When novelist Robert Rodi embarked on a yearlong quest to turn his adopted Sheltie into a champion agility dog, he assumed that ribbons, prizes, and glory were just around the corner. Little did he know that his protégé—a skittish, scrawny rescue with a decidedly anteaterish look and Cujo-like disposition—would consistently come up small in competition, often humiliating him in the process.
Yet, Rodi—an urban epicure who is more Food Network than Animal Planet—continued to enter trials, inspired by the devotion and all-four-one-and-one-four-all mentality of the canine competition community. Much to Rodi’s surprise, he bonded with the white bread-and-shredded beef crowd that dominates the agility scene, and in the process, developed a newfound respect for his dog.
In the new laugh-out-loud funny book “Dogged Pursuit” (Hudson Street Press), Rodi chronicles his misadventures with Dusty, their travels punctuated by a handful of small victories, numerous defeats, and countless “accidents”—as in dogs discharging all manner of bodily fluids at the most inopportune places and times. With Dusty maintaining media silence, Rodi gamely agreed to talk with Failure about his four-legged friend and the strange world of canine agility.
What drew you to Dusty?
It was pity. He looked unadoptable and he seemed to be unadoptable. Even though I was looking for a real gutsy go-for-the-gold-type Sheltie, I ended up going with him because I thought he was looking at a grim fate if I didn’t take him. He broke my heart a little.
Can you explain what canine agility competitions are?
It’s basically doggie track-and-field. You have an obstacle course that you run with your dog off-leash. He has to go where you tell him—and run the course with accuracy and speed—based on your voice and gestures. It’s a lot of fun and it helps you build a rapport with your dog.
What kind of attributes does a top agility dog possess?
Mainly intelligence and drive. The dog also has to be nimble and agile, but most dogs have that down.
How is Dusty different from a typical agility dog?
Well, he’s a Sheltie and Shelties and border collies rule the sport because they are very intelligent and highly-driven. But Dusty seems to have all the Sheltie qualities in reverse. He’s not sociable and he’s a little misanthropic. He doesn’t have a lot of drive. In fact, he shuts down and goes catatonic. And he never seemed to want to connect with me when we were out on the course, whereas most herding dogs are extremely focused on their handlers. It was a real effort to get him to do anything. The fact that we had any achievement at all has to be considered a triumph.
What was the peak of your achievement?
We earned one title. In agility, if you get four qualifying scores you get a title, and we got our novice title in the Jumpers course. I thought if I had a year to train a dog I could get him all the way to the national championships. That was ridiculously naïve of me. I could just as easily sprout wings and fly.
It seems as if he took his emotional cues from you during competition.
One of the real epiphanies I had is that Dusty not only took cues from me on the course, he takes cues from me all the time. My emotional state, my mood, and my energy level directly translate to him. The classic example was when I took him to a trial a day after I had been sick and I was heroically trying to keep from vomiting. When we got on the line he threw up. I thought that was really projecting, almost in a Brian De Palma way.
What was the low point of your career together?
There was a point during the year when I gave up. I had driven 50 miles in subarctic temperatures to get to a trial and we had a spectacularly bad run. Then as we were leaving—after I had buckled Dusty into the back seat—I realized my car was stuck on a patch of ice. As I was leaning on the car it started moving and I had to chase it across a field. Then it hit a tree, and a branch of that tree poked me in the eye. It was one thing after another, like God was jabbing me in the ribs saying, “Quit this thing, quit this thing, quit this thing.” So I quit.
But what I realized later is that the reason it was so horrible is because I was there on my own. When I eventually did go back to competing, I had a day that was in many ways as bad or worse, but I could laugh about it because I had friends around me.
What did you learn from competing with Dusty?
I learned about community and about being a part of a family. The other thing I learned was that I can’t project my needs and desires onto Dusty. A lot of people do that to their dogs, but that’s not what they are made for. Competing side-by-side with your dog you develop an almost symbiotic bond. I came to realize that Dusty has his own dignity and qualities that are worthy of respect.
Was there anything that surprised you about the world of canine competition?
I was surprised by the collegial nature of it. At my first trial I was all set to be adversarial with everyone I came into contact with, but that didn’t really work out. What worked was helping out and standing on the sidelines cheering other people on. I found it very moving to see people week after week with their dogs, working and trying to perfect this athletic endeavor.
I understand you have another dog now—a collie named Harley. Is Harley destined for agility competitions?
I did start training Harley for agility. And he didn’t get it at all. I tried to get him to go over the jumps and he would just walk through them and knock them down and then look up at me like, “What? What’d I do?” I ended up withdrawing Harley from agility and now I’m training him to be a therapy dog. He’s much better at that.