Tuesday, March 29, 2016

The Fruits of the Work

As Tessa and I close in on our C-ATCH, of course I am very reflective.  I think quite a lot about what Tessa was like when she first came to live at our house as a foster. I think about starting Agility training with her and how she struggled with those tunnels!  I think about our early days of trialing and how it took work for us to become a real team at the same time that I was mourning Maddie's loss.  I think about silly Tessa doing puppy bows on the course and jumping over tunnels!  I remember certain trials that stand out in my mind - eating salad in the car with Tessa at a Friday night trial at Bella Vista while watching the skiers on the mountain up above, Tessa and Dean hopping through the long grass down the hill to the pond together at Periland, the bittersweet experience of our first time at Barto this past fall.  And, of course, running and running and running and running and running together!

I love that Tessa and I are accomplishing this together.  There is such a sense of satisfaction, even now when we are not quite finished.

The thing that strikes me the most, though, is the bond that Tessa and I have forged through it all.  When we are together, whether we are sitting around on the sofa or playing Agility or hiking in the woods or riding in the car, there is such a sense of closeness and mutual appreciation between us.

Tessa really is my heart-girl.

It struck me a few days ago that there is something very special that develops with a dog with whom I have put in years and years of dedicated work.

Speedy and I had something like this, although for him it was centered much more on the ability that he developed to interface with the world with confidence and comfort than it was on any sport.

This is a very good thing for me to realize as I just start to get started with Bandit.

Last night at Rally class, I realized for the first time that he and I are becoming a team.  And we are our own team.  We are not the team of Kristine and Speedy, nor of Kristine and Tessa.  Bandit and I are ourselves and we have our own journey to take together.  And there will be bumps in the road, but if we work and work and work and work, and then work a little bit harder, we will go places I can only imagine right now!

If I stop to think about it, I can remember Tessa in her earliest days with me.  I can see her, in my mind, trying to hide on the furniture, averting her eyes away any time I looked at her.  I remember how she would panic if I tried to touch her collar, and how she would run out of the room if I held a treat over her head.  I remember when she could not deal with anyone being behind her where she could not keep eyes on them.  I remember rejoicing the first time I saw her run across the yard, chasing Dean as he ran.  I remember when she actually put just her head inside a portable crate to snatch up a treat that I had tossed in there.

I remember sitting down on the sofa next to her after I got official word that we had been approved to adopt her, and I told her that her name was "Tessa" now and that she would always be mine.  I promised her that I would open doors for her, but that I would never push her through.

If you had told me then that she would run happily through so many of those doors and that we would ever be where we would be now, I don't think I would have quite dared to hope to believe it!

This is something that I need to remember always.  The fruit yielded by the work done with these dogs is always far beyond anything that I could ever hope or expect back at the beginning.

Monday, March 14, 2016

And . . . The Not-So-Perfect Trial!

Tessa and I have been on a roll, and we really have had several perfectly perfect trials in a row. 

On Saturday we ended that streak of near-perfection.  However, it all worked out just fine in the end.  It was a learning weekend for me, and I guess that's a good thing!

Let me preface this by saying that we had come off something of a difficult week.  A particular fund raiser at school put me in a highly anxious frame of mind.  Then, on Thursday Ben and I had a brand new carpet installed in our fireplace room.  We had to spend the entire evening on Wednesday cleaning and removing everything from that room.  I had no idea that we had so much stuff crammed in there!

Just when it seemed that life was about to quietly slip back to normal, I had issues with the brakes on my car and I spent Thursday evening dealing with getting a rental car and making decisions about the repair.

And while I was happy to set off with Tessa in my car, which I got back sooner than I expected, early on Saturday morning, the sense of peace that I we had was shattered when I realized that I had forgotten my purse!!  I was on the Interstate, so I had to drive about 10 more minutes before I could turn around!

I drove to the trial in as much of a hurry as I could, not knowing if I was going to get there in time to check in so we could run.

Suffice it to say, I was not in the frame of mind I would have liked to have been in for the trial!

