There’s a very common saying in working dogs: Train the dog in front of you. Not the one you wish you had.
Everyone knows it. Every new handler hear it constantly from their training directors, from their fellow handlers.
It’s a real temptation, this “next dog.” The mystery K9 you will pluck from the pound, or drop $2,000 on from a well-known working line breeder, the dog that will achieve certification in like two months, never have a bad day, never take a dump in the middle of a search problem, and probably won’t even shed.
We dream of this dog. We see this dog elsewhere on our teams, handled by those who clearly don’t appreciate these magnificent animals as well as we would if we had them. We know that the next dog will be amazing.
Meanwhile, our hardworking K9 sits dutifully at our side, waiting for whatever command we are going to give them, hoping we get the timing better on this next reward and that we don’t miss their cues and leave them out there too long by our misdirection.
There’s another problem new handlers face, and that is that they are new handlers. This is also news to us, er, them. So as new handlers, our timing is always off. We don’t understand enough to really get the training done we need. We know this, deep down inside. And it makes us grumpy. We are anxious. We are angry. We misplace our frustration and put it where it doesn’t belong: our partners.
The only thing harder than taking a pet dog and turning it into a working K9 is taking an inexperienced pet dog owner and turning her into a working K9 handler, a person with confidence, patience, wisdom, strength and humility.
It’s hard to be that inexperienced pet dog owner. It’s harder to make the journey.
My first few years as a SAR K9 handler have been unbelievably difficult, a Sisyphean exercise on the hill of my own ego. We have failed more than we’ve succeeded, and much of our struggle has been because I am very, very slow on the uptake. Did you know that you have to let go of control to work a SAR dog? Yes. It’s true.
SAR and training a dog for SAR works for my salvation. I say this a lot, because it is true. All those things that make good handlers good handlers are good traits for humans, godly traits even.
I’m hopeful that we are getting there. I think the photos below are proof.
The above photograph was taken on a cold day in March. I was really distracted and angry at where we found ourselves, progress-wise. Helo knew it. Even though he found what we were looking for, the look on his face tells me that he does not trust me, he does not know how I will react and he’s really not sure he wants to be there right now.
When I first saw this photograph, I was embarrassed. There it was, in living color, for me to see: my strained relationship with my partner, my ego in the way of our work, my desire to work another dog, any other dog, was clearly felt by him on this day.
It broke my heart.
So for the past couple months, I stopped worrying about Helo and nagging him about the work he was doing. All of our training sessions were spent working on me, my attitude, my focus, putting my heart in the right place. I needed to control my emotions, my passions, in order to give him the space to succeed.
Fast forward to a couple of weeks ago. Same place in the search problem, right before the final indication.
Different dog. Different team. This picture brought tears to my eyes for completely different reasons.
For the past two years, I’ve been looking past the dog I had, and yet at the same time depending on his performance to validate me as a handler. How unfair is that to such a loyal, attentive and gifted creature!?
It has taken a lot of work. And like all journeys and trips worth taking, it’s going to take a lot more to get to where we need to be.
I share this tonight, a departure from my usual musings on the human condition, to share this bit of my condition. I ask for your continued prayers, your support as I work to be the handler Helo needs me to be, the wife my husband needs me to be, the human being that the world needs me to be.
For just like you shouldn’t look past your dog to the next one, we can’t look past the life we have right now to live the one we don’t have. This is our day. These are our choices, our moments. Live in them, fully.
I posted Wednesday night on Facebook about how grateful I am for the people in my life. I meant it, and I want to expand a bit on it here.
Believe it or not, I am an introvert. I behave like an extrovert for TJTP, but I do not find big groups of people enjoyable or energizing. However, I really do love people on a personal level. I love hearing their stories, seeing their scars, learning from them and watching them grow.
And I have been richly blessed by the people in my life, with genuine connections to so many people. It makes me tear up sometimes when I think about it. (shhh don’t tell)
The main difference between Orthodoxy and all other strains of Christianity I had explored is literally “Communion,” the sharing in the Sacraments. The Mysteries of God really do connect us in a way that is mystical and sturdy. I find an instant connection with those in the Church.
