Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Integrating the Past and Present

I have struggled in the sport of Freestyle ever since Speedy's death in January of 2014.  He was "my Freestyle dog".  Not only was he the dog I got started in Freestyle with, but he had some incredibly unique talents that I loved and appreciated and . . . in retrospect, didn't love or appreciate enough!

Freestyle is unique among dog sports because the dog and handler together create the very essence of what is presented in the ring.  From routine concept to finished performance, nobody tells the handler what must be created.  There are judging guidelines, but those guidelines don't dictate the routine.  The music, the moves, the style of the performance, the feel of the performance, the pace of the performance, etc. etc. etc. are all determined by the dog and handler team.

Years of creating routines and performing with a particular dog can forge a very particular kind of rapport between the dog and handler.  It's more than a bond - it is a bond, a working partnership, a shared artistic endeavor, and, truly . . . a dance!  A dance that unfolds over years, challenge after challenge, performance after performance.

And Speedy and I had a very emotional ride together.  We started in the bleakest depths - with him cowering behind the soda machine in class, shaking with terror, unwilling to even step onto the floor, and we gradually climbed to the point where he gave beautiful confident performances where the best of him shined brightly in front of audiences who loved him.  I loved the fact that people loved watching him as much as I loved dancing with him.  I loved that he shared the best of himself with his audiences.

And then . . . very suddenly . . . he was gone.  It was over.  And while the deepest grief came from him being gone from my life, there was an equal hole left in my life because he and I would never step onto the floor and move together again.  There will never be "just one more time" - we had all the time we got.  That was that.
Looking back, I realize that after losing him, I should have taken some time off of Freestyle altogether.  Instead, I tried to press on.  But . . . I tried to continue with Tessa, whose enthusiasm for Freestyle is fleeting, at best!

And, honestly, trying to continue with any dog at that point - fighting against the abject grief of such a heartbreaking loss - would have been indescribably difficult.  In fact, I didn't dance with Dean, who had trained and performed right along with Speedy and I for so many years, for quite a while after.  Not even at home!

I went through a similar grieving process for Maddie, who had been my Agility dog.  I don't want to underestimate how difficult that was.  Years of running Agility together forges a unique bond, too.  A great deal was left undone for Maddie and me, and Tessa, who had barely started her Agility training, could not fill her shoes right then.

But . . . Agility is different.  You go out on the floor and you run the course that is set out.  If inspiration is missing, you can muddle through it together.  Tessa and I muddled a lot at first, but every time we went out there and I pushed myself through, it got easier.  And the time came when Tessa surpassed Maddie as my Agility partner and we moved forward together.

I guess I thought Tessa would give me the same gift in Freestyle.  She couldn't.  Agility is her inspiration.  Agility is her dance.  She couldn't follow in Speedy's footsteps the way she followed in Maddie's.

So, I turned to Bandit, but he was a baby.  Much too young to do much but speculate on a "maybe" future with!

What I really needed was time.  I needed time to grieve.  I needed time to just miss Speedy.  I hated the fact that the sport of Freestyle went on and I was left halted in the dust, but that was what it was.

In the end it was Dean who broke out and gave me the performance of a lifetime when we filmed for the Summer Fun event this past summer.  A full year after Speedy's death, I signed up for a From Dream to Dance Part 1 class and got some help starting choreography with both Dean and Bandit.  I was really in a "choreographer's block" and getting the help from that class gave me the push I needed to get back to creating routines again.

And Dean ran with it.  I'm not sure if I shared the performance on this blog.  I actually don't believe I ever did.  Here is my sweet Dean Dog doing his lifetime best performance!

Bandit also had a turn, and although his little Junior Division routine was very simple, we had a blast performing the routine, both by video and at the Future of Freestyle live event!

My little Bandito has come a long way in just a little time!!  Speedy couldn't do this at 17 months old!  The future is quite bright with this boy!

And even Tessa, who managed to earn two legs toward her Intermediate title when we were muddling along last year, but then got a nice long break this year, has joined back in on the Freestyle fun.

A couple of months ago, I was just noodling around to some music with her, just aimlessly, and we hit upon a style that she actually likes, and we have created a routine together!  This routine is all Tessa!!  I have choreographed it solely to please her!   We are actually going to perform it at Barkaritaville in a week and a half (but strictly for enjoyment, I am not trying to title her) and I am hoping to film it to enter in the Challenge in November.

