When I was a freshman in college, our family pet, a Shetland sheepdog named Shep, was killed by a car as he roamed the neighborhood in search of a bitch in season. A student in freshman composition at the time, I wrote a maudlin essay titled “I Mourn a Dog.” After the grief and the guilt and the anger, I vowed I would someday have my own Shetland sheepdogs, would show and breed them. Would have champions, as Shep surely should’ve been.
Now I am a college professor of fiction writing. Those molten, adolescent emotions about Shep’s death, which had gushed to create my freshman essay, were long ago cooled, and, in the meantime, had been more effectively vented in a story called “Dead Dog,” published in my first book, Animal Acts (1988). Now at the beginning of 1997 my seventh book, a novel called Dog People, is in production, due to be released in four months. Simultaneously, a dog named Tara, the first of the Shetland sheepdog “champions” I swore I would own and train and show and breed — selected and brought home when I finally finished my last college degree — is dying.
My dog is dying.
I’ve said those four words so many times — too many times — to too many people over the past three months.
People need to know why someday soon, or any day now, I may have difficulty performing daily tasks. My department head. Colleagues. Graduate students. My publisher. Friends. My agent. I told them and looked into each face, every pair of eyes (some averted), searching for those dreaded words: It’s just a dog.
I don’t say it because I expect anyone else to care. But it’s something that has to be considered when I plan trips to visit relatives or meetings with my publisher, when I’m to be away at school for eight hours or off to a dog show for a day. And curiously, it’s become part of anything that’s coming in my future: the annual national booksellers convention where my new novel will be unveiled, the American Shetland Sheepdog Association’s national show that will be in my hometown this year, a writing conference that has invited me to be the novel-writing instructor, the release-reading and party for Dog People... thinking ahead to any of these is a concurrent reminder that Tara won’t be with me when the events come about. As I proofread galleys for Dog People, as I look at sketches for the art and give final approval to the cover copy, each push toward this book’s completion is another step toward Tara’s death. It has become part of my experience in the production of Dog People that I am losing my first dog while this book is finally being born, six years after the initial words were committed to paper.
Some of those I told responded with stories of dogs they’d lost. You-have-to-do-it stories. You’ll-know-when stories. Others responded barely at all, their kindness at least inhibiting them from saying that awful thing I know they’re thinking.
And then I stopped saying it. I say. My dog’s still alive. Because it’s become too difficult to say the other. And because Tara decided to make it a long egression. She decided to extract every last dollop of pleasure from life. She decided not to quit.
It’s life force, although it may not seem like it. She still sleeps 16 hours a day — after all, she’s almost 14 years old. She can no longer trot or even manage a debilitated run. She either walks slowly or shuffles as quickly as she can — a pathetic version of what I used to call “skittering,” a gait she once used to hurry ahead of me into the kitchen when I had a plate for her to lick. It takes her some effort to get up and slightly more labor to lie down. And one by one the things she used to do are no longer done: bringing me soft toys to throw or play tug, nibbling my knees and ankles as I walk, chasing me and nipping at my butt as I rush to answer the phone, pushing a basketball-sized ball around the lawn, jealously ripping the newspaper from my hands and proceeding to shred it, joining the riotous “barkfest” as I leave with the other dogs for our daily walk. (I use the word “walk” cautiously, as this activity seems more like a pack’s recurrent claiming of turf every day.) But she still resolutely, tenaciously seeks other pleasures: bones, pig ears, basted rawhides, pots and pans to lick, morsels of my dinner. Why should I bother to train for good behavior any longer; she’s now totally spoiled. Isn’t “spoiled to death" an old cliche?
Life force is sustained interest in life, an unrelenting anticipation and enjoyment of each daily routine. Tara still gets me up in the morning, bright eyes urging me to hurry with the slippers and sweatshirt and scoop her half-cup of kibble from the barrel by the back door. She’s licking her empty bowl by the time I finish using the toilet and stagger back to the kitchen to make sure she doesn’t leave her bowl and, with lips curled and spine arched like a displaying coyote, approach the other still-eating dogs from the rear. She doesn’t seem to realize that if or when they take exception to her overuse of her alpha position, they could seriously hurt or even kill her.
After a trip outdoors, where I’ve had to shovel trails in the snow to help her make her way, she guards her right to be alone with me in the kitchen while I make toast and coffee. Vigilantly she watches me eat, nudging the edge of the TV tray with her nose, vocalizing a little remember-me tune, winning pieces of buttered crust for herself and the other dogs. But what she’s waiting for is for me to be finished: the final sip of coffee, a slight change in my posture over the tray, she knows what’s next and heads off to the kitchen while I stand with the tray. Now there’ll be plates to lick. Her face and eyes are radiant, greeting me as I come back into the kitchen. When sometimes there are no plates (my toast was on a napkin), I splat a spoonful of yogurt into her bowl rather than disappoint her.
Next comes her morning rawhide bone. I push pieces of kibble into the gaps and squeeze peanut butter into crevices. She works on the bone, but it doesn’t take long, her teeth and tongue still quick and clever — she liberates the kibble, licks out all the peanut butter. Sometimes she gets going on the rawhide itself, usually she doesn’t. She’s spoiled enough to only want flavor-basted rawhide, a preference predating her cancer.
By this time it’s been an hour, maybe two since she got me out of bed. She’s ready to settle down and sleep. Before doing so she may stand beside my desk chair at the computer, where she is this very minute while I type left-handed, in order to get her back scratched. She also likes my thumbs stroking the inside of her ear leather. Occasionally she coerces one of the other dogs to lick the insides of her ears; but since this behavior is almost always one of the last stages of a dominance display and I don’t allow those to happen anymore (if I can help it) for fear of escalation into violence, Tara’s ears are not licked as often as she would like.
A steroid medication means that I must give Tara frequent access to the yard. But if I take her too often, she answers my instructions to “go do your business” (given with an arm signal because she’s deaf) in the way she always did: by using silliness to communicate. She used to trot away from me, as though preparing to tend to business, then turn to play-bow and scamper around, cajoling me until I relented and said, "Okay, c’mon back.” Now if I overly accommodate her with too many trips to the yard, she simply circles to face me, ears slicked back and bowing only her head, the silliness and scampering entirely in her eyes.
At lunch we repeat the breakfast routine. I invent plates to lick, she eagerly helps me wash the dishes. If I vacuum, she seeks to kill the beast — but first she must see me using the vacuum because she can no longer hear it. If I train one of the other dogs (indoors because it’s winter), Tara must be locked in the bedroom with a distraction or else she'll stand in front of me (can no longer sit) with eyes riveted on the food reward stored in my mouth for the working dog. So she becomes a training time clock: given a pig ear to gnaw or her Buster Cube filled with kibble to knock around the bedroom floor, keeping her alert for the kibble that will come out in ones or twos. These activities might give me 20 minutes to train. Her afternoon nap is deeper, more profound sleep. But by three or three-thirty she’s asking for supper. She’s required to continue asking until at least four. The eating of her supper is followed by a period of from three to four hours where she expects more: I’ll soon be cooking my dinner, then eating it, then cleaning up — all are activities she participates in with gusto. After that, she generally continues to badger me, requesting treats. If she feels well enough to “seal bark” at me — a high-pitched, very bratty appeal for attention — she usually gets her reward: another pig ear. an edible pressed rawhide stick. Behavior that should result in some discipline for any other dog is, right now in Tara, the welcome sign of life force.
The part of Tara’s day I’m sure she doesn’t count on eagerly is “doctoring.” At least once a day, usually more, I roll her to her back and administer whatever treatment I can to the skin ulcerations above the tumors in her groin, and I massage her swollen hocks where compromised circulation causes fluids to build up. She rarely cries.
Tara was named before I ever saw her — named for a character in my first novel, written in 1983, the year Tara was born, but not published until 1992 when Tara was nine and had already completed her obedience trial career as well as her two stints with motherhood. By the time the book was published, Tara was so ingrained in my life, it almost seemed the character had been named for the dog.
That novel was my thesis for my MFA, which I completed in Brooklyn. Then I packed up, returned to Southern California, and began to seek the dog I’d promised myself when I was a freshman mourning the loss of a childhood family pet. Not being well educated in how to pick a dog (at least I knew not to go to pet stores), I went to see the backyard stock of the first breeder who answered her phone.
I wanted a puppy, a female. She only had one puppy in the six- to nine-week range, a small male from an accidental breeding (which should’ve alarmed me about this breeder). Her ad in the newspaper had said puppies, plural, and it was disappointing that she meant four-to six-month-old dogs that she’d intended to grow out but now, for those vague reasons breeders give (I need to reduce my stock), she’d put on the market. It did turn out that this breeder never again showed a dog, so in a way she was telling a version of the truth and not merely hiding the fact that these gangly teenage pups were not developing into show-quality dogs. Only one was a female. She was hiding in the bushes. Did my alarm sound then? No. When she was pulled forth, I was disappointed that she didn’t have a full white collar. Such was the shallowness of my concerns. The breeder put her into my arms and proceeded to show me a series of photo albums, rattling off names of sires, grandsires, lines, pedigrees, little of which meant anything. Nothing meant anything except that the little bitch had fallen asleep in my arms.
I brought her home, with a book and list of equipment I needed to buy. Then what does everyone do with a new pet? I fed her. When I bent to put the new red plastic bowl on the floor, she flinched and scurried in slinky submission a few feet away, making a wide berth around the scary dog dish. Other than that, she didn’t do anything the first evening. Just stood. The epitome of bewilderment. I had to pick her up and carry her from place to place. At bedtime she was confined in the kitchen with a fleece dog bed and water bowl.
One day — ten years before I would bring a skittish puppy home—my high school band director abruptly interrupted his work to get the trumpet section to phrase a melody accurately. He'd already gone through the same efforts every day for a week or more; each day the melody improved, then the next day it needed the same grind all over again. Finally, in frustration, he stopped and said, “I know what’s wrong — every morning you wake up into a whole new world.”
