Monday, December 10, 2012


"All that we are arises with our thoughts.
With our thoughts we make the world."
-The Buddha

Pretty much anyone who uses any amount of positive reinforcement in dog training regularly uses a reward marker to indicate when the dog has performed a desired behavior.  Often this marker is a click from a clicker, or a verbal "yes!"  Many of us were also taught in our early classes to also use a "no reward marker" (NRM) to indicate that the behavior that was offered was not correct and will not be earning a reward.  Most people use "no" or "wrong" or perhaps that familiar "ah AH!!" sound that seems to pierce through all sounds at a training facility.

It seems logical enough, right?  And certainly much better than jerking on a choke chain to convey disapproval with the dog's action.  But are they necessary?

I decided to stop intentionally using NRMs about three years ago, after attending my first ClickerExpo where I learned that there wasn't necessarily strong scientific evidence supporting that they promoted faster learning.  After all, the absence of reinforcement is indication in itself that the behavior is not correct.  By preventing reinforcement for behaviors we don't want, and only rewarding those that we do want, we can effectively communicate the important information to facilitate learning.  Why bother with all the extra words?  In fact, I find that when I cut out most talking and focus that energy on observing and getting timing and mechanics right, my dogs progress much faster than if I am yammering at them.

In addition, I think many people's use of NRMs is more accurately described as positive punishment.  The neutral, calm "no" that our puppy class instructor demonstrated is quickly replaced by an emphatic, shouted "NO!!!"  And frankly I find that ubiquitous "ah AH!!" sound to be so aurally offensive and aversive that I wish I could banish it right along with all shock collars.  These utterances are not trying to provide information; they are meant to stop behavior.

But the real reason I stopped using NRMs is related to the quote above - our thoughts create our world, as do our words.  I strongly believe that the words and language we use shapes our realities, our perceptions, our thoughts, and our emotions as well.  And I absolutely hate the word "No."  I want to live my life with "Yes!"

The thing about negative speech, is that it frames how you begin to perceive and feel about the situation.  If I start telling a dog "no," I can feel my perceptions shift.  I start noticing the "bad" behavior, and not recognizing the good.  I see the dog only as misbehaving.  I get annoyed and frustrated and find myself losing patience.  And I stop being able to effectively teach anything.

Sure, there are alternate NRMs to use that don't sound as bad.  I briefly used "oops" or "uh-oh," but too often my husband would hear that and think something was actually wrong.  Nowadays, if I do let an NRM slip, it is more along the lines of "try again" or "I think you can do that better."  But really, I don't believe that conveys any useful information to the dog - those are simply examples of me being true to my very verbal species and not being able to shut up completely.

So what is a better response?  Recently I watched video of a well-known positive dog trainer working on proofing her dog's performance of a difficult, but silly, trick.  Every time he made a mistake, she cracked up in pure joyous laughter.  And, really, the attempts were pretty funny, but I also thought, what a perfect reaction.  Failure in training is a good thing!  As good as it feels to do things perfect, I am learning to be glad when my dog makes a mistake as it provides an opportunity to better clarify what it is I do want.

Certainly I don't think NRMs are abusive or coercive or unethical - I am hardly going to get on my soapbox about that.  But I do encourage others to see what happens if you don't use them, because when you aren't looking for "no" I suspect you will start to see a lot more "yes."

Tuesday, October 16, 2012


"Training is the difference between what you have and what you want." - Bob Bailey

"Everybody is a genius.  But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will spend its whole life believing it is stupid." - Albert Einstein

I've had these two quotes in my head for a few weeks now.  I agree with both of them.  And yet sometimes I wonder, how do we know if we are trying to teach a fish to climb a tree?  And is that fair to the student?  If you have an absolutely brilliant swimmer, the best little swimmer you could ever hope for, how important is it if they ever climb that tree?  Is it a just a matter of training?  If I was just a better trainer, or worked harder, or was more committed, would I have the world's most amazing arboreal fish?  I began to feel frustrated by the entreaties from more experienced or more accomplished trainers to just keep at it when I hit stumbling blocks, to not lose faith.  If I keep a log book, if I make a training plan, if I write down my goals, if I videotape and review my sessions - if I trained like the pros, well, surely I couldn't fail.  It would be quitting to do otherwise.

