As a judge and an instructor, I often say that no matter the outcome of a run, you go home with the very best dog. Enjoy the moment because you never know if this will be the last. Our last moment together has gone, but I know without a doubt that whatever happened in life or competition, I will always go home with the very best dog.
I had planned to put the finishing touches on a post about partnership, consent, bravery, patience, persistence and love that I had started after a particularly memorable and important weekend of competition earlier this month after saying goodbye peacefully and with love to 16-year-old Pookie on February 1. It was one of the milestone trials where relationship and training came together in so many ways, where there was so much joy in the game for my dogs and me. It was exactly why I play the game.
Instead, I find myself needing to share the life of a very special and very odd little dog who taught me so much and brought me so much happiness. A week ago, Riley and I celebrated earning her Senior Barn Hunt title, no small feat for any team and in our case, exceptionally special and important to me. Saturday, Riley left me so suddenly I m still struggling to make sense of the fact that she is simply not here with me. We weren’t finished. Not even close.
Riley was, without a doubt, different. She was not a reactive dog nor really a fearful dog. She was not abused. She did not lack training or socialization. No critical milestones were missed. No major trauma was inflicted. Riley was just weird from the day she was born. She related to the world around her differently than other dogs. She was a highly intelligent, affectionate and loving dog. She was a brave dog. She was also simply a weird dog and there was nothing wrong with that.
Her interactions with her own kind were stilted and filled with misunderstanding. Riley simply didn’t read signals well and dogs responded to her own odd social advances by simply avoiding her altogether. That was fine with Riley and just fine with everyone else. She was a social dog who did not need an expansive and ever changing social circle. In short, she loved her brother and appreciated the temporary and transient companionship of other dogs in the hunt field but had little, if any, use for other dogs with very rare exception. She was not a lonely dog, nor was she anti-social, rude or mean. She didn’t get dog culture, dog culture didn’t get her and yet, she was a perfectly happy little creature in her own right.
For humans hoping to enter Riley’s circle of trust, there were only two routes: have a shovel in your hand or ignore her entirely. The first came from her implicit trust that anyone in the hunt field was aiding in her life’s pursuit and therefore kind of cool. For the rest, Riley had some sort of list of behaviors and traits she sought out in people that we never really made sense of. And yet, once we stopped trying to help her understand our human ways (and our human understanding of dog behavior), setting up carefully crafted playlets and interactions that worried her to no end, she would simply run through her list and if she found an individual satisfactory, would ask to interact with a nose touch. And when she was done? She simply left. She was rather like a cat that way.
So why is this important? For one, our dogs are all unique individuals. Riley was born from a multisport pedigree that had been carefully thought out and planned. Heavy lies the crown on such puppies. Imagine the expectation, the dreams and the goals. We look at a new puppy and see so much hope and promise. We see all the things that could be. I had a lot of hopes and dreams when that litter was born in my living room early one morning before flyball practice. It’s easy to forget that we can’t just put in a special order with Mother Nature to get exactly the right dog with the right set of traits built in that we then have the exact skill set and resources to build that future and achieve those dreams and goals. And then what? You love them for who they are.
I knew very early that Riley was different. I had big dreams and goals. I also had a very tiny little dog who did not see the world around her the way we did, the way her parents did or the way our other dogs did. At first, I thought she was timid or shy. She seemed fearful and easily overwhelmed. She was smart, no doubt, but the world was some shiny, loud scary place filled with noise and movement that she struggled to make sense of. But I was raising a future dog sport super star. I cannot tell you the exact moment I made peace with the fact that dog sports were probably not in our future but I do have a very clear memory of a dock jumping event where we had brought her along for the ride with her brother Drew and I found that I had a brave and brilliant little dog who may have been weird, but relieved of pressure and expectation enjoyed so many of the activities we did, just in a different way.
It was then, having Bill hold Drew at the bottom of the ramp at a busy county fair with bustling crowds, flashing neon lights and clashing sounds of laughing, music and announcers while Riley launched herself into a pool, mouth open and snapping at the air the entire way that I realized her quirks no longer induced stress. I no longer felt panicked, guilty or ashamed thinking I had done something horribly wrong in raising her. In fact, I found some her most quirky traits humorous and then I embraced and loved them because they made Riley who she was.
