Lately I've been spending a lot of time reading up on the various strains of German Shepherd Dog here in the U.S. Show lines, working lines, import lines, distinctions between various import lines, and so on and so forth down a rabbit hole to infinity. I've even picked out one or two kennels I like, although adding another Permanent Dog is verboten for at least a few more years.
My next competition dog -- the one I frequently refer to as Imaginary Future Schutzhund Dog, even though I've never once in my life been to a Schutzhund competition or even attended a training session in person and have no idea whether I'd actually enjoy the sport -- will very probably be a German Shepherd from European working lines, most likely Czech or East German. They're a little smaller than some of the other types, they don't have the extreme rear end angulation of the show GSDs (which, to my mutt-accustomed eye, looks deformed), and, most importantly, they are bred to have stable temperaments coupled with high intelligence and a powerful desire to work.
That's my perfect dog right there. A smart, steady dog who thrives on learning and working and, eventually, competing.
I don't have that dog right now. It pains me and makes me feel incredibly guilty to admit it, because I love my dogs so much and I know they try their hardest for me, but there's that pernicious, persistent grass-is-greener fantasy lurking in the back of my mind: What if Pongu weren't pathologically fearful? What if his physical structure were sound? What if I could have a dog with his intelligence and devotion and joy in work, but without the extreme neophobia and anxiety and that crippling old injury in his foot?
I've built up Imaginary Future Schutzhund Dog in my mind as a perfect version of Pongu with all his flaws magically erased (also, 20 pounds bigger and totally unfazed by jerks on the street who bother us after dark and/or intentionally try to scare him, because what the hell, this is my imaginary perfect fantasy dog and unlike poor frightened Pongu, he will EAT YOU if you try that. Yes, this addendum is motivated by a group of teenagers who intentionally stomped and charged at my dog to frighten him. Yes, I'm still angry).
Minor rant aside, I know why I've been spending so much time thinking about this lately: because we're about to undertake a new challenge and I am afraid we won't do well.
In a couple of weeks I'll be starting a competition obedience class with Pongu. I don't know what to expect. I have a great fear that he won't be able to do competition obedience, because he is shy and fearful and easily stressed. It's lightyears better than it was, but the exercises in competition obedience are targeted straight at the things that are hardest for him: being approached and touched by strangers, working at a distance from his handler, holding long-duration Stays out of sight.
Even if he can do it, will he enjoy it?
Pongu loves Rally because he's good at it, and the reason he's good at it is because Rally asks for the things he likes doing: staying close to his person, paying rapt attention to everything his person does, occasionally taking easy jumps, and never really having to go near the judge except when his leash goes on or off at the start and finish lines. He can do these things very well and that builds his confidence, which is the whole reason we got started doing it in the first place.
But we're almost done with learning Rally. Pongu has gotten all the Level 3 exercises down to a satisfactory level in familiar environments. There's still a lot of polishing and perfecting to be done, and I expect he'll continue to fall apart and NQ in the competition ring a few times, but the learning is done. He knows the exercises. All that's left is proofing and practice -- and, of course, competing intensely for the next 18 to 20 months until he earns his ARCHMX and gets nationally ranked and beats the game.
Now is the time to start learning something else. I love agility, but we can't really do it because of Pongu's aforementioned crippling physical issues and also the simple lack of space that comes with condo living in the middle of a city (really, if I were sufficiently hardcore about it, we could do agility in small doses on pop-up equipment, and we might yet take a shot at it... but given those limitations, we'd never be serious competitors, so I can't get all that interested in it). Nosework's an option, but I'm inclined to leave that one on the back burner for when Pongu's older and even less athletic than he is now. That leaves obedience, where the obstacles are primarily psychological rather than physical, as the one big obvious candidate.
But I am afraid that perhaps I'm expecting too much, or pushing too far, by trying to get my little fearful rehab mutt into the oh-so-intimidating obedience ring. It's the oldest of the dog sports, its top honor is still considered the Mt. Everest of competition titles by some, and its culture can be pretty nasty in some quarters between the snobbery of some purebred aficionados and the lingering hold that punishment-based training has in places. Dogs are specially bred for this sport, and even with obedience in their blood and the aid of hardcore handlers, they fail by the dozens. And people are pleased about it! As far as I can tell, competition obedience is meant to be unwelcoming.
I honestly don't know if we're up to it, but if we enter, I damn well intend to win. And I don't know if Pongu can win, given his assorted problem areas. I don't know if he can even compete. I worry that pushing him too hard here will cause him to backslide in other areas and perhaps even ruin his enjoyment of Rally, where he's doing so well.
So I spend a lot of time fantasizing about a dog who has no fear. I daydream about the ultraperfect Imaginary Future Schutzhund Dog, who has none of my 'fraidy little pound dog's issues. Because I'm afraid.
It's not a good place to be, but that's where we are right now.