Agility Spaz

Saturday, January 19, 2008

Viva Goes West, Pt. II

November 29, and the first question of the morning follows: if I am to be Viva's valet on this trip, where's MY *blinking* valet? Walking from the parking garage to the terminal, I can't decide which is worse, lugging Viva in her crate, or managing Viva on leash while carrying the crate in addition to the rolling duffle bag in addition to my carry-on. At least the airport provides so-called "smart" luggage carts (for people like me not smart enough to bring along an extra pair of hands), and this makes my decision easy. Viva heads into the crate and gets to watch the world roll by. She's been to this airport once before, when I picked her up here as a pup. Still, with so many people on the move, she's busily keeping track of everything and everyone crossing our path. The tram's a novelty, but the five other dogs waiting to check in at the Northwest Airlines counter aren't. Time to play! Isn't it?

The folks at Northwest are fabulous. I've done my fair share of airline bashing, and won't necessarily take it all back (especially the part about sleeping on Army cots in the baggage claim area of O'Hare Airport when the carrier involved lied about the availability of Chicago hotel rooms after a weather-related flight delay), but I was really impressed with the professionalism of all the employees involved with getting Viva on board and safely to LAX. The ticketing agent was unbelievably wonderful, the designated TSA screener was calm and helpful, and the flight crew made sure all of us with dogs in cargo received verification that our buddy was loaded before leaving the gate. I couldn't see Viva being loaded, but a colleague happened to be travelling to Long Beach on the same flight. From where he was sitting, she looked to him like her normal, cheerfully-intrepid, everyday self, both on her way into and on her way out of cargo. All I knew, getting on board, is that she had been so excited to find her Kong stuffed with peanut butter when I re-loaded her into her crate at security that she didn't bother to say goodbye.

Even so, she was pretty darn happy to see me when we arrived in Los Angeles. Again, the airline did a great job, getting all the dogs to the baggage claim area at roughly the speed of light. The airport, however, could be a bit more dog-friendly. Is there ANYWHERE to take a dog for, well, what she needed to do at that point in the journey? We found a patch of dirt, and settled in to wait for the shuttle to Long Beach. Here too the company was ready for canines. Our driver insisted that Viva would have no fun in back with the luggage, and loaded her crate into the front seat of the van. That way, he noted, she could look out the window. We had an agility Manchester Terrier and her owner/handler along for the ride as well, plus Karen Paulukaitis, one of the judges for the invitational. Paulukaitis was dogless, which I figure has to be one of the tougher parts of an agility judge's job. Bad enough to leave home without your dog(s), but then to spend the weekend watching other people's? She was the judge for Viva's last OAJ leg, and was not only very nice but set a really smooth course. I was psyched to see her name on the list of judges for the invitational, along with Lorelei Purdy's name. Smooth in AKC doesn't happen every weekend. My biggest hope for the weekend is to look like we might belong in this sport. A likely smooth course from Paulukaitis and another from Purdy make me feel optimistic, maybe even excited.

The excitement grows with the sun and the weather and the palm trees. My hometown is due for nearly a foot of snow over the weekend, so being in California to play agility feels like a special treat. Pulling up in Long Beach at the Westin Hotel, which will host most of the agility teams for the duration of the invitational, I realize I never thought a hotel this nice would accept dogs, much less embrace them. There are biscuits at check-in, courtesy of Eukanuba. The staff seems utterly unphased by all the animals. Viva wants to greet everyone, and the bellboys are happy to accommodate. Either the Long Beach Westin has a fabulous customer service ethic, one that extends to canine guests, or the hotel has made certain its dog-friendliest employees are on duty for the event. Or both. Either way, I'm impressed.

Viva is most impressed by the elevator. Agility teeters have nothing on elevators -- you can jump off a teeter if it startles you. The elevator, though, has no exit, at least not until the floor stops moving. Viva's eyes get big, she braces herself, but bounces out the door when it opens on our floor. I am so lucky to have a dog who is ready for just about anything. "What's next?" seems to be her motto. A new room simply means more space to explore, more corners and garbage cans in which toys or cookies might be waiting just for her. I spread my quilt out on one of the beds, figuring it'll protect the spotless white Westin duvet from dirty toes or a busy Icelandic Sheepdog tongue. What does Viva do? She jumps on the other bed, warming it up for our roommate's arrival. I set up food and water dishes and this action gets her off the bed. After she eats, it's time for a walk.

This being my first time in Long Beach, I've no idea where we should go. The sky is darkening, so another consideration is the safety of the downtown neighborhoods. It's comforting to be walking a dog, but even more comforting when we run into another Midwestern agility team, Linda and Allie, willing for us to join them. Linda's been here before, having played with Allie in last year's invitational, and knows not only the direct route to the convention center two blocks away from the hotel but that there is a man-made lagoon behind the convention center with a nice walking path, good for pre-run warm-ups and post-run cool-downs. We cut through the convention center on our way to the lagoon and the row of restaurants beyond. The agility venue is nearly ready; the rings have been built, equipment has been moved in, the bleachers set up, surrounded by curtains, with banners hang from the ceiling. A sudden chill washes over me, accompanied by a wave of emotion. With Viva's injury, I didn't know whether we'd make it here, so in many respects this feels like a dream. We are here, Viva is here, Viva is happy and healthy . . . and completely unphased by the banners. I can't decide whether in this moment I'd rather have a canine perspective or a human one. Viva's not likely to get nervous, just excited. The weekend for her will be just another chance to play, albeit with slightly better treats! We spot the crating area, empty except for yards of tape on the floor, designating the crate space for each team. There is a handful of workers present, putting the finishing touches on the rings, checking the lights, setting up sponsor booths. Tomorrow, this place will be teeming with people and dogs. Tonight, for all its emptiness, it feels full of possibility. On the other side of the building, the Tournament of Champions has already begun, showcasing handlers and owners dressed to the nines and dogs groomed to within an inch of their lives. We pass through the gentle commotion to the lagoon, and out into the Long Beach night, lights twinkling on nearby docks. A light dinner of seared tuna and veggies from Outback, carried out so as to prevent canine loneliness, and Viva and I are ready for bed, ready to see what the weekend will bring.