Today, delighted to offer a guest post from author Garth Stein
But first to how this came about. Way back in June, I was contacted by Wiley Saichek who signed off his email, Marketing Director, Authors On The Web. To be frank, I hadn’t heard of the organisation before. Wiley invited me to participate in something he called a Blog Tour on behalf of Garth Stein. It was connected with Garth’s latest book, The Art of Racing in the Rain.
Jeannie had read it some time ago and thoroughly enjoyed it. The book had been next to my side of the bed for weeks but, ironically, the demands of my own writing had just got in the way of me reading it.
Anyway, back to the Blog Tour!
Apparently, the ideal was to have the guest post published on Learning from Dogs during the period July 18th to August 1st but I dragged my heels waiting and hoping that the story from Garth could include a picture of Comet. The picture has not been forthcoming so here it is anyway. I shall be reviewing Garth’s book The Art of Racing in the Rain as soon as I can get around to reading it.
A Game Called Fetch, by Garth Stein
People often ask me about my dog, Comet. They want to know if she was the inspiration for Enzo, the dog narrator in my book, The Art of Racing in the Rain (and the young reader version, Racing in the Rain: My Life as a Dog). And the answer is, flatly, no. Enzo is a singular character, I tell them, and has no predecessor. Comet is goofy and silly, and is very much not Enzo. But she’s still very smart–in her own Comet way–and has taught me much about the world.
When Comet was just a pup, she hated being left at home; she didn’t like the responsibility of having the house to herself. She would always get into some mischief: eat an entire bunch of bananas, for instance (having peeled them first!). Or claw her way into the pantry looking for cookies. But one day, she communicated her anxiety in a way that was so clear, so unmistakable, there was no doubt at all as to her feelings. We went out for a couple of hours, confining her to the kitchen/dining area of our house. And when we came home, there was a perfectly round, undisturbed puddle of urine on the dining room table.
Now that is a statement. Message received. Since that day, whenever we get ready to leave her alone in the house, she willingly–one might saygratefully–finds her crate, curls up, and waits for us to secure the door.
While Comet may not be able to wax eloquently about philosophy and popular culture as Enzo does, she did teach me an important lesson this summer.
Comet loves playing fetch with a tennis ball. She always has. And she will run herself into the ground chasing balls, so that my arm gets sore throwing a ball for her with my Chuck-It, and I find myself neglecting my cooking duties, my lawn mowing, my reading, my writing, and even my children…all to throw a tennis ball for Comet.
This summer I purchased a GoDogGo. It’s a ball launcher with a bucket of tennis balls and a delayed feed, so one can teach one’s dog to play fetch with herself. A brilliant idea! The machine spits the ball, the dog fetches it, drops it in the bucket, the machine spits it again. Ad infinitum.
And so one weekend this summer, I decided to teach Comet how to use this machine so I could do other things that needed doing, like cleaning gutters and grilling chickens.
Well, she got the idea right away. Launch, fetch, drop. She was really quite good. And then I taught her launch, fetch, drop-in-the-bucket, prepare for re-launch. And she got that, too.
“I have the smartest tennis-ball-dog on the planet,” I thought. “She picked this up in ten minutes! Now I can go have an iced tea while she plays fetch with a ball throwing machine.”
But it didn’t work. As soon as I stepped away, she lost the thread. Ball launch, ball fetch, ball dropped in the bucket. Instead, she dropped it next to the bucket and stared at it while the machine ground its ball-throwing wheels in anticipation.
“Come on, Comet,” I said. “Drop it in the bucket!”
I dropped the ball in the bucket, the launcher launched, Comet fetched, and dropped the ball at my feet.
“In the bucket,” I said. She wagged, sat and barked and waited for me to drop the ball in the bucket.
I spent two days teaching her how to drop the ball in the bucket by herself. Sometimes she’d do it for me–so I knew it was possible!–but the moment I stepped away to attend to some other business, she lost her ability to drop the ball in the bucket. She’d stand over the ball and bark until I came to help her. It was a miserable time.
As Sunday evening arrived, my wife came outside to see how our training was going. I expressed to her my frustration. “She knows what to do,” I said. “She just won’t do it.”
My wife watched as I put the ball in the bucket and the launcher clicked, ratcheting up its gears. Comet had gotten to recognize the clicks that meant the ball would soon be launched, and she sunk to her haunches, tail wagging, staring at the launch tube. And then with a thwack! the ball sailed across the yard and she took off after it, recovered it, dropped it at my feet and barked happily.
“She won’t drop it in the bucket,” I said, bewildered. “She wants me to drop it in the bucket.”
My wife smiled at me my sympathetically. “Comet doesn’t want to play fetch with a machine,” she said. “She wants to play fetch with you.”
And I realized, in my effort to make my life more efficient, in order to multi-task one more thing during a busy day, that playing fetch is not about economy and efficiency. It’s about playing fetch.
The ball launcher sits in the shed gathering dust these days, but the Chuck-It is always in use. And while Comet might like to spend every waking hour of every day playing fetch, she realizes that I have to put the ball down at some point to cook dinner or play with my family or write a book. But she’s okay with that. Because when we do play fetch together, that’s the only thing we’re doing–we are focused on each other, and that’s what the game is all about.