I often say that training Helo is working for my salvation. I believe that quite wholeheartedly. Training dogs is humbling work. Admitting you don’t know how to communicate in a way that’s understandable is embarrassing to a professional communicator. It’s humbling to fail so much at something into which you are putting so much. It is always very hard for me to ask for help. It’s hard to put yourself out there, with your dog, in testing, or competition or work. It’s even harder when you fail.
Helo and I have failed. Many many times. But we’re getting better. We’re growing.
I know that I have had the support of my Church people, through prayer and encouragement. Thank you all for that. Thank you for asking me at coffee hour how training is going, for listening to me talk about the joys of human remains detection over donuts, for praying for our safety in our work, and for praying for me and asking about the TJTP. That job gets a bit lonely at times and I know I have your love there. It means a lot.
My family and non-dog/SAR friends have been pretty awesome as well. I have been a total chatterbox for two years now on the miracles and wonders of lying in the woods and waiting for a dog to come and bark at me. I have badgered many about coming to hide in holes and boxes, regardless of weather or conditions. I have moaned about our latest struggle and babbled like a brook about any success we have had. Please know I am trying not to take you all for granted. We can’t do this without you and your patience. Thank you. Thank you.
At some level too, not the Mystical one of actual Communion, but at a very deep and meaningful human level– a way that I think it should be for everyone somewhere in their lives– my dog people have saved me this year too. There has been a true communion of connection and support.
When you are passionate about something, and you find others who share that passion and that drive; and who are committed to helping you cultivate it more in yourself, it’s just extraordinary.
New friends whose paths I crossed at seminars or elsewhere, for whom I felt an instant “THIS PERSON needs to be in my life”; Facebook friends who have trained and worked for years, who are quick to answer questions, to offer tips and patience; my teammates who deal with me with unfailing patience and humor, for you all I am so thankful.
Such connections are a gift. To those reading this for whom this is true, thank you. Thank you for investing in my life, in my skills, in my dog. Thank you for caring enough to check on us, spur us on, pull us up when we’ve been down.
I light candles in the back of the Church for those whom I love and who are on my mind. It’s been a veritable forest quite frequently in recent months for all of you.
It’s Great and Holy Friday. Christ hangs on the cross in the center of the church. I will go later today to sign hymns of Lamentations, to mourn alongside His mother and disciples. Tonight we will bury Him. Tomorrow night we will await His Glorious Resurrection.
In light of all this, I want to make sure you know something. I knew it, but I forget it all the time, because I live here, in the West, where Christianity is all about a God who is so angry at us being us that He had to sacrifice His own Son to appease Himself. (Ridiculous, isn’t it.)
This was never about that.
Fr. Andrew reminded me of this no less than four times this week, in a couple of homilies and in confession. And he didn’t use these words, exactly, but it’s how my brain is wired these days, so I’m using them.
THIS WAS ALWAYS ABOUT RESCUE.
Always. From the absolute moment we decided to do what we did, and every moment of every day that we do what we do, this has been about that.
It has been about Love. And Sacrifice. About Healing. And Wholeness. It is about Death, but it is, oh boy is it, about Life.
It’s about a Divine Hand, two actually, outstretched and reaching. It’s about moving heaven, earth and the gates of hell to free us from the rubble of our own brokenness, our own hurts, our pain, our shame, our loneliness and vulnerability. It’s about pushing the broken pieces of our lives aside to get us out.
I have a lot of friends who do not believe what I believe. And that is OK with me. I love them and I love the way they challenge me and walk alongside of me and talk with me about these things, regardless of our differences.
But if you do not believe what I believe, because you have distinctly chosen to reject the god of “substitutionary atonement” (doesn’t that sound lovely), the god who “hates F#%$” and leaves tracts in restaurants in lieu of tips, the god who worries more about what people do than what people are (icons, made in His image), it’s OK. I rejected him too. I had to. That other “faith” was killing me.
And this God came for me. He showed up on a commuter train in Washington D.C. when I was on the edge, in the words of a new friend. He carefully and methodically moved aside those broken pieces in my own heart, freed me from the traps I made and is gradually putting me back together. We’re not done yet, but this isn’t a simple process. It’s always been about healing. It’s never, ever, ever been about hell.
