Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Waterlog dog

When I was a kid, I loved, and I mean L-O-V-E-D, to swim. My parents told everyone I was part fish. Which I guess makes me a mermaid... But I digress...

The point is that swimming was one of my all-time favourite past-times. I harassed my parents every single summer day to take me to the beach. I harassed my parents to put me in swimming lessons. I harassed my parents to get us a pool. When they finally got us a pool, I spent hours and hours and hours and hours and hours a day in it. I never obeyed the "wait one hour after eating before you swim" rule - as long as I wasn't eating or sleeping, I was swimming. I would come out of that pool every single day with hands so pruney and wrinkly that my grandmother looked younger than me...

Even as a teenager, my obsession with water continued. While all the other girls my age were more interested in purchasing teeny little bikinis, slathering on sun tan oil, and baking themselves in the sun, I would climb into my one piece sport suit, slather on SPF 45 sunblock, and spend the day jumping off the dock in the middle of the lake with the boys. Or I would (badly, oh so very badly) water ski. Or I would swim laps across the lake. Anything other than waste time sunning myself on the sand.

So when my family adopted a Labrador retriever/German shepherd cross, I was ecstatic! I imagined spending long days down by the lake with my dog, me swimming to my heart's content, and the dog retrieving various toys and sticks that I would throw from off the dock.

But alas, despite the infamous water-loving Labrador retriever heritage, this dog despised water. She was so petrified of water, that the minute the car pulled into the parking lot down by the lake, she would practically screech (if dogs can even do that...). The one and only time I succeeded in leading her down to the shore (admittedly with brute force), she escaped my clutches and it took me an hour of driving around, calling out her name, to find her. No water-filled dog days of summer for me and this pooch...

And then I moved away from home, went to university, and stopped swimming (having found new favourite activities like beer drinking and card playing). These days, I am one of those girls who is much more interested in shopping for bikinis and laying on the beach soaking up sun rather than doing laps in a pool or at the lake. (Although I still wear high SPF sun block because my freckles and blue eyes don't mix so well with the hot sun...).

All this to say that "water-loving" was not a required selection criteria when choosing a dog. Especially since I'd made up my mind that I wanted an Aussie - not exactly a breed known for aquatic prowess...

Still, in my never-ending quest to exhaust the Beast and drain his energy, and because I saw an episode of The Dog Whisperer once where Cesar talked about how swimming is one of the best ways to tire out a high energy dog, I thought I would introduce the Beast to the water to see how things would go. And low and behold, just 2k from my place is a local doggy watering hole, where downtown dog owners take their mutts to cool off on uber-hot and sticky days. So off we went on our bikes, Beast running alongside, to check it out on one exceedingly warm summer afternoon.

If dogs bred to work in water were planning to band together and take over canine-dom, this is their headquarters. The place is crawling with water dogs! Labrador and golden retrievers jumping off the shore and into the river to retrieve tossed balls. Nova Scotia duck tolling retrievers chasing after errant sticks floating down stream. Portuguese water dogs splashing around, possibly in search of fishing nets. Even mighty Newfoundlands patrol the shores of this dog park. Although from an equally esteemed - albeit land-loving - working background, the Beast stuck out a little like a sore thumb among this sea-faring crew!

But he wasn't about to let all that water get in the way of his favourite game in the whole wide world. Chase! Whether he is doing the chasing, or whether he is the one being chased, there is no game that he would rather play.

Now since the park was full of Labs, I should back up a bit and talk about the Beast's relationship with this favoured breed. He has tried to make friends with many a retriever in his short life. But he finds it supremely challenging. This is because the vast majority of retrievers that he has met are singularly focused on the object being thrown to them by their owners, and not on him. And in his little mind, he is the party dog, and they should want to hang out with him and chase him around. When they inevitably don't listen to his commands to chase, the Beast gets frustrated, which is expressed through very loud and very repeated barking. The only reason the Beast tolerates retrievers, I believe, is because eventually, an object gets thrown and the retriever takes off after it, finally giving the Beast an opportunity to gallop after him across the park, if only for a fleeting moment.

