A timid boy
In late February of this year, Bugg joined our family of misfit toys after his previous owner needed to rehome him. Bugg is a Treeing Walker Coonhound/Australian Cattle Dog mix and one of ten pups whose mother died of bloat soon after birthing them. If this story sounds familiar, Bugg is indeed, a littermate of my boy Norbert, who I’ve had since he was five weeks old. When I heard his brother needed a home, and knowing I wanted another pup, it seemed obvious that I should see if we could make this work.
The moment Bugg trotted up on my front porch, it was love at first site. His warm eyes and sweet disposition were the first thing I noticed. I knew within hours that we would likely offer a home to him. Though red and white to Norbert’s tri-color, the two have many similarities – their butt spots, the way they hold their ears, their affinity for casing the cats… They also differ greatly. Where Norbert is headstrong, dominant, and protective, Bugg is passive to the point of frequent bouts of submissive urination.
This has been a challenge. Bugg is a big boy and Bugg has a big bladder.
Just prior to our new addition, I learned about the US Canine Biathlon from a Canicross Facebook page that I had joined. Norbert had been my constant adventure buddy from the start – trailrunning, paddleboarding, skijoring, etc… He was quite the athlete and I thought participating in what is essentially a Tough Mudder with your dog, seemed like a great way to spend the day with him.
Once Bugg joined the family, he became part of our weekend hikes and runs. He quickly took to the fun but wasn’t quite as athletic/agile as his brother and was often timid when faced with a challenge (Bugg vs Log). In time, he started to try new things such as jumping in the lake and swimming out to retrieve a stick, but his insecurities were still a mountain. I called my trainer in to help and started a routine with me to help build his confidence.
Additionally, I took Bugg on a couple of road trips and camping trips with Norbert and me. After his first road trip where he stood in the back seat for 4.5 out of the 5 hours each way, excited about every truck that went by, he had liquid diarrhea for two days following. A camping trip later, his anxiety about riding in the car started to subside (though he still gets really jazzed about trucks!). Our next trip to Alliston, Alabama was a long one so I was prepped with some Pro-Pectalin on hand, just in case…. I planned on bringing him down with Norbert and me for the race so he could be exposed to the event, crowds of people and other dogs.
That was the plan.
What about Norbert?
Then, last week, my Norbert didn’t live up to his perfect social media persona and snapped at a hiker on a trail where some friends and I had been camping. Long story short, the guy was very understanding about things, but I was a mess. I had failed my dog. I knew he reacted to strangers sometimes and I made several mistakes (not being aware of my surroundings, not having full control, verbal or otherwise, of him, and not keeping the space I know he needs when out and about). I had also made the mistake many owners make of not taking it seriously enough sooner (“MY kid isn’t a bad kid!”). When a dog is labeled “reactionary” people tend to think of the big dog that really bites down and could kill someone. Norbert isn’t that dog; but, he is the dog that will rip clothing and might just get some skin while doing so – he will also sound like Cujo as he’s doing it and is a fairly big dog which is intimidating to many. It can’t be a pleasant experience for the casual hiker just going out for a peaceful walk in the woods…
I was a wreck over it. Me, the dog person who knows how to work with my dogs, completely failed. I immediately recognized the errors I made, but also lost my own confidence that I could be certain not to let it happen again. It shook my world.
A call to my trusted trainer, Jeff Hacker, to postpone Bugg’s training to discuss, and work with Norbert, became priority. After just one session I felt 100 times better and had a plan in place that is already showing promise.
However, I was just days from heading south to Alabama and though I knew they allowed for dogs of all sorts to participate in the event, I was new to it and wasn’t going to put Norbert nor myself in a situation to err again. After talking to my trainer, I decided to run Bugg instead, but still bring Norbert with me so he could be exposed to the event and see what was happening, but under my watchful eye.
With the decision made, we headed south with the The Doghouse in tow. Norbert, who has many road trips in the books, settled in and napped most of the hours on the road while Bugg stood for all but about 15 minutes, excited about every truck that passed on the highway. “Look, a truck! Look, another truck!!!”
I was glad I had Norbert with me. It was hard enough to make the decision to not run him, but to leave him at home would have broken my heart. When a stranger approached my camper at my stop Thursday night, where Bugg would have likely hid in a corner and wet himself had we been alone, Norbert was fully in tune and on the ready to protect me. Norbert may have a bad attitude at times, but is ever loyal and protective.
Bugg’s Big Day!
The event was at Vapor Wake K9, a training facility for dogs who are trained in explosive detection. This was the fifth year for the Canine Biathlon, which I was told, has doubled in size every year through word of mouth alone. Many of the participants were from military and police backgrounds and had dogs trained in specialized programs – there were a number of Malinois, German Shepherds, and Doberman Pinchers, many of which were dog or people aggressive, but in full control by their handlers. In fact, during the whole weekend where there were over 800 dogs out and about, the only issues I saw were with pet owners (not the working dogs) whose dogs got loose or whose leashes were dropped during the race.
The forecast called for thunderstorms all weekend. As it turned out the only time it rained was when I first arrived. We had about a 15 minute downpour just as I was setting up camp. Since I didn’t expect it to stop, I was completely drenched by the time I had everything set up. Then the sun came out for the rest of the weekend.
The event and course was designed with dogs and their safety in mind, first and foremost. Humans be damned! As Paul Hammond, the Mad Brit, who designed the course stated in his opening remarks, “We always send the runners off first without dogs so they can clear the snakes for our beautiful furry friends!”
