Capturing the moments, and living there

 

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.

Ugh.

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.

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We’re not quite sure…

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.

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I’ve got it!

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.

Picking up rocks

 

 

Confession last week, just me, my priest and the icons. And all the things I drag with me.

This time, the lesson of this year’s Great Lent, it was resentment. It really wasn’t pretty.

I really should ask Fr. Andrew if Helo can come to confession with me. I guarantee he knows EXACTLY what I need to tell him, because whatever it is about that little dog and our SAR journey together, it reveals my character: constantly, in all its ugly glory.

(Aa could probably chip in too, but he comes to church, so if he’s really fed up, I guess he could corner the priest.)

Over the past few months, as frustration continued to build in my professional life, and training Helo in this new task of human remains detection did not take off as easily as I thought it might (read: felt entitled to), I found myself struggling with a creeping resentment.

Here’s the funny thing about that: resentment undoes any good you might have done, it adds fuel to anger, and just really makes you feel miserable. It is as emotionally untenable as picking up a good-size pebble and sticking it in your boot, then going on a lengthy hike.

As I drove away, back to TJTP which is nowhere near as fun as I wish it was, I thought about where resentment came from, for me.

I resented a whole bunch of things, and what they were will remain between me, God, Fr. Andrew and the saints who were listening in.

In general, though it was disappointment + entitlement – motivation. Whatever I thought I earned (read: entitled to have) and didn’t get, minus the motivation to either go reclaim it, get better or move on…

It was a mess. It made me nag my dog, badgering him to fix problems that were really mine, over-correcting him for mistakes he made because I sent him bad information. It made me sleep in too late, stay up too late, grumble too much and generally just not give a shit.

And I never would have noticed, or would have noticed much later, had it not been for Helo and his special nature, the way he tried to fill the void of the absence of leadership in our team. He did this by making decisions (incorrectly) or just flat ignoring me and my wasteful words and negative energy.

Saturday, a few days after this all occurred to me, I sent him out to find some of the stuff we find, this time on a longer training problem. I worked on handling me, more than him. As the heat rose on the gravel pit where we had placed the source, Helo chased it into the cool spots and up around the ridges, doing exactly what I asked him to do pretty much most of the time.

I worked on realizing that this is where we are. If we were supposed to be someplace else, that’s where we’d be. This was, as a friend told me the week before, the place where the universe wanted me for the higher purpose.

It’s where I’m supposed to be to be saved, to cook off the ego and the entitlement, shake free the rocks of resentment.

A few hours later, I was back in the gravel pit again, this time watching the boss work the same problem with her K-9. The problem had become much more complicated by time. The sun was higher in the sky, the scent more diffuse and harder to chase, but they got there. She remained calm, never nagged, listening and watching the dog communicate with her in the way they do–with flicks of tails or ears, changes in body language, a glance up, a nose down.

As she worked, I found a small white rock, worn smooth by the sand and the water and the years. I worried it with my fingers as we walked back to our trucks to finish the day. I carried it home in my pocket.

I will, however, be sure to keep it out of my shoe.

(Gratuitous photograph of Helo taken by my sister-in-law on a day when my character was particularly revealed. Sigh)_DSC0221

 

Chasing deer and Forgiveness Sunday.

Helo and I failed our second attempt at an area search certification back in December. He chased a deer. It’s an awful powerful distraction to work through, particularly when you (the dog) are yards away from your handler, already in a hunting mode (looking for a human) and a deer pops up out of the underbrush right in front of you.

It’s an awful powerful frustration to work through, if you’re the rookie handler and your dog just disappears, the little ringing of the bell on his collar fading to nothing. You call out and pray his loyalty to you and commitment to a recall is strong enough to overcome the lure of the escaping prey.

It was. But neither of us recovered. He came back to me looking like a crack addict, pupils dilated and crazy, his brain done for the day in a flood of adrenaline. For my part, I felt like I was losing a fight in the end of the last round. Punching wildly, I sent him back out to search. He found his next “victim” but instead of barking, sat down next to him and gave him a kiss. He then trotted back to me, looked up at me with his intense amber eyes. “I was supposed to do something differently there, wasn’t I.”

We were done. Back to the drawing board…which for us is not my search strategy or building his alert, but overcoming very understandable and natural desires to do what we do: to hunt and to fight/defend.

Today is Forgiveness Sunday in the Orthodox Church, where we gather together as parish families and seek the forgiveness of each other while we sing the hymns of Lent and the Resurrection. If I were closer to church, and not over-committed in my day, I’d be there. Sometimes though I feel like I’ve had so few interactions with my parish family that, apart from being offensive in my absence, I pretty much need to seek forgiveness from everyone else.