That must be what happened for Tara the first morning she woke in my house. Six a.m. — thud the plywood spanning the kitchen doorway smacked flat on the dining room floor. A mere seconds later, as though she’d made the same trip to my bedside a thousand times already, a grinning puppy danced into my room, hit the mattress with front paws, then stood there using cold nose, warm tongue, and tapping feet to urge me to get up and start our first day together. For almost 14 years now, even through moves to Pennsylvania, back to California, then to Illinois, that first morning was the last time Tara woke up in a whole new world.
She did, however, continue to be unpersuaded about that food bowl. No longer afraid of it, she just wasn’t interested in anything I put into it. Naturally I was buying the best puppy kibble I could get and then started to change brands frantically, but little I could do to the food enticed her much to eat. Draining the oil from canned cat food onto her kibble usually produced at least some interest — she would seem to be eating for a long time, then would walk away (slowly, perhaps trying to keep me from noticing), leaving a bowl of what looked like kibble that had been systematically sucked dry of the stinky cat food grease. Of course, my anxiety over her not eating caused her to be anxious over both mealtime and that deranged food bowl she’d mistrusted from the start. She seemed to express profuse regret each time she wouldn’t eat, leaving the bowl with ears slicked flat, tail tucked, anticipating my reaction. Which, admittedly, was usually some form of anguish. After all, this was going to be my show dog, my champion, the dam of champions! And right now she was skinny, gangly, and desperately in need of more coat. “Oh, Tara,” I would groan (a phrase that would later become my kennel name, O’Tara). “Please eat." I tried to feed her morsels from my fingers. That worked for several mouthfuls, then she would turn away, sorrowfully apologetic.
Other than mealtime, her life was carefree — except the hour a week we attended a class so both of us could learn how to exhibit at a dog show. She learned to stand in a stacked position and move freely at a trot through the patterns, and she would “bait” with ears up for the pieces of liver (which she would eat with no complaint — and once a week when I used the liver-boiling water as a sauce for her kibble, she would eat the whole bowlful without vacillation). And she learned to endure the judge moving his hands all over her slight body, holding her delicate head, lifting her lips to check her teeth, sliding hands down her haunches to her hocks. Repeatedly I pulled her tail out from the tight tucked position right up against her bin and stomach.
Scared dogs do win. I’ve seen that often enough in the years since training Tara. But they’re usually flashy, coaty, and very “typey.” What would eventually become Tara’s lustrous almost-black mahogany coat was still just a dull, dark brown. She did not have that flashy white collar. Her type, while not literally incorrect, was slightly more extreme than preferred cobby body and face. Her public timidness seemed to be her most obvious feature. This is why eating her expensive, ultranutritious food was so important! It had promised to make her into a show dog.
I think I cried every time she wouldn’t eat. Which of course made her even more distressed about mealtime — why did food in this funny dish make her mom cry? Today I can barely remember a time she didn’t bolt her kibble practically without chewing. Getting my second dog, then the advent of Tara’s puberty, and her eventual first breeding, all in the span of a year, changed things. By the time she was a year and a half, eating was no problem and never was a dilemma again. But the next time Tara refuses to eat. I’ll cry again. Because that will tell me it’s time.
Tara is dying of breast cancer. I was informed long ago about the prevalence of this disease in bitches and that it’s preventable by spaying before puberty. But Tara was destined for greatness, I thought, and her progeny would benefit from her genes.
September 9, 1996, when Tara was 13 1/2, she was standing beside me having her back scratched while I watched TV in the evening. It’s a position she often assumes when I’m sitting in the recliner. This particular evening, as I scratched and stroked her, my hand slipped around her ribs and under to her belly. It had been a long time since Tara was hairless. The hair on her belly and the “pants” on her hind legs were long and thick. It had been years since her pink belly had been visible when she rolled to her back for tummy rubs. What my fingers found that night, however, was not the usual tight abdomen and the nubs of her nipples. There was a gnarly lump, about the size of my index finger.
Immediately Tara was flipped to her back. Matted in the long white hair was a coin-sized blot of dried blood, direct!) over a nipple, the middle one on her left side. Squeezing the nipple produced another drop of blood. The mass itself was hard and slightly bumpy. I trimmed away hair in the area, straining for a better view. The nipple continued to seep blood when squeezed. On the way up the stairs the other day, Tara had stumbled, falling so her chest hit the lip of the stair. Please, I thought — heart thundering in my ears and skin splashed with inappropriate, fleeting relief — it has to be an injury from that clumsy fall.
The veterinary clinic I use is open 24 hours, a doctor always on duty. I found the knot at 8:00 p.m. By 8:30 I was in a waiting room filled with other pet owners who found it convenient to get their annual shots after dinner. Until almost 10:00, Tara and I sat underneath a television blaring sitcoms. At least by the time we were called, Tara had stopped her characteristic whole-body quivering, which causes her perfectly tipped ears to vibrate up and down while she’s, seemingly, standing still.
By 10:30 I was leaving the clinic without my dog. The diagnosis was quick. Not a hematoma. A tumor. Fifty percent chance it would be malignant. Surgery scheduled tomorrow, as soon as a chest X-ray rules out metastasis into the lungs, the most likely destination for the cancer’s next move.
Dogs are remarkable. I suppose not realizing you’ve been operated on for breast cancer helps some. Canine mastectomy is outpatient surgery. I picked Tara up at 5:00 p.m. the following day. Still slightly groggy, she was able to walk and wanted to eat. Then she tried to lie in her bed. Unfortunately, her customary method of settling down, which favored one hip over the other, wasn’t working now because the three inch suture was on the side where her weight usually rested. She would stand in the bed and try to sleep like a horse, standing up. If I lifted her and placed her on her other side, she immediately got up — that wasn’t right. Finally an airline crate seemed to satisfy her.
In two days she’d recovered enough to wonder why she wasn’t accompanying the pack on its territory-claiming outings, why she wasn’t allowed to charge the fence to bark at audacious people who dared use the sidewalk in front of our house, why she was getting no response when she brought a yam ball to the side of my chair. Instead she was constantly being lifted and placed on her side so I could hold hot towels on her incision. The morning following the surgery, the incision, and quite a bit of tissue around it, had swollen, resembling half a crimson balloon rising from her abdomen. I’d taken her back to the clinic, was told it was fluid building up in the cavity, normal post-op symptoms. Prescription: hot compresses three or four times daily. Indeed, just as the doctor had said, within a few days the swelling was shrinking, the red was changing to a brick color, then to purple streaks.
The sutures came out. The swelling had gone down almost completely, leaving just a raised hard place where the incision had been. Scar tissue, I was told, and it was easy to accept. Everything seemed to be according to a textbook — I can’t blame the veterinarians if the same symptoms could mean the cancer was reorganizing itself. The lab results came back: malignant. It didn’t seem to surprise me much. The lab reported healthy tissue all the way around the cancerous stuff. But it commonly recurs, they said, in the other mammaries. Be watchful. She’s susceptible.
The first time I’d been warned was during Tara’s initial puppy checkup. The vet informed me that getting Tara spayed before her first season would substantially nullify her chances for developing breast cancer. But an altered bitch cannot be shown in breed classes, and I had visions of grandeur for Tara. Most of my dog-showing friends wondered why! Her first dog show had rewarded her with a third place in her puppy class. Third place out of three exhibitors. Members of the Shetland sheepdog club laughed when I introduced myself and explained where I’d gotten my puppy. One opportunistic breeder who made her living as a wholesale saleswoman for a dog food brand ensured me Tara would not only acquire a profuse coat but would develop more bone and a fuller underjaw if I switched to her food brand. At dog shows and matches, classes and training in the park, I was still pulling Tara’s tail from its place up against her belly. My second dog, and those that followed, quickly began to outperform Tara, as far as obedience trial scores and dog show placements go. Why did I admire this dog so much? Enough even to partially dedicate my first published book to her — was it just a “cute," funny thing I did because she’d been named after a character? Or was there something more about her I didn’t yet realize and hadn’t yet articulated?
Tara’s “retirement” from showing in breed classes came from my own impatience. I didn’t realize that many bitches don’t “bloom” until they’re three or four. Before she was even a year and a half. I’d switched her over to competitive obedience. She was rushed to her first trials, again by my impatience. I wanted my dog to have a title. I wanted an AKC certificate. I wanted some ribbons'.
Novice obedience involves little more than heeling and coming when called. During that recall exercise, the novice dog is left sitting alone at one end of the ring while the handler turns her back, walks away, turns again to face the dog from 50 feet, and waits for the judge to give the signal to call the dog. It’s not difficult for a dog to learn. Common mistakes include (1) not staying, (2) coming before being called, (3) not coming at all, and (4) various combinations of the above. The stress on a dog in performing Simple exercises in a show or match can only be imagined by comparing the handler’s anxiety. It’s different — the dog’s not worried about being embarrassed. But worry is worry, and many novice dogs are feeling the zenith of stress those first couple of times they’re left alone in that sit/stay while a stranger stands close by watching them and their partner walks away. Both of the dogs I trained and showed after Tara far surpassed her in high scores and abundance of ribbons and trophies. But both of them, at that initial moment of potential uneasiness in a dog show ring, chose to cut and run instead of coming to me during their first recall exercise. Tara never did that. Tara, despite the timidness that plagued her for so many years, never exhibited an inclination to quit in the face of anxiety. If I asked her to do something, she tried. And before many years went by, she was doing her exercises and tasks with more and more zeal. Fear became beside the point. Wanting to do the activity overrode it. No one, including me, who’d seen the apprehensive, nervous adolescent Tara could’ve guessed she’d successfully complete what was then the highest obedience level, plus ardently participate in sheephearding, a relay game called scent hurdles, and, one of her favorites (but is it the occupation that has led to her demise?)... motherhood.
After finishing her novice title, Tara began training in the intermediate level of obedience. These exercises involve jumping, and our class took place on an asphalt parking lot. It’s logical conjecture that the sprained wrist Tara suffered was due to jumping on the hard surface. Either that or it was the tempestuous methods she used to encourage our neighbor to move out every time he walked past the fence.