Or would it?  Would I be even more unfair if I continue on, urging that fish up that tree day after day?  Who is right?

I wrote these quotes down again yesterday, one above the other as they are here, and I finally noticed something.

"If you JUDGE a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will spend its whole life believing it is stupid."

It does not say, "if you try to TEACH a fish to climb a tree . . ."

Maybe you can train that fish to climb one day.  And maybe it won't be exactly what you envisioned.  Maybe it will be a long process, with a lot of flopping around on the ground, and maybe when your fish makes it to the first branch you decide, well, good for him, and that is pretty amazing and you celebrate that. You celebrate everything you learned, and the fun you had along the way

The problem is if the climbing matters more to you than the fish does.  When you don't see your fish for the beautiful swimmer he is, when you forget the joy you feel watching him circle and dive, when you don't appreciate how very perfect he truly is, that is where you fail him.

Is it quitting if you decide he doesn't need to reach the highest tree-top in his lifetime?  Only you define and decide that.  When you become disappointed, when you get frustrated, when you find yourself wondering why you don't have a regular spider monkey on your hands - that is when I believe we have lost as trainers.

It is up to us what our goals are as trainers.  I believe in having lofty ones sometimes, and I believe in dreams.  As long as we are fair.  And as long as we always remember that the subject and the process matters more than any final product.

Because your fish will climb back down that tree, and you go home together.  You don't go home with the spectators, the classmates, the instructors.  The people telling you to use a different method.  The people telling you to go try a different tree.  The people telling you to get a squirrel next time.  Those people have never seen the way your fish glistens in the waves and the way the light reflects off his scales like a rainbow, and the love you feel for him every time you see that.

You go home with your perfect beautiful fish, who you know is the best swimmer and climber in the entire world. 

Monday, September 10, 2012

"I've already forgotten how horrible that was. . . "

This was a direct quote that I overheard the winner of the Hallucination 100 mile ultramarathon at Run Woodstock say only an hour or so after finishing his 18-hour long run, much of it through pouring rain in the middle of the night.

How do we so quickly forget some types of suffering?  Why do we voluntarily choose to repeat it?  I've joked at endurance events that our brains have a seeming desire to kill us.  Or at least torture us a bit.

 I've had points where I lacked motivation and wondered why I continue to sign up for races.  I've wondered during every race I've ever run why the hell I was doing this to myself.  And after every race, I've immediately started contemplating what I want to do next year.  Maybe I should go longer?  Sign up for more events?  Look for something to add on this season still?

This cognitive process doesn't strike me as a very adaptive feature for our survival.  Shouldn't we remember things that hurt and intentionally avoid them?

Then again, last night I sat looking at our three oldest dogs.  Come November, we will have two eleven-year old dogs and one thirteen year-old dog.  They are all healthy, though starting to show signs of age.  Jade is deaf, and wobbly on his rear legs.  Tristan continues his life-long struggle with bad structure, and gets sore more frequently after exercise.  And my seemingly-perpetually-young Django now seems to be losing his hearing.  It occurred to me that I'm going to lose each of them one day, and I wonder how I can possibly bear it.  And that reality that I will be going through this at least seven times, and probably many more, can terrify me when I think about it.

When our cat Milo died last year, the next morning I emailed a good friend and fellow animal lover to tell her the news.  I couldn't say much, but knowing she had lost beloved cats herself, I asked her "How long is it going to hurt this bad?"  She assured me that the pain would not always be so bad, that it was going to be hard now, but that the happy memories would soon take the place of that hurt, for the most part.  And those memories make everything else worth it.

So why do we push ourselves and seek out some types of challenges, even when they bring unpleasantness or pain?  Is it so we know we can handle worse suffering when it happens, whether physical or mental?  Is it to create our own pain so that we can forget about the other pain that we can't control?  Is it for how good it feels when you stop?

I really don't know.  It is a question that continues to fascinate me.  But maybe it isn't a dysfunction after all.  Maybe it is a gift. Maybe this same feature of our brains that inspires us to do some pretty crazy things as humans (such as running 100 miles all at one time), maybe it also serves a function to give us the capacity to move on after loss.  Because every time we love something, aren't we taking that same risk?  And isn't that risk always worth it?

