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ANIMALS

A Funny Sort Of Water Dog

November 17, 1985|VICKI HEARNE

The old-timer stood beside me and watched Sam and Barton Eigner perform the graduation exercises for a class in Open Obedience they had been attending. The old-timer turned to me and said, "Boy, I'd sure hate to find myself up against that pair in a licensed match." Sam, you see, is a pointer, and a serious one, which means that--for him--fire, speed, precision and power are the central good of the universe, the rest of which either honors that good or doesn't exist. He is an aristocrat, and he has as well the infinite gall of the great artist: He knows he's right, and he knows he's glorious.

I don't mean that he's a snob. Snobbery is for lesser souls, who have to depend on public opinion and institutional records for their worth. So although his performance in the ring is beyond reproach--nobility demands no less--he values the real things in life above mere accolades. In particular he values the swimming pool, into which Eigner throws balls for Sam to retrieve. Lately the retrieving has become more interesting, because all of the tennis balls have been perforated as Sam has chewed on them. That means that they sink very fast, and that means that Sam has to be very, very fast if he is to retrieve them before they vanish in the fathomless depths.

Libraries are full of books about how to find and train such water dogs, and even detached scientific authors such as Clarence Pfaffenberger lose their scientific detachment when they suddenly remember a tale of a dog that responded magnificently to water. In those books, the phrase "mark water dog" comes to sound synonymous with phrases like a "gift from heaven" or "the Holy Grail." But the trouble is that glory and virtue--although of course unending and immovable under the aspect of God and eternity--tend to wobble a bit in the imperfect world we live in, in which time and dog shows don't always cooperate with the Great God of Retrieving.

One day Eigner was showing Sam in a small dog show in the competition called Open Obedience. Required exercises include the dog's leaping out over a significantly high hurdle, then--on the judge's signal and at the handler's command--retrieving a dumbbell, and finally returning with it over the hurdle. These are difficult competitions, which is why dogs that have performed in them at satisfactory levels receive the formal title Companion Dog Excellent. This dog show was in a park, and just outside the roped-off area that marked the show ring was a portable swimming pool, some children and--alas!--some tennis balls being thrown about.

The judge gave the signal, Eigner gave the command "Sam, fetch!," and Sam leaped out over the hurdle with the swiftness and power that are his trademarks. In the air, his eye caught sight of a tennis ball that a child had just tossed toward the pool. In a dog's heart the ultimate purpose of things is deeper and more true than the American Kennel Club's regulations for licensed trials, so Sam hit the ground and soared at once into the air again, over the rope and out of the show ring. The ball was in his mouth before it hit the water. Sam then jumped back into the ring, stopped to gather up as well the dumbbell he had been sent for, leaped back over the hurdle and presented both to Eigner.

This, I was told, was a perplexing moment for the judge. Did she give Sam zero points for the exercise or triple points? I don't recall, but it seems to me an illustration of what the great poet T. S. Eliot called "the eternal struggle between art and education." In Eliot's idea of this, the great artist is the one who can manage to remember what interests him despite his education. This is the kind of thing that makes some trainers call some dogs artists.

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