It started as a vague gimp, something I thought (hoped) I was only imagining. When it became apparent it wasn’t illusion, my reaction was of the typically anguished Oh Tara! texture. She’d already begun to have a complex about injuries: being hurt somehow equaled my displeasure, thus (canine logic is pure) being hurt was a Bad Dog. A broken tooth, a bloody paw, a tick — all elicited from me some measure of tears, and she was all too aware of what those meant. I’ve fought this impression I’d created for a dozen years, but she’s still sheepish as soon as I detect she’s sick or in any kind of pain.
The sprained wrist started to seem chronic. I pursued the opinion of a canine orthopedic specialist who took X-rays and anesthetized Tara in order to fully palpate the mobility of the joint. The fear an early onset of degenerative arthritis. But nothing was found. Tara came home in a leg cast, in which she clumped around, oblivious, including one day when I miscalculated the schedule for her bladder-relief trip to the back yard and the despised neighbor walked past at his usual time. Tara began her customary frenzied attempt to insist that he disappear or die trying. By the time I got to her, she was on two legs instead of three. Speculating on my reaction, I can guess she was feeling pretty remorseful.
The cast came off eventually. Then, it seemed for weeks, every step she took was watched and analyzed, and I winced every time she trotted. But the soundness seemed to be holding, and she was once again due to come into season. I’d picked her stud, the arrangements had been made. Daily, I rolled Tara to her back, kneeled and hovered over her, inspecting her youthful, pointed vulva for signs.
An experience I’m not likely to forget is Tara’s firstborn’s first breath. When I tore the membrane from the slimy six-ounce newt, it opened its mouth and gasped. At that moment it was a little dog. I knew I would keep her.
Tara was a natural breeder (praise enough in these days of uncertain bitches and hesitant studs), and she progressed easily through every phase of pregnancy and whelping. I spent weeks reading articles on whelping, the impending signs, the physiological stages, the equipment I would need; then the dangers, the possible problems, and the intricate or forbidding solutions — from pups that are asphyxiated in the birth canal to pups that require mouth-to-mouth resuscitation and tube feeding. So when the time arrived, I was prepared with a homemade whelping box, heating pad, towels, iodine, scissors, dental floss, gauze, sterile surgical soap, surgical gloves, and an indexed notebook of clipped magazine articles detailing every normal procedure and emergency contingency. I hardly felt ready.
Tara’s prognostic signs came on schedule — drop in temperature, nesting behavior, staring curiously at her own sides. I watched in astonishment as Tara did everything the books said she would do and did them without apprehension. Put in the place of expectant grandmother, I was the one distressed and jumpy. And unspeakably exhilarated. At ten minutes past midnight on my birthday, the first water broke, and that first slick, inky pup was forced halfway out, breech and upside-down. Tara shrieked. But that was her only cry. The predicament quickly dispensed with: I used a washcloth to hold the pup and ease it the rest of the way out. “Bizzy” took her memorable first breath. Meanwhile, the placenta followed, and Tara, forgetting any moment of discomfort she might’ve just encountered, immediately turned to the business at hand: eating the placenta and gnawing the cord, then licking the pup, especially the ragged end of cord still attached at the pup’s belly. Other than the towels and soap,
I never had to use any of the whelping equipment. That was for bitches who were baffled and needed help. Not Tara.
With eight viable teats and four pups, there was an abundance of nourishment. Tara probably knew how often to feed them, but how did I know that? I was worried about fading puppy syndrome, pups that required hand-fed supplements, weaklings who couldn’t compete. I constantly roused Tara from where she lay just outside the whelping box and instructed her to go to the pups who slept curled like kidney beans on a heating pad. Tara willingly went to them any time I suggested it, first appearing to count them, then licking any dirt they’d created before settling down to nurse. But her mammaries were red, raw, and hot from the undue amount of nursing (not to mention the heating pad, which the pups began to crawl away from). Pictures of the pups at two and three weeks old reveal to me now that they easily could be the chubbiest puppies anyone’s ever seen!
When they were four to five weeks old, I began following instructions from books and magazines on gradual weaning to solid food. Tara’s involvement — which had begun with her insistence that she not leave her brood unless the need was dire — had naturally begun to wane. She still fed and cleaned them and now was beginning to discipline them when necessary. But then she reinjured her sprained wrist. This time, knowing it wasn’t arthritis, I immediately implemented a plan of cortisone injection followed by crate rest. Two months minimum. Thus, the pups were force-weaned; Tara required hot compresses on her milk-swollen, raw red mammaries; and she was strictly immobilized.
The patterns of Tara’s life are too starkly evident now. When my students put such obvious repeated images in a piece of fiction, their colleagues in workshop usually call them to task for transparent thematic contrivance. Does, in this case, life mirror art, or vice versa? It’s a lesson I can’t articulate to my students because the distinction eludes me.
So, it’s her life as art: Several times daily I gingerly lift Tara and nestle her on her back in the foam-sided dog bed, tuck towels around to keep her from rolling to one side, massage her chest until she relaxes her hind legs over the edge of the bed, and proceed to experiment and innovate in my doctoring.
Breast cancer in dogs often results, toward the end, in skin ulcerations. It began with a small patch of what looked like chaffed skin that I treated with Neosporin. The ointment attracts her nose and causes her to lick the area, further irritating it, so from early on Tara has been wearing little boys’ underwear, turned backwards to allow her tail to come out the fly. But ulceration doesn’t even begin to characterize what’s happened to Tara. On the insides of her thighs, from one knee up to and including her entire loin area and back down the other thigh to her other knee, her skin is a combination of hard red lumps, dry cracked-open lesions, and more normal, pliant skin oozing clear fluid. The area resembles a worse-case scenario for human acne — a plague of scabrous, turkey-red skin, but without the pustules.
On her back, towels tucked around not only to stabilize her but also, like a barber’s bib, to block liquid from running into her fur, I wash her groin with an antibiotic shampoo left over from another dog’s skin infection. I use a soft mitt intended for polishing leather shoes or silver (trophies). Rinse with warm water. Pat dry with an old linen dish towel. Sometimes blood seeps slowly either from an invisible perforation or from one of the lesions. But usually the ulcers are dry. Crimson but dry. Her hocks are puffy, swollen with fluid — caused, I believe, by compromised circulation, the tumor somewhere blocking something. I massage her hocks and can feel, between my palms, the fragile bones of her feet and ankles begin to emerge from the swelling. Some of the fluid oozes from a place on her inner thigh that, at most, looks like a mild abrasion. It isn’t anything like the hard red area.
Little by little, as the distressing condition has enlarged. I’ve close-cut her hair so that now her loin and inner thighs are as naked as I can get them. Shaving this inflamed skin is out of the question. For treatment I’ve at various times used various combinations of calamine lotion, medicated powder, a prescription powder containing some type of steroid (left over from a dog with a grass allergy between her toes), Bactine, something that’s called Liquid Bandage (and smells like varnish), rubbing alcohol, and hydrogen peroxide. The calamine lotion is to protect the ulcerated skin and block potential seepage. The powders to soothe and absorb. The Bactine to anesthetize. 'Hie Liquid Bandage, not used at the same time as the calamine lotion, is also for protection and to stop seepage. The alcohol and hydrogen peroxide are cleaning agents to remove the previous day’s treatment.
I watch and stroke Tara’s face throughout the procedure — checking for signs of pain. She is a tranquil patient. So far I haven’t seen her flinch at the Bactine or alcohol or shampoo or any of the rest. What does cause discomfort are my attempts to remove a previous day’s treatment from where it has cemented in the remaining short hairs. Unfortunately one experiment was to add powder after the Liquid Bandage, creating something like concrete. The skin underneath has undeniably been protected, but the mess I’ve made has caused me some mild concern. But Tara’s only concern is probably what kind of treat will reward her patience this time.
Three months of crate rest is the most difficult treatment I can imagine for an injured but otherwise healthy two-year-old dog. Tara was placated with huge soup bones. She gnawed so much cartilage off the big beef knuckles, her poop turned white. Of course, she had to be allowed to relieve herself in the yard — was carried back and forth, allowed to walk out far enough to squat. I would follow quietly, and as soon as she had finished, she’d be gathered into my arms again, before she could get any idea to charge the fence or do spinners in place, barking at any of the other one million people we shared the city with. She was allowed evenings lying on the sofa with me.
Crate rest, like breast-feeding, can be gradually phased out. First she was allowed to be free in the living room as long as I was with her, then she was given the whole house — again, provided I was there. Unsupervised, she was in the crate. She wasn’t limping, but I was apprehensive and unprepared to proceed. Fearing the lameness would return, it was easier to just placate her, keep her quiet and safe, carrying her, amusing her, telling myself that every protected day made her another notch stronger.
Today, February 6, 1997, is Tara’s birthday. She’s 14.1 carry her downstairs; she walks out onto the winter-dead grass, between the crusted lumps of leftover snow. She urinates practically standing up, can no longer squat. I don’t hover over her to scoop her back into my arms because lifting her seems to cause distress. Occasionally she lifts her head, her nostrils quiver, and she barks at an imagined invader but makes no attempt to charge the fence. She walks back, groans as I lift her up the stairs. I entice her to relax in a foam bed with a simulated pig knuckle made of bone and rawhide, with peanut butter serving as marrow crammed into the cavities. Her breath huffs and causes little grunts as she licks the treat. The cancer has, unquestionably, spread to her lungs. The vets didn’t think she’d live until Christmas.
Except for the swelling of the suture area, recovery from Tara’s first breast cancer surgery in September 1996 was routine. As soon as the stitches were removed, she once again began accompanying us on our morning walks. Lagging way behind—a full 26 feet behind, at the end of her Flexi-lead — was not a new development. Tara’s arthritic hack had slowed her already, but her desire to be included in pack activities hadn’t waned in the slightest, so we made every effort to include her.