Tuesday, August 7, 2012


"No matter how much you love something, it is impossible to hold it so tightly that death can not slip it from your grasp.  But you can hold on so tightly that life cannot get through."
-Suzanne Clothier

There has been a lot of loss this year in my circle of friends and acquaintances.  A lot.  And often with particularly tragic circumstances.  I've watched people go through some of my worst nightmares.

My heart has gone out to all the people I know who have suffered these losses.  I've grieved, and extended condolences and support where I could.

And we move on, because that is what you do.

At least I thought I had.  But lately, I've noticed that I haven't had my typical levels of motivation or enthusiasm about many of my favorite things.  I've found myself wanting to do little more than be at home with our little family, curled up with them.  It finally occurred to me that I'm attempting to cling to those things I'm most afraid of losing, and finding myself getting stuck in my attempts to do so.  Instead of always being on the move, I wish could freeze time and sit safely in the presence of my loved ones forever.

But I can't.  None of us can.  All we can do is become paralyzed in our attempts.

I've been attempting to hold on too tightly lately.  Time to let life back in.

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Best Laid Plans

June didn't exactly go as planned.

For the past few years, we have enjoyed kicking our summer off with a road trip to CPE agility nationals, combined with some camping along the way.  This year, early on it looked like our annual trip might not happen when we didn't make it in the initial draw due to the large number of entries.  This should have been our first sign.

Happily, the host club added additional rings and accepted more entries, which this time included Django and Maebe.  So we began planning a trip to Altamont, New York for June.  We would take days on either end to visit first Niagara Falls and then Letchworth State Park.  As the days approached, we made sure we were prepared - checking the trailer and vehicle, making sure everything was in running order, that we had all the supplies we needed, our hook-ups all were functioning, etc.

But sometimes all the planning in the world doesn't help.  Here is the short version.  As we were about to pack up, we noticed Tristan squinting his eye shut.  An emergency vet visit later, he had a foreign body removed from the cornea, and had meds to treat the minor ulcer that resulted, so we were still ready to go.  We hooked up the trailer, and the lights and electric brakes went completely crazy.  A very accommodating trailer service place was able to prioritize us and get us functioning again by late afternoon, so we decided to cut out the Niagara Falls leg of the trip, and leave early the next morning around 4 AM.

We made it about 30 miles when dashboard lights began flashing and smoke began pouring from under the hood of our not-very-old vehicle.  We found ourselves on the side of the expressway.  Thankfully, we were at the exit of a good friend who came to get our dogs and me, while a tow truck had Lowell, the vehicle, and the trailer en route to Ann Arbor again before too long.

So, we spent a quiet week at home with all of the dogs - swimming, hiking, mountain and road biking, volunteering, playing "backyard agility," floating on the river, reading, and enjoying the things we often find ourselves too rushed to do.

If I wanted to feel sorry for myself, I could lament the lost money on the entry fees and reservations, and what I predict will still be a costly repair to our vehicle which is still sitting in the shop.  I could feel bad that Django may be too old to go to Nationals next year, or that we might not make the draw next year, or that other circumstances will prevent us getting there.  But, it's just money, and the dogs don't care if they are playing at a big league event or in our back yard - they have fun just the same.

Also in this month, I watched the story unfold as a national agility competitor lost two of her dogs in a terrible car crash.  A fellow triathlete and classmate in our weekly open water swim class was killed by a car while cycling on roads we have ridden on.  People I know dealt with health crises and deaths of beloved pets and family members.

For us, on the other hand, Tristan's eye healed rapidly.  The car (presumably) will be fixed.  We'll camp plenty more this year.  So I can't complain.

Of course, our next major trip planned for this fall is in Colorado.  Sorry, Colorado.  I hope our travel curse of 2012 isn't responsible for your current condition.

Monday, May 14, 2012

The Private Life of Jade

jade asleep Sometimes when I bike home from lunch, if I come in through the back door, I see him asleep on his dog bed.  He no longer can hear me come in, so I sneak through the computer room and stand watching him resting peacefully for a few minutes, completely unaware that I am there.  Though he is still able, it is somehow no longer worth the effort to get up on the couch, so I know I will always find him here.

