I stared deeply into her eyes, the sweat beginning to bead on my brow.
She stared back, and I could feel my heart wanting to race but holding back, a sort of dryness of anticipation building in the back of my throat.
As the minutes passed, we both stood nearly paralyzed.
No, I'm not describing a case of unrequited love from my awkward teen years, though I must admit I have grown to love the "her" in this narrative.
This was the build-up to a championship scene as my 9-month-old Great Pyrenees/Jack Russell terrier mix, Sofie, held her position and won the competition of her six-week obedience class last weekend at Landheim, an incredible dog-training facility in St. John.
The experience is a great reminder of the elite pet-related services available in our Region.
But it's an even bigger lesson in the amazing things that often come to us in life when least expected — and sometimes when we initially protest the impending arrival.
For weeks leading into early 2019, my wife had been dropping hints — or in some cases just outright statements — that we needed a new dog.
She even enlisted our four children in the longing, nose-against-the-glass begging for a new family canine.
"We have a dog," I said, referring to Lambeau, our 11-year-old designer yip-yap mutt (Yorky, Maltese, Pekingese and poodle mix, say that five times fast).
Sorry, but I just can't bring myself to mouth the words "Morky Peek-a-poo." So I'll write them instead.
"Why on Earth would we need another animal in the house?" I asked. "We have Lambeau."
I tried to persuade, then protested, then flat-out said no to a second dog.
Needless to say, just before Easter, a Region-based foster rescue service brought a nervous and confused puppy — one that already weighed 30 pounds — through our front door.
It took about 10 seconds for my reservations to evaporate into, "Oh, we're keeping this dog."
She had gotten car sick on her way to our home that first day, prompting the woman from the foster service to stop at a Crown Point pet store to use a bath facility there.
So when the poor white hound with brown ears and a brown bandit mask walked through my door, she was a soggy, shedding and shivering mess.
It's amazing the magnetism that can come from such a demeanor.
Sofie initially hid behind the foster worker as the woman led her through the kitchen and into our sun room.
But then I made a mistake that sealed my fate with this dog.
I sat down on the floor. Sofie jumped into my lap, and the rest is history.
We're still washing the matted fur out of the black dress pants I'd worn to work that day. When I stood up, my lower half looked like the legs of a Yeti.
Since then, Sofie has solidly been my dog. The kids may disagree, but they're as wrong as I was when I said we weren't getting another dog.
Right after we adopted Sofie, we knew we wanted obedience training to be part of the equation.
She was much bigger than our designer mutt — and likely will only get bigger going forward.
At one moment, she could be shy, skittish and sensitive, hiding for dear life in her training crate or under the kitchen table.
At other times, she could be so exuberant that she could easily knock down my 4-year-old son, Aidan.
We never incorporated much training with our smaller dog, Lambeau, and it shows.
He's cute, but he also can be yipping, yapping little monster who's slow to listen to a semblance of most commands.
So we enrolled Sofie in the basic obedience class at Landheim, which trains dogs of all shapes and sizes but has made a particular name for itself preparing German shepherds for police service.
It's some of the best money I've ever spent.
Through six weeks of light correction and positive reinforcement, Sofie's skittish and sometimes wild behavior softened.
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When on the leash — and now, often even when off it — she springs into sit, down, heel and stay commands like a disciplined soldier.
And the Landheim techniques have her falling all over herself to please the handler — namely me.
In addition to the strides she's made, I've benefited from her training as well. There's a self-discipline that comes from training an animal — from dedicating the time every day to ensure that training sinks in.
It all came to a climax a week ago Saturday at the basic obedience graduation.
The class has an end-of-the-line obedience competition, which pit Sofie and me against about a dozen other dogs and their handlers, all of whom had gone through the same six weeks of training.
I figured we'd get drummed out of the competition by a few dogs we watched throughout the six weeks, including a really well-behaved German shepherd who was being trained in German-language commands — something that common for dogs entering police service.
The first round of competition was the sit-and-stay. After putting Sofie into a sit, commanding a stay and stepping in front of my hound and out to the end of the 6-foot leash, Sofie didn't budge.
As the minutes ticked by and other dogs broke their positions before being excused by their handlers, Sofie was the last pooch sitting.
Round one was ours!
Round two involved a down-and-stay command.
Sofie made it into the final three before becoming distracted by another dog and breaking her position.
"Oh well," I thought. "It's been fun, but a big Doberman and a black lab had our number on that event."
Then came the nerve-racking third and final round, which came with several sub-levels.
After putting our dogs in a sit-and-stay, the handlers had to drop the leash behind and walk out to a distance some 10 feet away from our dogs, then hold the position until the herd was thinned.
Sofie and a few other dogs made it through that first task of round three without breaking ranks.
The second phase of the round brought sweaty palms.
After being put in a sit and stay, we again had to leave behind our leashes and walk several feet away but in line with the front of our hounds.
Then, without the benefit of a leash to correct or prompt them, we had to give the "down" command, and our dogs had to obey within two seconds or be eliminated from the round.
Cumulative hours of work on this paid off. Sofie hit the turf, many other dogs didn't, and we continued on in the round.
The final aspect brought the dry throat.
Now it was just us and a black lab and its owner remaining.
After putting the dogs into a sit and stay, we then had to walk an even longer distance away — about halfway across the gymnasium-style training room — and hold the position without any prompting or hand signals to our dogs.
Minutes ticked by. Anticipation grew. The lab broke ranks.
Sofie had won round three and the overall competition.
She won the coveted winners bandanna — pink and emblazoned with the Landheim logo.
My once-shivering and skittish rescue mutt became a champion of sorts.
And I learned so many lessons — things most of us already know but need reinforced in our lives:
- Giving ground sometimes leads to the best outcomes.
- Rescue dogs rock and can go head-to-head against any purebred — and win.
- Discipline and investment of time breed success, winning and close-knit bonds — with animals and people.
If you're thinking of becoming a dog owner — or being dragged into it — invest in the training and the personal growth.
And remember that rescues make incredibly loyal pets.