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.

1 comment:

Ramin said...

awesome, thanks for sharing your adventures with Django. My dog is named Django too! We've done a little agility but his true love is getting his Frisbee.