So, finally I feel like I am back to this!  Back to training, back to choreographing, back to enjoying this sport, and back to thinking about the a Freestyle future.

And now that I have three dogs performing in Freestyle (Bandit is still mostly in training at this point), my mind turns to integration of the past with the present.  Me being me, I must integrate the past and the present.  It simply does not work for me to tell myself, "the past is over, just look forward".  I can't help but look back.  And I would maintain that I should look back!  I must never forget Speedy!  I honor him by remembering our Freestyle journey together - the difficulties that we overcame and the performances that we shared. 

And . . . I believe I have figured out exactly how to integrate my past with Speedy and my present in the sport with Dean Dog, Tessa, and Bandit . . .
I believe I have identified the "pieces" of what Speedy and I had in Freestyle that I can look to bring out in my current dogs, and in every dog I set out to dance with:
  • Heart
  • Expression
  • Artistry

Speedy had heart and then some.  He never did anything halfway.  He put his whole self into everything we did together.

Every dog is different, but I can strive to find the way to approach Freestyle with a particular dog that allows the dog to put his or her whole heart into it, while being aware of, and having the utmost respect for, that dog's individual style.


Even when he was just moving with me aimlessly across the floor, Speedy was expressing who he was.  The essence of Speedy was never more apparent than when he was performing.

No matter who a dog is as an individual, the dog can express who he or she is through performance.  I believe Tessa does that most with her jumping.  When she is jumping, she is showing the world the beautiful, vibrant, happy, life-filled girl she truly is at heart.  But I have found other elements that we can bring into our performance - slow moving together, high paw lifts, a chance for her to toss that head and waggle on her pivots - that all gives Tessa a way to express who she is through her performance.


I have watched many dogs move with their handlers since losing Speedy and what often strikes me the most is the artistry that all dogs have, and that artistry is unique to each dog.  Most of the time I find the handler isn't even aware of it!  I can point it out and be met with "what"?  I think it's hard to see in your own dog at times.  Speedy was unique in that his artistry could not be missed by anyone.  I have had trouble seeing artistry in Dean, but I know he has it.  And I have had trouble seeing artistry in Tessa, but now I am starting to see it.  Bandit . . . much easier - I saw it in him when he was a baby playing with his hollee ball!

But I know this now, even if I didn't before - every one of them, even Tessa, has artistry!  It is there.  I just have to learn to be able to see it.


I have come to the conclusion that by striving to bring these three elements out in my dogs through Freestyle, I can honor Speedy's memory, and, in some way, continue what he and I started together, while fully appreciating my current dogs for the individual talents that they bring to the table.  I believe that by focusing on heart, expression, and talent I can integrate my past with my present, and future, in this sport.

The best may be yet to come.  But I never need to leave my beautiful Russian ballet dancer behind.  I will always cherish his memory.  And Dean, Tessa, Bandit, and I will honor it in every dance . . . as we move forward.


Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Happy 5th Anniversary, Tessa!

This October has been our 5th Tessa Month!!  Earlier in the month we celebrated the 5th Anniversary of the day I met her in the shelter when I evaluated her, and then almost a week later, the day I went and picked her up at the shelter and brought her home as my foster.  Yesterday was officially her 5th Adoption Day!

Tessa doesn't get a birthday.  I have no idea when she was born.  But she gets a whole Gotcha Month, and that is extra special for her.

I can't believe how far she has come in just 5 years!  It seems impossible that she was ever the shut down and terrified dog who used to stand on the deck and yowl, cowering next to the door, if I tried to separate her from the other dogs to take her somewhere by herself!  I can hardly believe she was ever the dog I had to work very hard to get into the car!

Now she is a confident and happy girl and we have so much fun together.  Her eyes just sparkle with happiness most of the time.

She is my dream Agility partner.  I don't think any dog I run in the future will ever measure up to her in many ways!

Here we are having a bit of fun together.  This is officially the best Freestyle performance of Tessa's life!

Happy 5th Tessa Month!!  Here's to many, many more!

Monday, October 26, 2015

Precision vs. Enjoyment

If I must choose between striving for precision and maximizing my dog's enjoyment of an activity, I am going to choose to maximize enjoyment every single time!  This may be somewhat offensive to those who value precision very highly, but really . . . it just is what it is.  It really comes down to what I personally value most in a canine performance partner.