I hold still and silent, holding my own breath.  I watch him breathe, see his eyes closed tight, imagine him dreaming of younger days of chasing tennis balls and diving into lakes.

I can’t bring myself to disturb him yet, so I go back through the house and quietly let the younger four dogs out into the yard.  Then I proceed through the kitchen, trying to not make any sudden sounds, but trying to make some noise to alert him.  I softly call out “I’m home, Jade.”

Usually by this time he has sensed my arrival, and is on his feet stretching, welcoming me home as if he’s known all along I was here.  I don’t let on that I know differently. 

We join the others outside.  After he makes the rounds, sometimes, like yesterday, he will be feeling peppy and will take off trotting proudly with a soccer ball that he stole from Maebe, even though nobody steals toys from Maebe.  Or, more often, he will find a good stick to chew on and sprawl out in whatever sunbeam he can find in our shady yard. 

I feel both happy and sad watching him in these moments of private mid-day slumber, my glimpses of life into Jade’s world.  It is peaceful and sweet, and I treasure that he is with us and in good health.  It is also melancholy, reminding me that like all of us, he is aging and his senses aren’t what they used to be, and it often leaves me with a sense of sorrow. 

Maybe he isn’t dreaming of tennis balls and swimming.  Maybe all he has ever asked for is a comfy place to rest until we return each day and a sunbeam to bask in.  Maybe it is our own discomfort with aging, with change, with what we fear, that is making me sad.  Maybe his golden years are restful and complete and he doesn’t spend time wishing for what used to be or dreading what is to come.

Either way, in these moments he is as beautiful and as precious as he has ever been to me. 

Thursday, April 26, 2012

ClickerExpo Nashville and Cadence Turns Three!

Cade Nashville Hotel Wow, April’s been kind of a blur, and I’m so far behind in documenting our adventures that I’m not sure where to begin.  The biggest event of the last month was our third annual trip to ClickerExpo with Cadence and Maebe, this time held in Nashville, TN.  As always, this long weekend was a wonderful experience filled with learning opportunities, meeting interesting new people, and sharing quality time with the two dogs.

This year as always we attended a wide variety of seminars, on everything from protocols for modifying aggression by Ken Ramirez, to training a formal retrieve with Michele Pouliot.  Cadence and Maebe got to work in a couple Learning Labs, and I was thrilled with how well Cadence is able to work in a distracting environment now.  He was a superstar in both the platform training lab and the retrieve lab.  It helped that I had finally succeeded in teaching him a formal retrieve in the couple months preceding the conference so he was a bit of a ringer, but I was proud nonetheless. 

As always you learn so much at ClickerExpo, it makes your head spin.  Too much to write about in one post, though I am sure the gems of wisdom I picked up over the weekend will influence further musings on this blog. 

We opened each morning with a lovely run along the Cumberland River with the dogs, and a nice multi-purpose trail just a few miles from the hotel. 


And, this year at ClickerExpo we had even more reason to celebrate, as we were there during my “puppy” Cadence’s third birthday.  Three years of being hopelessly smitten for a furry black and white Noodle.  I joke that next time I need to pick the ugliest, plainest, most boring looking dog I can find so I stand half a chance of not being totally wrapped around his little paw every time I look at him.  I was doomed from the start . . .

Cadence Retrieve Lab CE 2012

Monday, March 26, 2012

Blue Ribbon Day

This Saturday, I entered Cadence in his second CPE agility trial.  We were only there for the afternoon, getting a couple runs in with the older dogs, so I decided to try him in the last class of the day again – the Level 1 Jumpers run.

He has been doing so great in class for the last few months that I was starting to get hopeful, but know that the trial environment has a lot more distractions and stress.  I figured we’d do our best and use it as a learning experience.

The trial was full and the indoor crating area was packed and loud.  Since it was a cool, overcast day, I left Cadence crated happily in the van, where he is very relaxed.  I took him out several times during the day to play some tug games, walk through the trial, work on attention, etc.  He did great and was playing with me and relaxed each time. 

