Saturday, May 21, 2016

Going on . . .

Going on after losing a heart dog . . . in life, in sports . . .

Recently I have seen this topic raised in several different online discussion contexts, and I wanted to take a bit of time to share my own answer.  I share this in hopes that it might be helpful to somebody out there . . .

I even hate the fact that I have an answer to this question.  But I do.  I realize that this is a highly personal and subjective thing.  Not everyone is going to find the way to keep going in exactly the same way.

That said, I have been through the sudden and unexpected loss of that one special dog that I will always call my "heart dog".  And I have gone on.  I have experienced the months on end of abject grief, and I have found the way to deal with his loss, and even to continue on in the dog sport that, for me, was completely defined by Speedy himself.

". . . what it does to you when such a dog dies is not fit to print."

My Speedy, of course, was my heart dog.  To say he was special doesn't even do it justice.  I have never known another dog anything like him, and I doubt I ever will.  I always used to say that Speedy didn't just have "screws loose".  He had "screws loose", "screws too tight", he was "missing some screws", and he "had screws that didn't even belong"!!  Suffice it to say, he had mental challenges that were completely out of his own control.

Early on in our training and work together, I considered Speedy's "issues" to be a problem.  Later in our journey, I came to know that he was unique and highly gifted.  We ran with that together, and it was the ride of a lifetime!

I could write an entire book about what Speedy was to me.  (Maybe someday I will!)  We were joined at the heart from the day we brought him home as a 12 week old puppy.  I used to rush home from work every day bursting with excitement to see him.  We played silly games, I sang songs to him, and I was delighted in everything about him.

My favorite of all of Speedy's puppy pictures

Speedy wasn't perfect.  In fact, he was seriously flawed in many ways.  But in one way it never mattered - he was perfect in my heart, and for me the world was a better place simply because he was in it.

When we got into training, and then behavior modification, and then dog sports, our bond only grew.  I got the equivalent of a college education through our work together.  He was always a partner in that work.  And I remember every step of the journey as an amazing adventure.

Learning how to help him deal with fears and overstimulation, learning how to train Rally and then Freestyle skills, learning how to be a performance competition team, and the actual performance of all of our dances - at demonstrations, at competitions, at video filming, and even just at private practice - was an intensely emotional experience.  And that experience forged a bond between us that was like no other I have ever known.

Every dance was a tribute to the bond that Speedy and I shared

There were moments along the way when I realized that he would not be with me forever, and I wondered how I was going to go on without him when he was gone.  The very thought brought tears to my eyes when it happened to pop up in my mind.  I simply did not allow myself to think about it.  And, in retrospect, I am very glad for that.  There was literally nothing that I could have done to prepare myself for life without Speedy.  It was far better that I appreciated every second of the time that I had with him.

But . . . that indescribably horrible day finally came.  And it came too soon.  It will always seem to me that Speedy should have had a few more good years.  The reason why he died was so stupid.  He was not young, but he still died too soon.

It did help that he died peacefully, with Ben and I both there with him.  There was no fight in him.  No resistance.  Just the total trust that he always had in us.  It was time to go, and he was perfectly fine with that.  I will always be grateful that he left this life quietly, peacefully, and with trust.

But none of that made dealing with the bottomless pit of a black hole in my heart that was left behind when he was gone any easier to handle.

So . . . how did I go on?

I cried A LOT.  

Speedy died on a Saturday and I spent the rest of that day, and all of Sunday, crying my eyes out.  There was no consolation.  Any little thing could start it off again.  And even after that - for weeks, for months - I just felt this horrible pit of sorrow within myself that nothing could change.  I didn't try to fight that.  When I was in a situation where I could go ahead and cry, I would do so.

I gave myself permission to ask, "WHY?" and cry endlessly over that question.  I fully felt the emotions that would wash over me when I caught sight of his food bowl, or his collar, or something else that reminded me of him.

I looked at photos and videos of Speedy and remembered our life together.

Somehow it helped me to see pictures of Speedy full of life and vigor.  I felt that I was somehow still connected to him.  I found watching video of him particularly helpful.

Sometimes I could do this and actually feel just a tiny bit better, and at other times I needed to avoid his pictures and videos.  Even now, two years later, there are times when it is upsetting to me to listen to his Freestyle music, but that is more the exception than the rule.  Usually I like to listen and remember the good times he and I had moving to that music together.

I actually started to look at pictures and videos and listen to his music very soon after losing him.  For the most part I found it more helpful than not - even when it made me start crying all over again!

I went through the motions of life.  

I would have liked to have crawled into a cave somewhere and just mourned for months on end, but life went on and I had to go on with it - even if I was just going through the motions.

I had to feed and care for my other dogs.  I had to go to work.  I had to teach my dog training classes.  I had to teach lessons and grade papers.  I had to do what life required.

I can't say I found much joy in much of anything for a while afterward, but I went through the motions because there was no choice.

