Crumbs in My Pocket

by Mike Smith

August 2020

Agility poses a unique set of questions. Running contact or two
on, two off? Take a lead out or do a running start? Front cross
or rear? Perhaps the most vexing question, the one that comes
up over and over, is was it me or my dog. We may not ask the
question out loud, but we are almost certainly thinking about it.
My dog knocks a bar. Was it me or my dog? My dog takes the
wrong end of a tunnel. Was it me or my dog?

There is a natural progression to this question. When we first
start out in agility, the answer is obvious. It was my dog. My
dog is a beginner. My dog needs more training. My dog needs
more experience. As we progress, as our dog gets better, as we
perhaps become more humble, the answer becomes a bit more
difficult. Maybe, just maybe, it was me this time. Then at some
point we have an epiphany. It wasn’t my dog at all. It was . . .
me! In point of fact, the common rule of thumb is that handler
error is a factor around 90% of the time. For many of us, it just
takes a while to come to that realization. Once we do, we are
ready to begin to master the art of agility handling.

At that point, there is one more step to take with this question,
was it me or my dog. Find a way for the answer to be simply
“Yes”. Yes to the notion that agility is a team sport, a collective
effort between handler and dog. Yes to the fact that the actions
of the dog and the handler are bound together. Yes to the idea
that the progress of one team member enables the progress of
the other. Yes to the aspiration that as team members we will do
our best to cover for each other. Once the answer is always
“Yes”, the question has then served its purpose. Was it me or
my dog? Yes, it most certainly was.

July 2020

I am fascinated by dogs’ noses. In fact, I admire them. There is
no more perfect way to cap the end of the snout. The transition
from fur to nose is flawless, almost spiritual. Looking at a dog’s
nose, I am absorbed by its color and texture. I stare at its slits
and bumps and crevasses as if seeing answers to life’s essential
questions.

While I could dwell on physical appearance, it is the capabilities
of a dog’s nose that really draws me in. Estimates vary, but the
prevailing estimate is that a dog’s ability to smell is between
10,000 and 100,000 times greater than that of a human. Never
mind 100,000 times greater, I cannot get past the concept of
10,000 times greater. Ten thousand times greater! I can no
more comprehend the scale of this difference than I can
comprehend the scale of the Milky Way galaxy. What I can
understand is that for a dog, the complexity and subtlety, the
richness and range, the whole experience of scent, exists in a
dimension that is beyond my perception. I have read that dogs
can smell emotions and health, that they can use scent to detect
the passage of time, that their noses can even detect phenomena
that has no scent. Where humans might discern a scent, dogs
can detect a whole story. Truly a dog’s nose is one of the
wonders of the world.

Then there are the biological marvels. The way a fold of tissue
inside the nose splits the airflow into a stream dedicated to
breathing and a stream dedicated to smelling. The way the
nose’s side slits allow the dog to breathe in and out at the same
time. The labyrinth of thin turbinate bones that contain up to
300 million olfactory receptors. The way dogs can smell
separately with each nostril to form a three dimensional picture
that enables them to identify the exact location of a scent. The
way the philtrum carries moisture from the mouth to the
rhinarium. The independent vomeronasal organ. The ability to
differentiate up to 100,000 different smells. OMG!

Despite all of this complexity, a dog’s nose is fearless. It calmly
assesses scents that would cause me to cower. It always leads
the way, parting the air like the bow of a ship cutting through
water. It is always working, taking things in, perceiving the
world. And when a dog, any dog, of its own volition, touches
me with its nose, with its magnificent organ of a nose, I feel as
though I have received a benediction from on high. The colder,
the wetter, the better.