God is Love. He kept saying that. I choose to believe Him.
“The wise thief didst thou make worthy of paradise in a single moment. By the wood of Thy cross, illumine me as well. And save me.”
I will sing this hymn late next week as we move closer to Pascha. I have never needed to sing this hymn more than I need to sing it now. Lent is always hard. ALWAYS. You try to turn your brain more inward, make it function alongside your soul, make yourself one being: Mind/Spirit/Body. You try to clean up, clear out and make a firmer move toward holiness, toward becoming deified. You mean it.
And I meant it this year. I always do. But things are getting so damn complicated anymore. The Job That Doesn’t Pay takes up a good 12 hours a week, on average. Add that to the Job That (barely) Pays and it’s 40+ and the 6.5 hours of commute time to get to that one…sigh. I’ve been a bit busy. And recent events and ridiculousness are leaving my faith frayed to dangerous extremes.
I do guilt extremely well. It’s an aggravating holdover from my Western Christian days, the days obsessed with legal standing and paying debts and all that other crap. So I feel really really guilty about missing Lenten church services (for TJTDP) to get my stuff together for a search, and for missing last weekend for a 48-hour training. There’s going to be Lazarus Saturday skipped for more training.
The corrective to that guilt, though, was the live rescue of a missing person by a K9 on our team. This work with TJTDP is necessary and I need to do it. My dog’s good at it and it’s a skill we can share. So we’re getting over that right quick.
In the middle of all this, the actual obligations, my home state decided to wade into controversy up to its eyeballs. I tried very hard to hide under a rock and ignore it, but I found it discussed everywhere, by everybody. It was as inescapable as the wind in an open field, even in places I felt were safe. It’s personal to me because I know the people behind the bill, and I know their care and concern for the “least of these” extends only to those who are adult white males, married to women. They advised my old churches on how to hide child abuse. They lobby to keep states from cracking down on abuse in religious schools, colleges and mission organizations. They are getting fitted for their millstones. (And no, I am not sorry I said that.) They miss, of course, that the Golden Rule (and pretty much all the teachings of all the Gospel) is best distilled down to “Don’t Be an Asshole.” I know, it’s hard.
I found out one of my favorite humans in all the universe suffered a terrible loss. My heart broke for her.
So I hid this week, flat out. Skipped a Wednesday liturgy, where I knew the controversy would be hanging out at the potluck. I took my pup and went to a rubble pile. Nothing makes you “present” like trying not to fall into a jagged piece of concrete, rebar sticking out everywhere, looming up where you want to put your foot.
I guess I just found my analogy. This Lent has been an absolute disaster. And I have misstepped, over-stepped and caused landslides of anger in my own heart. I find myself now, as the thief, in the last minute, the midnight hour, trying to get it right. I am reaching out and reaching up. If you read this, and you are so inclined, I ask for your prayers over the next nine days as I approach the Feast of Pascha. Pray I might find a quiet place inside my soul to retreat, even when all around me seems to be going all to hell.
Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a very obvious sinner.
In my head, I know that someday I’m going to have one of those homes. The ones that look like a perfect picture on Pinterest (hey, look, alliteration). But I am here to tell you, this is not that someday. My stuff is still in boxes, going on two years now from the wedding day (yes, I know I should pitch it. I’ll likely never use it again). We have mismatched carpet, mismatched couches, mismatched recliners covered in throws. My husband and I are both “droppers.” We come in the door and dump it on the table. One of us (me) is way, way worse.
Once a year, the priest comes into the homes of the Orthodox with his holy water and his sprinkly-thingamabop. He puts on his stole and we kiss an icon and say some prayers and go around the house, singing “Lord, your baptism in the River Jordan taught us to worship the Trinity…” Monday was that day for me.
I spent Saturday night into Sunday morning running around a shopping mall training dogs. Last week was the week of murder and mayhem, the anniversary of a friend’s death and I just generally was pooped by Sunday evening. I tried to clean, I swear I did. Monday morning dawned with the dog puking at the foot of the bed (lovely wake-up call).