When most dog sport folks talk to me I know Riley isn’t the first of my dogs that comes to mind. She didn’t come home from competition weekends buckets full of ribbons. She wasn’t a flash or giant jumper on the dock. Her big claim to fame in earthdog is leaving the tunnel to hold a raccoon in a tree stump. She was one of my first barn hunt dogs and was so overwhelmed by the game when we first began competing in 2013 that she retired from the ring for several years. She chased down lures and she did win a few races. She even earned a Canine Good Citizen because on that day, she had seen the evaluator and decided he could join her inner circle. It surprised me too. I learned to ask if she wanted to compete today and she learned she had the option to say yes or no. Recently, she had begun saying say often and was genuinely having fun. She finished her Senior Barn Hunt title and even earned the first leg toward a Master Barn Hunt title just last week. What I will always remember about that weekend was how excited she was to play, how comfortable and confident she was in the blind, how brilliantly she solved tough scent challenges and communicated clearly that while she was NOT at all going near the humans on one side of the ring, there was a rat there, so I had better do my part and call it. And I am tremendously grateful for the celebration we had for every run because that celebration will help carry me through a lifetime of wondering what if.
We may have had a great time in sports, but Riley truly shined in the hunt field. We spent countless days digging up and bolting quarry near and far. California. Nevada. Utah. Wyoming. Nebraska. Tennessee. Kentucky. Just a few of the places she had gone to ground and got the job done with a confidence and determination that could not be rivaled. She was an exceptionally smart and level-headed worker. She was fair and honest. She rarely had a scratch on her and was my go to girl. She could get into places other dogs didn’t fit and she stayed however long it took until we either dug down to her or her quarry finally ran. She worked groundhog, marmot, gray fox, red fox, raccoon and anything else that came her way. She was the real deal; a true working terrier and I am so grateful to have had her as my partner.
You may not remember Riley, but if you think back to the stories I have told you will most certainly find Riley among them. Wherever he went to compete, he was always so much better with her along. She was the weird dog who snorted and spit and played a weird game of bitey face with Drew every single morning. She was the dog who deftly flaunted her brother’s most favorite toy around the living room to get him to drop the stuffed fox in his mouth, the toy she REALLY wanted. She was the dog that so very many of my best hunting stories were about. She was the dog who silently opened a crate door, climbed over the barrier in the van and dropped on my head while driving 80 MPH on I70 through Colorado only to steal the chicken tender out of my hand without even batting an eyelash. That was all Riley.
Dog sports are a very, very big part of our lives, but they are not our entire life. Despite the lack of title certificates and ribbons on the wall bearing her name, we had an amazing adventure together. It ended far too soon, and I am still struggling to cope with the incredibly large hole such a small little dog has left in my heart.
Looking back at our time together, we did so much. Much more than I even realized. And yet in a way, Riley’s life will always be unfinished. We left so many things undone, so many roads unexplored, so many fields untouched. There will always be a part of me that will wonder where our path might have lead. I will always think about those titles we were only a qualifying score away from earning. I will always miss her hoarse bark and the spit flying every time she ran past. I will miss carrying her over my arm while she snorted and wagged joyfully. She may have been weird, but she was perfect just as she was.
So here is what I know right now in my grief and pain. I love to compete with my dogs and by nature I am a competitive person. I take pride in our accomplishments. Titles are wonderful things which can demonstrate teamwork and persistence in a very finite and permanent way. And yet, titles do not measure a life. Riley was a brilliant, brave and weird little dog. For almost nine years we traveled down a path together I never imagined when she was came into the world and yet it was no less fulfilling. I learned so much from her about competition, goal setting, acceptance and individuality. Most importantly, I learned that she and I were never defined by our accomplishments or lack thereof, but by all the adventures and love in between.
Jacks Wild Something Wicked CGC CG RATI RATS JD-B DN
Ground Hog, Marmot, Raccoon, Red Fox, Gray Fox and all the vermin
March 9, 2009 – February 10, 2018
Enjoy every moment with your dog. No matter how long or how short their lives, we don’t get nearly enough time with them.