My beagle and I try America's weirdest pet hobby.
About eight of us—seven women—and our dogs had signed up for Mary Sullivan's beginner class, but within minutes it was clear that only Sasha and I were true novices. I was immediately intimidated by the showmanship of Edgar Allan Poo, an 8-year-old miniature poodle, and Joell Silverman, his 75-year-old owner. I watched, while Sasha whined and pulled at her leash, as Edgar and Joell, to a polka tune, worked on a routine full of twirls and passes and changes of direction. Edgar concentrated on Joell's face with the same intensity that North Koreans are supposed to have when they gaze upon their Dear Leader.
When I talked to Joell I found out I wasn't the only reporter to have been taken with Edgar's charms. The poodle had already been profiled on the front page of the Wall Street Journal for his prowess in his previous sport, fly ball.
Then another woman got up with her black-and-white whippet to run through a program that showed off the dog's lithe and elegant form. I was more mesmerized by what went on when owner and dog weren't performing. The whippet sat in her owner's lap as the owner dispensed treats directly from her mouth into the dog's.
Mary wanted an idea of what Sasha and I could do, so she called us up in front of class. I felt like a mother who had bullied her child into a gifted and talented program, only to have to confront the truth that what her kid really needed was special ed. I suggested we just continue watching, but Mary and the other humans insisted we get up. I hadn't exactly lied when I said Sasha knew "sit," it's just that she doesn't sit in response to my saying it.
Mary asked me just to walk along with Sasha beside me. At first Sasha resisted, then she decided to pull me. Mary had me reposition Sasha on my side and get her to obey by feeding her a stream of treats.
Sasha responded erratically and Mary asked to see my treats—a bag of her regular dry food. Mary explained that for training purposes I needed something better. Sasha wasn't going to participate in a canine version of A Chorus Line by being bribed with kibble. Mary suggested I bake a pan of "tuna fish brownies." Then Mary stood in front of Sasha, held a chunk of hot dog near her face, and started peeling off bits of it, giving her the command "watch" as she moved backward. Sasha followed brilliantly—obviously I was on to something with the idea of a frankfurter up the nose. Mary was impressed with Sasha's level of food motivation and said that would really help with training.
"Soon you can put food in your mouth and feed her from your mouth like the rest of us," Mary explained. "Then she'll maintain eye contact on your face."
I felt like I was in some dystopian fantasy. I came to do a little cha-cha with my pooch, and the next thing I know I'm regurgitating tuna fish brownies into her mouth. I vowed to resist—both out of prudery and self-preservation. I imagined as soon as Sasha realized my mouth was a source of fish brownies, she would go into a frenzy and chew my lips off.
For my homework Mary told me to work on getting Sasha's attention: I should always have treats with me, and every time Sasha looked at my face, I should feed her one. I took to carrying a bag of cheese in my pocket—thankfully I'm alone most of the day—and tossing chunks to Sasha when she walked next to me or made eye contact.
Over a month, as the lessons progressed, despite her improved attention, Sasha and I fell ever further behind. One problem was that we never made it though an entire two-and-a-half-hour class. After 45 minutes Sasha would be glassy-eyed and near collapse—like the first competitor eliminated in a dance marathon. There was also so much to learn. While we were in a corner of the studio practicing walking back and forth, the other dogs were doing amazing moves called serpentines, scallops, spirals, and thunders. I tried to draw diagrams, but they involved the owner and the dog moving around each other in some pattern I found impossible to follow. Mary taught everyone a "tugger—a type of pivot named after the dog that first did it. I thought having a move named after your dog would be a great honor. What would a "sasha" be? Perhaps eating the judges' shoes.
Once you got the moves down, there was the whole matter of choreographing them into a seamless routine and selecting music. We were strongly discouraged from choosing marches or waltzes. Marches had such strong beats that the human was helpless to resist marching along—distracting from the dog. As for waltzes, Mary explained, "When you have four feet it's hard to move to a melody with three beats."