February and We’re Off to the Races!

Duncan and I would like to share a few of our favorite runs from the February Lizard Butte KC AKC agility trial from about a week ago.  I’d meant to post these earlier, but the Plague of 2012 (AKA a common cold) took me down for several days.  On a positive note, I caught up on my backlog of National Geographics.  Nothing like a mega-dose of geo-nerdy goodness to pass a semi-concious afternoon!

Our judge for the weekend, Debby Wheeler, will also be a judge at Nationals in Reno.  She threw a few ‘national level’ challenges into each course.  Friday’s Standard course had a fun little twist at the end with a back-side finish jump.  Many, many dogs had successful runs and thundered around the last bend to the finish, only to fall victim to that last jump by taking it in the wrong direction.

Here is our run on that course…Dunc fired up as soon as his feet left the table.  I knew I needed to buckle my seat belt and tighten my shoelaces for the dogwalk-to-finish section, and Dunc didn’t disappoint.  I ran this section flat-out to encourage him to go, and GO he did!

Friday’s JWW course had a nice flow to it.  Dunc ran it smoothly, at a nice speed, and I believe we got a first.  What I like most is I managed to stay out of his way and not do any crosses to cause him to hesitate.   He did puzzle a bit over my blind cross at the beginning, but like a seasoned competitor, chalked it up to handler randomness and kept going.

Our running contacts still have some way to go, but there was definite progress at this trial.  Dunc is driving harder than he did just a few months ago, and as a result is learning to adjust his striding.  Retraining contacts has definitely been an exercise in patience (and quite possibly sheer stubbornness) but has definitely been one heck of an interesting ride.

Little Merlies By Any Other Name…

The other day, I received an email from the AKC Canine Partner program manager.  She saw that Duncan and I had qualified for the National Agility Championships, and was collecting bios on the teams who are going.   How very cool, I thought, always ready to brag on my boy, I sat down to describe our agility journey.  And I got stuck.

Super D!

You see, Duncan is registered in the AKC Canine Partners program.  Since he’s a Mini Aussie, he was unable to play in AKC agility until 2010 when they opened performance events up to all dogs, in addition to breeds already recognized by the AKC.

Here’s the twist; about a year into our AKC journey, his breed parent club decided to become and was accepted as a new AKC recognized breed.  Without going into a lot of extra political discussion, that breed needed a new name.  So, the club voted, and Miniature American Shepherd was agreed upon.  Okaay…

Being a believer in karma and good ju-ju and not wanting to mess up a nice run of good trials, I decided to keep Dunc in the Canine Partner program as we were already building MACH points and Double Q’s by this time.  I didn’t want to take the smallest chance of losing our hard-earned points.  And so, we qualified for Nationals.  Whoo hoo!

But when I tried to describe him on our bio, what do I call him ?  A Mini Aussie?  Certainly he is, but that’s not an AKC breed, and I want to be respectful at an AKC event.  Mini American?  Technically, he could be, but I haven’t submitted the paperwork to change his registry, and I’m a technically correct kind of gal.  All American or Mixed Breed? (as we are called on our handler stickers) That’s fine and dandy, but since he’s not (see above technical nerd reference) it sticks with me a little, just like being described as from Iowa, instead of Idaho.  I find the whole situation pretty darned funny, since Duncan is still Duncan, and most people still refer to him as a Mini Aussie.  Will I ever move Dunc to the Mini American registry?  I may, or I may just let it be.  As long as I get to play agility with my boys, I’m happy.  And we will continue to confuse the gate stewards who are looking for that “All American” in the run order.  FYI: in a 12″ class of almost 200 dogs at Nationals, he’ll be the only one.

And maybe Dunc will stay in the Partners program to keep Des company.  Again, without getting into the breed politics too much, at the request of his breeder, Des will remain a Mini Aussie by registry, and will not be considered a Mini American.

In my mind and my heart, my boys are Mini Aussies, mostly because that’s how I identified with them first.  And keeping in mind how I feel about my boys, perhaps that’s how I’ll write Duncan’s bio.  He is my four-year old heart-dog, my first agility partner and teammate.  Yes, I know I’m cheesy.  I’m good with it.

 

This is bor-ing! Lets PLAY!!

But if AKC is looking for suggestions, I have one:  please consider replacing the words “All American” or “Mixed Breed” on your entry forms, gate sheets and handler arm bands with your own officially designated name for the program:  Canine Partner.   And let us run with our partners, pure and simple, for the joy of it.

Are we done yet? Can we got play NOW?

That's more like it!

And lastly, Dunc had a lovely trial last weekend, earning another QQ.  Des came with us, and was beautifully behaved crated next to his big (or should I say – older) brother.

 

Cleared for Takeoff

Desmond’s adolescent ears are a constant entertainment, and I adore them!  Each day they’re a little different, but more often than not, they standing at attention with the ends flopped over like this.  All he needs for takeoff is a magic feather.

I don't know what they're going to do, either!

Every once in a while, he strikes a pose with that long neck and standy-uppy ears that reminds me of an alpaca.  Then he hunkers down into a pouncing stance that reminds me alarmingly of a velociraptor.  Remember those from that dinosaur movie?  For years, I got the willies walking through fields of tall grass, waiting to be ambushed by one of those Jurassic suckers.  Thank goodness my VelociDes only pounces on his toys, then turns back into a happy little puppy.