Our first run of the day was Jackpot - a traditional - and it was a DIFFICULT one.  The gamble was contained in a big box.  The first part was easy - two jumps not far over the line.  But then there was a tunnel that really required some kind of flip back to get to.  And then the last jump was on the other side of the box - straight out from the tunnel.  But - if you ended up where it was most logical to go, you would draw the dog over a different jump.  If that sounds convoluted, it was!!

Here is a video of our unsuccessful attempt at the gamble.  Tessa taking the extra tunnel outside the box made our run an NT.  The first of those we have had in forever.

We really had no reasonable chance at that.  Tessa really needed a distance switch to the left to go from that second jump to the proper tunnel, and she simply doesn't have that skill.  Tessa did exactly what she should have done, based on where I was and what I was doing.

On one level I was not upset about it.  I knew going in that chances of Tessa actually getting that gamble were slim to none.

I will admit that I am disappointed that they have raised the level of difficulty on the traditional Jackpot gambles to this degree.  I worked very hard with Tessa to get her to the level where she could complete the kinds of gambles we saw in Levels 4, 5, and C back when we were still in the lower levels.  I would actually like to have the opportunity to try completing some of those types of gambles with her.  Gambles that are challenging, but do-able.  But - apparently because people who go to Nationals complained that the gambles in regular competitions are too easy - now they are so far beyond Tessa's pay grade that I know we are finished before we even start in the traditional Jackpots.

So, my disappointment was not in Tessa, who did a fantastic job and, as always, performed at the level of her training, but in the organization for creating this situation for those of us who aren't looking to go to Nationals and really just want to be able to finish a C-ATCH without having to rely completely on non-traditional Jackpots.

On to Standard.  The course was pretty straightforward.  I was looking forward to running it.  Since we finished all of the Level 5 Standards that we need, I really could just approach it like a fun run.

Only . . . I ended up regretting that!

When we ran, I wasn't properly focused.  I made the stupidest mistake ever on a simple serpentine!  Tessa back jumped the third jump in the serpentine, so that was an off course, and an NQ at our level.  So, I treated the rest of the run as a yahoo, and we did have fun through most of it.  Tessa did some really nice stuff.  I did mess up her weave poles at the end.  I got gung ho and moved too fast, and after the sixth pole, Tessa popped out and took off for the tunnel at the end.  No matter, of course, as it was already an NQ!

We did get a pretty yellow third place ribbon for the quilt!

The video is worth sharing in spite of the idiotic mistake in the serpentine.  In between the serpentine and the weaves, the run really is lovely!!

This was actually the big learning experience for me for the weekend, though.

I realized that if I don't go into the ring with a specific goal in mind, "this is for our C-ATCH, or this is for our Standard Championship", or some such, I don't handle with the kind of focus that I normally handle with.

Throughout our entire time in CPE together, that has been the way I have approached things with Tessa.  Yes, of course, my first concern is always her well being, but Tessa is not a dog who needs to be coddled.  She is perfectly happy, seems to thrive, in fact, when we run together with purpose.

There has never been a time when Tessa and I ran "just for fun" with no goals.  This actually connects to my last post.  Just as Bandit and I are on the path we are on because of Speedy and where he and I got together, Tessa and I started on our path because of Maddie and where she and I got together.

When I went into the ring with a completely different attitude, I was not true to the person that I had always been with Tessa in the competition ring.

I really came out of that run feeling like everything was completely upside down.  I have NQ'ed before, but this felt really odd.

I realized that for our next run, I needed to get myself together, focus, and run like it actually means something in our last two runs of the day!

That attitude paid off.   Our Colors run was perfection.  We were back!

That run earned our 8th Level 5 Colors Q, going toward our Colors Championship!  And we got a pretty blue first place ribbon!!

Tessa was tired by the time we got to our final run of the day, Wildcard.  But, she hung in and managed to pull it off.

We got two time faults, but we did what we needed to do, and got the Q.

I loved the little attitude she had going into the last tunnel!!

That was our 3rd Level 5 Wildcard Q!!

