There are times when I feel a little bit lost in life, and I need to detective sniff out that thing that’s going to let me be more than who I am. It’s gone missing, and isn’t that kind of tricky to go on a search for a thing that you don’t even know what it is? And then instead of searching I just want to get on the couch and hide under the warmest blankets with the smallest dogs. Could I get one of those surveillance internet speak robots with a girl’s name and set it up by my couch and yell at it from under the blanket to find this missing elusive thing?
“Alexa, play some David Bowie, stop global warming and homelessness and fix my agility too while you’re at it?”
Except those robot surveillance things, do we even want those to know what we need? They might deliver it from Amazon really fast and play a movie on Netflix, but wow. Just makes me burrow even deeper under my duvet.
In agility, the elusive finding is sometimes sought out in seminars. A new lift to the saggy bits, a bolder way to wave an arm, kind of like the promise of ordering a custom made leash with your dog’s name emblazoned the collar. Hope stems from the new and shiny. I resisted the seminar pull with Banksy for a long time, but not the fancy new leashes. We were chugging along on our steam from my methodical training, didn’t want to muck it up because I got confused by a new direction. Couldn’t find the time, didn’t want to shell out the extra money, didn’t want to look dumb. Seminars could be calling out a lot of holes. I resisted. Not just the call of the seminar, but instead of courting minimalism and sparking the joy of tidying up, I kept adding on colorful dog leashes to the dog hooks out back.
Eventually, my inner hoarder realized that way too many leashes that didn’t spark any joy other than potential fire hazard of too much stuff. So much for shiny and new. If not fleece, then about those seminars? This was how I came to sign up Banksy for her very first seminar with two distinguished stateswomen of agility. They arrived from Canada in warm hats and mittens, use a handling style that’s similar to how I do, and had seemingly endless patience with my mistakes.
Seminar day was a lot like being in our agility class, taking turns with my friends running hard on big international style lines. I made a lot of handling errors and Banksy and I both had very tired legs at the end of two days. It was definitely fun and we did get called out on some things that I know are things. So many tunnels, and so many tunnels to run by and not take. Who doesn’t want to learn a magic quick fix to all our dog woes, in a quick 3.5 hour block, for $180? A chance to fling that $40 leash down into the dirt over and over again.
For an agility instructor, seminars aren’t a bad way to keep paying the bills to keep doing the agility. For this, they endure lengthy airplane rides with complicated schedules, unknown freeways, overnight storage in hotel rooms, all day talking to people expecting tidbits of true wisdom. The seminarian carries the weight of knowing there is a room full of eager learners out there, who are counting on them to help. Not make it worse. Not do nothing. Help them, hopefully in that life changing unicorn magic perfect way. A burden to carry, knowing what’s expected.
I'm not an official seminarian, but I’ve recently played one now three times. The third held recently in the far off land of Ohio. When I was initially invited, I assumed it was a mistake, she got the wrong Laura, there are quite a few of us in my part of the country, the others all more highly skilled than I. She pressed on. I didn’t need to be a medal winning superstar. Didn’t need to be a famous coach or a world team member. The audience would be handlers trying to help their dogs gain more confidence, she thought I was exactly the person for the job. I asked if it snowed there, she said yes. I thought how marvelous, to go to a far off land of ice and snow to teach, and, holy grail of agility grails, to make some actual money for doing this.
And so how I ended up heading to our nation's fair state of Ohio during polar vortex month.
Days before leaving, I began to understand the reality of the snow thing. My agility students fixed this by bringing a selection of long underwear to class. I arrived two hours early to our balmy California airport rolled up in long underwear, three shirts, a sweatshirt, a sweater, a down vest, a warm jacket, plus heavy rain coat. And a scarf. And a hat. And mittens. Maybe you always wear this, you people in midwestern locales where below zero is just an everyday thing. For me, completely uncharted waters. I sweated in the airport sea of well groomed short haired guys in fleece vests with embroidered technology logos, all of us jockeying for wall socket space to plug in our devices. Me, the bulkiest business traveler of all, feeling smug that their roller bags probably weren’t crammed full of dog toys like mine was. We’re all on business trip, but my business is helping dogs feel happy, take that, Computer Guy. The one I’m squeezed next to on the plane glances at me and immediately puts his noise cancelling Bose earphones for the duration of our flight, probably quickly identifying the “Let me tell you about happy dogs” look on my face.
It’s strangely relaxing, traveling minus a dog. I read my book on the plane instead of worrying about my dog asphyxiating under the seat. I only needed to find a place for me to potty, muddy feet were irrelevant so I stayed in a really nice hotel with all white bedding and non contaminated rugs. I did have momentary panic attacks all weekend that I’d left a dog somewhere, but the lovely dog trainer who shuttled me around Ohio continually assured me that I arrived dogless. I felt very at home in her van, crammed full of crates and weave poles and leashes and jackets and dogs. She was always on time and knows exactly where the sandwiches were easily located, and bought me choices in fruits to enjoy and my fizzies. It was like being treated like a queen, which made me even more worried that when the seminar actually started I’ll be exposed for having no idea what I’m doing and off with my head.
