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.


Kelly Ely said...

Wonderfully said! I have recently also struggled with keeping our focus on the 'why' I do agility and not the 'religious fever' that can take hold as we progress in this addictive sport.

Melissa and Treo said...

Love it!


Heather said...

Great post!

2halves said...

Here, here!

Fantastic post!

Teresa said...

Your last sentence is the best reminder all day.

andrea said...

the joy- the challenge - thus it is in agility!!

Muttsandaklutz said...

Very well written! "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." Love that!

Kathy said...

BEAUTIFUL post, thanks!!!

Kathy with Liz/Breeze/Cricket

Unknown said...

I totally agree! If ever I'm having a bad day, taking my dog on a trail and watching him run around having the time of his life, simply because he's outside and sticks are AWESOME, I can help but smile and feel better about the world. My current dog is my first agility dog, and I've already caught myself sucking the fun out of training and it just doesn't work. The more fun I make it, the better he is at it (well, more enthusiastic, we've mowed down a few weaves here and there). But if it's not fun, there's really no reason to do it.

Agility Boxer said...

Love your post, it is something we all have to remind ourselves of when we get too serious.

KathyK said...

LOVE your post!!

Staying in touch with what really matters keeps everything in perspective.

It's possible to be focused and have fun and reach for mastery all at the same time!

Our dogs do it all the time, we just have to follow their lead! :)

KT said...

Thank you. That was so lovely.

minnow said...

Great post! (I wrote something along the same lines and so it was fun to find this.)

cbandkoona said...

Fabulous Post! I'm just starting out with my first dog and I'm just dabbling right now. Here's to keeping it fun.

(By the way - I blog on wordpress but the captcha word check won't let me post with OpenID.)

Boo Dog said...

Interesting blog, thanks Boo