Part of our pack had remained in San Diego when I moved to Illinois—a man and three dogs. But we’re all together for the summer and in the month of December, and there’s always been some redistribution of canines in various seasons. Ordinarily, Tara spends the winter in California and her daughter Bizzy comes to play in the snow. My one remaining competition dog, Vixen (still exhibiting at 13 years old), is always wherever I am because she is intolerant of any separation longer than a workday. Tara, who’d been the most nervous and timid in new surroundings as a young dog, adjusted most easily to living in either California or Illinois.
Because she was recuperating nicely, had resumed the normal activities of a senior citizen member of our pack, we decided she could go back to California in mid-October so that I could keep and train our youngest, a three-year-old sheltie. We said good-bye with Dangerous Kisses, a game whereby one person gets down on the floor, head level with Tara’s, the other person holds Tara about ten feet away, exciting her, arousing a combination of natural prey drive and silly dog play. Then she’s released and she rushes at the crouching person, who must stay stationary, eyes open, without flinching, while Tara charges in to land a “kiss" on the face being offered her — not the standard dog-tongue lick, her kisses are always a combination of tongue, nose, and lips, sometimes teeth (but never a bite). Afterwards she’ll laugh at her joke, “seal barking” and showing off. So, with perfect aim, Tara landed one right on my lips, then got into her fleece-lined crate, and headed for the airport. I would be joining them the first week of December.
The weeks Tara was not with me, everything seemed to happen at an unnatural pace. First Tara visited her original veterinarian at the end of October to update and familiarize her with the new developments in Tara’s life. The surgery was, at this point, a month and a half in the past, but the place where the extreme swelling had occurred over the sutures was still bumped out — although it was much smaller than the swelling had been, involving only part of the length of the incision line, about two inches. The surgeon in Illinois, during a recheck, had offered that it was probably scar tissue. In California, Tara’s doctor raised concern over this lump. By phone I explained how she’d had quite a bit of swelling after the surgery and that the swelling had subsided but this one place had never diminished all the way. The doctor decided it was possible the fluids that had been trapped in that spot after the surgery had created a cavity that could’ve then scarred more.
Barely a week later, before anyone could notice it happening, a long, hard tube, half an inch thick, had zapped through Tara’s remaining mammaries on the same side as the surgery, starting from that hard lump and traveling all the way to her loin. Our vet, never having seen a tumor grow so quickly, guessed an infection or a sudden accumulation of fluids. A week of antibiotics changed nothing, so Tara’s doctor referred her to another veterinarian for consultation. His first guess was fluid buildup due to an unknown side-effect of the two-month-old operation. He recommended against exploratory surgery; instead, once again Tara had a prescription for hot packs to the area three times a day. Another week — no change. The doctor, examining what felt like a rubber hose through Tara’s mammaries, said it still didn’t feel like a tumor. In another week the tube had gotten fatter, and the referral doctor finally said, “Oh yes, this has to come out right away.”
The day before Thanksgiving, while I fretted 2000 miles away, Tara went for her second surgery to remove breast cancer. She was home that night with an incision eight inches long. Half her abdomen had been opened, considerable tissue removed, then the remaining skin stretched precariously across the gap. For three days she was in obvious, debilitating pain. Then she began to rally, progressively resuming her daily routines. But 48 hours after her surgery, another lump was found in the last mammary on the other side.
No more surgery.
Meanwhile, during this same week, my yearly mammogram came back with clustered micro-calcifications, something doctors consider a premass warning. I was advised to get a biopsy. Single-minded in my objective to get to San Diego and take over care of Tara, I opted to wait until after my Christmas break in California, scheduling my own surgery for early in the new year.
Neither vet could even assure us that Tara would live until I arrived back in California on December 8, only a week and a half away. Her lymph nodes had been affected, the rear ones removed; the front nodes remained knots the size of shelled peanuts in each armpit. The immediate danger was that the new mass would grow quickly enough to break open the fresh sutures. But every passing day reduced that risk. By five days after the surgery she had recuperated enough to begin enjoying her privileged status; a pig ear every night, yogurt in her food, sharing human lunches of sardines and cheese or take-out french fries. Other of her favorite things, however, had to be strictly prohibited: like attacking vacuum cleaners and brooms, or barking at the lawn mower from inside the glass slider. And she couldn’t be allowed to be present when a hose was turned on.
One piece of information I took home when I bought my new puppy was that she enjoyed playing in the sprinkler. On one of her first days with me, I attached a sprinkler to the hose and set it out for her on the lawn. She stood there staring at me. She was probably as interested in watching her new pack leader’s behavior as I was in observing every detail of her mannerisms. I’d filed away “plays in sprinklers” as misinformation and didn’t pull it out again until we were living in a new house, one we owned, where watering the lawn was more of a necessity. From out of nowhere a mahogany dog was sprinting into the spray, leaping acrobatically to snap at sparkling droplets, then following the stream with her mouth until the entire sprinkler was spraying in her face, mostly down her throat, while she bit and gnawed the plastic sprinkler head. When she was finished, the water came out of the sprinkler in clumps and spurts instead of a fine spray. That particular sprinkler head became Tara’s private toy, and I installed an automatic system for the lawn. I had to make sure all the automatic heads were behind low fences bordering the garden areas. Still, I had to replace heads numerous times as she would dash back and forth outside the border fence chewing the sprinklers through the vinyl-coated wire. Eventually the sprinkler system was all brass, and Tara had her own wading pool — she liked to put her nose in and blow bubbles.
At our third California home — Jim’s house in La Costa—Tara was our only dog who didn’t run and hide when the hose and bucket came out for baths, the only sheltie who didn’t run and hide when the pool toys were brought out for the golden retriever. For the purposes of pool safety, we taught the shelties to swim and practiced them often enough that they’d be able to find the steps no matter where they fell in. Tara learned to swim the length of the pool, silent and smooth as an otter, her head and shoulders level, her muzzle skimming the surface like the prow of a boat. Once out, after shaking and rubbing herself along the house, she was ready to resume barking at the toys bobbing in the water, skittering from one side of the pool to the other, yapping at the retriever when he splashed into the pool in pursuit, nipping at him as he came out with each rubber ball or plastic toy. While the retriever was bathed after his swim, Tara was there battling with the hose, getting it turned onto her so she could snap at the spray of water all the way up to the nozzle. She kept up her skirmish until it was her turn to be lathered. She didn’t like baths, and she didn’t like swimming, but she loved the things that went along with them enough to choose the revelry over worrying about what she didn’t like.
Battling with the hose and sprinklers was the same instinct as her assaults on vacuums, lawn mowers, hair dryers, blenders, anything else with a motor, plus my legs when I ran to answer the phone. This kind of behavior was first evidenced when Tara was six months old and went camping with me. In a rowboat, she began to bark and lunge at the oars as they moved and splashed into the water, the expression on her face not fear but delight. It’s cute, looks like a load of personality — and is — but all these instances are displays of canine prey drive. This was also what gave her what many athletes call heart.
(Casual observers, and even my friends in the dog world, would never declare that Tara had heart. They saw her as a dog who was nervous about strangers, didn’t seem particularly animated while she performed her exercises at a show, a dog who was not precise and therefore didn’t get high scores. Accuracy and precision are human concerns; high-scoring, top-winning dogs who accomplish precision in obedience exercises have been meticulously trained to fulfill this requirement. Basically, Tara didn’t have an experienced trainer (that would be me). In view of her timid nature in public, as well as her maternity leave and rehabilitation from the sprain injury, I thought it was “accomplishment enough” to be putting titles on her at such a rapid rate. Our success, unrecognized as it is by the dog world, is one we share equally, as partners. Perhaps my claims of Tara’s “heart and soul” can be chalked up to a mother’s pride, but I don’t make these assertions without some evidence, and also not without admitting that Tara’s daughter Bizzy, whom I love in her own right, does not have Tara’s heart.
For several years, our routine included a trip to the park five days a week for training. The dogs rode in crates, along with their jumps and training equipment, in the carpeted back of a covered compact pickup truck. The dogs could not see out of the shell’s tinted windows, but as I got close to the park — no matter which of the five San Diego parks I used — within blocks Tara would begin jubilant seal-barking.
Tara’s limp never did return. It felt like a continual miracle each day when she finished peeing and returned to me, trotting smoothly back across the lawn. Her rehabilitation was
taken with great care, jumping her first at 8 inches, then 10, then 12, going up only 2 inches every week or so and never again asking her to jump on pavement or asphalt. As we worked physically for her target height of 22 inches, we also began our extensive collective education in advanced obedience exercises.
In the intermediate class, the exercises involve the dog heeling off-lead, dropping immediately upon a command while coming toward the handler, retrieving dumbbells, and jumping. The highest obedience class, “utility,” includes exercises that ask a dog to respond to hand signs from across the ring (no verbal command) and carry out
scent discrimination by choosing the dumbbell that has been touched by the handler from a collection of others that have been touched by a stranger — doing this scent work independently, away from the handler, with no verbal encouragement after the initial command to “Find it.” The remaining exercises ask the dog to see three gloves spaced equally across the edge of the ring and retrieve only the one that the handler indicates with a direction signal; then to run straight out away from the handler until given a command to stop, turn, sit, and look back for the handler’s next command to go either right or left over a jump. In addition, utility includes some of the rudimentary exercises of heeling and, Tara’s least favorite, being asked to stand without moving even a toe while a stranger uses two hands to “examine” her entire body.
Dogs and handlers earn legs toward AKC obedience titles by successfully completing exercises at trials. The team is allowed only one attempt at a leg per trial, must earn three legs for each title, and is required to finish the three titles (novice, open, and utility) in order, moving through the levels of difficulty one at a time. Successful completion of an obedience exercise means the dog fulfills the requirements of the exercise after a single command from the handler and with no major mistakes. There are infinite ways a dog can fail to qualify in an exercise. But dogs who lack confidence are prone to difficulty earning legs and completing titles because any hesitation, indecision, panic, confusion caused by anxiety, or distraction caused by apprehension can result in the dog being unable or unwilling to carry out an exercise, and there goes the qualifying score that day at that trial.
