[This is a reprint of an article I wrote for Smithsonian magazine a few years ago. My all-time favorite freelance assignment. Longer than your average blog post, but that’s what writers did in those days.]
Elbow by elbow, like a tiny Marine, Tasha is crawling across the dirt. Her task is simple: slither under a pickup truck on the driver’s side, crawl out on the passenger side. She’s made it halfway, guided by the enthusiastic calls of her owner, Sue Purvis, who is squatting in the dirt near the passenger door. Underneath the axle, though, the black Labrador puppy pauses, looks around and abandons her mission, scrambling instead toward the tailpipe and out into the sunshine. Purvis quickly hustles her back to the driver’s side, and again gives her the command: “Go through!” Tasha drops to her elbows. Purvis runs around the truck, shouting encouragement. “Come on, Tasha! Let’s go, girl!” This time, Tasha crawls straight across, causing her owner to explode in praise. Thrilled to have made Purvis so happy, Tasha wriggles the entire back half of her body in delight.
Tasha’s teammates soon follow: Jazz, an Australian shepherd; Ranger, a chocolate Lab; and Odie, a mixed breed, each do a flawless truck crawl. Amid hugs, praise, high fives and wagging tails, the dogs and their owners then move on to other events in this doggy Olympics being held just outside Dinosaur National Monument in northwest Colorado. One by one, the dogs politely walk on leash while a human at the other end carries an egg in a spoon. They sit patiently in a beached, rocking canoe while the crazy humans jump in and out. And in a new twist on the wet T-shirt contest, each dog dashes under a large tarp with its owner and, after a flurry of flying canvas and wagging behinds, emerges triumphantly wearing a large, drooly T-shirt that moments earlier had been on the human.
Two dozen onlookers alternately cheer wildly and try to trip up the competition. But Tasha’s team proves unbeatable. They trounce three other teams, sending both the dogs and their human handlers into a frenzy that rivals the excitement of the real Olympics.
The games are just one portion of an entire weekend of canine fun. Tasha is also enjoying hikes through the scrubby Colorado desert, sleeping under the stars and mingling with more than a dozen dogs from around the state. How much more fun can a 9-month-old pup have? What Tasha doesn’t know, though, is that all her activities have been designed with a deadly serious goal in mind. Continue reading