On the eve of our trip to Hobbs, New Mexico, to see Danny show, the last night of our obedience class was held. This was graduation night. Snow had fallen all day and there was about four inches covering the ground. We toyed with the idea of not going to New Mexico and especially not going to the last class. Over the nine weeks we had marched in formation, sort of, and practiced in the street. The number of students had declined steadily. Maybe because we were the terriers in the class, and our misplaced pride wouldn’t let us quit, we kept coming week after week. One of the Berners dropped out, both Labs, and the large mixed breed dogs vanished about week six. We remained. Standing in line against the long wall, sandwiched between two German Shepherds, we doubted whether we’d be among those who would graduate. Some weeks our progress was visible, some weeks it seemed as if we’d just begun. As graduation night edged closer, we learned we would be running a rally style course consisting of twelve stations. We’d be asked to do every exercise we’d learned and be in competition against each other. We are no strangers to competition, but in the show ring. This was really competing against yourself. The outcome was up to each handler.
I don’t know if it was the wish to postpone packing the van for the ten-hour plus drive to Hobbs or our need to finish what we’d started, but we brushed out Peyton and Eva and loaded them into the back of the van. Somehow the week leading up to this finale had slipped by and not much practice had occurred. We figured with the weather we’d be two of about four teams who’d show up. The streets were slick, but we eased our way into the parking lot and saw the vans and SUVs of our fellow students. Seven of us had braved the wintry weather and showed up to prove to ourselves and our instructors that we could bend our dogs’ wills to ours and graduate. The teachers were finishing laying out the course in the big room. We took our seats on benches as far away from the other four-legged students as we could. Sitting there, staring blankly at the course I could feel my mouth begin to dry and sweat building up on my forehead. My heart raced and I realized I was clutching Eva’s neck as tightly as I could. I was firmly in the grip of anxiety. The same anxiety I’d had every time I competed with Honour in Rally four years before.
In everybody’s life there are seminal events that color the way you deal with stress. Mine happened in seventh grade and involved a frog. I am convinced our teacher was a sadist who enjoyed torturing junior high kids who for the most part led sheltered lives. It didn’t help either that a few months before this classroom incident I had been grabbed and mauled by a man on a downtown street on my way to my father’s office from the public library. I had been able to fight off my attacker while a crowd of pedestrians stood watching, ignoring my cries for help. This taught me a lesson that shaped my personality: Be your own hero. And the best way to deal with a stressful situation was to ignore it. But some things you can’t forget and they surface when least expected. So it was in seventh grade science class when our teacher took an Exacto knife and cut the still beating heart of a frog in half. The spurting blood and pulsating muscle overwhelmed my adolescent mind and the room started to spin. In this completely unguarded moment memories of the man on the street, the smell of his after shave and the smell of the blood ran together. I awoke on the floor with the class staring at me. My humiliation complete. Ever after, in high stress situations, I recall this whole event and become nearly catatonic. As I sat on the bench in our class, I was sweating, my mouth gaping, dizzy and hyper awareness of every sound and smell. Here I was again.
Sitting beside me, my mom and Peyton looked calm and serene. She turned and smiled, whispering, “this little bastard is going to embarrass me.” Of course he was. I could see it on his face, jaw set, hunched over, his eyes watching the other dogs. In contrast, Eva was wound up. It was as if she was drawing energy from my anxiety. I knew I would never be able to control her in my state. We sat on the bench waiting for our turns. Both Shepherds did very well on the course. One in particular seemed to be well on his way to being a trained dog. The cute Havanese worked the course with the young daughter of his owner and then with his owner. He is a happy little dog and had done well throughout our class. The tall man with the Berner had been a standout the week before, but his owner was over-confident and forgot to give him the commands he still needed to do the exercises. An older man with a tailed Rottweiler bitch clearly had put in a lot of time with his dog. She was aggressive and didn’t care for other dogs and I suspect people weren’t high on her list either. As he worked his way through the course with her, you could see his work was paying off. She never quit looking at him and they turned in a very nice performance. First in the class would be that dog or the Shepherd named Tango. Peyton and Eva were the last two to go.
My mom bravely approached the start of the course. She helped Peyton to sit. They started forward, picking up speed and confidence as they completed each station. Peyton was not an eager worker but he grudgingly gaited around by my mom’s side. When they reached the last station, the whole class applauded. He had risen to the occasion and my mom’s pride remained intact. Now it was Eva and I who had to face the twelve stations. My anxiety had subsided somewhat and I felt at least I could control my dog. Eva and I completed every station. We lacked the precision of the Rottweiler and Shepherd, and the joy of the Havanese, but Eva sat when she should have, turned when I asked her to and didn’t pull on the lead. Somewhere between station eight and ten, I stopped sweating, too. I finished feeling like we had done a good job, like we could go on and maybe give Rally another try. I felt empowered.
I ran the course another time with Eva and once with Peyton, just for fun. I felt great. Peyton even sat for me on his own a couple of times. We lined up with the other students to find out who was most improved dog: the Rottweiler and the four top placers. Neither my mom nor I placed in the top four. We weren’t surprised, but we had earned our graduation certificate.
The snow had stopped and the streets were wet, but not slick, as we drove home. A slight breeze brushed my face drying the sweat. It felt good. Packing for the trip would be a snap and surely good things awaited us in Hobbs.