Considering that Tara and I were equally inexperienced and she contributed the added burden of trepidation, my experience with my first dog in obedience trials could’ve been one of frustration and disappointment. But I had a peculiar secret optimistic notion, thus far groundless, that my dog was special. And Tara had heart.
Every trial I entered with Tara, I harbored belief in the possibility that Tara would surprise everyone, would fool those who considered her just another timid sheltie, would come from nowhere to win her class. Her life not quite a TV movie, Tara never won a blue ribbon at a trial. She earned reds, yellows, and whites, and considering the reality of obedience competition (compared to my Lassie reveries), those were phenomena enough. No, not a miracle: a testimony to something the spindle-legged dog had in her makeup, and had against such odds. It’s easy to have grit when you’re not afraid.
Outdoor dog shows are a parcel of lawn covered with a sensation-packed conglomeration of fluttering neon ring tape, busy exercise pens and grooming tables, blowing puffs of dog hair, and grinding generators powering anything from air conditioners in the motor homes surrounding the site to rows of heavy-duty groomers’ hair dryers set up close to the exhibition area. Dogs bark in every imaginable pitch, from toylike squeaks to ominous spittle-spraying assaults. Canines and humans alike are bombarded with the smells of coffee, hair spray, hot dogs, chemical toilets, and nonchemical trash cans for dog waste. And there are people everywhere: laughing, complaining, shouting at children or dogs, calling to a friend who’s late for her class, hurrying back and forth between rings, exercising dogs, pulling equipment behind them on little wheels while holding four or five leashes attached to four or five dogs who are each straining in a different direction to tag a ring post or sniff the marks already running down the side of a trash can. In all of this, the area inside a 40- by 50-foot obedience ring might’ve almost seemed a protective haven. Tara’s ears swiveled, her eyes rolled, her head twisted to see everything, anything that could mean she should take flight. But she never did.
In addition to this setting, Tara’s final leg toward her open title took place in drenching rain on grass damaged by two days of dog shows, so the mud was up to her hocks. Despite her joyful mayhem playing with the sprinklers and hose, Tara (like all shelties) didn’t see the feasibility for frolicking in rain any more than she saw amusement in having a bath. Many dogs more stable than Tara, including water dogs like golden retrievers and labs, could not or would not heel, drop, sit, jump, or pick up a dumbbell in the downpour. Tara came away with a new title, a yellow ribbon, and mud up to the hair on her belly. A baptism into the highest obedience class, utility, where, with even more veracity, she proved her mettle.
Together, Tara and I joined a utility training class in January of 1986. Tara had her intermediate title and not one shred of utility background-training, she had not even an inkling of what the utility exercises were. By early November that same year, Tara had earned her utility title in only four trials. How could this be? Even the class trainer said she’d never seen a dog, especially with a novice trainer, go from knowing nothing about these complex exercises to having a utility title in ten months. But in fact, for her first leg, on her first try, Tara tied for fourth place with an already-finished obedience trial champion.
After she finished her utility title, I retired Tara from obedience competition. She raised another litter, this time numbering six. Then while I was immersed in a two-year project with my second dog working toward the celebrated title of obedience trial champion, Tara and I amused ourselves in other areas of dog sports — the relay game called scent hurdles and weekly sessions herding sheep. But more than three years after her retirement from obedience, I decided I wanted to go to one trial where all three of my dogs were entered in the same class. My second dog had by this time finished her championship; my third dog, Tara’s daughter, had finished her utility title; so I had an opportunity to show all three of them in the utility class at a trial.
If I had to choose ten minutes from Tara’s life to represent her character...well, the task would be impossible because her character has too many facets, from sedate natural instinct in motherhood to silly intuition in the way she tries to get me to stop crying with play-bows and Dangerous Kisses. But there were ten minutes that capture the story of her unusual strength of spirit: The ten minutes it took for her to perform at her last obedience trial.
Before a dog and handler begin carrying out the advanced obedience exercises, the dog must stand and be measured by the judge. The judge is checking to see if the jumps are set at the correct height for each dog. Dogs must jump one and a quarter times their height at the shoulder — although for all of Tara’s career, except her last show, the rule was they jumped one and a half times their height at the shoulder. When Tara entered the ring for her last show, it had been a full three and a half years since she'd shown at an obedience trial. I told her to stand and stay for the measurement, and when the judge approached with the measuring device — a folded yardstick — Tara appeared to all watching as though she might either collapse and have a stroke or bolt and flee. But “stay” meant “stay," and we didn’t call her Velcro-feet for nothing. With all four feet remaining firmly in place, Tara cringed, slunk low, and leaned as far away from the judge as possible, deflated ears pressed against the back of her head, eyes bulging slightly and showing white, tail sewn to her underbelly.
Ringside friends and acquaintances, experienced at spotting a dog who was not likely to be capable of performing, were convinced I was setting out for the greatest calamity and embarrassment of my dog-training career. How could a dog who had all but caved in with dread now be expected to perform her complex tasks under the stern eye of the judge who had caused her near cataclysmic apprehension?
Tara shook herself off (perhaps not literally) and set up to begin working through the utility exercises. As Tara, surprising everyone, completed each exercise, returned to her position in front of me, and looked up soberly into my face, I was almost laughing, laughing with relief or incredulity or as atonement for my pangs of disbelief. Or in pure joy at seeing this dog demonstrate her guts and character. She never wavered, never indicated a moment of hesitancy or confusion or worry. She displayed all the versatility of a utility dog in obeying hand signals, following verbal commands, using her nose to discriminate scent, working out away from her handler, following instructions from a distance, allowing herself to be examined by the same judge who had caused her such alarm, then not allowing the second encounter with the judge to drain her body of energy for the final flights over the two jumps. At the end of her last exercise I laughed aloud. The judge inquired at my mirth, but how could I explain? Not only had Tara had the heart to perform exercises that she’d only been reviewing for a few months after more than a three-year hiatus, but she’d executed her tasks more than merely adequately after enduring what could’ve been a debilitating moment of paralyzing anxiety. My obedience trial champion, Vixen, won the class, and Tara scored well enough to place second.
People say they get from dogs what they can’t get from people. It’s virtual cliche and practically meaningless to list once again those qualities of unconditional love, unmitigated loyalty, and dumb devotion. It’s also insufficient. What I gained from being Tara’s partner was inspiration, from a scared dog who didn’t quit.
After recovering from her second surgery, which happened the day before Thanksgiving 1996, when she was 13 years 10 months old, Tara’s only anxiety was due to visits to the vet, or my laments of distress when I caught her licking the origins of what would eventually be the invasive ulcers on her belly. Minor inconveniences in an atmosphere where most of her desires were anticipated and met. She was indulged with pig ears, cow ears, bones basted in flavoring, and tidbits from our dinner plates. She was given her stuffed battery-powered oinking pig for (supervised) killing sessions. She was taken out for a sunbath on the pool deck every day. Equitable rewards for having to wear boys’ underwear, for being left behind when the pack went on its daily walks, for not being allowed other types of athletic episodes, and for having to endure being rolled to her back while two people (along with whatever dog happened to be passing by) inspected her underparts and applied ointment or powder to what was then a patch of hard red skin the size of a silver dollar.
Tara’s eight-inch line of sutures came out a few days after I returned to California. She had passed a crucial point: the incision had healed without being invaded by the new tumor. To our disappointment, however, we learned that chemotherapy would not be an option. If it had been tried after she’d recovered from her first surgery in September, perhaps chemo would’ve accomplished something, perhaps not. This type of cancer in dogs is unpredictable and apparently hardier than most. But, with the sutures removed, more of Tara’s regular activities could be resumed (except participation in the pack’s marauding “walks”). She ran to the kitchen at yogurt time and to the bedroom for the bedtime cookie; she nipped at my knees and shins when I paced back and forth in an exaggerated Groucho Marx style (a game called Don’t Walk Funny). But she abandoned her habit of joining in — standing to hump one of the four human legs — when Jim and I embraced. Her rear legs had weakened. And in a week, they’d become swollen from the hock joint down to her feet.
Like many owners of multiple dogs, I usually have an inventory of prednisolone, a steroid drug. It treats the symptoms of anything from flea allergies and hot spots to more drastic conditions like inflammatory bowel disease. Vixen’s chronic case of the latter was
the reason I always had a current prescription of pred on hand. One vet had mentioned that pred might reduce Tara’s awareness of her cancer’s symptoms, but I’d not wanted to use it until a more obvious need justified its use. At the onset of the swollen legs, I began the steroid therapy with a double dose the first day, accompanied by massaging her feet and legs morning and night. I also, reluctantly, brought her back to the vet, knowing I would hear (and I did), “I can’t do anything more for her.”
I heard more than that. I heard that the swollen legs were a bad sign, that the spot of chaffed skin was the foreshadowing of the ulcerations to come, that the additional lumps I’d found under the skin near her armpits were not what would cause her approaching demise, and that the steroids wouldn’t do any good. “But,” he added, “it’s a surprise she’s lasted this long.” It was two weeks before Christmas.
A day later the swelling began to subside. Two days later it was gone. While Jim was away for a time visiting his mother, whose fall down her stairs had broken both legs, I could once again feel the delicate bones and ligaments under the taut skin on Tara’s hocks. Tara’s legs stayed free from swelling until several days after Christmas. Meanwhile, she enjoyed the holiday with tastes of smoked oyster, anchovies, Italian salami, provolone, and, of course, turkey and stuffing. There was no worry of an aftermath — we’d always boasted of Tara’s intestinal tract being made of cast iron.
All through December in California, we had watched and waited for the tumor to make its next move. It would eventually invade an organ — the lungs being the most likely destination. There were also those smaller masses in and near her armpits. But instead of shooting up through the single remain-ing line mammaries, the primary tumor submerged like a diving whale, and we could only guess where it was reaching.
