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Team Building
Take one anxious dog, add a talented agility trainer, and good things can happen

Dusty and I weren’t the most difficult team Dee—our wisecracking, charismatic agility instructor—had ever trained. There were plenty of dogs whose exuberance could not easily be funneled into a structured activity, and there were handlers whose thickness made your average two-by-four look like Stephen Hawking. “Try that again with the dog on your right,” Dee would call out after a botched jump, which the handler would then repeat in exactly the same way. “Your other right,” Dee inevitably corrected him.

Her patience seemed, well, not infinite; occasionally she’d get steamed, but never by forgetfulness or clumsiness or even stupidity. The only times she’d come close to losing her religion were when people casually abandoned their dogs on the course. When one such handler snarked about how her Shiba Inu should “know better” than to screw up, Dee would have none of it. “He doesn’t know better,” she snapped, the set of her jaw forbidding all argument. “That’s why you’re out there. That’s your job. To help him.”

She never let us forget that this was an activity for dogs, which meant that their enjoyment was paramount. She wouldn’t allow any scolding, rebuking or, God forbid, striking of the animals. Whatever they learned would be learned through encouragement and praise. They would have fun.

Dee had the imperturbability of a medieval saint, spiced with the whiplash wit of a 1940s movie sidekick. She was North Side Chicago girl, born and bred, which explained both her grit and her grin; it’s a tough breed but a good-humored one. She had a typical Midwestern face too—open, earnest, bright. It helped enormously, when your dog was subverting your every attempt to enlighten him on some point or other, to have such a face over your shoulder, cheering you on. Even more encouraging was her back-length blond ponytail, which would wag like a tail when she wildly applauded your hard-earned successes.

Dee claimed to be able to tell which of her students had also trained in dance—or gymnastics or martial arts or any similar endeavor. They possessed a kind of integrated whole-body awareness that made them agility naturals. I longed for Dee to ask, after marveling at one of my runs, whether I’d studied karate or participated in any triathlons, but the most she ever asked me were things like “Do you want to sit down and catch your breath?”

It was a testament to Dee’s sense of humor and ability to inspire devotion that on my return to agility I encountered so many people I’d known before. Some, like me, were training brand-new dogs. It was also revealing to note that Dee’s methods had evolved. This was not a woman ever likely to become set in her ways or to ignore new ideas and advances in other quarters.

For instance, Dee’s new weave-pole method started with just two poles, and the idea was to get the dog to pass though them correctly; i.e., leading with the left shoulder. The theory being that once the dog has the principle down, the succeeding poles will just fall into line. At the heart of this approach is the notion that the dog has to figure out the poles for herself—even in the absence of a verbal command. That means breaking down the weave-pole entry into very small components and rewarding each one.

For example, you reward the dog if she looks at the weave poles. Once she figures out that turning her head that way earns a treat, you stop. Now she has to figure out what additional behavior you want to add to the first. She might run through a variety of possible solutions, but the moment she turns and steps toward the weave poles, you give her a new treat. Eventually, incrementally, the dog gets the idea that going through those poles is a damn fine thing to do, and could she have another Snausage please?

This makes for a long, tedious process, and occasionally a largish wallop of existential despair, but in the end you get your dog to make a perfect weave-pole entry time after time, and most importantly, it was her idea. This is something of a quantum leap, training-wise, and informed much of what Dee now passed along to us. What it did was take the dogs from a place where they were obeying orders to one where they were thinking independently—acting instead of reacting.

Dusty took longer than the other dogs to reach this milestone because he disdained all material inducements. He sat by the two weave poles and looked, not at me, but at everyone else around him in a dither of distress. My job was to reward him the moment he made the slightest gesture toward the entry pole, but his eyes were darting too fast for me to follow, and besides, I had no means of rewarding him beyond praise, and he wasn’t listening to me. We stood there, twitching and flailing as Dee made the rounds, checking on everybody’s progress, so that I was in something of a lather myself by the time she reached us.

“How’s Dusty doin’?” she asked—just as Dusty nearly toppled over from leaning away at her approach.
“We seem to be having trouble,” I said.
“What kind of trouble?”
“Well, basically, existing on the same planet.”

She gave me a come-on-now smirk and rolled up her sleeves. Then she took us through the whole process in baby steps, and by the end of the hour, had Dusty making a solid weave-pole entry two times out of three.

“He’s a good boy,” Dee said. “Bless his heart.”

A southern friend once told me that “bless his heart” is Dixie code for “he’s so stupid.” Since Dee is a Chicago gal, I figured she might mean something different. Anyway, I was too grateful to argue. Somehow the scattered pieces of our enterprise had been gathered together and we had been forged into a team—exhausted and gasping and streaming with sweat, sure, but still a team.

And Dee, it was now blindingly apparent to me, was a woman who had found her true calling.

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This article first appeared in The Bark,
Issue 54: May/Jun 2009
Robert Rodi is the author of seven novels and has also written short stories, literary criticism and works for the stage. He lives in Chicago with his partner Jeffrey Smith and a shifting number of dogs. robertrodi.com
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