The course was a tough 4.1 miles and winds through the woods where there is plenty of shade and water. It includes about 50 different obstacles that included sand hills, steps and platforms, pools of water (humans have to go under while dogs are able to swim above), A-frames to climb up and over, rocky creek beds with flowing water (Spider Mile), drainage pipes to crawl through, mud crawls, cars to go up and over (how many cars can be left in the middle of the woods???!!!), giant wooden spools to climb up and over, Snake Mountain which is an up and down hard dirt tortuous route with ropes for the humans to climb up and down (I left part of my left buttocks on one of the hills), a wall of tires to climb up and down through, Heartbreak Hill, the dunking pool, and a dog carry across a log (that was the one and only obstacle we couldn’t complete).
I had no idea how this was going to go but I knew we weren’t going to be racing. I knew Bugg would be glued to me out of sheer fear and would likely need some coaxing to complete some of the obstacles. If he refused or was too anxious, I would take the penalty and get through the day with him. He needed some time solo with me and I figured it could only help boost his confidence.
The course had two to three lanes with wide paths. The starts were staggered, so that dog/human could go together without conflict. This helped prevent congestion and with rules that clearly stated to give faster participants the through way, there was plenty of space.
When it was time for us to go, Bugg wasn’t quite sure what to do. The course starts by going up and over several small sand dunes. Bugg’s first reaction was to head off the course to the road but I prompted him to stay by my side. Next came steps and a platform that included a wobbly bridge to cross. Bugg was a bit shaky and I could see he was considering jumping off the side which would have taken me with him since he was attached around my waist. After several seconds passed, we made it across. Two short obstacles and already others were passing by us. I thought to myself, this was going to be a long day of going slow and providing lots of positive reinforcement. We’d take as much time as Bugg needed. A pool of water came next that had wires across the top just inches above the waterline. Dogs could swim across and stay above water but humans had to go under to make it across. Once I entered the pool and was able to lift Bugg in, he completed it fabulously.
Then came a short run through a couple of windows to climb up through, a stream to run through the middle of, and our first drainage pipe to go through. This one was short and Bugg got in next to me and went through fairly well. Ah, he’s getting it!
We continue on down a path hurdling over a number of logs and then winding us back into the stream and to our next longer drainage pipe. I had watched others do this in the morning and saw that all had let their dogs lead through. I did the same…
Bugg starts through and I follow on my belly, head first and crawling. About a third of the way in, Bugg starts to panic and tries to turn around. With no room to pass me, he climbs on top of my head and folds his body in half over me. I talk him down calmly until he melts into my arms and I end up slowly pushing him out backwards all the way through and into the water. Once out, I layer on the praise and he starts to get excited. We head further down over rocks through the stream and get to the next, longer drainage pipe. I decide to go in first this time and cheer him on from the front. He follows me through and I give him major props when we exit. I can’t remember how soon after that we went through our next pipe, but after that point, he was all about leading the way (and happily dragged me through a couple of them)!
The A-frames were another big challenge at first, but he quickly figured them out and was great about waiting on the top for me to find my footing and manage to make my way over with little bruising. As we entered the woods, he seemed to get more and more comfortable. Many rock beds, mud crawls, car climbs, and rugged trails later, we came up to three rows of three giant wooden spools. I guide Bugg up the first and hold him steady telling him to wait (he’s NOT all that well trained yet and I had images of him jumping over and taking me with him like a paddleball ball on a rubberband). He stays focused, eyes on me, as I jump up and make my way over. The second spool goes just as well with Bugg waiting on top, though a bit shaky, as I make my way up and over again. The third spool is higher than the first two. I help get Bugg to the top with his harness handle and tell him to sit, which he does. I jump up but can’t pull myself up. I drop down and let the leash out as far as I can to give me a little room for a jump start. I start to pull myself up again, but my arms shake and give. I drop back down. I look up at Bugg and he has moved over to one side of the spool and looks me in the eyes. I swear I could hear his thoughts repeating to me what I had said to him in that drainage pipe curled into my arms, “C’mon mom, you got this!”
I step back and take a run hop and struggle with all my might to pull myself up just enough to steady myself and push with my feet on the spool sides until I could rest my chest on top. I hold steady for a second and look up to see Bugg’s eyes looking down at me, “I knew you could do it, mom!” I climb the rest of the way up and we get over to the other side and start heading down the trail for the tires, Snake Mountain, Heartbreak Hill, the dunking pool, etc…. From that point on, Bugg had a swagger about him. With his tail lifted, he carried his head up and was lighter on his feet.
When we crossed the finish line, I was handed a finisher’s medal which I immediately hung around Bugg’s neck. He seemed to know he did something special. I sat down and hugged him and told him how proud I was of him and then the rain started… in my eyes.
Bugg is still a work in progress when it comes to self-assurance, but the dog I brought to Anniston, Alabama is a completely different dog than the one I brought home to Bloomington, Indiana. Both he and I have a new bond and level of trust with each other and both walked away with a bit more confidence.
As for Norbert… I learned quickly in Anniston, that Norbert’s issues are mild compared to what many people there were dealing with in their dogs. The difference was that the people who were handling those dogs (mostly professionals), were fully aware of their might and had full control of them (in fact, the only issues I saw the whole weekend were with pet owners). I spoke to many others who had dogs that were reactive to either people or other dogs (and for a short moment had an image of taking Norbert through the Scared Straight Program). They provided a space where I could talk through some of my own fears without any judgement on their end. I walked away feeling certain I’d own, the hardest part, and be able to address these issues with Norbert (and myself).
After running the course with Bugg, seeing the layout, and the extra care they take to allow for dogs of all types to participate with their people safely, I’m sure I can do this with Norbert next year (and if I can stay in good physical shape myself, I might just run it twice so each dog gets a chance at it!)
These two boys from the same womb, have such different doganalities and needs. When I look at them together and separately, I know we are all meant for each other. I can’t wait for our next adventure!