Crumbs in My Pocketby Mike Smith
My sister has dementia. As we move into this dark Winter, my
wife and I are helping care for her. There is a certain way to
interact with my sister that both minimizes her agitation and
confusion and reduces our frustration. Establish and maintain a
connection. Communicate clearly in a happy and positive
manner. Be creative. Be flexible. Don’t force things. Wait for
the tantrums to pass. Provide abundant praise. Above all, be
understanding and be patient. Day after day after day.
Oddly enough, there is a certain beauty in all of this. There is
also a bitter irony that leaves a cold metallic taste in my mouth.
The beauty is that these skills, this methodology that we apply to
caring for my sister, are the same skills that we use when we are
training our dog. They do not come easily but through the years
our dog has, in her own way, taught us how effective they can
be. We had no way of knowing that by training our dog, we
were preparing ourselves for the situation that we now find
ourselves in. Sometimes things come together quite
unexpectedly. In this I find beauty.
The irony is that while these skills have opened opportunities
and horizons for our dog, they only serve to navigate a one-way
dead end for my sister.
At the end of particularly difficult sessions with my sister, I need
to get away to the bedroom to find some solitude, some peace
and some recovery. Usually my dog is with me. I take comfort
in her presence, comfort in the bond that we have perfected. I
continually marvel at how deeply my dog has influenced and
bettered my life.
I still remember the day that I first went to an agility trial. I sat
there watching while dog after dog whizzed around the ring,
racing over the impossibly high and impressively long dog walk,
snaking through weave poles, hurtling through tunnels and
striding over jump after jump. Sometimes the judge would hold
up five fingers. Sometimes she would hold up ten. Was she
awarding points? Was she imposing a time penalty? I wasn’t
sure but it didn’t really matter. I was spellbound. Dogs could
jump through tires. Dogs could conquer teeters. Off leash. And
all the while, the dogs and their handlers seemed to be somehow
connected through motions that ranged from the smooth to the
chaotic. I had never before seen anything like it.
While I sat there, a simple thought formed in my mind. Wouldn’t it be something, wouldn’t it be really, really
something, if my dog and I could do that. At the time, my dog
was an unruly pup who bolted at any opportunity and there was
no hope that she would ever be able to do such things, but still,
wouldn’t it be something else. That day ended but the simple
thought stayed with me. Wouldn’t it be something if my dog
and I could do that.
Almost a decade has gone by since that day. My dog and I have
somehow managed to stumble through the necessary foundation
work, the classes and the backyard training sessions, the run
throughs and the trials. We have met with triumph and with
defeat. We have gone on new adventures and have made
wonderful new friends. We have had joyous occasions and have
suffered injuries and disappointments. There have been
achievements and there have been frustrations. Along the way, I
have learned a lot about agility and a lot about myself. Along
the way, my dog has become the absolute best version of herself.
She can race over impossibly high and impressively long dog
walks. She can snake through weave poles and hurtle through
tunnels, stride over jumps, jump through tires and conquer
teeters. Sometimes the judge holds up five fingers, sometimes
she holds up ten. It doesn’t really matter. I am spellbound. We
can do that.
Many years ago, a well-known local doctor would take his
Cocker Spaniel, Charlie, for daily walks around Rehoboth
Beach. The streets are laid out in a grid, so the good doctor and
his dog would regularly come up to intersections. Their routine
was the same at each corner. They would stop. Charlie would
point his nose slightly up, then slowly move his head one way
and the other. After assessment, Charlie would decide which
way to go next, and the doctor would follow along. Thus, the
two would meander around town until they made their way back
home. The locals thought that the doctor was eccentric. As for
Charlie, well, the most charitable way to put it is that he had a
rather prickly personality. His groomers and vets certainly
We make all of the big decisions for our dogs. Where they live.
Who they live with. What they eat. We pretty much determine
what they will be doing on any given day. And there is no doubt
that our dogs depend on us for direction. But they are also
autonomous individuals, with their own thoughts and
preferences. So where do we draw the line between controlling
our dogs and letting them make their own choices? This is not a
trivial question. Giving a dog too much choice risks creating
behavioral problems. Giving a dog too little choice risks
breaking their spirit.
I suspect that, like many things, there is no one good answer to
what choices we should give our dogs. It probably depends on
the dog. It may well depend on the person and how they interact
with their dog. What I do know is that, whether we realize it or
not, it is a question that we face almost every time we engage
with our dog. It is the kind of decision that we instinctually
internalize, perhaps without giving it much, if any, thought. It is
the kind of decision that is worthy of reflection from time to
As to Charlie and the good doctor, there is no telling for sure
whether Charlie’s personality had anything to do with the
choices the doctor gave him along the way. One can only
There is something very basic, very primal, about motion.
When we move, we are immersed in the force of life.
Movement generates energy. Movement envelops freedom.
Movement embodies beauty. Perhaps this is why agility is so
compelling. Agility is all about motion.
When we walk a course, we are engaged in a mindful, creative
process. We are choreographing a dance between ourselves and
our dog. Some of the dance steps, the movements necessary for
our dog to complete the obstacles, have been rehearsed during
training. The remainder of the dance, the movements that will
guide our dog through the proper obstacle sequence, is ours to
When we run a course, our instincts take over as our motion
kicks in. We become one with the child rolling down a grassy
hill on a crisp, sunny Fall afternoon. Sometimes the child rolls
smoothly and evenly and proceeds directly downhill. Sometimes
the child goes off course and begins to move sideways. It doesn’t really
matter. If we carry through, all the way down the hill, all the way through
the course, regardless of whether or not we had a smooth roll or a
a clean run, that feeling of movement is simply exhilarating.
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.
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
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.