My scheduled return to Illinois was approaching, the second week in January. Other years I had left Tara in California during the snowy months but this year made an optimistic vow that if she was still okay, she’d return with me. After the vet’s grim prediction, I was supposed to presume I would return to the Midwest without Tara. But, watching her closely, I believed it less each day. Her condition and attitude remained steady up to the new year. Besides constant pleasure-seeking, she continued to aggressively and vigorously warn all other dogs (including a 60-pound golden retriever) to stay away from her kitchen, her bed, her nightly chewing projects, and her mother. Vixen in particular was terrorized by Tara’s curled lip, savage growl, and the stiff humpbacked posturing seen displayed by wolves or coyotes on nature films. It resembled typical human sibling rivalry. Many times daily. Vixen was compelled to assuage Tara by thoroughly licking the insides of her ears. Usually this occurred immediately following a dominance display; Tara would slowly approach Vixen
with head lowered, tilted slightly, offering an ear, and Vixen complied, cleaning one ear, then the other, then back to the first.
Twelve years earlier Tara’s daughter Bizzy had been born on my birthday; this year we celebrated that date as Tara’s as well. Her own birthday was still a month away, an improbable destination. She was running less or not at all, the scarlet pre-ulcerations were growing, she didn’t always bother to get up and follow me when I left one room to get something from another. So Tara accompanied Bizzy and me to my parents’ house to savor chilled cracked crab for our birthdays, and later that night the dogs were given a stale gingerbread house to demolish together. Two days later, three of us boarded a plane for the winter semester in Illinois.
At the end of November, when the two veterinarians had said Tara wouldn’t make it to the
holidays, Jim and I had decided to always say she’d reached 14, instead of 13 and 10 or 11 months. The week after Christmas the vets shook their heads in disbelief. Two weeks into January, Tara was in Illinois industriously chewing a rawhide bone in the middle of the living room.
But changes in Tara did become more evident when we got back to Illinois. In San Diego, in a one-level house, Tara did her business independently: waiting by the glass slider to tell me she needed to go out. Then, when the door was opened for her, walking out to the grass, dispensing with business, and returning to look back through the slider and let me know she was ready to come back inside. Her independence was doubly convenient considering the steroid she was getting twice a day caused her to need to urinate every few hours during the day, and a night’s sleep could only last until four or five in the morning. In contrast, the house in Illinois has a half-underground basement — this puts the house's single floor about six feet above the outdoor ground-level, so there are six steps down from the living area to the door. Because of her arthritic back, Tara had been carried down the stairs since we’d first moved to Illinois. Lifting her down had always been an easy matter of positioning myself a few steps below the kitchen level, putting one foot on a higher step so my knee was bent and my thigh parallel to the kitchen floor. Tara would step onto that leg with her front feet, or, if her desire to get somewhere was keen, she would hop onto my leg with all four feet, confident that she would be caught. With one arm strapped around her, a hand clamped on her rib cage, Tara would be swiftly dispatched to the ground level and back door. Now, however, she is occasionally hesitant to step onto my leg, and when I lift her, she emits an audible oomph.
Walking out into the yard is also a more difficult passage than a visit to the lawn was in
California. We’ve had a snowy winter. In addition to shoveling my front sidewalks and driveway, I’ve had to plow trails through the snow in the yard so Tara can maneuver. Her weak and swollen hocks support her weight, but she can’t lift them high enough to step over anything, like drifts of snow. She can no longer squat to urinate; instead she spreads her legs but remains standing.
Daily I’ve asked myself three questions — when any one has a no answer, it’s time to help her go: Does she sleep comfortably? Does she enjoy social time with her companions? Does she have an appetite and gain pleasure from eating? Yes, yes, and an adamant yes. Plus it seems she has an agenda, always something she needs to be doing, whether it’s a nap or guarding the kitchen or getting her back scratched or asking for a bone or reminding me it’s only an hour until suppertime. Her behavior promotes a fourth question: Does she, as far as she’s concerned, have a purpose in life? Yes.
The end of an archetypal day. If it’s not a teaching day, I’ve spent three to five hours working at my word processor, an hour or two in the park training the dogs, perhaps another hour or two doing yard work (in California) or reading (Illinois). On a teaching day, I’ve been away from home for four to six hours after a few morning hours at the keyboard. After dinner, there’s time for an hour reading a magazine or watching part of a videotaped movie. Vixen sleeps no farther than six feet away from me. Bizzy is in a cave created by an end table or she drifts off to a bedroom to claim the golden retriever’s crate. From the washroom comes a distinct squeak. It repeats. Not really rhythmic, more like a Morse code. Getting closer. It’s Tara with a small stuffed toy in her mouth, bringing it to me, mouthing it to make it cry. She drops it beside me, stares at it. waiting for it to move again. This was Tara’s typical behavior pattern up until a matter of weeks ago. Until it was actually time to curl up and go to sleep, she always wanted to be doing something.
Obedience training satisfies a dog’s need for social activity — that is, play. A working dog’s drive to work is just that: social (or pack) activity with a partner or many partners. Playing and working can be synonymous to dogs. They can see as much purpose in chasing a Frisbee as in retrieving a duck felled by their hunter partner. A retired obedience dog at less than five years of age, Tara still had the need to do things, preferably with me. If I wasn’t thinking them up, she would. Thus she initiated the aforementioned nightly games of Concentration, where, while watching TV, I would instruct her to concentrate on — stare at — the toy she’d brought me, like a fox outside a mouse hole, until I suddenly flipped it toward her, trying to get it past her.
Tara’s other games had names too. I’ve already described Dangerous Kisses, Don’t Walk Funny, and Don’t Read — the one where she ripped the newspaper from my hands and shredded it. Her other games included Run Tara Run (all the other dogs chased her), Kill Tara (all the other dogs caught her), Scary Mouth (two dogs, mouths open, softly jousting with their exposed teeth), Big Ball (played with me, similar to soccer, except Tara had no concept of making a goal — sometimes the game was played with Bizzy hanging onto Tara’s tail; so to make it fair, when I kicked the ball at Tara and she herded it back toward me, I dragged Vixen behind me, playing tug-of-war with a sock), and Protection Dog. This one started as a test: what would the dogs do if I were assaulted? So - Jim pretended to grab me and try to force me to the bed. Bizzy left the room. Vixen barked. Tara robustly humped Jim’s leg. We sometimes called this game Rape the Rapist.
Herding a big rubber ball wasn’t the only herding Tara did. The herding instinct in many (most) Shetland sheepdogs is diluted. When Tara was tested on sheep, however, she once again astonished onlookers not only with her keenness and instantaneous first-sight interest in the livestock (it’s the interest itself that’s usually diluted), she also seemed to have preknowledge of circling the sheep and driving them from the rear. While I stayed outside the fence, Tara forgot me, forgot to be wary of the stranger who accompanied her into the corral, forgot to assume the stranger’s long, crooked stick might be dangerous. She only had eyes for the herd of five ewes. She barked, charged in, then dodged back, cut left and right, even got down in play position as though she were so aroused she couldn’t help but exhibit how much fun she was having.
The test encouraged me to enroll Tara in lessons. I had no intention of ever taking her to a herding trial — even my engorged confidence in my dog’s abilities couldn’t fool me into believing we’d ever be able to compete. For one thing, we had no way to practice except at our lessons. She also didn’t have the power of a border collie. Without the intense eye that sheep are naturally obedient to, without the size and speed to intimidate with her body, this barking sheltie bowing into play position didn’t win much respect from these dogwise sheep.
About a month into my prepaid three months of group lessons, one of the instructor’s ewes had twin lambs. I was at a lesson when the lambs were barely 48 hours old, already trotting behind their mother in a small pen behind the main corral, where the instructor kept about 20 sheep so she could rotate the 5 to 8 animals being used to work the dogs. While the other dogs took their turns with the sheep and the instructor, Tara could not be pried from staring between the slats of the lamb pen. Back and forth, she raced from one side of the pen to the other, her face eager, rapt, and delighted. When our turn for instruction came, I pointed out Tara’s interest in the lambs, so the instructor let the ewe and lambs join three or four of the other ewes in the field. Tara was the only dog allowed to herd lambs because she didn’t “pull wool,” a term that means bite. Unfortunately, Tara only wanted to herd the lambs, so she tended to ignore the other sheep. Most of my instructions to her went unheard — she whipped around the cluster of sheep, trying to stay in contact with those lambs. One time when the instructor was letting the lambs out for Tara’s turn to herd, the dehorned ram got out and joined the herd. The instructor tried to send her border collie to separate the ram and bring him back, but the process was taking too much of our lesson time, so she gave up and told me to take Tara out to the sheep. As Tara ignored the adult sheep in favor of the lambs, the ram was able to break away and butt Tara, knocking her off her feet. She rolled completely over, scrambled back up and resumed her vigilance on the lambs. Mercifully, after many more well-timed butts by the ram, Tara’s three months of lessons expired, and because of schedule constraints, I didn’t renew. Still, I’d had the opportunity to witness my shy dog believing herself to be powerful and imposing, driving sheep (although sometimes scattering them) on a vast green field. But really, how could any self-respecting sheep have been intimidated by the expression of pure delight on Tara’s face?
In addition to lambs, puppies also registered bliss in Tara’s eyes. From the moment I brought home seven-week-old Vixen, when Tara was about ten months old, Tara not only knew exactly what to do with puppies, she reveled in it, from chewing newborn umbilical cords through disciplining six-week-olds with snarls and alpha body language. There have certainly been brood bitches who raised more offspring — the discovery of her arthritic back and extra vertebra kept me from breeding Tara after her second litter — but perhaps Tara thinks she did have two additional litters. When Bizzy produced two pups (Tara’s grandchildren), and again when Vixen had her four, Tara stood outside the whelping box looking at the squeaking newts with exhilarated hunger in her eyes. And both times her mammaries spontaneously began to lactate.
