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.