Thursday, April 22, 2010

Borzoi Paws on My Heart

Many, many years ago I began my love affair with obedience trials and dog training. It was when I was in veterinary school and my canine partner was a sassy, difficult, intelligent and challenging German shepherd named Natasha. We did quite well, really, as long as we were indoors (only happened at one trial), there were no kids (rarely happened), I was relaxed (only happened after we left the ring), and I didn't lose my cool (I was 25, what can I say, that one was a rare bird too). Which is to say, we never earned an obedience title. We tried, but my life and career and her far too early death prevented us from attaining that goal.

More than 20 years have passed and I now have a borzoi. Not a traditional obedience breed by any stretch. Nevertheless, I love obedience training with Finn. When things are going well, it's like a dance. And it feels incredible.

But training a hound, especially a sight hound, is challenging. In his mind, everything that moves is important. So, in the comfort of our training class, all is well -- he focuses on me, I lead the dance, and we look like a well-trained team. But, when we go somewhere new, it's a whole different game. A leaf, a bird, a candy wrapper -- they're all bunnies to him. Oh, it's tough to convince my prey-driven sighty that I'm more interesting and more rewarding than the candy wrapper bunny dashing across the field!

Nevertheless, we recently made it through our first obedience trial. We even earned the first of three "legs" on our Companion Dog obedience title. I was very, very proud.

But, if I'm being absolutely honest, if I were a dog, I'd be a Border collie. Which means I want to work, work, work, and I want to "get it right". (Read, B's just aren't sufficient, I want A's.) So, while I'm proud of our accomplishment, I want to achieve more. I gotta banish those imaginary bunnies from Finn's mind!

If you've ever worked with a sight hound, you know how tough that is.

It means I've got to do LOTS of "proofing" -- taking our skills and working them in distracting environments like the grocery store parking lot, the pet store, the dog park, near the school where kids are playing, or in a multitude of other new places. So we've been working on that. And our best friend in the endeavor is liver treats -- that are almost as good as invisible bunnies.

We're working, he becomes distracted by that "bunny", I say "ready!", his head whips around, his eyes lock on mine, a liver treat is delivered, and, for a moment, we're one in the dance with his feet following my lead and our hearts enmeshed. It's a glorious white light moment, just him and me and our dance, we're moving as one, absolutely in sync with each other. The wonder of that moment draws me back to our practice, day after day.

The practice is hard, hard work. For both of us. But that dance is like nothing else in the world.