In April of 1993 Conrad, Marple and I went off to the National Specialty to appear in the obedience ring. My heart was in my throat, and my stomach somewhere in my toes as we went into the ring. But being there was important to me. As it turned out, both dogs did well, and even won some prizes. Was this why I ended up sitting outside the Awards Banquet on Saturday night crying from happiness? No. I was crying because their success represented some very special, private victories that we three had won. You see, Marple and Conrad are both Rescue dogs.
I adopted Conrad first, when he was about 1 1/2 years old. He had started life as a pet-shop puppy, and gone through several owners before he came to me. At his last home he had mostly been kept in the basement and was panicked by noises, linoleum floors, children, men (especially those wearing ties), and his own food bowl. When confronted with these and a host of other things, his eyes would grow haunted, his head would sharply shy away to the left as though he expected a blow, and at times he would drop to his belly and try to become Chihuahua-sized. Husband John and I told him he was beautiful and brave and perfect, but he didn't believe us.
At my sister's and Rhonda Dalton's urging, off to obedience class we went. The first few were spectacularly bad. Conrad was afraid of the black lines on the gym floor and wouldn't go near them. He bucked and surged and shied like a great white bronco. But I'm stubborn, and kept working. Rhonda gave me great advice, as did Cheryl Seigfried. I joined a dog training club, took private lessons, and studied Diane Baumann's book. I began using sit-stays and stand-stays when people approached us on our walks. Conrad would lock his eyes on mine, and seem to say "I'm being a good boy, right? You're not GOING TO LET ANYTHING BAD HAPPEN, RIGHT?" And when nothing bad happened, his confidence seemed to grow: his confidence in me, and his confidence in the world. His personality began to blossom, and he even developed a sense of humor.
In 1992 Conrad got his C.D. in three straight shows. It took us a long time to climb that particular mountain, but I could not have been prouder or happier if I had been elected President. I was proud because of the victory the C.D. represented. From being a painfully shy and panicked dog, Conrad was now able to go to strange places, and confront strange situations and judges, and hold things together enough to perform a creditable Novice routine. He even has fun! My proudest moment is always the Stand for Exam. Conrad must stand, without moving his feet or showing fear, while a strange judge approaches and touches him. Conrad has never, ever, broken a Stand for Exam in the ring! At first he would study the floor. Then he began looking at me. These days he stands proudly, with his head up, and makes eye contact with the judge.
The old shyness is still there, underneath. At the National, during the off-lead healing, Conrad noticed the video camera for the first time. At that moment (and moments are hours in the obedience ring) the old terror came back. His eyes had that haunted look, his head went to the left, and he began to shy and drop. But seconds later he focused back on me, pulled himself together, and began working again! Obedience has given him the tools to conquer his fears, and given him a new definition of himself. I am proud of my brave boy.
Then there's P.B. Marple. Some folks at the National got quite a chuckle out of her constantly wagging tail. The first time I saw her, when she was four or five, her tail was wagging just like that. I was at her home as a representative of Penn-Dutch Rescue, but I also wanted to find a nice girl to keep Conrad company. Marple's original home had broken up because of a divorce, and her second home didn't want her in the house because of that furiously wagging tail. She mostly was outside, tied to a tree because they didn't have a fence. Her coat was dirty and matted, but her eyes were merry and bright. She wagged and grinned and snuggled down on my feet, and I took her home with me. Conrad agreed that she was a remarkable girl, so John and I kept her. We spent all of Easter Sunday in the bathroom, washing her over and over again, and trying to get most of the mats out.
So Marple began the transition to being a house dog. She was a naturally happy girl, but I also rapidly realized that she was a major handful. Smart and inventive, she opened doors and gates. A natural alpha bitch, she lifted her leg to mark. Worst, she went absolutely berserk when she saw other dogs. A full-scale temper tantrum would ensue when she was denied the chance to conquer the stranger. As far as she was concerned, she was Queen of the West Side of Bethlehem, and only she and Conrad were allowed to walk those streets!
So off to obedience class we went. During the first two classes I took her to, we just did sit-stays and down-stays on the side of the class. She learned, though, that focusing on me instead of the other dogs earned her the praise that she craved, while dominance behavior earned an immediate correction. She learned self-control, and I believe she also learned respect for her new owners. As time went by she took well to the work, and seems to positively enjoy the extra attention that a ring situation provides.
The National was Ms. P.B. (Pushy Bitch) Marple's first point show, and she did earn the first leg on her C.D. degree. Much more important to me, however, was the fact that she could attend the show and behave like a lady. She could enter the ring in a happy mood and pay attention to her job. She could hold her sit-stays and down-stays without breaking or focusing on the other dogs in a negative way. Again, that road was not an easy one. But when we entered the ring, I had faith that she could do it. During the sit-stays and down-stays, she would look across the ring at me, make happy eye contact, and her tail would swish. "See what a wonderful girl I am?" she seemed to say. "Am I not truly remarkable?" Successful completion of those exercises was far more important to me than a ribbon. But that qualifying score was sweet. Yes, very sweet.
Conrad and Marple appeared in the ring together in the Brace Obedience class. There were some fairly funny moments, but also some truly wonderful ones for me. Most important, however, was that the dogs were there. Some people think used dogs like my guys can't be trained very well, especially if they are adopted at a later age as Marple was. They suspect that the dog won't bond with them. They fear that behavior quirks and problems are set for life. Team Rescue showed that it ain't necessarily so. I also hope that it shows that formal obedience work can be a wonderful tool for Rescue dog owners.
All of this would never have happened without very special people cheering me on all the way. Rhonda Dalton was my first contact with Pyrdom, and not only spent an entire afternoon grooming Conrad, explaining Pyrs to me, and giving wonderful advice, but has also always been there to offer advice and help. Then there's my sister Winnie, who introduced me to Rhonda, urged the benefits of obedience, and spent months of her life on the phone and in person shoring up my confidence when I was in despair. Penn-Dutchies like Cheryl Seigfried and Nancy Coombs and Maureen and Dave Simon offered advice and encouragement and praise when it was sorely needed. And let's not forget the magic moment when the latest issue of the GPCA Bulletin would arrive in the mail, and I would drop everything to pore over every page, practically memorizing articles on care and obedience and rescue.
Oh, we're not done working yet! Marple still needs to get two more legs, so she can be P.B.C.D.! And Conrad is working on Open. A Rescue dog in the Pyr Obedience Hall of Fame? Now, wouldn't that be something!
1998 Update: So what happened? Marple did indeed go on to earn her CD, in three straight shows. This was not without some bumps along the way: over the summer she suffered a stroke, and lost control of her left rear leg. During her recovery, with the blessings of her neurologist, I used obedience exercises as a sort of physical therapy to help her recover the use of it. She never totally did, but we were able to pick up the other two legs on her CD, even if her sits never were as straight or precise again. Marple is retired, but continues to rule our roost to the extent that I let her.
Conrad went on to earn a CGC, Therapy Dog certification, and a Versatility
degree. We never did get a CDX, because of my inexperience as a trainer.
By the time we finally had all of our Open exercises together, he
was getting a bit old to be jumping, and had suffered several nagging
muscle pulls and tears along the way. In the course of our quest,
however, I learned a lot about training techniques and physical conditioning.
Although now also retired, Conrad continues to participate enthusiastically
in my experiments with clicker training. I am grateful to both Conrad
and Marple for having the greatness of spirit always to forgive me
my mistakes, to offer me lessons that I needed to learn, and for continuing
to grace my life with their presence. In working with my dogs, the
joy has been in the journey. And the journey continues.