My biopsy surgery was in mid-January, a frigid, dismal day. It was an outpatient procedure; like a day at school, I was home in time for the dogs’ four o’clock suppertime. I couldn’t see the stitches on the underside of my breast, didn’t bother to try to look with a mirror, didn’t need painkillers. It was such a minor thing. I never doubted the biopsy would come back negative. No coincidence or ironic pattern would ever be that great.
Tara’s life’s pleasures had already begun, one by one, to be difficult to impossible for her to indulge in. In the weeks after her November surgery, as jumping, chasing. Run Tara Run, humping legs, Big Ball, and other athletic recreations became infeasible, she abandoned them voluntarily. Other impulses like killing hoses, sprinklers, vacuum cleaners, and lawn mowers moderated in ferocity but never completely abated — they had to be withheld from her. In Illinois she stopped seal-barking for attention. She no longer brought me toys. I wondered if she missed her sports, if she thought about them or dreamed she was once again roughnecking in the yard. She did dream — legs jerking with apparent collaboration, like a flickery bad animation of running, and sometimes she emitted a muffled sound like a faraway bark. But without the ability to play, all her ebullience seemed to concentrate in her appetite, the one drive she hadn’t even had the first six months of our time together. That look of enthralled anticipation took over her face while I prepared food, and while I ate she poked my tray with her nose, reminding me it was her turn (it was a I ways her turn) to clean the dishes.
Along with appetite comes the necessary responsibility of protecting one’s cache. Long ago I realized that even apparently hostile pack behaviors were a meaningful part of my dogs’ lives. Greeting, displaying dominance, accepting submission, guarding a bone, backing another dog away from the kitchen with an explicit stare — these things are part of being alive for a dog. I had to exercise care that displays didn’t erupt into skirmishes. Protecting food made Tara forget her weakened, swollen rear legs, the heavy tumor growing in her loin, the ulcerated skin of her thighs and groin.
It was hard to admit but difficult to ignore the descent that began at the end of January. Without a change in attitude or daily routine, Tara no longer skittered (or waddled) ahead of me as I brought my dinner dishes back to the kitchen. She was no longer able to crimp her body sidewise to lick her loin, so she no longer had to wear the pants. And she abandoned the padded foam-sided dog beds. She wanted to sleep flat on one side, in what we always called the “dead horse” position. I wondered why her favorite spot was on the linoleum under the kitchen table instead of on the carpet, until I noticed the way she was making the transition from standing to lying down. Her rear legs could no longer bend enough to gently lower her hips to the floor, so she would shift her weight from side to side until her weight was comfortably balanced on one hind foot; then she would move the other foot sideways, almost like tripping herself, and fall to one hip. The smooth linoleum surface allowed her rear end to slide backwards away from her front feet, and thus she lowered her body to the floor. It didn’t take her much longer than a healthy dog to lie down, just as it only took her a matter of five to ten seconds more than normal to get up. It was the effort involved that was impossible not to recognize.
Once while getting ready for my daily care of Tara’s ulcers, I told Vixen to get in her bed so she wouldn’t be in the way. As I instructed her verbally, I pointed to the bed. Tara had been mostly deaf for a few years and had long since transferred comprehension to hand signals. So instead of Vixen, it was Tara who immediately and willingly went to the bed. She walked in with her front feet. To get all the way into the bed she would have to lift her rear feet over the foam side. She stood for a moment, gathering her doggedness. Her head was turned to one side, as though willing that hind leg to respond. Slowly the foot rose, swung out to the side, until it cleared the edge of the bed.
At bedtime, after putting her on her back to massage hocks and care for oozing, ulcerating skin, and after an interlude of gently grazing her chest with my fingertips, I rolled Tara to her side and eased her partially under my futon bed. My quilt draped over her like a tent. Only the lower halves of her legs stuck out. She slept without moving until somewhere around six, sometimes five. Then she would use her foreleg to scratch at the underside of the futon frame and let me know it was time to get up. I could reach over the side of the futon, stroke her face and convince her to lie quietly another 15 or 20 minutes. Because the frame prevented her from lifting her head more than three or four inches, she couldn’t get up until I glided her back out. Then, leaving her on the floor on her side, I went into the bathroom. I would still be there by the time she’d gotten herself up and come in after me, eyes smiling, still a suggestion of a wiggle in her greeting.
Around the first of February, Tara started to have periods of breathing heavily. Sometimes at night my mind would be pulled from sleep when her breathing became louder and more rapid than usual, but my hand dangling over the side of the bed to rub her head would calm her. A few nights I let her sleep beside me on the futon so it was easier to stroke her. I finally began giving her the prescribed doses of pain medication we hadn’t used since she’d recovered from her surgery. Even though she didn’t stand up any longer than it took for me to prepare and eat my food, for her to bolt her kibble or lick a plate, and for a few minutes beside my chair to have her back scratched, standing afforded her the easiest breathing. She began to pant after very little exertion, like a trip outside to pee. It was not the sloppy-tongued panting of a happily tired dog. She was merely breathing with her mouth open. The cancer had certainly found her lungs.
On February 6, Tara’s 14th birthday, she began the celebration early with a spoonful of chopped chicken liver in her breakfast kibble, followed by the last several mouthfuls of
oatmeal in my cereal dish. She enjoyed her peanut-butter marrow bone during the morning while I composed on an earlier section of this essay. Each of her breaths produced a little grunt, but she dozed off holding the marrow bone under one foreleg.
I roused her at lunchtime. She followed me to the kitchen, watched me fry turkey bacon,
then accompanied me to the living room where I eat from a TV tray. One of the bacon strips was for her, but she had to wait until I was finished, as usual, before her stakeout was rewarded. (This is another way of saying that I deliberately reinforced her overt begging.) She crunched the bacon in half between her teeth, swallowed, licked up a
few pieces that had fallen away, then sniffed the floor for whatever microscopic crumbs she might’ve missed.
It was a Thursday, the day for my weekly trip to my club’s training center with Vixen, so to encourage Vixen to rest before her work, I lay on the bed, with a dog on the rug on either side of me, to work on the galleys
for Dog People, which had arrived the previous day. Tara had not lain down by herself — I had picked her up and placed her on her side on the thick carpet. The procedure elicited a quick gasp, then for a while the sound of her voice returned in every breath. As I read quietly, she calmed, still breathing quickly, but her mouth was closed. Two hours later, when I got up to prepare for training, Tara was sleeping solidly, breathing quickly, heavily, but without any sign of distress. Deaf dogs do sleep very soundly, and she didn’t wake as I moved carefully around the room to dress. In a slice of partially frozen hot dog, I inserted a dose of pain medication, left the hot dog slice on the rug eight inches from her nose, silently picked up Vixen and left the house.
Vixen and I worked quickly and intensely that night, accomplishing enough to satisfy us in a half hour. It was usually an hour’s drive to the training center at the beginning of the afternoon traffic crunch, then a 45-minute trip home. So roughly two and a half hours after I'd left Tara, I returned to find her lying not in the bedroom but in the kitchen, and she woke when my boot-stomping and door-closing became loud enough. I greeted her with more animation than my typical embarrassing display, inquiring if she was geared up to celebrate. She indeed appeared to be rested and ready.
The hot dog slice I’d left for her was gone, but half the pain pill had been spit out onto the rug, so I dropped another whole dose into the back of her throat, then proceeded to fix her the steak dinner I’d promised. She stood below, not panting, staring ardently as I cut four strips off a very lean steak, cut the strips into cubes, cooked them in a fry pan, added half her usual amount of dog food, coated each kibble in the scant amount of grease, slid it into her bowl, then waited for it to cool. Vixen had received most of her evening meal as rewards during training (with inflammatory bowel disease, her diet is carefully monitored), but I mixed her remaining kibble with yogurt. I smeared some of the yogurt on my lips and asked Tara for a kiss. The steak dinner still hadn’t cooled. I blew on it, drizzled cold water over it, and stirred, then sang “Happy Birthday” as loudly as I could and still carry a tune, so maybe she’d hear me. Her eyes moved from mine to the dish, back to mine, then the dish. Finally it was cool enough. With Vixen eating her yogurt mixture in the bedroom, I put Tara’s bowl down for her and watched her go at it with robust, even ravenous enthusiasm.
Afterward she took her usual position to watch me eat, won herself a few scraps of roast chicken, and polished my plate. We took an intermission from celebrating so I could administer nightly care to her ulcers. Her body tensed and flinched when I picked her up to settle her into her bed. She breathed heavily but gradually, as usual, relaxed as I grazed her chest with fingertips before starting the warm antibiotic sponge bath.
The ulcerated skin didn't seem any worse than usual. Still that weird combination of dry half-inch open cracks, bright red ulcerations (slightly resembling a drained blister), bulbous nodes, and microscopic oozing pores. I’d been examining it up close daily for two months. A flashback comparison to her condition in early December likely would’ve startled me. After washing and patting her dir, I applied calamine to the entire area — knee to knee, navel to vulva — and while waiting for it to dry, resumed grazing her chest and caressing the insides of her ears. Whenever I paused, to check the progress of the drying calamine, she waved a foreleg, requesting that I continue the massage.
In about 20 minutes, when the calamine was at least tacky if not dry, I gave Tara her last birthday treat: a real marrow bone, two inches across, four inches long, shards of greasy ligament tissue still clinging to the outside, the inside packed with marrow. She stayed in her bed and worked on that bone for almost an hour. When she left it to heave herself to her feet and trudge to the kitchen for a drink, I grabbed the bone before Vixen could consider stealing it. Tara had scraped out almost half the marrow, her entire white chest was greasy, and she stunk like rendered fat. I sealed the bone in a Baggie “for tomorrow.”
A trip to the yard before bedtime. Tara groaned with some stress when I picked her up to go downstairs, so to reduce the number of times I would have to lift her, I carried her from the yard into the house and all the way to her sleeping place beside the futon, but this time I didn’t slide her under. She was spent and wouldn’t struggle to her feet to follow me as I prepared for bed myself. I doubled her dose of pain medication.
