It is true that a picture speaks a thousand words. A single image can bring back a beautiful memory of a beloved companion but with that memory comes a price: the pain of a loss so deep and still so fresh no matter how many years have passed. It never ceases to startle me, that visceral physical pain of loss. You are gone. You are no longer here to guide me, to love me, to be loved by me. But are they?
Spring is a busy time around here. Training is in full swing and so is the dog sport competition season. This past weekend, we hosted a barn hunt trial and two flyball tournaments. So many wonderful dogs. So many lucky people to share their lives with them. And lucky me for having the best seat to take it all in. This morning, shuffling through results and emails, calendars and student video submissions, I was unexpectedly visited by the memory of one of those truly special dogs in the form of a single photo that popped up in Facebook Memories. My first reaction was to say aloud, “Thanks, Facebook. I needed that,” with a tone that conveyed both pure sarcasm and hatred. And then after many difficult moments of reflections and yes, tears, more genuinely, “Thanks, I needed that.”
For most of us, dog sports have become a way of life. We have our own culture and community. With that comes so many human elements, because we are, after all, human. We invest our heart and soul into each activity we undertake with our beloved companion. And yes, we invest our time and our wallets into equipment, training, veterinary care, training, entry fees, travel and more. Why? For love of the dog. For love of the game.
It is easy, however, to lose our perspective in the next big run or in the heat of the moment. We are human. It can be difficult to separate feelings of self-worth with the fact that these incredible creatures are so willing to do whatever crazy thing we ask of them, simply because they love us. They believe in us. They trust us.
Still, a dropped bar, a missed call, that tenth non-qualifying run despite hours of training and work weigh on us heavily. We have invested so much of ourselves in the sport. In those moments, it is exceedingly difficult to see the good in a run, the partnership between dog and human, the glimmer of brilliance no matter how bright. All too often, handlers give up on the sport. Worse, they give up on their dog and on themselves. But yet, no matter what happened in the ring, each of us will go home with the very best dog in the world.
Corrigan was born here on Mother’s Day in 2006 and despite my insistence to the contrary at the time, destined to stay here. He was both silly and serious. He knew me inside and out. He loved me unconditionally and forgave me for being human. When I was down, he brought me joy. When I was very ill, he sought help. He was my shadow, my familiar, my partner in crime. He was THAT dog. He was also a fantastic athlete and a willing teammate. In short, he was everything to me. He was the best dog in the world.
Near the end of his life, Corrigan had suffered a severe spinal injury. Our bright competition career slowly and painfully came to an end. For so much of our time together, we had been a competitive team. We were a great team. But I learned quickly after his injury that our relationship and our life together was never defined by the qualifying scores, rosettes and titles.
As I reflect on our time together, I remember all those moments of brilliance. I also remember specific challenging times as a team. What I remember most, however, is that he loved to have his nails painted. At the smell of nail polish for my own toes, with a silly smile on his face he would put his paw on my foot repeatedly until his were done too. It’s a silly memory, but the one I cherish most because it was just so Corrigan.
It’s a Monday morning after a long dog sport weekend. Everyone is exhausted, physically and emotionally. There will be celebrations and complaints, great joy and sadly, moments of despair. This is the dog sport lifestyle. Monday’s are the day we over analyze. There will be moments where we focus on what we should have done or how we could have handled something better. We will focus in on a training plan. We will commiserate and celebrate with other humans and with our dogs too. We will feel confident or we will struggle. It’s a Monday after a long dog sport weekend.
But in a week, a month, a year, a decade how will you remember this time?
Our dogs never truly leave us. These memories are painful because of loss but also filled with so much love, joy and humor. How I will I remember this time? I will be honest. It won’t be the titles we earned. For me, it will be the simple joy of a dorky terrier smile with neon green toe nails who woke up every morning and said, “What are we doing today, lady? Let’s go have some fun.”
Thanks for the reminder this Monday after, Corrigan. And thank you to all the incredible dogs I have loved and lost. I learned so much from each of you and am so incredibly fortunate to have had the opportunity to share the adventure with you.