However, this is something of a complex matter, and I would like to expound upon it further.

Not Always a Conflict

Let me begin by acknowledging the fact that there is not always a conflict between striving for precision and maximizing a dog's enjoyment of a particular activity.  Some dogs literally eat up precision training and share in a handler's passion for precision.

Dean is a highly precise dog and he adores precision work.  When he is "on", he can maintain a heel position that is absolutely stunning.  His pivots are gorgeous.  He can spend training session after training session on bits of precision and he will love every second of it.

Unfortunately, when his anxiety kicks in, a lot of that precision goes right out the window.  In those cases, my priority shifts from showcasing the beautiful precise work he can do normally to working to help him get back into a frame of mind where he will be enjoying himself instead of dealing with a mental condition that neither of us chose, but both of us have to work together to overcome.

But if he and I are working on video titling, or an activity in a context where his anxiety is not in play, there is absolutely no conflict between striving, as a team, for precision, and Dean enjoying himself.  In those circumstances, he will naturally enjoy himself in the work of giving a precise performance.

I am hopeful that Bandit is going to be that sort of dog.  He shows great promise in that regard, without the severe anxiety disorder.  I anticipate many years of enjoyable work on precision skills in our future together.

Variation in Aptitude

Just as with people, there is great variety in particular aptitudes between different dogs.  Some dogs excel at learning to respond to verbal cues and other dogs struggle to master even the simplest verbal cue skills.  Some dogs are highly precise and have a strong aptitude for learning any number of skills.

Others are not.

And while it is always possible for a dog to improve in just about any area where natural aptitude is lacking, it can be a steep uphill climb, and it can become something of a chore for the dog, even when the training is being done with a high rate of reinforcement.

For some dogs in some circumstances, too much focus on precision can result in the dog losing interest and enjoyment in the activity.

Precision vs. Enjoyment

While it does not always happen, if the choice comes down to precision vs. enjoyment for my dog, I will choose to dial down my focus on precision.

Tessa is not a precision dog.  She never has been, and, now that she is officially "about seven", I have accepted the fact that she most likely never will be!

The sport of Rally FrEe, as much as we loved it at first, quickly became a source of constant frustration to us as we moved up to the higher levels.  The bottom line is that Rally FrEe is a sport that has been created expressly for the purpose of building a very high level of precision.  And that is awesome for teams that have an aptitude for a high level of precision.  It's not so great for teams that do not.

Tessa and I dropped out of Rally FrEe altogether for a while.  I let Bandit take her spot in class, and Tessa and I focused on Agility.  This worked out very well for both of us.  Granted, there is precision required in Agility, but the precision needed in Agility is much more in line with Tessa's natural aptitudes.  Tessa became much happier when I stopped trying to build high precision skills like moving in a particular position, moving into a position solidly, carrying out trained behaviors on verbal cue alone, etc.

Yesterday, Tessa participated in a Rally FrEe video event for the first time in quite a while.  I chose to put her in it because I wanted to participate, and I have retired Dean from Rally FrEe completely, and Bandit is nowhere near ready to compete.

But I made up my mind that compliance with the rules would be secondary to Tessa's enjoyment on the course.  To that end, I entered her in Alternate Intermediate, instead of Advanced (Regular).  In the Alternative division, only 100 points are needed, not 125, so there is much more leeway for use of hand cues, and for those times when Tessa doesn't respond promptly with the correct behavior but puts in a bit of her own innovation first . . .

Lo and behold, Tessa did the nicest work that she has done in Rally FrEe in a very, very long time.  Yes, I used some hand cues.  Yes, Tessa got creative on a few exercises where creativity was really not called for!  No, her heeling was not picture perfect.

But . . . Tessa did quite a lot either on verbal or on very minimal physical cues.  She fluctuated on her heeling between a bit forged (which is new!), a tiny bit lagged, and . . . perfect!!  This is a major improvement from almost constant lagging!  And, she responded correctly right away on a good many of the behaviors, only "guessing" first on a couple of them.  And when she did "guess", she never stopped working with me to get to the correct behavior.  Good girl!!

Best of all, her tail was wagging the whole time, she was fully engaged with me, and she was really putting her whole heart into working with me out on that course.