Now, we need 3 of each - Jackpot, Snooker, and Wildcard!!

I will be entering Jackpot everywhere I can, in hopes that we will get the opportunity to run two more non-traditional Jackpots sometime soon . . . !!!

Friday, March 11, 2016

Where They Take Us

Dealing with the death of a once-in-a-lifetime dog is difficult in ways that I can't express, even when it has been more than two years after the fact!

For the most part, life does go on.  And there are times when I remember Speedy and smile, or even laugh a bit, or speak of him matter-of-factly without giving it a second thought.

But there are still thoughts and feelings and memories that sneak up on me unexpectedly and leave me feeling, all over again, that I have been smashed flat by a truck and that the gaping hole inside of me is really not all that much smaller than it was the day Speedy left this earth.

. . . Working with Bandit in Rally class - the way he moves and the way he looks at me while we go through the course - it feels exactly as it felt when Speedy and I went through Rally courses together.

. . . Sometimes an expression on Tessa's face, or a look that she gives me, that black face of hers can look so much like his.

. . . When Dean plays and I remember the way he and Speedy used to run together and share looks of utter delight as they played their Border Collie games

I ran into this especially when Bandit and I were choreographing his newest Freestyle routine.

Oddly, the problem wasn't that he reminded me of Speedy as we worked on the routine.  He decidedly didn't!

And it wasn't the music or use of familiar choreography, or anything like that.

I was getting upset because it had become crystal clear to me that Bandit is going to have the ability to do a lot that Speedy couldn't.

That might seem like a good thing . . . and, really, it is.  But I found a great deal of sadness there, too.

Even though I accepted early on that Speedy was very limited in his Freestyle ability, I had always sort of wished that he could have done a lot more than he did.  Don't get me wrong - I fully appreciated Speedy's unique performance talents!  He had a sense of artistry that I know I may never see again in another dog as long as I live.

But . . . it was the whole presence of mind thing.  Even after years and years and years of work to help Speedy control his stimulation levels as we performed together, he was still extremely limited.

He had to put so much of his brain power into keeping his stimulation levels in check that we had to keep all of his choreography, and all of his movements extremely simple.

I accepted that.  And I treasure every memory I have of every time and I moved on a floor together.

But I had hopes that Speedy and I simply could not realize together.

And Bandit can.

Surprisingly, that was profoundly upsetting to me when I truly realized it.

So . . . I allowed myself to be upset for a time.  And then I made up my mind to move past it.

When it comes down to it, Bandit is with me in the here and now.  This is Bandit's turn.  And I would never even think of holding back from reaching his potential because I am upset about the limitations that a dog who is no longer even with me had!

Still . . . Freestyle will always be connected to Speedy for me.  And it seemed that there had to be more of a resolution - on an emotional level - than just to make up my mind to focus on Bandit.

Today, out of the clear blue sky, it suddenly dawned on me.

Bandit and I are where we are, and Bandit and I can do what we will be able to do, because of where Speedy and I got together.

Bandit and I are not continuing what Speedy and I did together.  We are on our own path.

But we are on that particular path because of the path that I walked first with Speedy.  He got me here.  I am who I am today, in large part, because of him.

And because of Sammie and Maddie and Dean Dog and Tessa, too!

All of the desensitization, all of the off-switch games, all of the time we spent gliding across the floor with Speedy's paws beating to the music, all of the training that we did on moves that Speedy never could have the presence of mind to perform fluently in an actual performance . . . it is all a part of who Bandit's person is.

And so, in a really cool and particular way Speedy is still with me.  The fruits of his work are always with me, and with every dog I will ever live, train, and perform with.  Maybe, in some mysterious way, I can bring a little bit of who Speedy was to me to each of them.

And, after all, isn't that a lot more significant than the ability to perform highly technical Freestyle moves?  I'd say so!

Speedy was extraordinary.  Maybe I don't realize how extraordinary he really was, even now.

But, I feel a lot better about the whole thing now.  I am excited to train Bandit's routine with him, and to see where he and I are able to go together in our Freestyle.