I believe a large part of our recent improvement in class has been due to putting a lot of structure and ritual around agility, mostly based on Leslie McDevitt’s Control Unleashed protocols.  As he is so drawn to motion, it was important to give him other things to do rather than think about chasing whatever fast-moving thing caught his eye.  When we get ready for our turn, we first go to his mat and have him lie down and relax while he is waiting.  When we enter the ring, he knows to reorient to me and walk nicely to the start line.  For a while, we prevented run-offs at the end of the course by having him run to a target, though it has been several weeks since we’ve needed that as he now runs right too me for his game of tug afterwards.  He likes the predictability, and it keeps him from wondering about all the other moving things that might be in the building, and whether or not he needs to herd them.

Unfortunately for our love of structure, Cadence was the second dog on the line.  Even leaving the walk-through a few minutes early and rushing him into the building, I was walking in when the dog before us was already running.  I tossed my jacket to Lowell, ran to the gate, emptied my pocket of treats and handed them to the poor gate steward to do who-knows-what with them, and rushed into the ring.  Ugh, this did not bode well.

Cadence’s head was spinning a little with the rush, but he sat at the start line nicely.  At which point, I realized he was still wearing his collar (dogs must run “naked” in CPE).  I fumbled to remove the collar, then went to remove his harness, which his leash was actually attached to.  I proceeded to fumble like a complete idiot for what felt like a half hour trying to find the clasp on a harness I have used a million times.  I had to even make him stand back up in the process.  Sure that Cadence, and everyone else at the trial, was probably rapidly losing patience with my ineptitude, as soon as the harness was off, I just took off running with him.  So not the start line we train for.  Sigh.

Fortunately, the chaotic beginning did not impact the run.  Video is below, and while there are a couple of spins, they are all totally my fault.  It is hard to run when you aren’t breathing.  Seriously, watching this video, I don’t think you would guess that the human half of the team is the one with years of agility experience.  Thank you Cadence for being extremely tolerant and patient of your handler whose brain had turned to complete mush, and her legs to jelly, way before this point.

We ran clean, and took first place and earned Cadence’s very first Q!  I couldn’t have been prouder.  The best part though, was seeing his face every time he took an obstacle – he was happy, intent, focused totally on me and not the environment, and having a good time.  We absolutely felt like a team.

He’s so much fun, and if it took a bit of work to get to this point, it has all been worth it.  I can honestly say that I have only continued to do what I felt was right by him, and am grateful to the teachers and friends who helped us along the way.  We still have lots more work ahead, but I'm excited for it and loving every minute of it with him.

Not to be outdone, Maebe and Lowell also took two first places that day, and ten-year old Django and I earned two third place ribbons.  A pretty successful day for the family.

Earning blue ribbons is exhausting, apparently . . .

Tired Agility Dog

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

If I Knew Then . . . It’s Not About Agility

Today is the second “Dog Agility Blog Event” day, where dog agility bloggers have been invited to write on the subject “If I knew then what I know now.”

web I tried to think about what the most important thing I’ve learned has been over my ten-plus years in the dog agility world.  In that time, I have happily immersed myself in training books, DVDs, seminars, weekend camps, publications, blogs, etc.  I have taken lessons with many instructors, taken weekly classes almost continuously, competed at least monthly, and traveled to national competitions for several years running.  It is one of my biggest obsessions, and while, as with anything, there is always a ton more to learn, I have definitely increased my knowledge and skills over the years.  So what is the most important thing I’ve learned? 

That it isn’t about any of these things, really. 

When we brought our first dog, Jade, home, we had never trained a dog before, and wanted to have a well-behaved pet.  We immediately signed up for companion obedience classes at a local training facility.  We loved class and all of us looked forward to it each week.  Jade would happily do seemingly anything for cheese, and we were delighted to see how you can train a dog to sit, stay, lie down, and walk nicely all without force.  We had a blast, and loved how connected we felt when training Jade.  So, once we graduated from the companion obedience classes, we decided to sign up for one of their agility classes, just for fun.

We were all hooked from the start.  Jade was a natural athlete and took to it immediately.  We delighted at watching him soar over the jumps and wiggle his lean body through the weave poles.  Having never trained a dog before, it felt like being able to communicate with another species when I could teach him to do something as unnatural as going over a teeter.  We made new friends, began exploring other dog sports and activities, and thus, Jade changed our lives.

