Metaretrievers On The Beach

Vicki Hearne, an accomplished dog trainer and writer, was an e-mail correspondent on CANGEN-L in the late 1990s.

October 1999 Dear Vicki,

Now, I see that I lied to you about Roland's "prey drive" and "herding" potential—i.e., his temperament, if I understand your sense of the root temper. Watching him with you lurking inside my head over the last week made me remember that such things are multidimensional and situational, and describing a dog's temperament takes more precision than I achieved.

We go to an off-leash, large, cliff-enclosed beach in Santa Cruz almost every day. There are two main classes of dogs there: retrievers and meta-retrievers. Roland is a meta-retriever. (My husband, Rusten, points out there is really a third class of dogs too—the "nons"—not in the game at issue here.) Roland will play ball with us once in a while (or anytime we couple the sport with a liver cookie or two), but his heart's not in it. The activity is not really self-rewarding to him, and his lack of style there shows it. But meta-retrieving is another matter entirely. The retrievers watch whoever is about to throw a ball or stick as if their lives depend on the next few seconds. The meta-retrievers watch the retrievers with an exquisite sensitivity to directional cues and microsecond of spring. These meta dogs do not watch the ball or the human; they watch the ruminant-surrogates-in-dog's-clothing.

Roland in metamode looks like an Aussie-border collie mock-up for a lesson in Platonism. His forequarters are lowered, forelegs slightly apart with one in front of the other in hair-trigger balance, his hackles in midrise, his eyes focused, his whole body ready to spring into hard, directed action. When the retrievers sail out after the projectile, the meta-retrievers move out of their intense eye and stalk into heading, heeling, bunching, and cutting their charges with joy and skill. The good meta-retrievers can even handle more than one retriever at a time. The good retrievers can dodge the metas and still make their catch in eye-amazing leaps— or surges into the waves, if things have gone to sea.

Since we have no ducks or other surrogate sheep or cattle on the beach, the retrievers have to do duty for the metas. Some retriever people take exception to this multitasking of their dogs (I can hardly blame them), so those of us with metas try to distract our dogs once in a while with some game they inevitably find much less satisfying. I drew a mental Larson cartoon on Thursday watching Roland, an ancient and arthritic Old English sheepdog, a lovely red tricolor Aussie, and a border collie mix of some kind form an intense ring around a shepherd-lab mix, a plethora of motley goldens, and a game pointer who hovered around a human who—liberal individualist to the end—was trying to throw his stick to his dog only. Meanwhile, in the distance, a rescue whippet was eating up sand in roadrunner fashion, pursued by a ponderous, slope-hipped GSD.

It remains true that I can call Roland offof a deer chase on the logging road near our house in Sonoma County most of the time; coursing a deer is not a meta-retrieving task worthy of an Aussie-chow, from his point of view.

There are terriers on the Santa Cruz beach too, and terrier mixes of all sorts. Why don't I see what the terrieresque crowd are doing? I am going to listen and watch.

I end with an appealing, neurotic, Airedale-black Lab cross who spends his beach time day after day trying to bury an old Monterey cypress branch, about three feet long and three inches in diameter, in the sand. He digs heroic holes, ignoring the pleas of his human to do anything else, but the curly, wire-haired, Labish-looking pooch keeps digging deep holes of small diameter for one end of his giant and recalcitrant stick. Nothing else matters.

Beached in dogland, Donna


September 2000

Dear C.A. [Aussie health and genetics activist, dog world mentor, and friend],

Roland was inspiring on Sunday. Most of all, he was patently happy all day (we were at the agility trials for nine hours total, plus four hours of driving). He basked in all the attention, thought his exercise pen (a new experience for him) was a fine place to rest and watch all the dogs between walks and runs, regarded the brace of barking Jack Russell terriers next door to us with detachment, and met the performance demands on and around the course with very few signs of stress (a few yawns was all) and lots of evidence of enjoyment. His runs were solid and bode well for his getting his novice titles without too much fuss in the not-so-distant future (or so I dream).

We did not get a qualifying leg in the Standard course because we missed the entry to the weave poles, entering at the second pole on each try. In the Novice Class in the USDAA rules, you get to retry the weave poles as often as you need to get the *#*!* things properly negotiated, but after the third try for a correct entry I just let him weave and went on with the course. We'll just get more practice on weave entries at home and in class. He wasn't fast overall, but still within allowed time, and he stayed with me mentally. I have a tendency to get physically ahead of him, partly because working with Cayenne is so different and partly because I am a border collie at heart myself, but I am learning to pay better attention to Roland's rhythms. He sticks too close to me, and we need to do some more distance targeting exercises over two or three jumps in succession to get him running out with more drive.

His jumpers run was very good, marred only a little by his losing momentum at the first pinwheel after the wing jump and needing some strong pushing to get over the next jump, foiling my plans for a clean backcross and fast pivot. I need to remember who he is and keep us a team. I think I confused him at the wing jump right before the first pinwheel jump and slowed him down at just the wrong point. The last two-thirds of the jumper course was a real high for both of us. He was much faster and sailed through the second pinwheel and the hurdles, with a fun, fast finish

Roland jumping at a Bay Team agility trial in 2001. Courtesy of Tien Tran Photography.

over a double jump. We were both excited by the end and that made us more accurate and clean.

A couple of friends from local Aussie rescue stayed almost two hours after their runs just to watch Roland's last run (our class was the last event of the whole day), and that felt really good. Susan Caudill (Willem the Pyr's person, who now lives on our land) filmed the runs, along with several others, on her videocamera; so it was useful to look at the runs afterward to see what we all did. Our next event is the AKC Sir Francis Drake trials on September 16. I think I am getting hooked on agility!

Cayenne will have her first birthday before long—how can a year have gone by? Watching her entice Roland into playing with her this morning was a stitch. She just kept squeaking her toy in his face and running off until he gave in and chased her and then played tug-of-war with the toy. She runs circles around him and is uncatchable unless she lets herself be caught. I have the impression that just to keep him in the game she deliberately gets herself into parts of the yard where Roland has some advantage because of his weight and strength and so can pin her momentarily against a fence or into a gully. If she just keeps beating him to toys or runs too fast and pivots too abruptly, he loses interest. If she gets him into a really playful state of mind, he'll go belly up for her and wrestle with her for a long time, handicapping himself by staying in a down position and chewing gently on her proferred parts while she assaults him with abandon from above. With her Pyr buddy Willem, she hangs on to the base of his feathery tail and gets dragged across his yard; then she lets go and circles him furiously, herding him where she wants. It's hard to be grumpy myself in the morning watching this kind of joyful doggish beginning! Of course, coffee also helps . . .

Learning to be a novice, Donna

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