I really wanted to cancel, tell Fr. A something came up, whatever. But I didn’t and he showed up.
Funny thing about leading your priest around your house…you notice all the things you should have noticed like an hour before. Things that do not belong “out” for “company.” Things that would result in a lecture from your mother. These things. Sigh. Were. OUT.
And they got sprinkled with Holy Water. They did, along with the .45-caliber handgun on the book shelf, the pocket pistol by the television, the tac knives, and the search dog. My icon corner did as well, along with the, um, girl things, sitting on a dresser near by.
He blessed the sun porch–filled with diving gear, a flag from the fire department, EMT med bags, 24-hour search packs and the dog food. He blessed the barn, including my heavy bag and a gopher hole, a log splitter and the quads.
I was mostly appalled. I still blush.
Grace is never really convenient for me. I never get to clean up, wash my hands, straighten everything out and stop cussing loudly when it knocks on my door.
My life is EXACTLY like the house. Every single thing strewn about in our living space is exactly what we deal with every single day: the stresses of emergency response, life as a crime writer, two middle-aged adults trying to figure out married life.
And grace always shows up in the middle of it, knocking the snow off its boots and marching right into the intimate places, the vulnerable places and the mess.
Thank God. If it waited for me to straighten up first, well, nothing good would ever happen.
I know everyone says this, but I really don’t like change. I wish things could stay the same. Actually, no. What I wish is I could have new good things along with all the comfortable old things. I believe that is what is colloquially referred to as “having’s one’s cake…”
But whatever. Change gets my knickers in a bunch. Feeling a pull of two competing obligations makes me completely crazy and renders me totally incapable of enjoying anything. That means that, for example, if I am at a Holy Week service by myself, and my husband is at home eating a frozen meal (having an affair with Marie Callender), I will be feeling guilty for not being there. Or, conversely, if I am at home, eating a Lenten dinner of mixed bean salad, after having cooked him some chicken dish, I will feel guilty about not being at Church.
What’s a girl to do?
She’s to relax, and calm the heck down, that’s what.
Welcome to my first Lent, my first Pascha and my first four months as a married person. It’s also the first time I’ve not lived within a super-convenient 15 minutes from church. I’m 40 minutes from everything now, and while I just smiled a second ago when the rooster crowed down the road, I was struggling last night to keep the car on the highway as I wandered home from the late-night Lamentations service.
In 12 hours, we’ll be at Pascha. My poor husband, who had never seen or heard of Orthodoxy till he met me, will be experiencing his first Pascha — in which the church will be filled with about 70% of people we’ve never seen there before. There will be all kinds of “ritual” as he calls it that could not be more different from the country church he grew up in if you plunked him down on Mars. He’s quite the trooper. He had an Orthodox wedding in January, and in a week, we’ll be the godparents at the baptism of my nephew (a baby).
But for me, this has been this completely frustrating 50 days or so of trying to balance what I used to do with what I need to do. I told Fr. Andrew in confession the other day I wished I had fully enjoyed my single-life when I had it, spiritually-discipline-wise. I wasted so much time because I had it to waste. Now, I’d kill to have more time. (And be married…there’s that whole cake saving-eating problem again).
Fr. Andrew, because he’s smart like that, reminded me that this marriage is a sacrament. Being married works for my salvation, and A’s, as we figure out how to live together, build a life together, etc. Being a wife, a partner, one joined to another sacramentally works for my salvation, and A’s. I should not knock it, or feel guilty about it. I should, and am trying, to embrace this new thing, and all that it will bring me and us.
But it sure is different (good-different, in case you think I am griping. I am not).
So tonight, I’ll process around the Church and my hubby, who is so non-demonstrative, will help the men set up the inside of the Church for the Pascal liturgy. He will plug in in his way, while I do my thing. And then, together, we will say the portions of the service that he says every week–the Creed, the Lord’s Prayer, etc. And afterward we’ll gather with our church family in the hall to eat, laugh, drink and celebrate the Resurrection of our Lord.
We will do so as a family — this new family, this sacramental unit known legally as the Knights.