Monday, April 19, 2010

Newbies Again

This weekend, Django and Maebe entered their first AKC agility trial. Until now, both have only participated in CPE trials, so it was an interesting and fun experience to try something new.

The various agility-sanctioning organizations tend to have differing stereotypes among the dog community. While these are not necessarily my opinions, the general stereotype I have heard is that CPE is strictly about fun, and is for less serious, non-competitive-minded trainers, or for new dogs starting out who want less pressure and easier courses. I've heard that the rigor of training tends to not be as high, but that it is more relaxed and laid-back. AKC, on the other hand, has had the stereotype (at least as I've perceived it) as being more competitive, more difficult, and while the trainers are more serious, they are also less friendly and more "clique-y."

I enjoy CPE, as the "fun" part of the stereotype has always held true for us, but we were interested to try other venues. We were delighted when the AKC finally decided to allow mixed breeds in competition this Spring, so we got Maebe (a mixed breed) and Django registered, and signed up for a local trial hosted by a friend's breed club.

I admit, we were excited for a new challenge and opportunity to compete and were keeping an open mind, but also in the back of our minds were prepared that the AKC environment might prove to be stuffy, unfriendly, and uninviting. We figured we'd try it out, and see how it went.

Not knowing that unlike CPE, measuring can take place throughout the day, we showed up bright and early at 7 AM on Sunday to get our dogs measured. Even though we had not done AKC before, we still found lots of friendly faces there as lots of people do both venues or had been in classes with us. They helped us get oriented, and we were able to get two measurements taken on the dogs. Both came in exactly as I'd expected. Django was not terribly sure of the whole measuring process but held it together OK. Maebe just didn't like holding still when she knew all the fun equipment was out there and she really wanted to go play NOW.

Fortunately, we live 15 minutes from the trial site, so we headed back home and spent a beautiful morning taking Jade, Tristan, and Cadence for nice long walks around the pond and neighborhood. Even got some agility training time in with Cade before heading back to the show with Django and Maebe.

Since AKC requires you to start back in Novice, the courses were easier than we are used to in Level 5 CPE. There are some differences though that we knew could present new challenges - CPE does not use a pause table, we rarely see a broad jump, and CPE does not count refusals. Despite being back in Novice, I was oddly nervous.

Django's Standard run went well for the first two-thirds - he did the broad jump and table beautifully - but my handling pulled him off the A-Frame, and he got a refusal. Afterwards I was a bit flustered, and he subsequently took the wrong end of the following tunnel, so we NQ'd, but I was overall pleased with his performance and blame my ring nerves for the handling errors. We redeemed ourselves with a lovely clean Jumpers run which took first place in 16-inch Preferred.

Maebe and Lowell had two great runs. Both runs had a refusal called, due to some timing issues on front crosses, but still earned them a qualifying score and first place. It is always fun to listen as people see Maebe for the first time. Our video tape picked up the following conversation: "Oh, that's a cute little dog going in now . . . Wow, she's fast . . . oh-my-gosh she is REALLY fast!. . . etc. It always makes us smile. I was very proud watching the two of them work. She has rock solid contacts now after they had plaqued her performance for over a year. The Salo jump grid exercises we are doing also seem to be having an effect, as she jumped nicely and didn't knock any bars all day. She continues to get more and more consistent, and Lowell's handling improves as he learns not to race her. I love watching them run.

The most noticeable observation we made this weekend though was how faulty the stereotypes about the organizations truly were. First, after watching the Excellent level Standard runs, the course difficulty and the level of handling did not seem noticeably different from CPE - I think CPE really gets a bad rap there. But secondly, the AKC venue was a lot more fun and friendly than I guess I had anticipated. Certainly we had a lot of friends there, but there were a lot of people we did not know, and several of them welcomed us, asked about our dogs, and gave us nice compliments. As we left, a woman we had just met approached us and said "Welcome to AKC. It was really nice meeting you and your dogs and we hope we'll see you back again." It was a very nice welcome, and we were very glad we didn't let the stereotypes we had heard prevent us from trying this new experience.

It was also fun starting something new again with Django. I am pleased with what we've accomplished together, and as he is now probably somewhere around eight years old, I am focusing on just enjoying every run we have together. I had debated not getting him an AKC number as it seemed late in life to start a new venture, but then I realized that physically he still looks great - he is healthy and fit, and as my long-time running buddy he is still as excited and tireless as ever. Plus his confidence and enthusiasm for the sport only continues to increase, even still. So, I decided we'd give it a try, and it has been really fun being a beginner again with Django. As we had to brush up on a few things (table, broad jump, etc.) it gave me motivation in recent weeks to do increased agility training with him, which we both really enjoyed. And the excitement of something different also made me appreciate the long partnership we've had and the fact that we can still grow and learn some more.

So, this morning I printed out a list of AKC trials in Michigan and Ohio over the next several months that will allow mixed breeds. Looks like we've found even another option of something to do on the weekends!

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Django ONYX

This past weekend, Django received his plaque for earning his ONYX award in flyball last October. The ONYX is awarded after the dogs reaches 20,000 points in his racing career. Django started flyball relatively later in life since he was adopted as an adult, and I was proud to reach that milestone with him.