The years passed, our hobby grew into an obsession, and we acquired four more dogs and trained them to play agility as well.  Today, Jade and Tristan are retired, Django is going strong in the Veteran’s class, Maebe is tearing up the courses, and Cadence is coming into his own and starting to look like an agility dog himself. 

And somewhere in there, this all became so . . . SERIOUS.

There are handling systems, jumping programs, dozens of ways to teach contacts and weaves, and deeply held convictions about all these things.  In classes we still socialize and have fun with our fellow classmates, but we also obsess and argue and worry about the pros and cons of where to place a front cross with almost religious fervor. 

When did this become something to worry about?  When my first dog picked up a numbered cone and ran around the course happily, I laughed watching him be a silly dog.  When my fifth one breaks into running laps around the training ring in a class because I was late with the next cue, I am ready to die of embarrassment and wonder why I am still such a crappy trainer.

As much as I love agility, it has been in other moments lately that I’ve come to remember what this is really about – our relationship with our dogs, and what an amazing, mysterious thing that is.  It isn’t about agility, it is about:

. . . watching my senior BC Tristan happily trot up a trail in our favorite woods, still able to enjoy a good hike even though his agility career was cut short in order to preserve his imperfect knees and back.

. . . waking up on a camping trip with Maebe, wild woman on the course, curled around my head asleep on my pillow.

. . . seeing Cadence’s many talents come through as a therapy dog with an uncanny sense of what people are feeling (especially me) and now watching him bloom in his recent herding lessons – and realizing how many careers and roles our dogs can have.

. . . not really caring if Django ever hits another dog walk contact again or finishes another title in his life, since at age 10 he continues to run with more enthusiasm and joy than ever.

. . . winning our own personal Backyard Agility National Championships at home during a lunchtime training session.

. . . watching the sun rise together on a morning run with our canine workout partners, where the only obstacles are the occasional fallen tree to hop over.

. . . treasuring every neighborhood walk we take with our first agility dog Jade, once a phenomenal graceful athlete, who now ambles along with us on wobbly legs at a much slower pace.

This is why I own, and love, dogs. 

I love agility too.  And, yes, I do follow a handling system, have almost religious beliefs about clicker training, and spend my leisure time watching training videos on Saturday nights.  But I am trying to stop losing sleep over whether or not it is OK if my dog hits his two on/two off contact, but doesn’t offer a nose touch at the same time.  Not that I don’t believe in criteria – I like doing things well, and I do believe there is joy in the challenge.  The problem is when it becomes more about the challenge than the joy. 

Agility should be another way to experience that joy with my dog.  That is what it is about, and the best lesson I have learned.

And the thing is – I always knew that, right from the beginning.  So it isn’t about “if I knew then, what I know now.”  It is more about remembering now what I knew then.

Monday, February 20, 2012

A Weekend in the Life of a Noodle

Lowell happened to take a number of great pictures of Cadence this weekend, enjoying some of his favorite activities, so I thought they were worthy of a post.  Plus, it makes my job easy.

Friday night, enjoying the new dog bed after a run with us and Django.  New bed was purchased as a replacement after SOMEBODY decided its predecessor had to die a couple weeks ago.  Cadence has a love/hate relationship with anything comfortable – it’s complicated.

new bedAfter the latest thaw last week, our yard was finally dry enough to try out our new dog walk.  It has been a little while since Cadence has had access to a regular dog walk, so we brushed up on his contact work a bit.

dogwalk1 dogwalk3dogwalk2Finished off with a few set-point jump exercises.  I love his jump form.  And love that we are able to do backyard agility in Michigan in mid-February, even if this weather is a bit odd.

setpoint1 setpoint3setpoint2Finally, on Sunday, we followed up a therapy dog visit (our third of the weekend) with a nice, if muddy, hike.

Another in our series of extreme-close up photos:

hike close up

Picking our way through the mud . . . 

muddy maybury hike

Noodle in deep reflection . . .

reflecting    Hiking partner, Maebe, looking pretty . . .

maebe hikingWe like to make the most of our weekends.  All of us wanted to hit the snooze button a few extra times this morning though.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012


This past weekend, Maebe and Django were entered in a CPE trial.

