Wednesday, April 24, 2013

First Rally FrEe Competition - Reflections - Dean Dog

I may have started training Rally FrEe for Tessa, and I may have gone to the competition more focused on her, but in a way Dean stole the show, from my perspective.  Tessa basically went, she saw, she titled, and she had fun doing it.  Dean and I ended up taking a bit of a journey together.

Unlike Tessa, Dean is completely fluent on every exercise in the Novice level, save one.  He still needs a good bit of help with counter clockwise circles around me.  But he twirls, he spins, he heels, he circles, he sits, he downs, he stands, he lifts his paw - all on verbal alone when he is in the right frame of mind.  Dean knows tricks galore that we can use for Free Choice.  His "twizzles" (360 degree+ left pivots), backing under my legs, sit pretty, laterals, paws up on a cane, leg weaves of different sorts, going around a cane, dive under my leg, etc.

I trained the heck out of Dean in our first two years together and he knows most of the basic Freestyle behaviors.  He enjoys doing them in training.

And Dean knows, and loves, Rally.  He had no trouble earning his ARCH - never had a single NQ in all those competitions.

But live Freestyle competition did not go as well for Dean.  He gets quite unnerved in front of a live audience.  This was a problem in Agility, as well.  When we would be running toward the end of the course, if it snaked around with the last jump toward the crowd, he would get a "deer in the headlights" kind of look in his eyes, and he would really struggle.  Even when my friend handled him this happened.

I tried to make a performer of him.  He is beautiful and I thought he might learn to enjoy putting on a show.  He does enjoy demonstrations - if I have food or a toy.  But if he doesn't have the assistance of a primary reinforcer like that present, he tends to shrink into himself.

So, we quit WCFO Freestyle.  He does dance in the Challenge, by video, but I can't say it is a major part of his life right now.

I did not know, going into this competition, if he would respond to the situation as he responded to Rally or if he would view it more as live Freestyle competition.

Based on his first run, I was convinced that he didn't like it.  I didn't see the animation, the focus, and the relaxed presence of mind that I see in him when we do Rally.

I was ready to move him right to non-titling for the rest of the weekend so he could just enjoy himself out there with food.  But when he qualified on his first run, I chose not to do that.  I knew he could, at the very least, muddle through the courses.  I knew it wasn't going to be detrimental to him in any way.

With a little bit of effort on my part to help him get into a better frame of mind, he was able to enjoy himself a bit more.

I did get some comments from some people, all of whom were incredibly supportive, that he did, in fact, seem a bit uncomfortable out there.  But our competition host told me that she actually didn't see as much stress as I thought I was seeing.  She characterized his state of mind more as "tuned into the environment" than stressed.  When I watched the one video that I have of Dean's first run, I was inclined to agree with that.  Her comments about Dean made me think.

And then, to add even more food to that thought, Dean and I won the award for the team having the most fun.  At first I thought "how the heck?"  But then I realized that we were having fun out there.  No, he wasn't having the same kind of fun that he has when he's playing ball in the yard or swimming, but we were having a good time in the ring together, as a team.  I started to see a bigger picture.  Both the trial host and the judge saw something that I had completely missed.

At the end of his final run of the weekend, I had left the ring fully intending never to ask Dean to compete in this sport again.  I have every intention of continuing training - he does love that - but was planning to treat it like Agility - we would go to class, have fun, and that would be it.

But then I thought about it more.  And I thought about it again.  I thought about it a lot, actually.  I thought about it on much of the 2 hour drive home on Sunday.  I literally thought about it all the way to work on Monday!

And this is what I thought . . . .

I am very proud of Dean's performance this weekend.  He worked his tail off on every course.  Yes, he needed some help from me, but with that help, he was able to do something that I consider to be quite extraordinary.  I am actually as proud of him for earning this Rally FrEe title as I am of him for earning his ARCH.  That is saying quite a lot.

I asked a lot of Dean.  I took him to a strange place and then took him into an unfamiliar ring in a brand new place with no reinforcer on my person and then asked him to perform in front of a bunch of people sitting in chairs watching him.  And where that would have been absolutely nothing to Speedy or Tessa, for Dean that is incredibly difficult.  Add in to that the fact that I actually haven't done a whole lot of formal training with him since he earned his ARCH in November.  Five Rally FrEe classes and one training walk don't exactly constitute sufficient preparation for competition, but that's the only preparation he had gotten.

In spite of that, Dean never quit on me.  Yes, he got slightly distracted and wandered a bit, but my handling probably had something to do with that, as much as anything.  He never tried to leave the ring.  He never flat out refused to do anything he knew I was asking him to do.  True, I needed to use more hand signals with him than usual, but he performed on those signals.

Dean gave me his best out there.  I know he gave me everything he had, and in the ring itself I gave him everything I had, too.  We were a real team - a few moments of distraction are nothing next to that.

The big question that I walked away from the competition with, regarding Dean, was this, "why should I continue to compete with him when it is obvious that he doesn't just naturally love it?"  Which led me to the question that I always ask about any dog sport, whether for training or titling, "will doing this do him any good in his overall life?"

I couldn't answer that question, but I realized that I could answer the opposite question.  "Will doing this do him any harm in his overall life?"  The answer to that is a definitive "no".

See, if I am going to prepare Dean to compete in this sport again, we are going to have to do some work together.

Dean loves it when we work together.  He is game for that, as long as I keep it fun for him, which I absolutely will.

We will have to play motivational training games.

He eats that up.

We will have to do training walks, and spend time solidifying the behaviors that he knows so he knows them really, really well.

He will think that's the best party ever!

And we will have to work on some new behaviors because the Intermediate level exercises are difficult, and there are some that he does not know.

Dean is always up for learning.

Will any of that be harmful to him in any way?  Absolutely not.  Will it benefit his life overall?  Absolutely.

That's it.  We're in.

And then I realized something.  Dean may need help that Tessa doesn't need in order to enjoy competing in Rally FrEe, but that doesn't mean he can't.  And I know I can give him that help if I commit to it.

Whether or not we compete again remains to be seen.  I don't know, honestly, whether we will or not - and it actually doesn't matter.  But we are going to prepare to do so.  We are going to prepare to do so because it will be a very good thing to do.

Finally, I realized something that I am not exactly proud of.  I have gotten so swept up in my excitement over Tessa - which she absolutely deserves - that in a way I forgot about Dean.  Not in everyday life, of course, but when it comes to training.

Dean may not be a "performance dog" in the strictest sense, but he is a working bred Border Collie who thrives on working with his handler.  He and I need something to work toward together.  In spite of all of his challenges, we had that before Tessa came along.  Dean is very well trained, he is eager to work with me, and he has a lot to offer.

So, in some very strange way, Dean and I got back something we had lost - something that I know he and I would both love to have back again.

And, right along with that, now we have a beginning . . . .  A beginning with all of the excitement, newness, potential, and joy that beginnings come with!  A beginning with my big goofy boy - it's perfect!

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