Thursday, February 17, 2011

A lack of affinity for water

Gem’s attitude toward water has always measured only slightly more positive than the average cat. As a puppy she would follow our Lab into the water, never going beyond the point where she could touch bottom. She would wait patiently for Zephyr to swim out and retrieve the bumper or water toy, stealing it from her in the shallows more often than not and presenting us with her prize. We thought she was very clever at the time and only aspirations of passing a hunt test with her at some point caused us to look at her behavior with a more critical eye and note the underlying truth – Gem had no inclination to swim.

In fact, Gem did not actually swim until we acquired our second Toller, Rosie. I believe the age Gem finally kerplunked her way out to retrieve her first bumper was somewhere around the 2.5 year old mark, and I remain skeptical she ever would have taken the full plunge without the competition of another Toller in the household. Despite her seeming capitulation the fact remained, Gem did not enjoy getting wet. Every time we entered a test I worried less about her ability to mark and bring back the birds than about whether she would deign to swim that day.

We entered a number of tests over the course of a few years and sometimes came quite close to passing. It wasn’t even always water that did us in, sometimes it was a mark, but without any qualifying ribbons as a benchmark of success I grew frustrated, and begged my friend Sue to see what she could do with her. Gem went to “Big Sue Boot Camp” for a few months for some additional instruction on fetching up ducks (yet another part of the field she wasn’t always consistent about) as well as some water education. Sue’s method was simple. Since she knew Gem could swim and knew what was expected of her, if Gem chose not to go in the water Sue would put her in. This seemed to make an impression on Gem, as she preferred to enter the water on her own vs. having someone else “place” her in it. Sue recommended I pre-soak Gem if possible, though it wasn’t always. However, I definitely saw improvement after Gem’s time away at boot camp.

One particular test that stands out in Gem’s long string of “almosts” involved a trek to Kansas City, MO some years ago. A local Golden Retriever club was running their own hunt tests and had agreed to judge Tollers under the NSDTRC USA’s rules. Gem passed the land marks easily and I was heartily congratulated by fellow Toller folk who were present. In many cases a dog is less likely to pick up birds on land than in water, so they all thought we had the test in the bag. I thanked them but inside I was cringing. They didn’t know my dog and her proclivity for water avoidance. As it turned out my fears were well founded. I remember standing on the bank for the first water mark. I let the judges know we were ready and they signaled to the gunner. The bird was thrown, a gunshot followed. The bird hit the open water and one of the judges called “dog”, my signal to release Gem. She took a few steps forward and stopped, after which no amount of cajoling, pleading, bribery or threats moved her. After an interminable amount of time it was obvious to all she had failed. I ask the judges if I might, very gently of course, put her in the water. The judges allowed this so I picked Gem up and rolled her out into the water. I can only imagine how it must have looked to the gallery of spectators but I didn’t care. If we couldn’t pass a test that day at least Gem could learn I too would put her in the water if she decided not to go in on her own. On the way home we stopped at a Stuckey’s and bought a small suction-cup sign for the car. It read “If you can’t run with the big dogs, stay on the porch”. It made me feel better though I doubt Gem cared in the least.

Gem eventually passed the NSDTRC USA’s BRT and WC as well as the UKC’s SHR, but as with everything, she did so in her own way, in her own time.