All the agility in Ohio happens indoors, my headquarters for the weekend was a massive, windowless warehouse on the edge of town, conveniently located to all kinds of coffee. There was heat blasting inside, and snow falling outside. The students filed in first thing in the morning, they all looked pretty much like the agility people from California. Phew.
We went around the room. The aussie, he shuts down. The scruffy little dog hates start lines. The border collie gets the zoomies. The giant dog named Phoebe doesn’t like to break out of the trot and is overcoming her fear of tunnels.
I dumped out my dog toys on the floor, greatly relieved the airline didn’t lose my bag when it was whisked out of my hands on the overbooked connecting flight. The first handler to wave a toy in her scared dog’s face ended up on the floor with me, sprawled in a pile of squeakies, and found herself snuggling her dog on her lap. I start rambling on about Elton John. I look up to blank stares from the participants. These Californians, maybe they’re thinking, they do things differently out there. I tried not to panic.
“Does he like scritchies?” I ask. The little cattle dog flops onto his back for a tummy rub. Which might not look like agility, per se, but sure looks a lot better than the quaking and shaking dog who didn’t want to play with his toy.
Everyone complies to odd requests. I may be new to seminar teaching, but I know sad dogs when I see them and my mission in life is No Sad Dogs. Agility should be happy and if it’s made any dogs sad, it’s my duty to help the people unsad them. I think that snuggles and mousey games and cookies in tupperwares frequently help. Not always. Sometimes we get more creative. Squeakies in the tupperware. Flinging cookies around. Running across the room dragging all the toys tied into a knot.
I try to stay focused all weekend, but occasionally run outside to take moody still life photos of piles of snow in the parking lot and make snowballs.
“Snowballs! Who here needs a snowball?” This snow thing is amazing. There was a reason I borrowed that long underwear. I learned don't throw snowballs around indoors. The students aren’t impressed, the dogs just stop running and lick up their meltiness. Snow for them is like our sun. I guess if I was in a seminar and the teacher ran outdoors and grabbed a leaf and tried to get me to reward with it, I’d pass. So hits and misses, for sure.
I tried to memorize everyone’s names. I failed. I tried to remember if on your last turn your dog liked the fuzzy thing tied on to the furry thing. Oh yeah, she liked your treat tossing jig and your dog is a girl and I called her a boy. Double oops. I thought the lab was ready for the reward to be behind her instead of in front and she wasn’t and ran away. Oops again. But I did remember she was a girl and not a boy. I’m not a pro yet, I still mess up. The agility instructor there asks hard questions where I sometimes scratch my head and go, “Hmmm. I think actually, I don’t put it on cue. We just run fast and yell, GO GET THE COOKIES, is that like a cue?” and she doesn’t look impressed. I worry I don’t use enough dog training science words. I let the dogs jump up on my chest. I tell another lady to channel a yoga vibe. Blank stare.
People are on their phones and devices. I assume they’re bored out of their wits and texting all their friends about this about getting ripped off by an overdressed Californian agility teacher who keeps running out the door and making snowballs. She didn’t let them use the contact equipment hardly at all. She wants the dogs to snuggle. But it turns out they're taking notes. Of things I say! This is a good sign.
As the day went on, this is the kind of thing that started happening. The little black and white dog comes out and on each turn he’s grabbing the toy more. He started out on high alert, tail erect and paranoia eyes peering at every nook and cranny. By his last turn, he’s flying over the jump and through the tunnel and he’s running to a little squeaky ball. Actually, that’s his second to last turn. On his last turn, his person asks can she just bring him out and play with the squeakies, instead of running the sequence? End on a short and sweet note instead of over doing it for her sensitive dog? My heart goes pitter patter. Later she told me this is the first time he’s ever been able to play like that in front of other dogs and that normally he just trots around the agility, never galloping down the line like that or asking to engage with a game with her. He got a lot of scritchies from her and she always waited until he told her he was ready.
At the end of the day, one of the students comes up and asks, but do we HAVE to teach our dogs to jump on us? She has a massive young German Shepherd with feet the size of salad bowls. I try to sound like a Yoda Life Coach. Not everybody has to follow the same path, you and your dog are on your own journey. Also, I mention to her that all my dogs are small. Hers is the size of a pony. Maybe he can lay down instead.
I’ve been invited back, so it must have gone all right. I’ll venture to Ohio again some day, maybe some day someone would invite me to a whole other state. Maybe one with mosquitoes or alligators or open carry gun laws. Agility teaching is an adventure!
Would I go back to a seminar with Banksy to learn again as a student? I would. I’d make sure I wasn’t out of Advil though before hand. Did anything get fixed? I guess fix isn’t the right word. Changed. We’re looking for some change. So yes. And no robot surveillance unit necessary.