Thursday, November 15, 2012

Why I left the dog obedience world

I guess this is partly a tribute to Molly, partly a farewell, and partly a love letter to obedience teams. And if anyone happens to care, it's an explanation of why I left the sport of dog obedience. If none of those interest you, then you probably had better find something else to read.

Some of you know that I (or that guy named Vern, anyway) was privileged to have Molly, the smartest dog in school. With Molly I spent almost a decade involved in obedience competitions, learning how to train and show, writing a column in Front and Finish called "Sanity Check", and doing a bit of judging. 

And then I left.

I stopped showing when I lost Molly. She was one of the closest and wisest friends I've had, of any species, and when she died of cancer in 2011, I didn't really have much desire to train or show. Molly was the wellspring of my obedience carreer - it was part of our bond, a common language that we shared, the thing that made us, both as a team and even individually, somewhat special among many that knew us. Molly grew from that training into a poised, calm dog of the world, meeting a stream of students, teachers and visitors in my office at school every day. And she met them not only with dignity and poise, but she also made it clear the world that she was a trained dog, dammit, and she answered to me alone. I often wished that some of those top trainers who sneered at us when we were having a bad day in the ring (and I do mean sneered, literally) could have seen her in action during one of her days at work. 

About that same time I'd moved to a new job and was putting in 10 hour days, so in addition to lacking motivation to train and compete with Aeryn (the young dog in the house) it was harder to find the time. It may even have been that Aeryn promised to be so much better in the ring than Molly ever was - that wasn't so hard to take while Molly was alive, but once she was gone, in the back of my mind it felt almost disloyal to train Aeryn to surpass Molly's admittedly checkered obedience career. 

I continued to judge for a while, in spite of the heavier work schedule, because I honestly enjoyed judging, seeing the same sort of bond that Molly and I had being developed by other teams. 

Sure, judging had it's downsides - I had to get up early on weekend mornings and wear a tie. I had to be there, on my feet, basically working the entire time. But I loved to watch the teams and I had the best seat (well, "stand") in the house. I could see the good, the bad, and the ugly, from the little tricks of the experts to the shaking hands of a first timer.

I loved the less skilled teams most, and the first timers. The people who were clearly out of their comfort zone competing (in a dog show for heaven's sake!), with dogs that maybe had a few "issues". Those handlers who didn't quite know how to get the best out of their dogs and the dogs who didn't quite know how to please their suddenly nervous handlers. There they were, both sides trying their hardest, and many times it was out of love. I never was an easy scorer, but man, did I do whatever I could to help those teams legitimately qualify.

But last summer, I resigned my judging licenses. 

Of course, my decision to transition from male to female was behind that. The rest of this blog is devoted to that process, so I won't belabor it here. It was a huge decision, with joys and rewards, as well as risks and costs, and I'm glad I did it.

But the reason I left obedience was pretty simple - I didn't trust the sport to accept me. 

I didn't trust the sport of obedience to accept me as a transgender woman mainly because I didn't believe that the sport had really accepted me as a man. In my early years in obedience, outwardly a male in a sport predominately female, I was less than warmly received. In fact, I can remember many times when many of the people at a trial actively avoided speaking or even making eye-contact with me, although they would be quite willing to chat with my wife. She figured it must be because I didn't look "needy" enough for people to go out their way to talk to. Maybe I just wasn't outgoing and friendly enough.

But to me, as a transgender persion, it seemed like one more case of being on the outside looking in, caught again on the wrong side of the gender divide. Maybe that perception wasn't true. I do know that once I started writing for Front and Finish and particularly after I became a judge people became much, much friendlier, and I liked that. 

But I also never escaped the feeling that acceptance came not because of anything about me, but mainly because I was now useful. And as I started transition I didn't want to go back to being the ousider again. I didn't want to have people staring at me, not making eye contact, not being willing to talk to me, all the rest. 

Maybe that wasn't really a risk. Certainly it hasn't been a problem at the tech events I've participated in. Judges are in demand enough that presumably even a transgender judge might get an assignment here or there, right? And no one would be foolish enough to insult or ignore the judge, right? And maybe some of the people I'd met over the years would even be sort of nice about it, right? Probably. But I just didn't feel confident enough to risk it. 

It's kind of a conservative crowd, and while I can think of many exceptions, I can also think of too many I knew who wouldn't be able to accept me at all. Besides, my new voice isn't as powerful as Vern's was - I was afraid I'd just heel all of those ladies who warned me they were hard of hearing right into the wall. More to the point, my new self wasn't (isn't) self-confident enough yet to stand in the middle of the ring and be watched all day. Maybe someday she will be.

So that's the story. A few people I knew from the dog world have reached out to me on my transition, and they have been postiive and supportive (thanks!). They've even suggested I should come back to judging and showing, and I have to admit it I thought about it. But I don't think so, at least for now.

To all of those obedience teams out there (particularly you green, new, struggling ones) I wish you joy and success, and that you and your dog will cherish and grow that relationship for as long as you can.



Naomi now lives with her spouse and two Aussies, Riker, who was Molly's dutiful flunky for many years, and Aeryn, who in spite of her relative youth and lack of embarrassing obedience performances still managed to make an occasional precocious appearance in "Sanity Check" back in the day.


  1. Naomi/Vern:

    It is what it is. Your eyes didn't change color, you aren't any taller or shorter. You are the same person that I have known for years and shown under as well as judged. If you are confortable with all of this, then I am confortable with you.

    Jerry Shields

    1. Ah, so then I shouldn't mention the brown contacts and the high heels, huh? ;)

      But seriously, thanks for the thought... that would make at least two of us... :)

  2. "Molly's admittedly checkered obedience career." Let us never forget the "evil spot" in your office at CHS! =) Also, I'm training my dog, Zuccotti, for Rally and (hopefully soon) agility so I'm glad you're not against the sport as a whole!

    1. Ah, I hadn't thought of the "evil spot" in ages! There was also one in the kitchen of my parents' old house... Puzzled the heck out of the old folks as she backed up through it! :)

      Not against the sport at all! If you get the chance, you should even do obedience! (That is, the obedience that comes after Rally) Which flavor of Rally? AKC? UKC? APDT?

  3. somehow I agree with this posts. I don't have the kind of confidence some dog owners have with dog training classes?

  4. Wow, I can't think of much else you could do to put your transition in the spotlight...Hey world look at me!
    I'm glad though you have found some support and are considering going back in the future.
    You sort of surprised me-I thought you were going into how we are similar to trained dogs in our "assigned" genders!

    1. You're right, Cyrsti. I thought about posting this quite a bit and even thought, "Vern would NEVER post this." But... sometimes things need to be said, and it was important for me to say this to get it straight in my own mind and heart. And, after all these years hiding, I'm finding that being completely open about who I am not only feels better, but other people seem to respond better, as well...
      And now that you mention it, it's kind of a joke among dog people that dogs tend to be sort of sexist, responding differently to male and female. I don't know quite how to relate that to my situation yet. :)