Two weeks ago Travvy and I headed north for a Rally Obedience trial in Raymond, New Hampshire. When we left home, Raymond, New Hampshire, wasn’t on my psychic map. From the moment I passed exit 32 on I-495, I was in “Here Be Dragons” territory. As I drew close to Lowell (eek! big unfamiliar city reaching out to discombobulate wanderers and lure them into Faerie!), my gut churned and my mind skittered: Had I missed the exit for I-93? Maybe my map was lying and I-93 doesn’t intersect I-495 at all? Maybe I-93 has moved since my map was published?
True, the map was at least 20 years old, but the mind that’s grounded in familiar territory doesn’t seriously entertain the possibility that an interstate highway has changed location. Once Malvina Forester’s tires were spinning us rapidly northward on I-93, I could breathe normally for a few miles before I started worrying about finding New Hampshire state route 101, which according to my map would enable us to bypass Manchester (eek! big unfamiliar city . . . !).
Long story short: I found SR 101, and then SR 125, which our motel was on (family-owned! not a chain!), and then a supermarket where I could buy a six-pack of Sierra Nevada pale ale. (You know you’re not in Massachusetts anymore when you can buy beer and wine in a supermarket.)
Bo-Gee dog training center, the Rally venue, wasn’t on my psychic map either. All I knew was that the indoor crating space was limited and reserved “for volunteers’ quiet dogs,” and that there was no indoor plumbing. I wasn’t a volunteer, Travvy is not quiet, and I’d brought two gallon jugs of water for us to drink. I found the place right where the directions said it would be, in a small shopping center off SR 107, and set up in the parking area along with most other competitors.
On this trip Trav and I were also venturing into new territory as a team. APDT Rally has three levels, each more demanding than the last. Since finishing our Level 2 title last fall, we’ve been learning the challenging Level 3 exercises. We weren’t quite there, but I decided to give Level 3 a try anyway. My “wildest dreams” goal for the weekend was to come home with one Q (qualifying run) at Level 3 and to finish our ARCHX (APDT Rally CHampion eXcellent) title. The ARCHX requires that a team qualify in Level 1 and Level 2 at the same trial (a double Q) a total of ten times. To finish we’d have to double Q at three of the weekend’s four trials. (I know: This is confusing. What we call “a trial” actually consists of four distinct trials, each with its own schedule of classes.)
Another long story short: We did it. We finished our ARCHX! We NQed (didn’t qualify) in our first Level 3 attempt but our run wasn’t bad at all, and the second time we Qed!! Our run was a little ragged, not least because the course included both of our two weakest exercises: down on recall (you leave dog, turn and call the dog to you, then signal the dog to lie down before he gets to you), and send over jump (see graphic: you’re standing on one little dot, your dog is on the other, and your dog has to come to you the long way, i.e., over the jump). I fudged it by standing too close to the jump and lost points for that, but if Trav had bypassed the jump, it would have been an NQ. It worked. I was (still am!) thrilled.
Two of the weekend’s high points, though, aren’t hanging on the wall. In presenting ribbons for a Level 1 class, the Sunday judge noted that many of the novice competitors were getting dinged (losing points) for tight leashes. (Level 1 is on leash, but the leash is supposed to hang loose at all times.) She singled out two teams for the newbies to watch as examples of good leash handling: one was Travvy and me. Later she told me: “When you get more confidence, you guys are going to be awesome.”
Alaskan malamutes aren’t known for their trainability, or their suitability for obedience. Now that Trav and I can consistently go into the ring and turn in a pretty good performance, what I hear is usually along the lines of “Wow, you’re doing well considering you’ve got a malamute.” I’m just as bad: I pat myself on the back for how far we’ve come, a very novice handler and a fairly difficult dog, while secretly dreading that Trav is going to have a stress-related meltdown and jump out of the ring, the way he did several times during our terrible winter of 2011.
This judge wasn’t just telling us that we’re doing well; she was telling us that we can do better. More than that, she was taking it for granted that we should aim higher and that we have the potential to be awesome.
I hadn’t realized how parched my expectations were getting till they sprang back to life.