and Ruby's ability to leap even the tallest household appliance. Class was in a tiny fenced yard on a busy street behind the local SPCA. Motorcycles sped by with alarming frequency, and there were burrs and stickers underfoot. The teacher had the patience of a saint. I told her my dog could jump over brooms balanced on buckets in our barn aisle and could leap to the top of my refrigerator if she started on the kitchen counter. She smiled and nodded like I'm sure she had a million times before.

The other dogs sat patiently and quietly next to their owners, seated in a row of cheap white plastic chairs. They looked different than me. Sporty pants and sun visors, and neon striped running shoes. Little belt bags filled with hot dog chunks. Sturdy cordura training bags with various dog toys inside. A lot of purple. Right away I sized them up, not my people. Costco shoppers who didn't own Fluevog shoes. And probably nowhere near as good at agility as me and Ruby were already, what with the broom grids I'd been setting up, and her excellent cat food tunnel running.

The teacher gave us a little assessment before class began. Recall? Well, not really. Sometimes. Heeling? Right! If we do the little figure eights around people and but I have to pop her good. But she won't lie down, the other dog teacher tried that and she's too stubborn. She does go crazy when skateboards go by, and has been known to chase running kids on the beach. But she can jump three brooms and a rake! I dragged her over a couple jumps on her leash. Ta Da! Genius!

"Does she know how to do a nose touch on a target?" patience of a saint asked patiently. I think patiently. Likely, there had been ones like me before. I had no idea what she was talking about.

She brought out a clicker, and handed me off to her helper, who had a bag of hot dogs, so she could start class. I was in! My audition hadn't gone well, but my spunk, grit and blindly hopeful enthusiasm somehow got me a spot. Right away, I was the irritating student sitting up front, hand shooting up constantly with a never ending string of questions. I couldn't stop myself. I bought a treat pouch to hitch onto my pants, and started sewing dog toys in the shape of little handbags with velcro pockets for cookie storage. I bought not one, but 2 clickers. After class, I sent rambling manifesto quality emails to the teacher with the patience of a saint with a million more questions and concerns. I was the agility student from hell bordering on stalker. I had to know everything.

Ruby is very much a terrier. She took to clicker training like a greedy monkey takes to gold dubloons. Hungrily, she knocked out her trick, gobbled up the treat, then went about her previously planned business somewhere else. But it was a start. I did the homework. Probably did it wrong. But I was learning important things. Flip flops, not good dog training shoes. Giant zip loc bags of treats, don't leave lying around on the ground. How to hold a clicker, a cookie, and a ball in one hand while capturing a rampaging terrier with the other.

This was back in the days of teaching the a-frame by leading the dogs over with a trail of hot dog morsels. Weave poles by dangling said hot dog over the tops of the poles. Contacts by tossing the hot dog on a yogurt lid at the base of the yellow. The teeter totter by leading the dog up, hot dog in hand. I thought it was amazing. Ruby thought it was raining hot dogs. And it looked basically like the agility I'd seen on tv. As long as I was well armed with our new pal Oscar Meyer. It was greasy and stinky, but a huge improvement over the rock can or a vinegar squirt to an eyeball.

So now I was a vegetarian buying hotdogs in large poundages, whispering a quiet “so sorry” in the supermarket aisle to all the cows and pigs and their ground up ears and feet and intestines. This was a whole new world. And I was hooked.

Ready for Part Two?

Originally published in Clean Run Magazine, November 2016


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