On the Thursday before the trial, I was printing out the running order and noticed that the last class of the day on Sunday was Jumpers Level 1/2, and that there were only five dogs pre-entered in that class. 

IMG_2286I casually mentioned this to Lowell, and that they were taking Day Of Show entries.  Cadence has had several very good weeks of agility class in a row, and the judge at this trial was one that we know, and who I knew I would feel comfortable under if anything goofy happened.  Somehow, this comment led to discussions with him, our agility instructor, and a friend, who in the end persuaded me to sign Cadence up for his first agility trial run on Sunday.

Coincidentally, the next day a gift arrived for me in the mail – a t-shirt with paw prints and the word “Breathe” printed on it, my mantra whenever I am working Cadence.  It was meant to be a Valentine’s present, but its arrival turned out to be perfectly timed.  It was something I knew I was going to have to remind myself to do many times that day!

IMG_2290 On Sunday, we arrived early, dropped off Cadence’s entry form and had him measured, and set up our crates in a relatively quiet location.  None of our dogs particularly like to be crated at indoor trials, as they don’t care for the noise, crowds, movement, and barking, and I wanted Cadence especially to stay calm throughout the long day of waiting.

I was delighted that Cadence actually was the most relaxed I’ve seen him in a crating area.  Throughout the day I took him out several times, and he was happy, attentive, and eager to play tug games with me.  We did the practice jump a couple times to make sure he could focus in that environment.  I was prepared as I was going to be.

As if to ease my stress, Django ran great all day.  He ran clean and fast, and placed in each run.  I was very proud of my veteran dog.  It seemed like he was telling me that whether or not the baby dog was ready to start trialing, not to worry because he wasn’t retiring yet!

IMG_2291 Finally, it was time to walk the course.  I put on my headphones, which I often do for walk-throughs, and listened to Coldplay’s “Yellow.”  I reminded myself of how much I love my dogs, and that no matter how the run went, what really mattered was the relationship Cadence and I have formed.  I pictured looking down at Cadence on the start line, taking a breath, and us taking off together.  I pictured us running the course, and then us playing together at the end.

And the run itself?  Well, I was very happy.  Video is below, and you can see that it is far from perfect, and not pretty all the time.  But I see a lot of good things, that make me feel very good about how far we’ve come.  The clip begins after we’ve started, but after taking his harness off, he sat nicely and focused on me.  I was able to stand up, take a step forward, take a breath, and release him (I didn’t try for a big lead out, but did want him to hold a sit for a moment, which he did).  Unfortunately, after the second jump, he was directly lined up with the timer, scribe and judge, who were grouped in the far corner, and so he had to go see what was going on over there.

He came back to me, and I was able to direct him in to the next tunnel.  He came out, and while still generally following my motion, he did go wide around the next couple jumps, I think noticing the bar setter in that corner.  I didn’t worry about those obstacles, and kept moving down the course, waiting for him to come down enough to realize what we were doing.  Which he did, and we finished the end of the course completely connected.  He even followed me when I directed him to an off course tunnel!  The best part – and what I had been most concerned about – was he came over that last jump focused on me.  We ran together to his leash, and tugged and celebrated as we left the ring as a team. 

Cadence has been an amazing dog to train, and while we still have a ways to go, I am pleased with how far we’ve come and how much we’ve learned.  He can amaze me with his brilliance, and he has also challenged me to become a more skilled trainer.  He has a very strong desire to chase motion, even more so than our other border collies, and this has been, and still is, our biggest obstacle in working off leash in a high state of arousal (like, say, in agility . . .).  So, while some may see him being distracted initially by the ring crew and the trial environment, what I see is his ability to come back to me and start thinking again despite that distraction, and that is something that I don’t think he could have done several months ago.  To me that is huge, and it gives me confidence that we are moving in the right direction. 

So, more training ahead, and I am thinking we will do this again – another end-of-day Jumpers run – at the end of March and see where we are at that point.  I’m looking forward to it.

Have I mentioned how much I love this dog?