I chase deer all the time, my eyes glaze over as I relentlessly pursue being right or having a fight. I am easy to anger, very quick to speak, to flash hot with indignation or defense. I use a particular word, the “duct tape” of the human language, frequently as a subject, a noun, or a descriptor, in some sentences all three.

I never really understood the Orthodox idea of the “passions” until that Saturday afternoon in the woods near Camp Atterbury. These things I do are often justified, certainly in my mind, by reasonable needs, desires or wants. I am right, ergo it is OK for me to throw a fit to prove how right I am. Or you are wrong and it is hurting people, therefore it is perfectly fine for me to lose my cool and my mind. It’s not unusual for a dog to chase a deer. It’s not even a bad thing, under most circumstances.

But we’re not in most circumstances. We have a very specific job to do, and that job, finding lost people, requires us to put aside what we would rather be doing, or even could be doing. I have to ride his fuzzy little ass now to keep that hunting instinct in check, or better yet, channeled to the proper quarry for him now: humans.

My life isn’t actually most circumstances either. It’s a world populated with people with their own critical needs, hurts, fears, and losses. It’s a world that doesn’t need me losing control, even if understandable or justifiable. It’s a world that needs me to be what I am called to be: a little Christ, a person who loves well and fully, without regard for my own position. I don’t believe that means I am a pushover, but it probably means I can’t tell my bosses their ideas are %&$^# moronic. Probably, at least, not.

So for all those here in the digital world, or in my flesh-and-blood world I have offended, hurt, irritated or just generally treated badly: Forgive me, my brothers and sisters.

Blame the dog

(Or How Dogs Change Everything)

There’s a sign hanging in the training building I have seen or heard with every trainer I’ve ever worked with: “It’s never the dog’s fault.”

It’s true. It’s not Helo’s fault if I can’t figure out how to get him to understand what I’m asking of him. It’s not his fault he’s a dog and not a person who walks on all fours.

But I blame him, and his predecessor Sunshine, for so much anyway. And it’s ok. I think my trainers will let me.

On April 15, 2006 I met my sister at the Hacienda Restaurant in Warsaw to collect a middle-aged Golden Retriever. Three days before I got the dog, I came back from Rome, having cancelled the wedding plans with the Great Italian A$$hole (it’s a great story, ask me about it sometime when we’re drinking adult beverages). It needed to happen, and one of the reasons it did happen was because I knew I had something waiting for me very soon.

I grew up with dogs, a dog specifically, a beautiful Lab from hunting trial lines who kept me sane and kept me safe from myself for more than a decade growing up in that house. But in my adult life in Fort Wayne, I had not been able to get (or was afraid to allow myself) a dog.  Sunny was the perfect dog to bridge that gap.

As I drove away from the restaurant, I looked into the rear view mirror and saw a scene I would see constantly for the next six years–that big soft red-gold head propped between the back seats, dozing as she watched out the window. That big sweet dog accompanied me to therapy sessions, got me off my couch and introduced me to my neighbors. My desire to give her more room led to the purchase of my house. 381512_10150514677219437_278700776_n

She slept under my desk in the bureau, and went with me to everything from fire scenes to school board meetings. She spent an afternoon with the Bluffton police chief while I covered a court hearing.

I know that her constant presence in my life healed my heart in a way I could not have predicted that day I watched her hop into my car. I know that what she nurtured in my soul prepared the way for A. When she became ill at the end, A came to my house and helped me put her on her bed. As Sunny was unable to stand or walk, my friend J came the next morning with me to take her to the vet. When it was time for her to cross the Bridge, I held her head in my lap and her leg in my hand as I thanked her and told her it was OK to go.

A week later, that little fuzzy ball of black fur with the speckled tan paws showed up, a polar opposite of that old Golden in every way possible.

With Helo, it became clear from moment one he needed a job. Sunshine possessed no motivation for anything beyond rawhide bones and belly rubs. Helo, though, he wanted to be with me all the time, assist me in whatever task I was doing, climb on my lap, chew on my hands and shred anything he could find.

Within a few months of his arrival, we were in obedience classes. We walked every day to the football field at a nearby college campus and I wore his furry little butt out with tennis balls and soccer.

When I moved in with A, Helo’s life became fields and groundhogs, barns to explore and new roads to run. But it wasn’t enough. So we got him another job (hopefully) and with it, more people for me to meet, friendships to build and adventures to have.

I blame Sunshine for so much of this, for starting me on this journey by being safe. I blame Helo for the rest of it, for needing so much more from me than I thought I could give.

In the book of Tobit, there is a dog. The dog came out with Tobit’s son and journeyed with him. That is all we know.

1426301_10151916285291743_240149804_nFor me, the dog has often led and I’m fine with that.