Out of Tune

Before our class at the dog show today, I was awash with anxiety. That’s unusual for me, it’s been years since I’ve felt jittery before taking a dog in the ring. There are some important shows that will cause butterflies for even the most seasoned handlers, but a small, relaxed show among friends wouldn’t be one of them. Rowan showed better today, though I felt like we never quite communicated. As it happened, it wouldn’t have mattered for today’s judge — it was clear she was looking for another type of setter altogether, and we were once again third out of four. But something about today really bothered me.

One’s enjoyment of a dog show can’t hinge on winning or losing, or it quickly becomes a bitter contest. And this show was tremendous fun. We had more than a dozen Irish Red and White Setters (a rare breed at most shows) and time to relax and visit over potluck lunches, a great penny raffle and silent auction, and plenty of gossip. We had a good time and I’m glad we went, which is a lucky thing because there’s not much solace in a pair of yellow ribbons.

Still, the “showing” part of this weekend has nagged at me. I am still having an overwhelmingly negative psychological response when it is my turn to run around the ring. I am still out of breath when I’m done. (And those two facts are no doubt coupled in a not-so-mysterious way.) I realize that I am going to have to add a regular short run (measured in feet, to start with) six days a week. In time that should shake loose the anxiety that causes so much tension when I have to pick up the pace.

But more than that, I felt incompetent this weekend. I had this sense that no one was telling me what a bad job I did. (Not that they probably noticed, but you know how it is, some kinds of self-awareness are relentless bullies.)

More than once I’ve said that dogs can really humble you. And I’ve had plenty of embarrassing, sad, painful experiences in the ring over the years. But this is something different. When I’ve shown Ransom or Jazz or Annie or Susanna or Macy or even the insane Della, I’ve felt like we were in there together. Sometimes that team work is better than others, sometimes (like with Della) the episode is an unmitigated disaster. But even with Della, I hear her panic, I know that she wants desperately to leave the ring and barring that, she’d like to climb into my arms. (A bit awkward with an 80-pound Chesapeake Bay Retriever, you’ll be relieved to hear she was retired early.)

But today, like yesterday, there was no feedback from Rowan, no connection between us– just a kind of white static. Like Paul Newman said “What we have here is a failure to communicate.”

She’s not a stupid dog, not at all. She is silly at times, and worries too much, and I love her and I know that she depends on me– but we just aren’t in touch. But she does connect with Julian. As she was supposed to be Julian’s dog all along and slept next to Julian for the first year of her life, I shouldn’t be so surprised. Julian does have the means to communicate with Rowan that requires neither  word or gesture. (Of course, words and gestures help.)

I was thinking about this late tonight while I was watching the Preakness, which my husband so kindly recorded for me. Some jockeys can get a better performance out of a horse than another jockey. Sometimes it’s strategy, or experience, or skill or a combination of the three. Sometimes it’s just the right rider for the right horse. Certainly Miguel Gutierrez and I’ll Have Another are in sync. It was positively thrilling to watch him bring that horse down the stretch and go flying past the two others racing between them and victory.

Rowan needs a new handler, and I think the right person for the job is already here in the house. If Julian’s willing this summer, I’ll go back to my regular dogs– retrievers and foxhounds– and we’ll see if Rowan and Julian don’t make a better go of it than Rowan and I did. At first I was feeling a little blue about this weekend’s shows with Rowan.  It felt a whole lot like failure to me. But I was wrong to think that, it’s just that she and I aren’t right for each other. Sometimes you just have to make a single adjustment for everything to finally be in tune.

Target number 56. Steps 4108. Yogurt with granola, three grilled chicken breast strips, 6 “waffle” fries, a can of coke,  packet of trail mix, haddock, carrots, lima beans, one scoop Turtle sundae from Culver’s.


6 thoughts on “Out of Tune

  1. I love the idea of adding a short run each week. What you describe before getting in the ring is the exact feeling I get before every presentation…it sounds like you made a very hard decision about Rowan.

    Are you an Anne Rice fan?

    • It’s probably going to be very short to start with. I have to learn to do this easily and without tension, so I need to know that I can stop running at any point, even after 100 yards, if that’s what it takes to start. I think Anne Rice is an excellent writer, but I’m not much into vampires.

  2. Rowan may just need a handler change and Julian sounds like the person to try. I’ve had 2 dogs myself that did/do better for others than for me and was pleased to see their improvement when with them. A friend has a lovely Border Terrier bitch that she couldn’t get points on because the dog was too in-tuned to my friend’s bad headache days. The dog was put with a handler, quickly finished her Championship and Grand Championship, and is now the #6 BT and #2 BT bitch in the country. Definitely worth the handle change!

    • Thanks Robin. We’re going to try this weekend and see how it goes. She’s the first dog I’ve had this experience with, and it is a great relief to know that others have had similar trials.

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