My anachronisms were at loose ends. Turtle raced along the fence, Dixie dug holes, and Crystal leaned against my legs and sighed.
“They need a purpose,” Shingo suggested.
He had a point. A dalmatian, a water spaniel, and a bloodhound–a coach breed, a hunting-retriever, and a scent hound: These dogs were bred for tasks. When they roamed the beaches as strays, survival kept them focused. But once health and strength were restored by the basic care I provided, their need for activity surfaced. I could walk them all day, and they’d still long for challenge.
“I don’t need a purpose,” I told Shingo.
He poked me. “That’s because you’re in Shangri-La.”
A few days later, he pulled up in a borrowed pickup truck, the bed loaded with shiny odd-shaped things.
“It’s an agility course,” he said. “The county fairgrounds had an auction. They’re getting a new set.”
We hauled out the aluminum and plastic poles, hoops, tunnels, and platforms and set them up in the back meadow.
“It’s solar-powered,” Shingo said.
“What do we need it solar-powered for?” I asked.
“The lights?” Shingo replied. “You’d like a plain wooden one better, wouldn’t you? We can get some old fencing and porch floors and make one. Use this in the interim.”
“I like it fine,” I said. I would have liked wood better, but it wasn’t for me. And it was a kind gesture.
Crystal sniffed each pole as we snapped it in place.
Dixie trotted around every structure, and Turtle ran the circumference.
“Do you know how to do agility-course training?” Shingo asked.
I didn’t. Neither did he.
He wandered off to paint, leaving me and the anachronisms in the meadow.
“All right,” I said. “Who’s first?”
Crystal crawled under the platform, stretched out, and napped.
Dixie sat, cocking her head at the tallest hoop.
I called Turtle, who was still racing the perimeter.
I gestured with my hands, weaving them in between the poles. “Like that, Turtle!”
She balked at the lights.
“I wish I could turn these things off,” I said. Solar-powered. No on-off switches.
I ran through the course, between the poles, up and over the A-frame, across the dog walk, over the hurdles, through the tunnel. The only thing I couldn’t figure out how to do was the hoop, but it didn’t matter, for Turtle was there, jumping and pouncing when I emerged from the tunnel.
“Your turn!” I said.
Off we ran together. I snapped my fingers, she jumped. I gestured to weave, she ran between the poles. Up the see-saw, off the jump, onto the platform.
She took a bold pose, as if she were on the back of a fire truck.
“You’re very noble,” I said. “And a very good dog.”
Dixie had watched it all. She was trying the weave poles.
“Good dog!” I walked with her. That was all she wanted to try the first day.
Crystal ventured out from under the platform and leapt on top of it.
“Good dog!” I said. That was our first day’s training.
We train every day now. Turtle has taken to it almost naturally. She jumps so gracefully, and with the training, she’s become sleek and muscular.
Dixie loves the tunnel. I can usually get her to run the complete course, but sometimes she refuses one or more obstacle, more out of principle than ability or inclination. She likes to assert her independence.
Crystal loves to be with us when we train. She thumps her tail while watching the other two. When it’s her turn, she skips at least half of the obstacles and often turns back around to repeat the one that’s her particular favorite for that day. But what she lacks in ability, she makes up for in attitude. She practically grins the entire time we train together.
This morning, Shingo and I sat with our coffee and conversation on the back porch while the dogs played in the meadow.
“What are they doing?” Shingo asked. “This isn’t random.”
It wasn’t, not random nor unstructured. They have invented a game that they play on the course for hours at a time. One of them sits on the platform–usually Crystal, but they take turns. The other two chase each other through the course until the dog on the platform barks, and then they switch directions. When they get tired, they all jump on the platform and lie down in a heap until one of them gets up and they begin again.
“Did you teach them this?” Shingo asked.
I didn’t. They developed it themselves. They build onto it, adding variety, taking away steps, adding new ones. The transformation in them has been incredible. I see them thinking sometimes, Turtle, especially, who will often sit gazing at the course.
“They’re a little bit obsessed,” I admitted.
“But it’s a healthy obsession, right?” Shingo asked.
“Sure.” And I was sure that it was, like any obsession that develops body, mind, imagination, and teamwork. I kind of miss that feeling. Maybe I need my own agility course.