A little over 12 years ago she’d started contractions before midnight but held off delivering a pup until ten minutes into the first hour of my birthday. What was the source of her remarkable timing or the uncanny patterns of her life? Whatever the explanation — metaphysics or science, spirituality or coincidence — she’d enjoyed her entire birthday celebration, then in the early hours of the following day, two of the three answers to my vital questions turned nearly simultaneously to no.
Most of the night I slept poorly, aware of hearing Tara breathing. The little grunts once again could be heard in each exhalation. They would subside then return. At around three no amount of stroking soothed her. At four her distress accelerated, and with more quickness than I’d seen in a while, she suddenly pushed herself to an upright position. With rear legs still extended sideways, she sat on one flank, leaning against the futon, panting open-mouthed.
Again and again I smoothed my cupped palms from her face down over her ears, but I knew it was useless to try to get her to lie down and resume sleeping. With one hand under her flank, I boosted her to her feet. She followed me as usual, slowly, to the bathroom, stood panting while I was on the toilet; then sluggishly she trailed me to the kitchen. She ate another double dose of pain medication mixed into the remaining spoonful of chopped chicken liver. Twenty minutes later I added another dose.
On her feet, the grunting in her chest either wasn’t there or wasn’t as obvious. Her eyes were dull but watching me. I couldn’t imagine she’d want to stay standing, especially since I expected the pills to sedate her, so I eased her to her back and propped her there with stacks of pillows on either side, stroked her face again, over and over, and she began to relax. Her stiff extended hind legs tilted to one side, but her wrists bent and forepaws flopped like a puppy’s over her still-greasy, stinky white chest. Continuing to breathe hard enough to make her rear legs move slightly up and down, she turned her head so her face and muzzle lay on the rug, and she dozed in that position for an hour. Before I left for work, Tara seemed less distressed, waved a foreleg at me to indicate she wanted to get off her back. I nestled her into a foam bed.
That day I had two meetings at school, one early, one late. I would have to come all the way home, 20 miles from the downtown Chicago campus, to check on Tara at noon. As I returned up the back steps into the kitchen, I saw Tara had moved herself to her usual flat-on-the-linoleum position. She immediately tried to get up when she saw me. My last heartbeat of optimism, I asked her if she was feeling better. Had it been some kind of spasm or attack that had subsided?
Since I had to pick her up to get her outside anyway, I helped her the rest of the way to her feet, then lifted her. She didn’t want to walk far in the yard and had to be coaxed repeatedly with hand signals to go do her business. When I carried
her back inside, I took her directly to the bathtub. Although she can’t hear much, I still chattered brightly to Tara, and she stood docilely, although instinctively kept retreating, as I used the handheld shower to wet, shampoo, and rinse the reeking fur on her chest. She was toweled, then blow-dried, and I promised I’d brush her later.
But what I feared became what I knew for sure when I gave her another double dose of pain medication in a little yogurt in her bowl. Her tongue came out and licked the white surface, then, head hanging, she turned away, looked at me with sorrow and apology.
My familiar impulse to lament Oh Tara was, somehow, restrained. “Okay, Tara, it’s okay, you can get in your bed and rest.” Upon being touched, she gasped and moaned but let me, as before, settle her into the bed. I saw a dribble of clear blood-tinged liquid had run down the inside of one leg, almost to her foot. A geyser of powder was shot into her suddenly exacerbated, festering groin, three more pills pushed down her throat. “Stay in your bed. Sweetheart,” I said against her ear, rhythmically stroking the other with a thumb.
She did. She never again voluntarily got out of her bed.
When I returned home later that afternoon, as I came up the back steps and opened the kitchen door, Tara lifted her head, ears slicked back. Barely observable, her back feet paddied in the soft bed — residual motions of her former wiggle-body greeting — her tail lifted once and tapped the bed. Her eyes smiled sadly but also gladly welcomed me, as always, recognizing that my homecoming would mean an end to a long nap and now something would surely happen. But she made no attempt to raise even the front half of her body. She made no move to get out of the bed. Her initial imploring expression seemed to turn to relief as I kneeled beside her, bent over her, held her head in both hands, slipped my thumbs over her ears.
I carried her, bed and all, to my futon and placed her there. I offered her yogurt from my finger. Her tongue came out to touch it, politely rather than from desire or pleasure. I finished brushing the soft, clean fur on her chest, then lifted and carried her, bed and all, to the yard. Placed the bed on the patio, but she still didn’t try to get out. When Vixen passed by and sniffed her, Tara growled, barely audibly, almost like courteous throat-clearing, but Vixen understood and backed off. Slipping my open hands between her body and the bed, I eased Tara to her feet, motioned for her to go do her business, but she looked at me dismally without taking a single step, without a whisper of wag in her tail. In my pocket, a cookie. I make one last inquiry; offered the cookie to her. Tara took it, hesitated, but then placed it on the pavement, looked at me, panting softly, again the dull despair and remorse in her eyes. She didn’t know what to do. She asked me.
We didn’t give up, but Tara and I were compelled to recognize vanquishment. The synonyms do contain slight nuance, a subtle variance. She didn’t quit and run away. She finished. She lost, but she finished. And we did it as partners.
If there ever was a partnership dog sport I might’ve expected to be too intimidating for Tara, would cause her to quit or refuse to participate, it would’ve been scent hurdles. It’s a complex human-invented game that requires dogs to be confident enough to work independently in extraordinary circumstances. But they’re not just trained animals following orders; these dogs are beyond being fervent about their sport — they’re raving fanatics.
Scent hurdles is a relay race involving two teams of four dog-and-handler partnerships. It’s a race over four hurdles, up to the scent box, then back over the four hurdles. The scent box is a wooden platform about four inches high, two feet square, divided like a quadratic pie into four triangular sections. The handlers rub numbered wooden dumbbells between their palms, putting their scent onto the bits, then they each place their dumbbell on the corresponding numbered section on the scent board. With the handlers staying behind the starting line, the dogs — wearing their handlers’ numbers — will one at a time race up the line of hurdles, get to the scent box, and find the dumbbell that was scented by their handler. After finding it, the dog brings the dumbbell back over the four hurdles. As each dog finishes the course and comes back over the starting line, the
next dog is released to run the course. Before the next dog reaches the scent box, a steward has already placed a “dummy” dumbbell in the empty spot, so every dog must distinguish his handler’s scent from the other three dumbbells on the box. If a dog gets the wrong dumbbell, takes no dumbbell, or misses any of the four jumps, either going or coming, that dog must run the course again. The first team to have all four dogs successfully complete the course wins.
The two lines of hurdles and the scent boxes are parallel, ten feet apart. The team of four dog-and-handler partners lines up before the starting line. The eight dogs, anticipating their turns, usually must be held with both hands by the collar. Most handlers also straddle their passionately eager dogs while waiting to release them. The seemingly feral dogs bark, bay, howl, strain, lunge, and spray spittle. In addition, the other teams, watching and awaiting their turns, are made up of dogs yelping with joy at the exhilarating environment they recognize as the high point of life. When the whistle blows to start the race, the first dog from each team is released and they simultaneously dash down and over the parallel lines of jumps, which are surrounded by a cheering, barking crowd. They’ve left their partners back behind the starting line, must concentrate through the hair-raising bedlam and ignore the equally aroused animal working ten feet away. Often dogs will not be able to resist, will break from their side of the course and charge at the dog from the other team.
How could an easily intimidated 20-pound bitch be expected to function in this atmosphere? When Tara was six years old and had already completed her utility title — a title that requires dogs to perform scent discrimination — I brought her to my club’s scent hurdle tryouts because the club found itself with too few dogs who knew how to do scent work. It was rapture at first sight for Tara. To the astonishment of her handler, she joined the yapping pandemonium, and after only one or two turns down the hurdles, she also was straining and lunging as she waited before the starting line.
But Tara had a method for scent work: “I sniff each article, I sniff it very well, and then I move on.” Her method was a definite time handicap. While other dogs crashed onto the scent board and frantically tested (even tasted) each dumbbell for the handler’s scent, sometimes throwing all the wrong ones off the board, Tara circled the board and gave two obvious sniffs at each dumbbell, then went to the next. When she found mine, then she would take off to race back to me over the four hurdles. Racing is what I saw her doing, racing is what she felt she was doing. Using her body to the raw extent of its ability. But what I didn’t know then (and found out two years later) is that Tara was developing her arthritic back, was losing flexibility, was growing brittle calcifications along her spine. She wanted to run. But Tara was not fast!
Due to the lack of dogs with scenting ability, three years in a row we were allowed on the team and went to the tournaments.
With my legs spread, crouching like a catcher, I held my keyed-up about-to-burst partner in both hands. Using her shrill seal-bark, she lunged as each dog in front of her was released and then returned. Her eyes aflame, her tongue fluttering from the side of her mouth, the coyote-kill noise of the event only seemed to stimulate her more. Finally, her turn. She ran and jumped and ran and leaped and ran and vaulted. Completed the first half of the course through the swirling confusion of dogs vocalizing and spectators cheering and handlers screaming commands; began her scent work; found my dumbbell—she never made a mistake—then gathered herself to fly back over the four hurdles.
Even when all the dogs on the other team had finished the course, their handlers had begun to celebrate their victory, the crowd had finished cheering, the barking dogs had turned to slurp from their water dishes, Tara was still soaring over her jumps, racing back as fast as she could. The exhilaration of her body extended to full potential, the heat of her muscles, the rush of air in her lungs — to her she was flying, returning to me in triumph.
— Cris Mazza Cris Mazza was born in Palos Verdes and grew up in Spring Valley. She is the author of eight books of fiction, most recently Dog People. Cris lived for several years in San Diego teaching at Mesa College, Miramar College, USD, and UCSD. She is now an associate professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago but still spends summers in San Diego County. She trains and shows her Shetland sheepdogs in obedience trials.