16 March 2017

The beginning of the end, part two.

When we left off, I had acquired a feral jungle terrier and talked my way into an agility class with her as an escape from the clawed talons of the feed store parking lot dog trainer. Read Part One here.

Some months into my agility training (reward, Reward, REWARD), one of the advanced students from our class invited me to join their practice group. They were the big fish in our very tiny agility pond, already trialing with their dogs, and as far as I could tell, pretty much professionals. Probably had Oscars and private planes due to their mad skills. One evening a week, they would meet at a clandestine location in the park, with their vans and trucks jammed full of equipment. A whole homemade wood, pvc and duct tape course got dragged out of trucks, and a temporary course sprang up until it got dark. Bright lights, big city, our local agility scene.

I had the same reverence for them that I had for the eighth graders in junior high. Those girls had platform shoes stacked up at least six inches, and bell bottoms that looked sprayed on, dragging frayed edges along the ground when they floated by. They smoked in the bathroom, slinked around in tiny little tank tops and wore peacock feather roach clips for earrings, visible when perfect Farrah bangs flicked back on a head toss. They had bad reputations and dangerous boyfriends. Basically, they were awesome. And I wanted to be just like them.

The practice group had border collies who did all the things, every time. Lie down? So flat, smashed into the ground like a possum under a tire. Contacts, weave poles, everything with Olympic precision, speed and accuracy, no hot dogs required. The handlers pointed in the right place, effortlessly floating off to their next positions. They ran mythical beasts, not dogs. A whole new tribe. And I wanted to be just like them.

Except that mostly I spent the whole practice retrieving Ruby out of the barbeque pits at the park. Greasy chicken bones and dirt coated ant encrusted ribs, a siren song for a wayward terrier. Ruby had speed, I saw it every time she bolted off away from me on a garbage food quest, and I was teaching myself how to pirouette through the air like a figure skater to indicate a turn. In my mind, I was Nancy, Ruby was Tonya. The big agility question for me, would Ruby like wearing sequins and would those little skirts make my legs look fat? And why would she always run back to the chicken bones even after my particularly stunning front cross?

Agility practice ended up being pretty much how things played out in junior high, albeit without my wayward home perm and fondness for a tremendously red blouse covered in appliqued parrots, worn in ensemble with kelly green high waisters that my mom bought at Sears. I tried to do my eyeliner like the the cool girls back then, but it came out clumpy and lopsided, giving more of the effect of a fuzzy headed, brightly colored raccoon. I just never really got it right. At agility practice, me and Ruby sat by ourselves on the sidelines, watching everybody else zip around the course, pretty much like watching the makeout action from the sidelines at a junior high dance, minus Foghat records blasting over the cafeteria PA.

Dog agility. Where you get to relive junior high over and over again.

I'm still not sure why the agility group invited me along. Pity? A grand gesture of kindness to the hopeless? One more set of arms needed for dragging the massive home made dogwalk out of the back of the truck? I even brought my own plastic jumps, but the first time I set them up on the field, they all fell apart. In hindsight, I may have invited myself. But how else was I going to get good? Often times the ranger would come and shut the whole extravaganza down, just like that. Rules! Leashes! You need a permit for this. Off with your heads. And back in the trucks all the stuff would go. So good thing I was there.

Eventually I moved up to a new agility class, across town in a backyard in between a goat pasture and a mobile home park, and we learned how to front cross (awesome, bend knees, toes on ground, use less leaping), how to not rear cross (a move which I avoid at all costs to this day) and how to get contacts (running fast and pointing at the yellow bits as I sped by throwing a hot dog, later proven to be a questionable method). We had a good side of the weave poles (right) and a bad side of the weave poles (unspeakable, but not impossible if I dangled another hot dog). Armed with this curious skill set, which I guess was better than no skill set, we set off to our very first dog show.

I still didn't get it about the footwear. Real running shoes, with laces and bumpy bottoms that people wear to actually run in, non negotiable. No engineers boots. No slip on Vans. And the stuff. You know the stuff you need for a dog show? Crates, canopies, coolers, dog beds, little fans, tiny swimming pools, reclining fold up chairs? Garage stuffing trinkets purchased in ugly colors at giant warehouse stores, made of synthetic toxic substances in giant Chinese sweat shops? A massive car that drank gas like a thirsty frat boy with a beer bong rammed down his throat? Yeah. None of that. I just packed a lunch and got in the car.

