I have five dogs. It’s a lot of dogs, to some; to others, it’s not so many and actually a nice-sized ‘pack.’ Being a single woman, let me tell you: it’s a lot of dogs. They all get along with each other to the extent possible – my two females will never form fan clubs for one another – and I manage them well in the space we have. I love the group they form, and I love them individually.
They’re all herding-breed dogs (two Finnish Lapphunds, two Border Collies, and a Sheltie/Pom/Etc. mix) and they’re all intelligent and they all require work to do; so every week, I attend (and pay for) three agility classes; two nosework classes; and a tricks class. It keeps me busy! It gives shape to my week, which since I work from home, is something I value. It gives the dogs one-on-one time with me.
And sometimes it’s just too freaking much.
This summer, the carousel slowed and came to a stop after a routine visit to my doctor during which she told me I have a heart murmur. I’m 65. I’ve never been told that; in fact, my cardiac health has been excellent until now. However, my father died in his late 60s when he had a massive heart attack while out walking in our neighborhood. So the information of my heart murmur did rock my world. I started paying closer attention to symptoms I’d written off as ‘getting older’ or maybe ‘allergic asthma in Chicago in the summer’ and I let the fact sink in: my heart is not working efficiently. I have an echocardiogram scheduled for next week, as I write this. I am hopeful that it will show the docs what’s causing the murmur; odds favor a valve issue of some kind, which would be unsurprising given my age and family history. That could be treated effectively with meds, and I sure hope that’s what I will be told!
My eye doctor, sensing an opportunity to pile on the old lady, assured me that I am a candidate for cataract surgery and is planning to replace the lenses in BOTH my eyes. He also has me scheduled for a glaucoma test next month. Whoever said that getting old isn’t for sissies was 100% on the money! I drove home from the vision center with a distinct sense that I was reeling, emotionally.
With that in the foreground, I looked at the scheduled dog classes on my calendar this week and I thought: ‘No. Not now.’ So I drew a line through each of them, and I’ve been thinking about how important they are, in the scheme of things, to both me and my dogs. I stopped entering my dogs in competitions a few years ago: I know that I don’t enjoy trialing, and I know I never really did. My ideal trial would be one given at a facility ten minutes from my house, at which I could show up for an hour or so with my dog(s) and then go home. There are no such trials. The effort involved in attending a trial is more than I’m willing to make. (And don’t get me started on the dollar costs involved!)
So if I don’t trial my dogs, why do I train them – and train them to competition level? Well, because we both enjoy it! But I think we enjoy it up to a point, and I think I need to recognize that point now. Having five dogs has meant that I am always doing something. Group outings, group walks, training classes – it’s all about the dogs and activities, most days. I don’t spend a lot of time just co-existing with them without directed interaction with them. So I thought I’d give that a try for a few weeks, while I sort out the heart murmur thing and get everything lined up for the eye surgery.
I live in a small house with a very big back yard; my lot comprises about a third of an acre, which is not common in Chicago. I’ve let a lot of the yard overgrow with whatever wants to grow there, so there’s a lot of dense shrubbery, a lot of self-seeded maple and mulberry trees, and a lot of birds and some urban wildlife enjoying it. Another part of the yard is mowed twice a month and provides enough space to set up an agility course, should I want to do so. (I don’t.) Everything is securely fenced. I decided that I could make more and better use of my own property to entertain and spend time with my dogs, and on doing that I found that the dogs were quite happy with that! As anyone who has herding-breed dogs knows, if you put that dog out in a yard – even with other dogs – and leave them there, they will drift to the door or gate the way that sediment drifts to the bottom of a pool of water. They will entertain themselves there only, paradoxically, if you are there with them. But as I sat in the shade with my coffee and a book, they enjoyed the yard: playing with each other, barking at things heard from the other side of the fence, investigating smells – being dogs! Being dogs without any human being directing their activity. I quite liked it, too. I haven’t let this be a big enough part of our days.
It’s so easy, when you have dogs who ‘do things’, to get sucked into that doing and to make it most of what your life is with those dogs. And I think in doing that, I was missing out on a lot, and my dogs were too. I need my dogs to behave well as a group, but I also need my dogs to form relationships with the other dogs in the house and to build tolerance and familiarity. The root word of that last, by the way, is ‘family’ and we are a family, first and foremost. But the dogs need to be able to entertain and amuse themselves without my involvement, and they need to be able to interact with their family member dogs in a positive manner. They can only do this if they’re given the space to practice it, and ‘dog time’ without being on command.
I know I enjoy dog sports and I know my dogs enjoy them too; I just don’t know the proper dosage for us right now. I’ll discover that by trial and error, and in so doing I think I’ll discover aspects of my self and of my dogs that I haven’t been in touch with for quite a while. I’m looking forward to it. But obviously some changes are coming in my life, and I don’t know if I will be as involved in dog sports as I have been for the past 25 years: I might just enjoy the company of my dogs, and the adventures of our outings and the tranquility of our time at home. We might … just be.