Training and working with my other dogs was the worst part.  The last thing I would have chosen to do would have been attending training classes, but I learned long ago that it is not fair to my dogs to take away what they enjoy because I am mourning a loss.  And, it was good for me to be there even if I couldn't do my best work at class.

I remember that Tessa had an Agility trial at Periland not long after we lost Speedy.  I took her even though I felt it was much, much too soon.  I was glad that I did.  I distinctly remember running those courses with Tessa as the first time I started to feel normal again after losing Speedy.  Tessa and I were still who we are, and running her in competition helped me tap back into that.

I hid the loss from some people.  

Of course, I told my friends, but there were some people that I did not tell right away.

I did not tell my High School students, nor did I tell my work colleagues right away.  I needed my privacy for a while.  It was good for me to have one context in my life where nobody knew and I could put on the face of "everything is normal" during those first weeks after this devastating loss.

I pushed myself through the "first times"

Every one of the "first times" after losing Speedy was difficult, but some were much worse than others:

  • My first Freestyle competition without Speedy.
  • Our first trip to the beach without Speedy.
  • My first trip to Glen Highland Farm without Speedy.
  • My first hike with Tessa without Speedy.
  • Our first spring, summer, fall, and winter without Speedy.
  • Our first Christmas without Speedy (this was particularly difficult because my last good memories of Speedy, alive and happy, were at Christmas time).

That list could go on and on and on!

But . . . the first time was always the most difficult.  After the first time I had an experience in my memory of each of those things without him.  That helped.

I gave myself lots of breaks.

I couldn't train my dogs like I used to.  In fact, it was over a year before I really found that I could put something of my old effort into training, although I didn't quit - just went through the motions.  I gave myself permission to be where I was in that regard, even in the midst of raising a puppy.

I couldn't choreograph Freestyle routines.  Speedy had been my heart-Freestyle dog, as well as my heart dog.  I lost all of my love for the sport, I lost all of my desire to go on in the sport, and I lost my ability to create.  And you can't do Freestyle if you can't create routines.  I wasn't sure what was going to happen - if I would ever get that back again.  But I accepted that for what it was.

I put a deposit down on a Border Collie puppy.

This was a very individual choice.  I realize that if, and when, to bring a new dog into the home after such a devastating loss is a very personal thing.  For us it turned out to be the right thing to do.

I had always thought that when that inevitable horrible day came, and we lost Speedy, I would honor him by going to a shelter, finding a fearful Border Collie to adopt, and then give that dog the best possible life.  But when the time actually came, that wasn't on my heart.  I felt that I already had that dog in Tessa, and I was not inclined to do that again at that time.

Almost right away, I started to think about a puppy.  I mean, I started to think about a puppy so soon it struck me as positively indecent!  I felt guilty, and might not have pursued the idea if not for two things.  Within a day of losing Speedy, my husband said to me, out of nowhere, "maybe we will get another puppy"!  He is not usually one to want to add new dogs to the household, so I took that very seriously.

Shortly after that, an online friend sent me an article that contained advice that was rather shocking: "Another dog.  Same breed, as soon as possible".  After getting over my initial resistance to the idea, particularly the "as soon as possible" part, it resonated with me, and I knew that starting the search for a puppy was right for us.

It was too soon.  I really only wanted Speedy back.  I wasn't anywhere near emotionally prepared.  But it was clear to me that it was time to act right away.  I put word out among my Border Collie friends that I wanted to try to get a working bred Border Collie puppy.

I did not think this was going to happen immediately.  I rather expected to search for a breeder for a good long while, and then sit on a few lists for at least a year.  Within just a couple of weeks, I had put down a deposit on the puppy that would be Bandit.  At that time, the pregnancy had only just been confirmed!

Committing to a puppy who was not even born yet opened up a whole host of new conflicting emotions that I had to deal with, but I was confident that everything was happening exactly as it was supposed to be happening, and we went with it.

At the time the plan to get a puppy, and then waiting for the puppy to be born, and then watching him grow through pictures, seemed to upset me more than it helped.  But, in retrospect, I believe that process forced me to deal with the emotions of loss and that more good came from it than upset.

And, even if I did not feel it at the time, having plans to bring a new life into our home did give me just the tiniest seed of hope that someday better times would come.

Enter Bandit

When I think back about that time after losing Speedy, it seems that in my memory the world went black that day, and it stayed that way until the day I held baby Bandit in my arms.  On that day a ray of light burst in, the sky turned blue again, and it seems that color and warmth and light and hope came back into my life.

That doesn't mean I forgot about Speedy or that I stopped mourning or that it got easy.  In some ways it actually got harder for a little while.

But the day I met Bandit was the day I really started to heal.

How could I not have hope and joy in my life with this in front of me?

I can't really explain this.  Bandit did not take Speedy's place.  He is a very, very different dog.