First dog show, deer in the headlights. Actually, gopher in the headlights. Wack a mole ground squirrel deluxe. Little bucktooth demon fang heads popping up everywhere on the field. Another of Ruby's leisure time hobbies was tearing apart small rodents and I wasn't sure what the judge would do if a gore and murder happened during a run. Also, on my very first run ever my hat fell off somewhere near the a-frame. To keep running or stop and save my favorite baseball cap, the one that said ART on it? So many questions in dog showing. Our very first run was a fiasco of Ruby charging around trying to capture gophers, and me charging around in my slippy sneakers looking for my hat and Ruby at the same time.

After a few trials, a pattern emerged. Ruby would run fast. Some things, she loved. The teeter totter! Amazing! She'd run across the field and dive right on. Any gamble with the teeter in it, she owned. For some reason, after numerous failed attempts at grasping the many confusing rules of Snooker (like, you are up in three dogs and was the problem that sevens were a good thing or a bad thing?) my brain grasped the concept and this became Ruby's very best thing. Contacts were hit and miss, probably due to my self invented contact training method. Turning was a bit hit and miss, too, but courses with straight lines weren't too bad. And the bars. Oh, the barhopping. At her 16” jump height, Ruby barreled through jumps like Evil Knievel, balls to the wall and right through the middle.

I also had a tendency to barrel through things like Evil Knievel's somewhat less daring but more clumsy aunt. But boy, what I would have done for a cool racing jumpsuit. Between the two of us, jumps could go flying in any direction. One arm extended out in wild abandon in my futile attempt to steer and down went a wing. Looking over my shoulder to see where Ruby had gone to as I sprinted across the field, not unusual for me to plow into the teeter totter or the shin high metal table. Occasionally she would bank off the table straight into my stomach, a soft pillow for a vertical crash test. A day of competing with Ruby left us both a bit bruised, battered and limpy.

When we started agility, I thought we were awesome. I truly did. My brain wrapped in a soft cocoon of champion fantasy grand illusion. The better we actually got though, the more I started to clue in that my perceived talent level wasn't all I had cracked it up to be. Kind of like that moment when you realize that Santa and his holiday buddies Easter Bunny and Tooth Fairy are all a big lie that marketeers came up with to perk up slow retail seasons. No large man dressed in fur is parking flying deer on your roof and throwing perfectly wrapped presents down your chimney, no fairies want your teeth so bad they leave you cash, no giant chicken loving rabbits are leaving candy for you. A crushing, sad making blow to a happy psyche cultivated from not living in reality.

My ears started to tune in snidely sideways post-run commentary from handlers armed with the burden of unwanted advice. You know that kind of slimy comment that's passive aggressive, but that the commenter thinks you don't know is passive aggressive, which I guess is actually what makes it passive aggressive? I collected them like the sticky little ticks that burrow into your arm pits every time you walk under oak trees, that drill in and suck your blood out, sometimes with extra added disease. I never thought to collect any kind words. Looking back, wouldn't it have been a way better idea to have carried around an apple picking bucket and filled it up with all the kindnesses extended that I probably overlooked? For the longest time, I let the prickly ones in to where marching out into a lead out pivot, where Ruby would probably break her start, felt like I might as well have been running naked, exposing everyone to my jiggling flesh. Gross. I'm not a good nudist. Who wants to feel like that?

New friends who waited outside the starters ring with me, trying to figure out snooker rules, moved on to win gold medals on world teams and finals at national events under the bright lights of big stadiums while I tried to get around any course at a local trial without some kind of travesty happening out there. I wonder what all those cool eighth grade girls went on to do? Go on to front important hair metal bands or become legacy rodeo queens? Ruby and I were consistent five faulters, in that never quite getting it right club. The more pressure I put on us, the more likely that we would choke, me making some really knucklehead rookie move and Ruby smashing through another jump.

But without those runs, I never would have stumbled down this agility path, with Ruby leading the way, her vampire bat ears and crazy black eyes zooming around the field. Maybe we never became agility super stars, but at some point, I did end up with a perfect, sweet dog who never wanted to leave my side and a whole new lifestyle that embraced ugly shoes and mini skirts with built in booty shorts. Dog training's hard, but teaching Ruby how to be a good dog taught me more than I ever dreamed I could know.

