In Memoriam To Chester, And Other Things

I always wondered how and why I might stop training dogs.  Working as a trainer is something I've always loved to do and no matter how I envisioned it, I couldn't think of any reason I would stop unless perhaps just getting too old and decrepit might put an end to it!  Now I know that sometimes Life has a trick or two hidden up its sleeve that you wouldn't have expected, and that those hands you are dealt, though they might look really good on the flop, sometimes end up surprising you before the hand is over.

    Through the years I saw incredible changes arise in the profession.  When I started (as I've mentioned here many a time before) there was essentially only one tool, and that was the metal "choke chain" collar.  A group class was based on the principles of competing in an AKC obedience trial and the goal at the end of the class was that all dogs would be working off-leash.  Oddly enough, the majority of them were, and  this without being beaten down with excessive use of force, which I think many trainers today believe must happen in order to achieve such a thing.  I wish, really, that there still was an emphasis on working towards off-leash trustworthiness as, even if you never really take that leash or longline off, you end up with something wondrous.  But that's another story. Some of us were working towards  creative concepts with the use of food, the study of canine psychology, and it was exciting!  And we all know the amazing directions that training has taken since that time.

    By my side, I always had my German Shepherds.  Many of you understand the intensity with which a German Shepherd demonstrates their loyalty; they are brave, and true, and gallant.  My boy "Bodie" and I attained our Schutzhund III title together and also placed 2nd at Ian's Puppydog Allstar Games in Long Beach...dancing a dramatic love story together!  But it is Chester that I am thinking of now.  When Bodie passed away in 2002 I didn't really know if I ever wanted to get another dog, yet I found myself only a month later standing over a litter of German Shepherd puppies, searching for the one who looked the most like Bodie....and Chester came home with me.

    Chest had his unique problems.  His second day at home he lunged barking at the children from next door, and despite constant work and desensitization he always retained a suspicious outlook towards strangers, though he would tolerate them and play happily if they had his ball.  We attained our BH title, but not without some drama:  when Chester heard the gunshot on the offleash heeling exercise, I guess he thought it was the whipcrack heralding bitework, and ran off barking at the judge, and then put the judge into  a pretty darn good "bark and hold".  I guess we didn't practice the gunshot enough....Unbelievably he passed that exercise as he returned to heel by my side by the third call!   And the judge tested him doubletime all through the rest of the exercises to be sure he was a steady dog: staring him in the eye, walking close in front of him:  he passed.  Chester as a puppy was also under the command of one ancient pug, Josie May.  He learned to bark in her ear, after which she would fly into a rage and then chase him into smaller and smaller circles until he fell on his side - she would then stand  over his head, triumphant.  You really never saw a funnier sight .  We have a round arena where the horses are turned out:  Chester loved to run around it endlessly.  I believe he would have run around it until he died, if I let it happen.  It did serve as a good exercise for teaching a Down-in-Motion and a fast Recall:  nothing like being released to run around the arena as a reward!

    But through everything, as a German Shepherd will tend to do, he was by my side.  Always watching, always making sure that, in his opinion, everything was as it should be.  Never happier than when allowed to come with me.  The best companion on long hikes early in the morning.  A good example of offleash control for clients.  A beautiful boy and always a huge puppy at heart.

    And so our lives were going until last March when I was diagnosed with Leukemia.  Now, that's a surprise and one I wasn't imagining.  I basically didn't get to see Chester or the pugs for six months while in the hospital, and when I was lucky enough to come home, they had to stay outside for three months more.  I could go out to see them, dressed in long-sleeves and with a mask on.  It was during that time, last August, that I found a huge lump on Chester's left hind leg, which turned out to be hemangiosarcoma.  No, I wasn't expecting that one either.  

    We were able to have some really good times still, as he did well after surgery and we could go on our hikes and he could come everywhere with me again.  But, as I guess happens, it came back and his poor leg became filled with edema and hardened with big lumps.  Still, he felt good and played, barked at strangers, enjoyed his food.  But that began to change,  and  the other night was so bad,  I promised  him that he wouldn't have to go through it again.  It was the next morning, just two days ago, that for the last time we sat together on the patio, and he laid his great head down and then he couldn't see me anymore.  "Chester, wait for me", I asked him in those last minutes.  I'm hoping he could hear my voice as he slipped away.

    I know everyone reading these blogs loves their dogs.  I know everyone understands the way it feels when they are gone. It's an empty place in the middle of everything.   

    There is a piece written by Ben Hur Lampman, called "Where to Bury a Dog", a part of which I would like to quote here:
" There are various places in which a dog may be buried...if the dog be well-remembered, if sometimes he leaps through your dreams actual as in life, eyes kindling, questing, asking, laughing, begging, it matters not at all where that dog sleeps at long and at last....... there is one best place to bury a dog.  One place that is best of all.  If you bury him in this spot..he will come to you when you call - come to you over the grim, dim frontiers of death, and down the well-remembered path, and to your side again.  And though you call a dozen living dogs to heel they should not growl at him, nor resent his coming, for he is yours and he belongs there.  People may scoff at you, who see no lightest blade of grass bent by his footfall...people who may never really have had a dog....the one best place to bury a good dog is in the heart of his master."   
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I am still lucky enough to be here, and to be at home.  But now I can see how it could happen.  I can see how I might stop training dogs...when life takes just one too many unexpected turns and you need to look at things a different way.  No matter what happens, I will always remember so fondly all of those families and doggy faces over the years, and how our lives touched each others' through training.  I wish to everyone many happy years with your wonderful dogs - I know you won't forget to appreciate it!  And remember how lucky you are to be intimately involved in work that can better and even save the lives of so many, many dogs and the people who live with them.  How lucky you are to look at one doggy face after another throughout your day....try to remember when you're tired and the day has just been too long to still *see* each one clearly and to give them your best attention while you are there.  Time, which can seem so endless, can suddenly go by much faster than we had thought.