I haven't seen THAT Tessa in a Rally FrEe ring in a very, very long time!

And for me that's what matters most.

We will get picked apart on our scoresheet, but I fully accept that and have no problem with it.  I know that her working with that great attitude was a bigger success for Tessa than precision in itself would be for a dog like Dean!

It's not that I don't understand or respect the rules of Rally FrEe . . . it's that my personal goals are just different from the officially published aim of the sport.

And that's OK.  There is room for all kinds of teams with all sorts of goals in competitive dog sports, even if not all goals are always readily apparent.

I am looking forward to filming another Rally FrEe run with Tessa very soon.

Being able to say that means that Tessa and I are doing exactly what we should be doing.

Our Northeast Regional submission.  Enjoy!

Friday, October 16, 2015

The Nicest Compliment

Tessa and I got the nicest compliment at Agility class last night.  Our regular instructor was out sick so we had a substitute.  The sub was actually someone that I know quite well, and see often, but she hadn't seen Tessa run Agility in a long time.

We followed a super fast Border Collie.  I was kind of laughing to myself because that Border Collie ran the course twice in the amount of time it would take Tessa and I to do it once!  That doesn't upset me.  I accept Tessa's moderate pace as part of who she is, and I appreciate her consistency that usually makes up for her lack of super speed.

Still, the comparison in my mind between that dog who ran like lightning, compared to Tessa who would glide, not fly, through the course, amused me.

I didn't say anything, though, we just went out and ran.

Well, the instructor, who, as I said, hadn't seen Tessa run in quite some time, was really impressed by her!  And she said to us, "She is so HAPPY!!!"  She said it in a tone that made it clear that Tessa's joy on the course has grown substantially since the last time she had watched Tessa run.

That was the best compliment we could have received.  I was thrilled that Tessa actually ran a little faster than usual.  And I was pleased that she did a couple of rear crosses.  And I was extremely happy that she did consistent weaves that were faster than her usual.

But that wasn't what the instructor saw.  She saw Tessa out there being happy.

And there is nothing - absolutely nothing - that means more to me!

Of course I want Q's.  And I want titles.  And I want success.  But I want Tessa to have the greatest possible joy most of all.

That was absolutely the best compliment ever!

Sunday, October 11, 2015

K9 Conditioning and Fitness

Tessa and I have embarked upon yet another Fenzi Academy class adventure.  We are taking K9 Conditioning and Fitness at gold.

I took this class because Tessa is getting toward the shallow end of her prime and I was hoping to learn some exercises that will help her to stay strong and flexible, and to keep playing the game that she loves, for as long as possible.  We are definitely getting that through the class!

The biggest thing that has struck me, as we have gotten off to a start, is that I am amazed by the power that can be tapped by working on very basic foundation conditioning exercises.  And I wonder - why aren't we all being taught how to do these things in our training classes?  These are things I could have been doing with all of my dogs all along.  Don't get me wrong - I am glad to be learning this now.  But I wish this were something I could have been doing with all three dogs all along.  And with Speedy and Maddie, and most especially, poor old Sammie - before he was old!  Could some of the muscle in Sammie's back legs have been saved?  Could he have enjoyed walking and getting up on the furniture for a longer time?  Could his overall quality of life in his last two years have been a whole lot better?  Well, I'll never know, but I really wish I had known about this back then because I would have had tools to try to help him, long before he reached the point of no return.

However - that's neither here nor there, so Tessa and Dean Dog and Bandit will get to be the ones who do this sort of work!  Maybe I can do something for Dean that can help him to enjoy mobility into old age.

Taking this class has been a particularly interesting experience for me because this is the first Fenzi Academy class I have taken where I have not come into the class with an extensive background in the subject matter!!  So, I am learning all kinds of vocabulary, like: core and proprioception and topline!  And I hardly know what I am supposed to be doing or looking for as we carry out the exercises.  But I'm learning, so it's all good.  I will definitely come out of this with a greater knowledge base than I started with!

Tessa is rocking it!   Here is one of her videos.  This is part of the homework for the second week.  She tries out her new donut at the end.  She definitely approves!!

Looking forward to the remainder of this course.  Already I see a bit of extra spring in Tessa's step!  But I don't know if it's because she is starting to benefit from the class exercises, of if she is just happy that she is getting extra time to work with me on "stuff"!!