Bandit, ready to train in our newly re-carpeted Fireplace Room!

Sunday, March 6, 2016

GMAB for the Greeter

Dean loves people.  He always has.  Especially people that he knows.  Once someone meets Dean Dog, that person becomes one of his "human friends".

And Dean greets much like an overeager Golden Retriever!  He likes to "upsnuggle", as our Agility instructor used to say.  He's not out to knock anyone over - he just wants to get up to his friend's level and give a big Dean Dog hug.

This was something of an issue when he and I started trialing.  He would actually try to break away from me to go greet the judge.  And if a friend that he knew was sitting in the ring as a bar setter . . . that was a difficulty!

At this point in my development as a trainer, I was very involved with incorporating the games from Control Unleashed into my training.

I decided to help Dean learn to remain focused in the ring, even when one of his human friends happened to be present there, through use of the Give Me a Break game.  (GMAB)

According to Leslie McDevitt, the author of Control Unleashed:

Give Me a Break is about giving the dog frequent breaks (using what I call the "quick dismissal") from short, highly reinforcing, training sessions and then resuming the session as a reward for the dog's choosing to ask, "Can we keep working?"  The goal is to increase the dog's attention and eagerness to work with you. (Control Unleashed p. 148)

The game is straightforward for the dog to learn, and incredibly powerful.


Before we began to use this game in a class context, Dean learned the meaning of his "quick release" at home.  In order to learn the meaning of his "quick release" (Dean actually knows several different quick releases), Dean was given permission to disengage from me to sniff, look around, greet human friends, or whatever he might want in a given circumstance  (Naturally, this training happens in a safe area).  However, at any point where he chose to disengage and turn to me to work, he would get a click and a high value reinforcer.  And then he would immediately get the quick release again.

When Dean was consistently refusing the distraction upon getting the quick release, we would get into our training session proper.

Class Application

This whole training setup was approved by our Agility instructor, and the other members of the class.

When Dean and I would come into the room together, I would immediately release him to go greet, and then I would step into the ring (equipped with a favorite tug toy), leaving him out on the sidelines, greeting all of his friends.  When we first started doing this, he literally went to greet every single person in the room!

Once he turned his attention to me, I would wave the tug toy toward him, and he would come running and we would play.  No Agility.  No behaviors.  We would just play.  And then I would release him to go visit his friends again.

It did not take long before Dean flatly refused to leave the ring again to do the second greeting.  When he got to that point, I started adding some more Agility into the picture, always keeping it very upbeat.

And eventually, Dean refused the initial greeting, insisting, instead, on going right into the ring to play and run Agility!

Note:  In a circumstance where I would not have been able to turn the dog loose on the sidelines, I would have gotten a small group of people to come into the ring to setup the "free visiting" area.

Transfer to Trial

Of course, at a trial I could not turn Dean loose to work the crowd, but by that point Dean knew the structure of this game, so he didn't need that.

I was able to use permission to visit with just one select person outside the ring in order to "Reframe the Picture".

According to McDevitt:

For a situation that evokes an undesirable response, reframing means using cues and familiar rule structures to make the situation look different.  That altered dynamic transforms the situation into one in which the dog can more easily learn a better response.  (Control Unleashed p. 56)

Before a Rally run, or an Agility run, I would give Dean his quick release on the sidelines to give him permission to visit just one person.  I would usually do this when we were "in the hole" or just before.  I would allow Dean to visit as long as he liked, and once he turned his attention back to me, he got a treat.  Then I would quick release him back.

In the end, Dean understood this structure so well that he usually refused to visit that one person, fully understanding that the quick release put us into the Give Me a Break structure, and then he was able to maintain that focus in the ring.


The results that we got from this were excellent.  Dean completely stopped trying to break away from me to greet judges, and, even when a volunteer in the ring was one of his human friends, Dean could see that person in there and maintain his focus on our activity together.

It may seem that the whole process would actually encourage visiting, but I have found the opposite to be true.  I have found that with a super friendly dog, nothing actually builds desire to work with me more than building and using that "quick release" where the reinforcer is permission to visit.