When we go to the park now, Ruby brings up the rear of my entourage of dogs, she needs to keep my feet and legs exactly in her radar. I'm her only navigation device, and I walk exactly as slow as she does. Sometimes the slowness of this drives me nuts. I tug on her leash and mumble to her to hurry up even though she can't hear me. I see her little face and blinky, murky eyes that run brown goo down her muzzle, and watch how carefully she steps, how hard she tries to keep up with the group, to not get left behind. Poor Ruby. I feel like a heel. She only gave me everything, and I'm griping about how slow she walks. I wait for her and reach down to pet her, lately this scares her, like it's the hand of the Grim Reaper reaching down from nowhere and she skitters away and topples over.

Ruby will always be wild at heart. It makes me happy to see her wobble across the floor, and scream the disturbing hyena sounds that she started making when she lost her hearing, until someone gives her a piece of chicken. She doesn't chew good and it dribbles out her mouth. She doesn't care. Sometimes she pees in the house. I don't care. Later she'll climb into her special blue chair, and dream of chasing wild pigs through a dry wash, mountains of fish tacos, and running with me across a field, waiting for me to pirouette so she can not turn and blast straight through a long line of jumps. Agility is amazing.

Originally published in Clean Run Magazine, December 2016


BLING said...

One of your best Laura!! Thanks so much for writing it and sharing your journey with Ruby.
Gotta love those dogs that got us started in this crazy sport, all because we wanted to make them better dogs. That was my Sunshine, she was my rescue dog that I agreed to take to obedience. A couple session of obedience and we were handed a flyer, something new to try, Agility!! The rest is history...

With tears in my eyes,

Elf said...

I started my blog with the ambitious thought that, being an excellent writer, someday I'd collect all the posts into a book on the making of an agility champion. Except now it's 15 years later, don't feel like such an amazing writer,I the book seems unlikely to happen, and yet I see a possible even mainstream popular seller book, written by you. This was amazing to read. Most of your posts are wonderful, but this is delightfully manic with an endearing cast of characters and a heartfelt plot. I'd buy the book. I'd recommend it to everyone. Small Black Dog Ruby will live forever either way, book or no, with this story of yours in Clean Run and here. What a tribute. My sympathy, Laura, which I gather from Facebook is in order. Team Small Dog will always be wonderful, but it will never be the same.

dlpughe said...

Oh Laura, your story is so beautiful, funny, eloquent and absolutely heart-wrenching. Your photo with Ruby today, holding her close but with the look on your face I know myself so well, made me burst into tears. Ruby was so exceptional and your story so perfect, glorious and moving. After our own Mr. Dog died, the sweet, quiet dog who couldn't imagine doing anything wrong, we've adopted a little dog (named Little Dog or LD) who fits Ruby's description. He was a wreck, had been hit by a car, had his teeth knocked out, could barely walk with scars all over legs and his face. We weren't sure he could walk again. Now, after 3 months of good food and park therapy, he runs not just like a gazelle but like an affing greyhound at the track, can leap up on the table to snack on our salad the second we leave the room, and is willing to try the top of the refrigerator. He disappears at the Park in search of garbage and we've only recently started clicker training which he has embraced for its small treats. He loves training. Will sit, lie down and wait as we put a treat across the room until we say OK. I think he may be a candidate for agility, but know little about it even after fashioning the non-regulation but red and black unit I made and gave you years ago. Based on your story I may have to try---he needs a hobby. I had thought he would be a good therapy dog like Mr. Dog as he is very loving. But I can imagine him dragging me into the dining room of every rest home to look for crumbs instead of sitting politely in laps. You and Ruby are so inspiring; you are legendary and I send you our heartfelt love and condolences for your loss. xox Debra (and Jon and Little Dog)

team small dog said...

Ellen I've been working on a book for a while, but I think it's more because I like making books, don't know if anyone else will ever see it. Or if I can get it done, it's taking a long time because so much is hand drawn. Writing for Clean Run has been great for me, to learn to use grammar and have to type everything out and not just scribble it down on paper.

Debra, I am so looking forward to meeting Little Dog. I loved Mr Dog and Miss Pearl. I think last time I reorganized the garage I found the red and black agility equipment and had to make a hard decision, and some of it got thrown away! And now it would be perfect for Little Dog! I have some big dog jumps in my driveway for you though maybe when you guys come down you would have room to take back!

Elf said...

Awesome! Can hardly wait.

Unknown said...

Practise really makes perfect. I think it should be a model for most of us.

J Dradford (kitchen remodeling)