An Aussie or alpaca...?

Ears aside, and despite standing slightly uphill of Duncan in this picture, it’s clear that Des has shot past his brother in height.  Duncan is starting to take advantage of this, as evidenced by him running under the couch today with Des in hot pursuit.  Dunc disappeared with his ball.  Des bounced off the couch.  Bummer!

Des continues to prove his legs are made of springs.  This is his normal fetching technique.  Instead of sitting still and waiting for the ball to come down to earth, Des launches himself into orbit to meet the toy.  His challenge is learning how to launch into the same orbit as the toy…

Duncan, who holds a PhD in fetching, finds this behavior horribly inefficient, but entertaining whenever his brother ends up off piste.

Dude, you're landing in the landscaping!

But mostly, the boys and I are enjoying the winter sunshine as often as possible.  Soon enough things will get busy as the gophers and weeds once again get rowdy, and our trialling season gets underway.  The long, cold nights watching old movies and Top Gear reruns with both merlies curled up on my lap will give way to evenings pulling weeds, moving irrigation hose and working 2x2s.   It’s a reminder to slow down, enjoy the moment, and hit ‘play’ on the remote again.

“Sempai, why are we lying down on this wood thing?”

Because it is so, young one, because it is so.  Mama gives us cookies for the oddest things, so just roll with it.”

Look, we're touching. Reward us!

The Power of Positive

Photo by Jan Skurzynski

Having a dog like Duncan as a first agility dog has been a blessing in disguise.  He’s not a boy who runs for the love of the game; he runs for the love of me.  It’s been my biggest challenge to learn how to make that rewarding for him.  He’s a shy guy who worries, so our agility journey has included finding ways to help him find his confidence.  When he’s got his brave on, he just flies.  We’re still learning, but we’ve picked up a few good ideas along the way.

I’ve learned to maintain a positive attitude; while training, while walking the course and while we’re waiting for our run…if Dunc knows I’m concerned, he starts to wring his paws, and that leads to a tentative performance.  As a result, he’s made me more efficient and much more positive handler.  If I’m annoyed after a day at work, I need to either check my attitude when I get out the clicker, or admit defeat for the night and trade training for snuggles on the couch.

I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve walked a course and heard other handlers say that they know their dog won’t make it through a sequence, or take the correct end of a tunnel.  And you know what?  Most of the time, they’re right.  Worries can become a self-fulfilling prophecy.  I don’t proclaim to be innocent of negative self-criticism… I do have to tell my inner voice to shut the hell up sometimes.  I can get very competitive, where doing well is my main priority.  But that’s not the way I do well in agility… not by my own choice…but because Dunc requires it.

Why?  With Dunc, I saw the chance to compete in sport again, and do well.  But shortly after beginning to trial, it became apparent that only one of us was having fun.  Dunc was shutting down completely on course, and I grew ever more frustrated because the same dog who ran joyfully fast in practice showed me every avoidance behavior ever invented at trials.  My sweet boy was unhappy, and I needed to either find a better way for him, or something else where we were both having fun.  The agility bug bit me, but I wasn’t fair to continue to ask him to do something that upset him.

In searching for a better way, I was shown how to train by shaping, using only positive reinforcement that allowed Dunc to figure out how to learn on his own terms.  The change was immediate.  He fires up every time I get out the clicker, and is so responsive to encouragement, that I began the long process of eradicating as much negativity from our training and my head as possible.  I could train in a positive manner, but until I also committed to thinking positively, Dunc knew my heart and mind weren’t completely on board.  In short, I decided to believe in us as a team…if I couldn’t believe that Dunc was capable of doing well, who else would?

I don’t ever approach a course thinking anything less than “we’ve got this”.  Because if I step to the line thinking we’re beaten then we are.

I’ve often heard “when you have a fast/slow/bar knocking/distractible dog you can’t do that cross/sequence/contact or make time’.  To which I think ‘don’t limit yourself’.  We all have unique challenges.  Dunc’s challenges are no tougher or easier than any other team’s…he’s just Duncan and I accept him as he is.  It’s how we figure out a way to overcome and work through these challenges that makes the journey worthwhile.

I know our limitations and we play to our strengths.  If you know you can handle a sequence in a different way, then go for it!  It’s amazing how far a little positive thinking (and boatloads of practice) will get you.  If a popular method of handling isn’t working for you, find another way.  It may take a lot more time and effort, others may criticize your choices…but if you know it’s the right for you, stand up for your teammate and do it.

And when something doesn’t go as planned and we don’t do well on a run?  I hear the words of a very wise friend in my head.  “Finish happy”.   This game isn’t about my ego, or our Q rate.  If I want a sport that I can walk to the line in a bad mood and assign blame after a crappy run, I’d better find one without a living, breathing, feeling partner.  This game is about the bond between handler and dog…and it goes far beyond what I ever thought was possible.

If these thoughts make me Sally Sunshine, that’s okay with me.  There are enough negative things in this world already; I don’t need to make up more.  So each time I get my dogs out to run, I try to remember the important things.  Run Fast.  Take up the Challenge.  But above all…

Finish Happy.