Friday, March 4, 2016


This week, many dog Agility bloggers wrote blogs on the topic of fun for the Dog Agility Blog Action Day.

I am late to the party, but I would like to write about this topic because it is one close to my heart when it comes to Tessa and Agility.

When I met Tessa, she was almost completely shut down, and about as fearful as I've ever seen a dog.  She was, in particular, afraid of people, including me.

Do I really have to be in this room with you?

In her first weeks at my home, the thing about Tessa that struck me the most was that she had no joy.  She spent most of her time hunkered down on a piece of furniture, either with her eyes closed, seeming to exist in a world that shut out everything around her, or pretending that she wasn't watching me with a disinterested expression.  I knew, even then, that she was studying my every move, but she was not going to let me see that.

I knew that Tessa had good reason for being the fearful, depressed, and disengaged girl that she was.  But, it made me sad.  I liked her a great deal and, of course, I wanted her to have joy in life.

Back in her early days, this was a "happy" expression for Tessa!

The first time I ever saw the slightest sparkle in her eye, we were outside and she suddenly took off at a run after one of my dogs.  And in that second - the first time I saw her run - a thought crossed my mind, "Agility . . . maybe?"

It wasn't because I saw a star in the making.  It wasn't because I was thinking about titles.  It was because there was something in her demeanor as she tore across the yard at a run that made me think she just might love it.  I saw just the tiniest glimmer of a happy girl, and I wondered where that might take us together.

                       Running and jumping fun for Tessa?  I wanted to find out!

Several months later, Tessa and I began to take basic training class together.  As part of our warm-up for that class, the instructor would put out pieces of board for the dogs to walk across, a tip board, jump bars, etc.  Again, the first time I watched Tessa walk over the top of a board, I saw something in her attitude change.  I had half expected my still-somewhat-fearful girl to avoid that sort of thing, but she ate it up.  With something that hinted at the slightest bit of . . . enjoyment.

Soon after that, Tessa and I took a jump class.  As we worked through the exercises in the class, Tessa met with an internal struggle.  The problem was not with the skill of jumping itself.  Tessa had demonstrated a high aptitude for jumping when she would spring from one piece of furniture to another to avoid being anywhere near me as I moved around the house.   In fact, the difficulty arose from the very fact that Tessa actually liked jumping!

At that point, although she had come very far from where she had been when I met her, Tessa was still very much in "survivor mode".  When we were in public situations, she was always watching her own back.  She had to make sure nobody was standing behind her, literally, or she could not carry out a task!

Now here we were, and I was presenting her with an opportunity to do something that she clearly liked, but in order to be able to do it, she had to let go of her worries and allow herself to enter into the moment and enjoy the jumping.

Tessa had to make the choice between worrying about survival or having fun.  If she was going to jump, she had to trust everyone in that room.

This was a battle that I wanted Tessa to win.  By then I knew her well enough to know that there was a happy, confident, fun loving girl somewhere inside of her.  For Tessa's own sake, I wanted her to be able to be that girl.

And, in the end, Tessa was victorious!

The tunnel was Tessa's biggest challenge.  It took more than two 8 week class sessions to get to the point where she would go through a short tunnel willingly.  Now they are part of the game she adores.

It took time.  It took patience.  It took a lot of treats.

But, in the end, Tessa blossomed into the lovely jumper that I am proud to run with every time we step into the ring.

And here's the thing.  For Tessa and me it is always about fun.  It always has been.  Back when we first began, we worked and worked and worked, and my hope in all of that was that Tessa would come to a place where she would throw all caution to the wind and have fun as she and I played this game together.

There is no context where I see Tessa as the dog she was always meant to be than when she is running an Agility course.  She is relaxed, and the depths of her joy shines from her eyes. 

That is what I always wanted most for her, and it is something that I focus on when we are trialing.  Of course I want to make time, and I want the run to be clean, and I don't want to make any mistakes in the games.  But if we are overtime, there are all manner of faults, and I have made mistake after mistake and Tessa has had fun, then the run was as success in my book!

