I’ve been incredibly lucky that over my 15 years in agility I’ve never had an injured dog– until recently, anyway. I’ve dealt with normal rest, a week here and there as needed for recovery, I’ve scheduled chiropractic adjustments and massages, but nothing significant has ever stood in the way of our daily life or agility plans. More and more frequently I see friends and fellow competitors with injured dogs. It’s an unfortunate fact of competing in any sport, but especially one that involves animals who sometimes trust you to know their limits more than they do. I was reminded that professional athletes deal with injuries regularly, but it didn’t do much to ease my worry or the nagging sense of guilt I had.
I’m still not sure what happened to Bolt in October, we never really got a definitive diagnosis. One day we ran agility under a blue sky, and then went to class the next night and by the time we were walking out to the car I noticed a hitch. Once home it was a full limp and he cried at his toe being flexed. I consulted with friends and vets and was lucky enough to have many who listened to as I vented and updated them continuously about progress, or the sometimes lack thereof. I was told by many that I was overreacting (I will still hear this occasionally), but I didn’t waver. I was told, unsolicited, horror stories of other agility dogs who suffered a similar injury. Of amputations, of careers ending, of failed surgeries, and months of rehab. It’s to be expected, I supposed. It’s what happens when you share parts of your life with a community that has seen it all. I know it was all done with the best of intentions but nonetheless, it shook my confidence and I felt doubt and worry creep their way back in. Still, I rang a bell each morning over his crate, then his x-pen, then his exasperated face for 6 weeks after. I waited even after I was told a month later that he was fine because I could feel with every fibrous instinct in my body that he wasn’t– not yet.
If there’s anything I’ve learned these last few years, it’s to trust myself first. Listen to your instincts on these things, both on course and off– more often than not, you are correct.
In this downtime I struggled to find positive takeaways. It’s become a practice to spin struggles into opportunities of growth, and while I know this has been one of those, I would be lying to say I felt like it from the beginning. Many days it felt personal–as if the universe had conspired against me in some way. (It hadn’t. I realize that the infinite cosmos likely doesn’t have much care for my dog and his toe and our ability to jump PVC pipes). But there are many good things to take from this, really, and I’ve come to start recognizing them.
There comes a profound sadness when you lose the ability to connect in the way you used to. I would quickly scroll past videos of other competitors from over the weekend on social media, too hung up in my own longing to celebrate others like I should have. I felt a little isolated and out of touch. So I focused on filling in my weekends other ways, diving into teaching more than I had before. It has been the most rewarding experience, this winter, watching so many teams make progress together, and learn from and support one another. I thought it may make me sad to focus on the goals of others, but it made me more complete, filling me up when I thought least possible. It has helped me love this sport more fully.
I began filling my weeks with running. Not for agility, but the endless, rhythmic running that has become a new place for reflection. When I first started running it was a grinding, arduous process with painful miles and asthmatic lungs and slow, untrustworthy feet. This winter has been one of vast improvements. Longer miles, faster miles, easy miles. I have found the joy so many told me about and that for the longest time, I refused to believe. Running has given me strength I didn’t know I had– or knew I needed. I’ve been learning to meditate through these miles, to concentrate my thoughts on breath, on footfalls, on the rhythm of my pace. It’s taught me more about mental strength than I ever thought possible. I repeat mantras, I sing (internally) and dance, I think too much, and sometimes about nothing at all. Running is always about wanting to give up but not doing it until the job is done. It is about perseverance. This practice has become second nature.
I have learned to be more brave. Having an injured dog, especially for the first time, knocked the wind from me. I worried prior to his limping, always cautious about what I did and what he did– after, this amplified impossibly higher. How do you stop staring at each step they take, at their stride, at the way they are shifting their weight? How do you stop flexing the toe that bothered them and checking constantly for signs of pain, or weakness, or soreness? How do you get rid of the constant worry in the pit of your stomach? It felt an impossible task in the beginning. But you must. That’s all there is to it. You must let go of the worry in small breaths and giant exhales. You must stop poking and prodding. You must let them jump off the bed even though you’ve tried so hard to avoid it.
You must let them be dogs again.
You must do all of that with the knowledge that things can go wrong. That pain can come back. That you may enter a trial again for the first time in four months, days after buying your flight to nationals only to have your dog sore again that same week. You must dust off, recognize that it is normal, address it and continue moving forward. Bravery becomes your every day until it is no longer brave– it’s just who you are.
You must let go. This means letting go of the things you wish you did back then to the things that you wish you did yesterday. You must know that there are only so many things you can control and that your best is indeed good enough. You must trust this process and the expertise of those around you and the intuition guiding you forward. It doesn’t do you (nor your dog) well to lament over the things you think you should, or shouldn’t have done and blame yourself for things out of your control. This has been a hard one for me, personally. I fought tears many times talking about all of the things I did “right”– all of the precautions I took, all of the times I skipped training in lieu of conditioning, of the supplements and stretching and chiropractors and rest and balance. I have learned to let that go. Know that sometimes, shit just happens.
More than ever, I appreciate each moment with my dog. I find so much joy in the simplest adventures we take lately: hiking, neighborhood walks, visiting my class and family and friends. We have rejoined our weekly agility class and each session is an exercise in practicing these things, to find more joy, and to cherish every moment on course with a new perspective.
I look forward to what this year holds for us as a team. I know that no matter what unfolds, it will be even sweeter because of this winter.