Flyball was good for Django. When I got him, he was shy, not terribly interested in toys or retreiving, and dog-reactive. During my first few weeks with him, I wasn't sure that he would ever have the desire or courage to participate in a sport that involved lots of loud dogs running off leash right alongside him, and that required him to drive away from me, and to retrieve a ball. Our early retrieve sessions involved him half-heartedly walking to the ball and picking it up, then strolling back to me as I danced around and cheered like a crazy person waving a bag of chopped up hot dogs. Lowell laughed at me the first time he witnessed this, and teased me that my up-and-coming flyball dog looked real promising.

Within a year though, Django figured it out. His mild interest in the ball turned into complete obsession. Learning the rules of the game built his confidence and he could focus despite the running, barking dogs. He came out of his shell more and more outside of the ring, and his dog-reactivity was pretty much a thing of the past. He still hates Huskies and certain Tervs, and would prefer to not have strange dogs in his face when he is on leash, but he has learned in such situations to count to ten and let mom take care of it. I can walk him through crowded trials without worry now, and he does socialize nicely with other dogs regularly.

Django became a solid flyball dog, running in the low-4's. He loved to run in anchor position, and loved to race the dog in the next lane to the finish line. He wouldn't take a tug toy when he got back to me, but would instead whip around to watch the rest of the racing. Which, if he was running in the middle of the pack, occasionally made him into a bit of a road block in the lane, but I became skilled at catching his harness and pulling him to the side while he chewed on his tennis ball and stared at the racing. The ball became his true desire in life, and he never, ever dropped it or came back without it.

For Lowell and I though, things gradually began to change. In our last year and a half of racing, Django was crossed on and crashed by other dogs four times. Each time sent him tumbling and made me completely sick to my stomach, and I began to question whether I had the nerve to play this sport much longer.

We all take risks, with ourselves and with our dogs. I don't believe that we should try to exist in safe little bubbles, but rather we should live our life and enjoy it. But at some point, risks begin to outweigh rewards. There is risk in other dog sports, certainly, but in agility for instance, it felt more under my control. If I don't feel the obstacles are safe at a venue, I can choose to avoid them. If weather conditions make the course too slippery, I can scratch my dog from a run. I train my dogs to do obstacles safely, don't push them to do things before they are ready, and decide when I think conditions are suitable for running. In flyball, I realized, my dog's safety was also in the hands of seven other handlers and dogs in the ring at the time. There was nothing I could do if someone in the next lane decided to "try out" their green dog to see what it would do, and that dog decided to tear off after my trained dog. I've seen ugly crashes, and seen dogs seriously injured in just this situation. This past weekend before receiving our plaque, we sat and watched a total of six races, and watched scary interference situations occur in 50% of them, without exaggeration.

Our eight years of flyball have brought us a lot of fun with our dogs, introduced us to great friends, and taken us on fun road trips. But even beyond our safety concerns, in recent years something just wasn't there for us anymore. Agility had become our true dog-sport passion, and we wanted to spend more time training and trialing in it. We were growing more interested in other areas of dog training in general, and were longing to spend more time with some of our other pursuits, both dog and non-dog related. I was concerned that some of the physical aspects of flyball - such as jumping low and flat, and turning repeatedly in one direction - were having an affect on agility performance and the physical health of the dogs. Jade was retired after a breaking a toe on a box and then our realizing he had a mouth full of incisors loosened by the years of impact, making him no longer want to carry the ball. As much as I had loved the sport for years, as much as I valued the social aspect of the activity, and as much as I know my dogs enjoyed the racing, it felt like it was time for us to take a break this past October.

A couple months later, we realized that the break was probably going to be more than that, and sadly told the team that we were stepping back for now. I felt a little sad about retiring Django, who does love the sport. Sunday before heading up to get the plaque though, we went for a run with the dogs. Django knows when I get running clothes and shoes out what we are about to do, and starts dancing at the door with excitement. As we go out into the yard, he tears joyfully around for a few laps, then dances at the gate waiting to be leashed up. I watched him brimming with pre-run delight, and realized that what matters to them is the time we spend together, whether it is playing flyball, competing in agility, taking a run in the park, hiking through the woods, biking around the neighborhood, paddling along in a kayak, or shaping a new cute trick on a quiet evening at home. All of those are things I have been lucky enough to share with Django for years, and we will continue to do for hopefully some time to come. I don't suspect that he is sitting around longing for his flyball days. That is the wonderful thing about dogs - how much they live in and enjoy the moment.

While I miss seeing our flyball friends regularly and have fond memories of the good days of racing, we are enjoying the time we have now to devote to other things - things that we have not been able to do as much as we would have liked in recent years. We've had more long weekend-morning hikes, more runs through the park, more hanging out watching them play in the backyard, more training time, and the opportunity to try out new agility venues. Lowell and I have also re-doubled our triathlon training in preparation for several races this summer - an activity that we missed out on altogether last season with our busy schedule, and we can hardly wait for the first event.

Django's plaque represents a milestone reached, but also in some way represents the closing of a part of our life. At the same time, new adventures, opportunities, and challenges are presenting themselves, and I am feeling good about where we are going now. Maybe one day we will venture back onto the lanes, but for now we are happy with this new journey, and wish happy, safe racing to our flyball friends.