There are things many show people say to each other, and their less doggy friends, about what they will do with their winning show dogs once they come off the road and return home. Maybe it comes from guilt. Spending a lot of money sending a dog out with somebody in a truck, with other people’s dogs, all around the country pursuing rosettes and bragging rights. Maybe it’s something to say to the relatives who’ve asked over the years, “Do you win money at this?” Or maybe, in the end, it’s a way to fool yourself into thinking you can actually do more with your pet than just show it. What we show people say is, “I’m going to do Rally, Obedience or Agility with my dog.” This seems a way to prove your dog is more than just a pretty muzzle. He is smart and what’s more you’re smart, too. You can train your dog to leave it, walk casually beside you through obstacles or other dogs totally under control, or run like a fool jumping, climbing and barking for fun. Besides, all this training could help you lose that extra weight you put on worrying about how your dog was doing on the road.
The road to hell is paved with good intentions, as they say, and we are certainly on that road. Six weeks ago we started a beginning obedience class with Eva and Peyton. Since 1956 we have owned Kerry Blues, and we have never managed to train one of them to do more than win in the show ring. This time we are determined. This time it won’t just be one of us trudging to class every week, exhausted after a long day of work, and plodding around the training room. It will be both of us. We each have a dog to work, and we’re making it a kind of competition. Further inspiration to keep us going. So far neither one of us is winning. Peyton and Eva are winning.
The training center, the hell-hole we trek to every week, is one large room used some nights for obedience and some nights for conformation. Nothing can match the tedium of conformation training. Over the years I’ve endured unimaginable humiliations inside this building. Several years ago, in a fit of pique, Honour jumped up and attached herself to my butt as I continued around the makeshift ring. I left that night accompanied by peels of laughter from my classmates. Eva never actually went around the practice ring on four feet. Leaping along beside me on her hind legs, clawing at the air and braying were her preferred postures. I trained her so well in these behaviors that she performed them perfectly at her first three shows. Three years ago, I had taken my first tentative steps into the world of obedience when Honour and I took a Rally class. We pushed and pulled each other through the class and somehow through three qualifying scores to earn her rally novice title.
Surely, even with such limited success, I was ready to venture once again into the world outside conformation. Maybe we really could do this. My mom and I spent several weeks deciding which dog each of us would work. I wanted to work with Peyton. Though our ring relationship was problematic, he and I do a series of little tricks, behaviors really, before I give him a treat. He seemed to learn these thing so fast and take so much satisfaction from doing them right that I thought he would be the easier of the two candidates. My mom professed not to care which dog she would train and since she had completed the beginning obedience before with many more dogs than I, for her to take the more difficult dog made sense. But as the weeks before class rolled along we both realized that Eva, with her high energy and mischievous sense of humor, would be too much for her to keep up with throughout the one hour class. When our first night came, I was to work with Eva and my mom would work Peyton.
We arrived at the class at least ten minutes early. Our dogs were freshly bathed, groomed and each sporting new snap collars. This class employes the modern training philosophy of praise and reward, no choke chains necessary. The students, human and canine, all gathered in one corner of the big room. The trainer wanna-bes took the chairs and the dogs were to “settle” on the floor passively beside them. Right away we realized we weren’t fitting in. We were, of course, the only terriers. We were the oldest dogs, and trainers, and neither Eva nor Peyton had attended the pre-novice course everyone else had. Alone among the Labs, Bernese Mountain Dogs and one very smart Havanese we scrambled to catch up. Several times the instructors offered a lame excuse to us, meant I’m sure to console us for our pets’ lack of progress, “They’re terriers.” I kept thinking of a T-shirt sold at our national specialty one year. ” True Trainers Train Terriers”, it proudly proclaimed. Maybe the part we were missing was the true trainers. The new snap collars were replaced by sturdy choke chains, and sometimes we employed the old training methods of jerk and release.
By the two-week Holiday break Eva was sitting on command and heeling on a loose lead most of the time. She was working on short stays and lost interest after 15 minutes instead of five. Peyton was another story. No matter how hard my mom worked with the little lamb-dog he would not sit. He walked on a loose lead easily, if not particularly happily, and had no trouble paying attention to her commands to watch. The instructor suggested my mom help him learn to sit on a table. He appeared to make little progress. Peyton was clearly the most stubborn canine student our instructors had ever seen. No matter what anybody did, he would not sit. We had two weeks to work our dogs before class reconvened after New Years. We vowed to come back showing real progress.
My mom worked with Peyton as often as both could stand. Every time he came into the house or dog room from the yard my mom would implore him to sit. No dice. Sometimes she was able to collapse his rear legs and fold him into the correct position, but sometimes he wouldn’t cooperate. Even if it mean he was not getting a cookie. It was clear Peyton had no understanding of what sit meant. We took to calling him Helen, after Helen Keller, before she had her epiphany with the water spilling from the pump in her front yard. When she finally put the gushing torrent together with the finger spelled word for water she was able to unlock her tremendous intellect. Maybe it would be the same for Peyton.
Thursday night came and we reluctantly drove over to our class. Eva was ready and had even learned the down command with a little pushing on my part. Our class filed into a line along the far wall, ready to show how much we had forgotten over the break. My mom took up a spot on the very end of the green mat with Eva and I standing next to them. The instructor told us to sit our dogs. One by one each dog sat. Eva was sitting just where she should have been, looking up at me. Maybe we had a future in this venue. Maybe we could go on to the rally class. I gazed out into the room toward the instructor. She had a look of absolute amazement mixed with satisfaction and pride. I looked to my left and saw all the dogs were now sitting properly. But the instructor wasn’t looking at them. She too, was looking to her left, my right, and she was smiling. The only dog and handler to my right, the dog she was looking at was Peyton. I shot a sideways glance at my mom and saw what the instructor was smiling about. Peyton was sitting! It had taken six weeks but Peyton finally figured it out. My mom’s patience and persistence won out; she was in fact, a true trainer.