I think at first the tremendous amount of work that taking care of a puppy requires became a distraction, and that helped for the very practical reason that I didn't have the time, nor the emotional wherewithal, to dwell on Speedy's loss so much!

But, of course, it was much more than that.  Against the background of devastating loss, watching Bandit grow was a daily miracle.  Getting to know him was a pleasure I will never forget.  He was so full of life and potential, I could not help but feel that life was going to be good again one day soon.

Naturally, I have come to be head over heels in love with Bandit because of who he is.  Still, I will always love him a little bit more out of gratitude all that he did - simply by his very presence in our lives - to help me deal with Speedy's loss.

Everything that Speedy and I did and experienced together
prepared me to love and learn from this master teacher

Dog Sports

Almost two and a half years after later, I really do believe that the most difficult part of going on after losing Speedy was continuing in dog sports.  Life happened whether I wanted it to or not.  Dogs had to be fed and cared for, work had to be done, and everyday living was not an option.

I could have quit dog sports.  I entertained the thought very seriously at several points, especially when it came to Freestyle.

After all, I got into dog sports with Speedy.  He was the dog that I discovered the joy of training with.  He was the dog with whom I earned my first Q and my first title.  I had so many years of memories of training with him, classes with him, Rally trials with him, Freestyle competitions with him, and some of the best of my dog sport memories happened with Speedy at my side.

I probably would not have quit Agility.  By that point Tessa and I had become a very solid Agility team with a competition history of our own.  And it helped that the place where we trialed in Agility at the most was one that Speedy had never even been to.  Speedy and I had few Agility memories in spite of the fact that he did study Agility briefly at one point.  I never really thought of Speedy as an "Agility dog".

Rally FrEe was a lot more difficult.  Even though I had actually started in Rally FrEe with Tessa and Dean, and Speedy had done very little of it, Rally FrEe is closely related to Freestyle, and, of course, that is where my most intense memories of Speedy are.  Both Tessa and Dean were involved with Rally FrEe, and I really did go through the motions with them for several months without putting much heart into it.

As for Freestyle itself, as I mentioned above, it became nearly impossible to continue on.  Really, I should have taken a break, but I tried to push forward with Tessa, and it was almost entirely disheartening.

I came to a point where I realized that the best of me as a Freestyle trainer/choreographer/performer/trainer was Speedy himself!  How was I to go on in the sport without him?

I felt that I couldn't.  Any attempt I made to train made me feel inept.  Performances were flat.  I had no inspiration, no ideas.  I wanted nothing more than to find some of the "magic" that I had in Freestyle with Speedy, but the best I could do was muddle . . .

In the end, I did take something of a break, and then I got myself some help when I was really ready to start trying to move forward again.  I took an online choreography class with both Dean, and the not-quite-one-year-old Bandit to get some assistance with creating routines for them.  I needed a lot of help, but we got it done.  We actually ended up creating one of Dean's nicest routines, and the routine that I think of as Bandit's "baby routine"!

Now I am at a point, with Dean Dog, Tessa, and Bandit, where I can create routines.  Tessa and I, of course, had our success with her New York, New York routine.  Bandit and I have created a phenomenal dance that is going to be nothing but fun to perform once I finish the training!  I still believe that I lost something of myself as a Freestyler that I will never get back when I lost Speedy.  But I can continue on in the sport with my current dogs, and I can find something with each of them that Speedy never had.

" . . . because that way you can pick up somewhere near where you left off, say that you have it in you."

In order to get to this point, I had to find it within myself to continue on.  I had to be willing to fumble along, I had to be willing to accept that it will never be quite the same, I had to allow myself to feel completely and utterly incompetent, and I had to focus on each of the dogs in front of me and learn how to allow the best in them to shine.

Things are much better now, and I genuinely enjoy training, trialing, and performing with each of my three current dogs.  I still run into a difficulty here and there, but I find that my dogs and I work through those much more easily these days.

Getting into Rally with Bandit brought me to such point of difficulty.  A good deal about his Rally style is very similar to Speedy's style.  And when we would first move though some of the Rally exercises together - fronts and finishes, right pivots, pace changes, etc., Bandit actually felt exactly like Speedy, if that makes any sense.  I would look down into Bandit's eyes riveted at mine, and I would see Speedy there.

I might have quit over that, but Bandit clearly enjoyed Rally training, so I put my feeling aside and we continued.  As the weeks and months have gone on since we started, our experience has changed.  Now I am starting to feel like this is how Bandit works, and when I look down into his eyes, I see only the light brown eyes of Bandit himself.

That's the way it is now.  Something reminds me of Speedy, or a regret crops up, and I am able to focus on the dog in front of me and move forward.

Speedy will always be a part of everything I do in dog sports.  His memory is always in my heart, and he will always be a part of who I am. 

I am the trainer, handler, and person that I am today because of Speedy
In that sense, he really always will be with me

Quotes from "Oyez a Beaumont" by Vicki Hearne

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