There are a million stories I could tell about Muriel. She had a rough first two years of life, probably experiencing a Mad Max-like hell in central California with desert landscapes and psycho biker gangs. When I adopted her in May of 2007, she had to adapt to really clean glass (face-planting at full speed into a closed patio door on day one), learn how to drink water out of a bowl without plunging her face in the bowl (and all of the water onto the floor), and overcome her fear of men with goatees, tall men, men with fat bellies, men with man faces, and, well, men. It seemed, since birth, Muriel had been a stranger in strange – even hostile – lands. I wanted to change that, to help her feel at home in this world.
During the first year I spent with Muriel, she graciously accepted every meal, every treat, every opportunity to learn a trick, run agility, go on a hike or a jog; she seemed quite at home in the world I guided her through. Why, then, would she stare at me for hours on end? Was she still hungry? Did I have a boogie hanging? Feeling a little like the sun’s rays were being magnified into two tiny dots singeing my eyebrows off, I was compelled to find out, or risk some serious skin damage.
Lucky for us, in the summer of 2008 my agility instructor and friend, Penny, mentioned this new activity called “nose work”. By September, Muriel was in her first nose work class. From those first few runs, I could tell this was the answer to her silent, penetrating pleas. Everything we’d done up to this point had been Muriel joining me in my world, where I set the rules and knew the language and the lay of the land. With nose work, Muriel was welcoming me into her world.
The early days of nose work were the greatest gift for Muriel and me. I knew absolutely nothing about her invisible world, about the language and the lay of the land. It felt natural and necessary to be a guest in her world. With nose work in our lives, the great mystery hidden deep in Muriel’s eyes had been solved, but another challenge would soon present itself.
Within a few months of starting Muriel’s nose work classes we participated in a practice match, and then competed in the first ever NACSW NW1 trial. Competition nose work really isn’t part of the dog’s world. It’s way too full of rules and limitations, and titles that can be earned in ways that are sloppy and disrespectful to the dog.
As much as I liked competing, I noticed how often I played the role of disrespectful tourist – or worse, invading country – and how easy it became to rationalize these violations of my guest status. In one trial, I pushed Muriel to search an exterior area for 3 minutes after she found all the hides that were out there – and I only called finish because the time was up. That search solidified, for both of us, that I’d built a great big “Disneyland of Odor” resort in the middle of her world and opted to meet her inside its walls, where I could speak the language of human competition, and she could still get treats. As competition standardized over the next 5 years, it felt more and more like I knew what experience Muriel should be having when we searched. But, Muriel knew the reality.
In 2015, we participated in our second National Invitational competition and it was two days of me misreading Muriel and calling false alerts. All these years I could have been immersing myself in her language, learning to navigate her land – exploring the world outside of the resort walls. A search with hanging boxes left us with negative points. Muriel’s message to me was clear: “You are a guest in my world. If you want to learn the language and the lay of the land, this is not the way.” At least I got part of the message. I retired Muriel from competition nose work, realizing I could maintain my guest status in her world much better by playing the game on our own. So, Muriel got her world back, but I went on and taught a bunch of other humans how to build walled-off resorts in their dogs’ worlds and to win at trials and place high at Nationals.
Today, with Muriel having passed away not even two months ago, I still hear her voice, “You are a guest in my world.” I remind myself of this message daily, and I share this message with others. I gain immense joy from my guest status each time I journey into any dog’s world, seeing very clearly that it will be a very long time – if ever – before I can claim dual citizenship. I wish I could have learned Muriel’s language more completely while she was still alive, and shared deep conversation with her in the world of scent.
I still love coaching teams to compete, but I and Muriel would like every human to remember to have respect for your guest status in your dog’s world. Nose work is your dog’s world. If you want to take it from your dog, she’ll let you, but if you see her staring intensely at you and you wonder what she wants, I and Muriel hope you’ll give it back.