So surrounded by Labs and other ball - and now water - obsessed pups, I wasn't sure how the Beast would react. But I could see his little eyes fill with excitement as he watched Lab after Lab after Lab make mad dashes and running leaps off the rock face and into the river in pursuit of their balls. So I said a little prayer, told him to behave, and let him off his leash.

The Beast was off like a flash! He had spotted a beautiful chocolate brown lab who, over and over and over and over again, was retrieving balls from the river for her owner. He would throw a ball, and within a couple of seconds there would be this huge SPLASH. The Lab would gracefully and easily swim out to the middle of the river, snatch the ball in her teeth, swim back to shore, hop out, shake herself off, and trot back to her owner, where she would gently lay the ball at his feet and then eagerly await the next throw.

When the next throw came, off she went, and like a bolt of lightening, the Beast, who was a good 15 metres away, took off. He was closing in on her fast as his long legs moved into full out sprint mode. And he just about caught her two when she lifted herself into the air and threw herself into the river.

All of a sudden, with a look on his face that can only be described as the doggy version of "What the f@$k!!!", he slammed on the brakes and teetered on the edge of the rock face, with nothing but more rocks and water below him. Desperately, he kept looking out to the water, whining and barking at the Lab - whom he hadn't even yet greeted with a butt sniff - as though saying to her, "No fair!!!  You can't just escape me by jumping into the water! Get back here right now and let me chase you on land right now!

And sure enough, as she made her way back to the shore, the Beast got more and more excited, audibly panting and excitedly wagging his entire bum. Then she got out of the water, and without even a glance in his direction, shook herself off and headed back to her owner to await another throw. The Beast was a little stunned.

But it didn't take long for the Beast to figure out that if he wanted to play with this dog, he was simply going to have to dip a toe in. Which is exactly what he did on the very next throw. This time, he watched from the shoreline as the Lab went leaping into the air and splashing into the river. And then, he dipped in one front paw. And then the other. Very tentatively and slowly making his way into the water, small step by small step, until there was no more rock underneath him and he had no choice but to swim.

I nearly peed my pants laughing.

First of all, by the time the Beast finally took the full plunge and began to do what I guess can be called swimming, the Lab was already back on shore shaking herself off. Second of all, compared to the powerful and graceful Lab, which is truly a site to see when in full stride in the water, the Beast was the goofiest, clumsiest dog I have ever seen. The Lab takes long, quick and steady strokes, propelling herself gracefully through the water with her tail, making her way out to the middle of the river and back to the shore easily and without wasting any time. The Beast, on the other hand, kind of bobs along in this aquatic lope, with his head moving slowly up and down, side to side. All he could manage to do was a very small yet very slowly swum circle, having absolutely no chance of successfully chasing the Lab all the way out to her ball.

Yet, he kept going in. And he clearly was having the time of his life. I've learned to read his body language; when his ears are back alongside his head, he is relaxed and calm. And in the water, his ears were all the way back and he had a side-to-side Aussie grin pasted on his freckled face.

So as I watched him take his first foray into aquatic sports, I was actually feeling kind of proud. Proud of myself for opening up his world to new and exciting activities. Proud of hubby (who does not swim and does not exactly like water) for letting go of his own nervousness and enjoying watching the Beast play in the water. But most of all proud of the Beast himself, for taking that plunge - albeit toe by toe - into the water and for figuring out so quickly how to swim. I was like a mom watching her kid put on skates for the first time and take to the ice. And no matter how clumsy and awkward my guy was in the water, I was damn proud of him!

So add swimming to the Beast's ever-growing list of awesome things to do on a summer day. Or on a fall day, as we recently discovered on a Thanksgiving stroll through the arboretum when he dove into the duck pond - with his backpack on - and came out covered in mud and algae. And let me tell you - as gross as that pond is and as bad as he smells when he comes out of it, nothing beats the grin on the Beast's face as he slowly and clumsily makes his way from one end of the pond to the other.

I just better stock up on that waterless shampoo spray and few more towels...