Monday, April 8, 2013

Lessons I've Learned From Agility

This was a topic proposed for discussion on a board at which I participate, and I think it's a great topic, so I am expanding on it a bit here.

  • Treasure every run.  Every single one.  In retrospect, the blips may be some of the best Agility memories of all!

    Yes, excellent runs make for great memories, but I will always smile over the time Maddie was sniffy, sniffy, sniffy until I accidentally stepped on her foot (about halfway through) and then she snapped to and ran perfectly!  Or the time she was ticked off at me for having to wear a cone to keep her from licking a hot spot, and she went out and peed in the ring and then all was forgiven!  (I know, dogs don't do that - but Maddie did!).  Or the time Dean slalomed the jumps in a Jumpers run instead of jumping them!  The look on his face was one of such delighted discovery that I had to laugh and that is one of my all time favorite Agility memories.  Or the time Tessa and I got whistled off in Snooker and then she proceeded to take every tunnel in between the place where we got the whistle and the table - three in all, plus a jump over one! 

  • If I, or the dog, make a mistake, move on and enjoy the heck out of the run.  Then take the issue to training and grow from it.

    I am not a practitioner of the "walk of shame".  Leaving the course is actually something that I want to be pleasant and reinforcing for my dog.  We are going to leave after every run and I want my dog to associate leaving the ring with a job well done.

    Yes, we would leave if the dog peed, or was sick, or presented a safety issue of some sort.  We leave when we get whistled off in Snooker.  But leaving is not a signal to the dog that something is wrong - we are just leaving.  We leave every time we enter.

    If my dog misses a contact, breaks a start line, knocks a bar, etc., we finish the run.  We can always address those things in training outside of competition.  I know there are those who swear by leaving when the dog makes an error, but it's not something that suits me personally.
  • Approach Agility as something to enhance the quality of the dog's life, and to build rapport between dog and handler, not as something to "win" for myself.
    Yes, it is competition.  Yes, there are times when it is appropriate to go for a "win".  But the dog's well being is first and foremost.  I want to see our participation in Agility spill over into some benefit to the dog in life overall.

    Agility brought Maddie and I together as dog and handler.  It helped us to develop a relationship that we never had in the years before we got started in Agility together.

    Agility has helped Dean develop confidence, enthusiasm, and the ability to bounce back from anxiety and phobic responses.

    And Agility has helped Tessa absolutely blossom into a confident, beautiful, and fun loving girl.  It has given her an outlet for her strong desire to work with me as a partner, and it has become a format in which she can let go of all of her worries and be the dog that it is in her to be.

  • Some of the greatest accomplishments are not measured by Q's, placements, or titles.

  • You don't have to be a good athlete to enjoy Agility

    I am not a natural athlete.  I've never been into running, and have actually avoided it for most of my life.

    But I enjoy Agility.  When I am running with my dog, I am thinking of the dog, not running.  I could work to be a better runner, and if I did I would be better at Agility.  But I do OK enough to enjoy the sport, even if I'll never be an athlete per se.

  • Setbacks happen.  Be patient and know that they can be overcome with a good approach.

    Dogs are living beings who have quirks and limitations, just as we do.  They progress through their challenges, but sometimes things happen that they don't understand and they respond in the way that makes the most sense to them.  There are times when fears resurface, natural tendencies override learned behaviors, and holes in foundation become apparent later on.

    These things can be worked through with patience, lots of reinforcement, and sometimes going back to square one.  I've found that often my dog and I ultimately end up in a better place after working through a setback than we were at just before the setback occurred.

  • Success happens - savor it!  Celebrate the great runs with my dog in some special way

    Maddie often got a hamburger after a fantastic day.  She almost always got a nice, long walk after a great run.  Dean always got the chance to swim at Periland after he ran.  Tessa gets a walk and lots of attention.

    It is fun to visit with people at trials, but I never forget that I am there with my dog, and I take time at every trial to do something of quality together, other than the Agility itself.
  • A good instructor, who can help solve handler handling issues, and will always respect the wishes of the handler regarding the trainer of the dog, is worth her weight in gold!

    I can't say enough about my Agility instructor.  I started working with her when Maddie and I started out together.  I don't think there is anyone else in the world who would have been able to make an Agility dog out of Maddie.  Most instructors would have agreed with me when I said that Maddie wasn't really suited to do Agility and it was time to quit.  Our instructor never pushed but always managed to get us to come back for just one more session - until Maddie was running and there was no turning back!

    She has been incredibly patient with Dean, and has always respected my choices for him, even though many were very unusual.

    And she has never been anything but encouraging with Tessa and has really helped me to unravel the mystery of handling her.  Whenever I present a handling challenge, she helps me find a way to make it work.

    I've worked with a lot of other great people along the way, as well.  Everyone has been helpful and encouraging, and that has made all the difference.  I know there are instructors out there who would have discouraged me from doing Agility with these three dogs.  I appreciate the fact that those I have worked with have put themselves above such nonsense.

  • A noise phobic dog can enjoy Agility, although making that happen requires a lot of patience, time, and commitment

    What can I say about Dean?  He started out with so much potential to love and excel in this sport.  And the noise phobia just derailed that completely.  I had to learn to accept him for who he was, with all of his limitations.  He had to learn to cope with brain chemistry that can move him from fun loving and care free to completely shut down in a split second.

    Dean never would have chosen to be a trainer's dog.  He doesn't handle social pressure well.  But we have learned and grown together.  He has weathered so many of my mistakes with his own special brand of Dean Dog love and affection.

    And so it's all worth it - all the times I've run to the car and back to get him and put him back, the car batteries I've replaced to keep his music going, the explanations I've given about that music, the games of tug and tug and tug, the runs we've scratched because it wouldn't have been best for him at that time . . . .  We've made it work.  We don't have highly advanced titles and we never will.  But we can enjoy Agility together, and that means everything to me.

  • Find the venue that best suits yourself and your dog, if you have choices in your area.

    I love CPE Agility.  It is just so much fun!  I really don't have a desire to play in any other venue.  I'm not saying I never will.  I might explore the waters a bit with Tessa.  But for my main venue, CPE is perfect.

    I appreciate CPE's emphasis on keeping things fun and positive, while providing a good challenge.  And the games are just an absolute blast.

    If Dean is able to get running again, I want to do some NADAC for him, but CPE will always be my first Agility love!
 Finally, the biggest lessons I've learned from my own individual dogs:

1.  An Agility run can be like a dance - an incredible sense of give and take between dog and handler, and a showcase of the beauty in the dog.  (Thank you to my sweet Maddie Lynn for that one!)

2.  An Agility run can be an adventure.  Sometimes creativity, enthusiasm, and a ton of fun are better than fitting inside anyone's box.  (Thank you to my love-boy, Dean Dog, for that one!)

3.  Take risks out there.  Push the envelope.  Put the Q on the line and let it all fly!  That's the way we will become as good as we can be and love every moment of this experience together.  (Thank you to Princess Tessa for that one!)

4.  And sometimes it's not going to work.  If, after a reasonable try, it's not the right sport for an individual dog, find something else to do.  Some dogs really are not suited for Agility for very good reasons, and if that's the case, it's better to let it go and pursue something else together.  (Thank you to my dancing-boy, Speedy Barishnacov, for that one!)

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