In 2009, when I lived in Los Angeles, my friend Angela and I decided to enroll our dogs in agility classes. Angela’s dog Henry is a Bichon mix and has the fine motor skills of a stunt dog. Yoda, being part boxer, has the muscular physique of an athlete. Angela and I were convinced our dogs would excel on an agility course filled with hoops, a balance beam, an A frame and other fun agility equipment. Henry and Yoda formed a team called The Three Dog Knights (there was initially a third member of the team who dropped out after the first class, so three dogs became two).
Henry was talented, yet stubborn, meaning he only completed those elements of the agility course that pleased him. Yoda was clumsy, yet eager, attempting absolutely everything I asked of him with ungainly wild abandon. Regularly crashing into or falling off equipment, Yoda left each class with some sort of bleeding cut or gash. The classes culminated with an agility tournament, and, not surprisingly, The Three Dog Knights came in last. Yoda and Henry were given last place trophies and ribbons to commemorate their “accomplishment.”
Since 2010, Yoda’s life, like mine, has largely been defined by near constant change: a five month road trip where “home” was basically Princess Leia the Prius; a cross country move to Houston for three months; and then a cross state move to Austin (which involved two different houses in four years). Up until now, Yoda has handled all these life changes even more gracefully than me. Yet this most recent cross-country move to New Jersey was the tipping point for Yoda. He feeds off my energy, and I did a very poor job of handling the epic levels of stress in my life in the weeks prior to our move to the East Coast. In a six week period we drove across country to Austin from Wisconsin (where we had spent the month of August at my parents’ lake house); I spent a week in Los Angeles on business; another week in NJ/NY; three days in Dallas; and in the time not spent traveling I was frantically packing up our house and saying goodbye to friends. Not surprisingly, I got very sick, and was still struggling with bronchitis and laryngitis when we loaded up the car to drive across country again. Yoda was hit with a stubborn case of stress-related colitis (which two months later, he’s still battling), which was so bad that we had to stop in Nashville for an IV and antibiotics. I was hopeful that once we arrived at our new home, Yoda would immediately relax. I was wrong.
Our new house is a big old country house, about 10 times larger than any place Yoda has ever lived. That’s a lot of house to patrol for a senior dog, which has been really unsettling for Yoda, given he’s lost most of his hearing and has to rely on sight alone. But the most challenging part of the house has been the stairs. We have a steep, narrow set of stairs leading up to the bedrooms. When Yoda first attempted them, he stumbled, and then froze. Just like all those years back when he was a member of The Three Dog Knights, Yoda has proven that he isn’t the most agile dog in the world. We keep his harness on and help him up and down the stairs (once my boyfriend even had to carry Yoda down when he wouldn’t budge after falling on the top two steps).
For his own safety, we installed baby gates so that he doesn’t injure himself. My boyfriend travels a lot, so when he is on the road, we set up a bed downstairs for Yoda and me (I’m not strong enough to carry Yoda down the stairs, should something happen). I’ve shed a lot of tears over this issue. But Yoda, just like when he was in that Los Angeles agility class with Henry, has proven eager to please each time we ask him to attempt the stairs. He usually leap frogs a bit on both front paws, then slips and stumbles on a couple steps, but as long as we are supporting him with his harness he makes it down the staircase in one piece.
After eight weeks of daily practice, on Christmas morning, he gave me the best Christmas present I could ever ask for: he made it down the flight of stairs without one stumble whatsoever. This little bit of Christmas magic just goes to show that although change is all too often really hard, if you keep powering on, things will get easier. I’m not sure when, if ever, we’ll feel confident letting Yoda attempt the stairs without one of us holding the harness “just in case.” But for now, Yoda, as always, is my master teacher. He’s showing me that when faced with life changes, things can initially seem insurmountable. But if we keep forcing ourselves to tackle those first frightening steps into the unknown, eventually, one day, the scary unknown will become our comfortable new normal.