Being the well honed soldiers that our Drill Sergeants raised us up to be, we had spent the previous night in preparation for the big morning. This highly detailed preparation included playing World of Warcraft, chatting on Facebook, eating at the local steak place, and participating in the jovial banter that accompanies every group of soldiers anywhere they go. What we should have done is consider the weather in Indiana, and pack accordingly for the next day of training. A phrase that didn’t really cross our minds: dogs = outside = really friggin’ cold! The instructors, being highly attuned to animal behavior, and also seasoned military veterans, noticed our shortcomings in preparation and took advantage of the situation to help us remember that we, as individuals, are responsible for our equipment. No one holds your hand in the dog world.
After spending 2 hours stumbling through calf deep wet grass, with Fama bolting around like a furry tether-ball, or that energy ball thing in the movie Men in Black (with teeth), in a steady drizzle, I was wet, had 2 holes in my brand new uniform, and I couldn’t feel my face. Lacking the $300 Gortex jacket and fleece liner that was keeping my duffel safe and warm in my apartment, I got really cold. Fama seemed to sense this, though I have no idea how as I seemed to mean about as much to her as the wet grass (nothing), so she thought she would help warm me up.
At this point in training, we were not permitted to give the dogs any correction at all. “Just hang out and let them get used to you. Start forming a bond with the dogs,” was our instruction. So when Fama decides it’s time to recreate Billy-Bob’s National Championship Tractor Pull FULL RUN, all I can do is hang on. I know you can see it in your head; ears back, chest 2 inches off the ground, feet dug in, with me leaning back at a 45 degree angle, 2 hands on the leash, loop around my wrist like a complete noob. I think to myself David, you are a dog guy. You have been doing this for years with dogs WAY bigger than…. (I check her collar for her name at this point because Fama is a ridiculous name for a dog, and my brain refuses to put the word with the picture), WAY bigger than Fama! She didn’t get the memo from my local club stating that all dogs listen to the dog guy (me). Fama is barking at every dog in the field and pulling towards them in random fashion. When Fama gets tired of having this anchor attached to her flat collar, she turns around and barks at me, with an occasional lunge for good measure. We were on our way to becoming best friends.
I look around and everyone else is having a great time. Their dogs are calming down, coming back to the handlers for sweet pets and face kisses. Some of them are standing calmly at their handler’s side, enjoying life. Fama still hasn’t made meaningful eye contact with me. I didn’t know that bonding with a dog could include 3 blisters on each hand, 2 partially separated shoulders, and a groin pull. Heath! Brother! What did you do to me!
Play time is over, and it’s time to start working the dogs. We are instructed to put our dogs in their crates, 2 of which are in the back of each SUV, and stage outside the building with 1 dog working inside, and one on-deck ready to go. I lead Fama over to the truck and open the door, remembering how the whole crate thing went last time, and asked her to sit. Now she is really excited! It’s CRATE TIME daddy! She sits with her whole body vibrating, hovering 2 inches off the ground. I’m considering calling that Copperfield guy; we could work her into one of his acts for sure! I decide I will just wait her out until she calms down, and then allow her to get what she wants; access to the crate so she can tear my face off. 15 minutes later, I cave and have to get her into the crate. The instructors are yelling at us to get into the building so we can learn something. Plus, it’s relatively warm in there, and my lips are blue. So I go through my familiar calming ritual; gather myself, take a deep breath, go to my happy place, and summon my power animal. Horse$hit. Whoever came up with this crap didn’t have a pissed off German Shepherd at the end of 6 foot of leather. I open the crate door, now she’s lunging, and give the kennel command in my tiniest, most soothing-est voice. Fama leaps into the crate, does a 360 that Tony Hawk would be damn proud of, and attacks the crate door as I slam it shut. So you want to be a dog handler, huh?!
The training barn is a pole barn of about 40 feet by 120 feet, with a dirt floor and rooms built along the walls for training activities. It is relatively clean, considering what goes on in there, and thankfully out of the elements. We receive several blocks of instruction concerning leash control and beginning search techniques. I’m really warming up now. I think I can almost feel 3 of my toes. Things are really looking up! We are to observe the dog teams that are currently working until it is our turn to bring our dogs in, so we have some idea of what to do. The first dog team enters the building, and I can see right away how this is going to go. Remember the tractor pull scene from earlier in the movie (Paramount: hint hint) multiply it by infinity, and take it to the depth of forever, and you will still have barely a glimpse of what I’m talking about. These dogs know exactly what they are about to do. The have performed in this place many, many times before, and working is the best thing in the world. MUST… GET… BALL!!!
Earlier in the day we are told by Ken, and the rest of the instructors, that our week 1 goal is to suck. We are supposed to suck. It is inevitable. Well, suck we did! Dogs are pulling handlers everywhere. Handlers are stepping on dog’s feet. Whenever a dog gets it’s reward, the handler and all those observing verbally praise the dog. If you are a PetsMartian (thanks Tresa Hendrix) you may think of praise as a quiet, “Good Boy,” with a gentle pat on the head. You would be cosmically wrong. Picture the field after the final whistle blows at the Superbowl. That is praise baby! There are 24 people going nuts every 45 seconds, and the dogs are just losing their minds. If you loved your job this much, your supervisor would have to Taser you to get you to go home. What I didn’t consider at the time was that Fama could hear all this through the sheet metal walls of the building, and that she knew exactly what was going on inside. To say that she was ready to go would be an understatement.
I’m really excited to get in there and suck with the rest of the guys, and I hit the door outside at a trot. I round the corner to where the vehicles are lined up and stop, dead in my tracks. My truck looks like one of those cars with fuzzy dice, tiny wheels, and the day-glo paint job, bouncing around the parking lot. It looks like Hulk Hogan and Randy the Macho Man are dropping flying elbows off the top rope, in the back of the SUV. No power animal this time. I just head to the door with a perfect mental image of Fama graciously complying with my request to join me in the training barn for some tea and crumpets. I open the crate and she bites me, right on the hand. Thankfully, it was just a pressure bite (all you PetsMartians calm down. Dogs bite) and I’m not even bleeding very bad. Time to get in there and get to work!
With a loud and clear, “Dog IN!” I head into the training barn with Fama on a short leash for control, yeah right, and maneuver to the first room. We go through the door into the room and she starts this warbling quiver, like a mating call for some large exotic bird (with teeth). I take my quick set of instructions, promptly forget all of them, and put her to work. Everything changed. This crazy animal mystically transforms, as if by magic, into Zen Master Quong Lee, at one with the universe. She found the training aid so fast that I really didn’t have time to do anything, let alone anything resembling dog handling, except suck. Mission accomplished. I give Fama her reward, a ball, and join in the praise fest. I actually had a tear in my eye. This was the most amazing thing I have ever seen a dog accomplish. After several reassuring words from Eddie, another big biker guy with the cutest little oggie-boogie voice, I realize it’s time to get my ball back.