On November 3, I hit a three year milestone of losing my “Epic Dog” Judd to cancer. I admit to crying… a lot… as I generally do when I think about losing him. We have all been there. If you have loved a dog, you have probably lost a dog too. We all know what it feels like. Because of the significance of the date, I have done a lot of reflection. Most of my reflection has been on his legacy and the many things that he taught me. I am grateful for each and every one of them.
My story actually started with horses. I bought a talented project horse in my early 20’s. My horse came with a waiver stating that I understood that he was “extremely dangerous to ride, train, and handle”. None of those were actually true. He was just a very misunderstood horse paired with a heavy handed previous owner. With some positive reinforcement and kindness he became an incredible, trustworthy friend who taught me and who helped me to ride into the FEI levels of dressage. He turned into what we called a “Schoolmaster”. In the horse world, a “Schoolmaster” is a wise horse whose training can upskill and teach a rider. Often they are kind horses though you still need to be awake and carry your share of the team. Schoolmasters are worth their weight in gold.
When we have a First Dog in this sport who takes us places we never expect, we get a little bit of that experience. Some of these dogs may be less complicated or they may just take an incredible liking to the sport. Regardless of how far we get with our First Dog, we will learn more than we ever expected on the first day that we decided to “try Nosework”. Soon, we get hooked and we find ourselves past the point of no return. Soon we become a “Noseworker”. We cover our cars with Aluminet and get whiplash when we drive past idle unused construction vehicles, thinking about how much fun they would be to search.
When you train and work your First Dog, you learn ONE way of handling. You get GOOD at handling THAT dog. Your First Dog will catapult you in your knowledge and will teach you about air flow and handling for advanced searches. Eventually, your First Dog becomes your Schoolmaster. Searching with your First Dog starts to feel like a nice broken in pair of slippers. (To some extent it’s a false sense of security but we don’t often learn that until we start to handle our Second Dog. The Second Dog is there to keep us from getting too cocky!)
No matter if our First Dog is uncomplicated with a passion for the sport or a more sensitive dog that needs more support and a more subtle hand, our First Dog sets the path for the handler that we will become. They help us to shape our belief system and they teach us what “good” feels like.
One day we will mourn the loss of our First Dog. Hopefully yours is still with you. I can tell you though that their passing is really tough. What I struggle with personally is comparison. Our First Dog becomes an icon in our own minds and sets a standard for our other dogs. Our other dogs may be just as talented even if they are more complicated, however we really need to try NOT to compare. For a long time I felt that Brava had big shoes to fill because Judd was so incredible. It’s taken me some time, but now I say that she has her own shoes! I also make a point of thinking about each dog as carving their own path. They all give us gifts. They are just different gifts!
Our First Dog is all about foundational gifts. You will carry these gifts with you throughout your Nosework career. They will form your foundation and you will layer on subtle, dimensional modifications with every dog you train, but your foundation will always be from the First Dog. If your current Nosework dog IS your First Dog, treasure this time. Pay attention to the gifts that they are giving you. Listen to your dog. Observe and realize that you are like the Karate Kid learning from the Master. Wax On Wax Off. Pay attention and treasure every single search.
This blog is dedicated to Judd and all of the other First Dogs out there….
As you know in Australia scent work is very new.
All of the dogs competing now are First Dogs. For handlers, for judges, for stewards and those setting the rules, it is a huge learning curve for all concerned.
It is so valuable to be able learn from the experiences of trainers and competitors in the USA and elsewhere, to broaden our knowledge about the behaviour of dogs, handlers and odour. About the many different aspects of this new sport. About how to run a trial successfully About new training ideas and things we haven’t even thought of yet
Stella will be one of the First Dogs to be in Masters. So exciting and a bit terrifying
Thanks Stacey for helping us to get here
Your tribute to Judd is beautiful and moving, and applies not only to scent work but also to working events in my Newfoundland world. My experience of training a second dog in water work was initially confusing and ultimately humbling as after 4 seasons of diligent training and veterinary evaluation I learned of an anatomical issue which appeared to contribute to all pups in his litter having an aversion to swimming. However, as you note about dogs who follow First Dogs, he has his own gifts in other dog sports. We all grow through our training with all our dogs; but there’s only one First Dog who gifts us with love for learning and working. Working with a First Dog is an intimate affair.
Thank you for sharing this tribute and reflection.
Each of my dogs has been First Dog in their own way (First GSD, First dog with medical needs, First reactive dog, and now First NW dog.) Like you with Judd , I think of each of them often and may or may not be able to hold back the tears.
Thank you all for the journey, and the reminder to appreciate every step.
Thank you, your comparison to the horse world is 100% spot on. I’ve had that horse that taught me, just as I’ve had the most resilient “first dog”.