My Very Own (written 6/19/21)
Back in January, I had a big birthday. I'm not going to tell you exactly how big, but it was a birthday big enough to make a person pause and reflect on the past, the future, and the meaning of life in general.
It was also one of those birthdays big enough to set the stage for big presents. And today, courtesy of my amazing mom and dad, I finally received mine.
It took a while, because it took some planning. It took talking and imagining, and then a number of phone calls. It took waiting for the fickle Kansas weather to cooperate. And then, it took waiting until it was our turn on the list, and a hulking truck roared down the driveway to deliver supplies, and the crew from Oklahoma finally showed up to make my dreams a reality.
Until that moment, I truly hadn't believed it would happen. As much as I wanted one, as much as the dogs and I would use and benefit from one, still, a regulation-size, obedience training building of my very own seemed like something that would have to stay on my bucket list. It was too much. It was too big. It was way too expensive. And furthermore, it wasn't strictly necessary. The dogs and I haven't even been competing for the past couple of years, thanks in large part to the COVID situation. And when we are working toward competition, there are a few limited places we can go to practice. But that's the thing. Those suitable places are limited, and we do need to practice.
Obedience is divided into three standard levels, or classes. The novice class is pretty basic. In that class, you and your dog can get away with not having much ring experience. Your scores may not be pretty, but you can get by and qualify.
The open level is harder. To do well in open, you need to at least have access to competition-style jumps. You can still squeak by (with a lot of work and a lot of entries) even without much time in a practice ring. But it will take a while, and your scores will be lacking.
However, by the time you and your dog are ready for utility, the third level of competition, all bets are off if you do not have an available training space in which to consistently work together.
Utility is rough. More than that, it relies on a specific and unvarying configuration of the ring. You cannot train for or succeed in this class without a ring. Jumps are always in the same places, at specific distances. In some exercises -- like the go-out and the directed retrieve -- the dog actually learns to work with the stanchions of the ring gating as guides. Like an obedience judge acquaintance of mine says: "Dogs need to learn the visual picture of the ring."
This is one reason that my dogs and I have never competed or titled in utility. We've come close, and several of them have been trained through all the utility exercises. But we've never actually shown in the utility ring. And our lack of at-home, regulation training space is a major reason why.
It has been extremely frustrating to me. Over the years I have had some really good dogs with incredible potential. Dundee and Meg are the best examples. Super nice dogs, love to work, and came so close to being ready for that most advanced class. But they got stuck with me. To this day, in a very real sense, I consider Dundee and Meg to have been wasted dogs. At least from a show and competition point of view, they never achieved their full potential. And now that they're closing in on twelve years old, they never will. It's something for which I can never quite forgive myself.
But let's focus on today. Today the pounding and sawing and shrieking of metal siding had stopped. The trucks had been packed up, backed up, and driven home. Everything was quiet, except for that persistent voice niggling in my ear. I had to go see it.
It was a blazing hot day. We were sitting at a hundred degrees, with a smothering dew point of about 76. It was miserably hot. But I didn't care. The dogs and I were going up there.
I took Tassie, Banner, Cinder, and Scotch, the younger dogs who would be spending the most time in our new building. I figured that was appropriate. The older dogs would get to check things out on our next walk, which would take us right past the new place.
I trudged up the driveway, already soaked with sweat. The dogs charged ahead, bulled past the gate, swung left into the open area of grass where the crew had been at work, and raced straight into their new training building.
It was a pole barn, forty feet wide by sixty feet long. A regulation-size ring is forty-by-fifty, but we had tacked on the extra ten-by-forty-foot area as a space for crates to secure waiting dogs, plus the riding lawn mower, the John Deere Gator, and anything else my dad might want to store there. By the time I arrived, the four dogs were doing laps around their new ring. I'm pretty sure Cinder hiked his leg a few times. It was, after all, his personal training area. Then they went tearing back outside, leaving me to a self-guided tour.
I walked the whole perimeter, picturing the set up. The jumps, the gating, where each glove would be laid out for the directed retrieve. I experimented with a couple of verbal commands to no one in particular, just to test out the acoustics. Excellent. Not too cramped, but not too echoey, either, as I had been afraid might be the case in a metal building. I pictured the crating area, and how I would have three or four dogs waiting to come into the ring and train, and how I would walk through the neat, picket gate to get the next one, and open the squeaky crate door, and snap on the leash -- "You ready? You wanna go to work?"
-- and how we would walk back through that ring gate, into our very own ring and our very own space, and the heeling patterns and the jumps, and the beautiful pickups on each retrieve, and the fast, focused, galloping go-outs, fifty feet long, all the way from one end of the ring to the other. I pictured the work, and the reward, and the coming competitions, and how I would love my dogs, and it was like magic.
I went and stood in the doorway of our new training building. The dogs raced over to me, panting like steam engines in the stifling heat. I bent over to them, ruffling their ears and rubbing my hands along their backs. This was our place. This was our beginning. This was our future.