I don't view "having fun" in Agility as something superfluous, nor as a component of this discipline that would exclude all others.  I believe that it is entirely possible to make fun one goal among the many that I have as an Agility trainer and handler.

Maybe that has been one of the greatest lessons that I have learned from Tessa: the journey that we have taken to reach our fullest potential in the sport of Agility has been some of the most fun that we have shared together.


The Amazing Flying Tessa!
And loving every second of it!

At the end of every run, Tessa and I connect.  I give her a scratch on the head, or a kiss.  And she waggles her tail with unrestrained joy!

Wednesday, March 2, 2016


Dog sport competition . . . it is many things to many different people.

On the surface that might not seem to make sense.  After all . . . competition.  The word certainly can bring events like the Olympic games to mind.  Events where everyone is going for the gold, and the stakes really are "winner take all"!

Doesn't everybody who enters into competition aspire to win?

Well . . . no.

By and large, dog sports in the United States operate on a titling system.  Competitors enter their chosen sport at a given level, and must meet certain requirements in order to earn a qualifying score.  So many qualifying scores earn a title.  Once the title is earned, the team may move up to the next level.  Usually there is some sort of championship title offered either at or beyond the highest level offered.

Typically "wins", where the team places above all of the others in the class, are not required in order for the team to progress to the next level of competition in the United States.  There are very few titles for which "wins" are required.

Personally, I like this system.  I have never been a competitive person in the sense that I ever had any desire to strive to accomplish something in order to be better at it than anyone else.  It is my way to strive to accomplish something in order to be the best that I can personally be at it.  If someone else does it "better", I really don't care in the least.

When one of my dogs and I go out into the competition ring, whether it be in Agility, Rally, Rally FrEe, Freestyle, or whatever, it is my hope that my dog and I will enjoy ourselves as we whatever we are doing together, and that we will perform at the level of my dog's training.

I never walk into the ring with my dog thinking that I hope that we will outperform anyone.  In Agility, most dogs in Tessa's height class are faster than she is, even when she is running at her top speed.  What use would there be in trying to outrun a faster dog?

Instead, when Tessa and I step onto an Agility course together, my hope is that we will work well as a team, that we will do the best that we can do on that course, or in that game, and that we will qualify.

Placements really are nothing to me in the grand scheme of things.  I really appreciate our titling system where the only competition required is against the standards of the sport itself.

Our titling system attracts participants who bring their dogs into competition for many different reasons.

Some, like myself, enjoy competing against the standards of the sport themselves.

Others are more competitive in the classic sense and are trying to "win".

Some participate in competition solely for the benefit of their dogs.  (This is always an important motivation for me, as well).

Some enjoy competition in dog sports for the social aspect and camaraderie that they find in training and attending competitions with others.

Some just enjoy the sport, or discipline, itself and enter competitions because they provide structured access to the activity.

And that brings me back to the topic at hand . . . placements.

While I never deliberately strive for placements, I do find them to be fun.

After a run, or a performance, the first question that I want answered is, "did we qualify"?

Only then do I turn a curious gaze to the results to see if we got any placements.  Placements, to me, are like a bit of decoration that adorns the icing on the cake.  They don't really add anything essential to the competition experience for me, but they are a cool little "perk".

And I do enjoy the different color placement ribbons and medals and things.

Tessa with her first place medal, which she earned along with her first Q in Beginner at her very first Freestyle competition - makes for a special memory!

Not a placement here - this is a title ribbon.  I'll admit, those are the ones we are actually working for!

Q ribbons are always the best!

I want to conclude by making one thing crystal clear: I do not have anything against people who are competitive in the classic sense and do strive for placements.

As long as a competitor displays good sportsmanship, demonstrates respect for his or her dog, and handles "losing" with class, I say "you go" to those who are more inclined to try to "win".

My point is that I am simply not like that.  I never have been.  I am never going to be.

And it is fine to be different.  There are all sorts of very different people competing in dog sports for countless different reasons.

There is a place for all of us.