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.

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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.

The Flying Aussie and a Great Cause

Pretty, but don’t touch!

This past weekend, Duncan and I traded the sleeting skies of Idaho for the sunny ones of Arizona to run at a trial and visit a dear friend.  The timing was perfect.  You see, just like my Boxer, I’m convinced that when it rains, I’ll melt (although I don’t claim to be made of sugar like he does).  So after one of the driest winters on record, the day we left, the skies had opened and we got out of town.  The difference this time, is that we flew to this trial, a first for both of us.

It’s a good thing that airport security doesn’t screen for high pulse rates, because I was so nervous to get everything right, that I was amazed I didn’t keel over right there in line after throwing my shoes in the plastic bin.  Many, many thanks to the website Dog Jaunt for all the fantastic information on flying with a small dog, and my husband for getting me through check in.  I knew my carrier (a large SturdiBag) would fit perfectly on a Southwest 737, and indeed, it did.  Dunc was a fantastic little traveler, and fit in his little bag just fine thanks to his ability to bend like a wet noodle.

Dunc under the airplane seat.

The trial was fantastic.  Duncan, amazing Duncan most definitely got his brave on.  In a completely new place on weird footing (some sort of tentacle-like dormant grass) after being stuffed in a bag and going up and down until his ears popped, he came out swinging, and ran two of his fastest runs, ever.  He also earned his very first QQQ.  Rock on little man!

This is quite possibly the coolest chute ever invented.  Not only is it covered in flames that Duncan’s Wildfire blazed through, but it’s wonderfully, perfectly, terrifically, and shockingly SHORT!  The new shorter chute length is a winner in Dunc’s book.

Here’s Dunc’s run on the Saturday Standard course…another diabolical creation courtesy of judge Dan Butcher.  Love these technically challenging courses, and after three trials this year under this judge, we’re drifting dangerously close to being DB groupies.

This trial was part of a large group of dog sporting events held at the Paws for a Cure event, a fundraiser for the Canine Cancer foundation.  This foundation is near and dear to my heart, since we lost our first beloved boy Boxer, Sinjin to cancer, and Angus is a survivor. My trialling partner in crime runs a Boston who is also a survivor, so we made sure to visit the Foundation booth, where I made a memorial heart for Sinjin.

Sinjin, my old soul and beloved friend.

On Sunday, they stopped the trial, and smack in the middle of the rings, the Foundation held a ceremony to celebrate those buddies we’ve lost to this disease.  They read the Rainbow Bridge poem, and one of the foundation’s founders asked me to place Sinjin’s heart on the wall first, quickly followed by dozens of other hearts.  It was an amazing moment, standing there, tears streaming down my face, in a crowd of people doing the same.  Not one person there was ashamed of crying visibly for friends we had lost, and I had one of those beautifully clear life moments.  These are my people, and I’m so proud and thankful to have been among them on this special day.

The Canine Cancer Foundation Memorial Wall

Sweet Sinjin. You are missed.

Of course, trialling is also about being with friends, new and old, fuzzy and non-fuzzy.  Dunc was thrilled to have a weekend away from Baby Brother Des, and reveled in the company of one of his favorite people friends and dog friend.   Sweet Mully even ran with me on the FAST course, and thankfully, we upheld her amazing QQQ streak.  (Whew!)

We are cute. Feed us. Now.

All in all, the weekend was a blast.  Lovely weather, fantastic company (thanks, G!!) and running with the best and sweetest teammate a girl could ask for.  A Ferrari dealer on the way to the trial grounds was just a bonus…after all, I do love a parking lot filled with sexy Italians.

Parting thought…maybe this kid really knows how to have a blast...

The 2012 Adventures Begin

Des 5 months, Dunc 4 years

Baby Desmond is now five months old.  He now tips the scales at 14.4 pounds, a gain of about three pounds over the last month.  As in previous months, most of that gain has been in legs.  One of these days I hope his legs will slow down, or I’m going to have a baby merle giraffe on my hands.  He does put those wheels to good use while doing hot laps around the yard.

Wheeeee!

He is most definitely a handsome little dude, a whirlwind of flying ears, waving paws, and endless wiggles.  We’re currently working on things that he finds extraordinarily boring, yet gamely humors me; sit stays, sitting by an open door before being released to imitate a Dakar rally car in the yard, and only jumping shoulder-high by invitation.  (This last one is just too tough, I often find yodeling Des bouncing alongside while I’m filling the dinner dishes.  This wouldn’t be odd, except that I’m standing upright, and he’s clearing the height of the countertops).

Duncan, on the other hand, is about to begin a new year of trialling, and it’s looking to be momentous.  We have a few trials to warm up for Nationals in March, which will be a fantastic experience.  We’re working on improving his running contacts, and my challenge is learning to get him around the course in a way that keeps him off his brakes and driving forward.

Duncan, I am thankful to you for your sunny grin, and for helping me find a better and more positive way to get there with you.  Let’s rock the house this year!

My view while freestyle heeling with Dunc. A big grin!

Lets get this show on the road!  The drive to our first trial of the year is easy, however the commute is waaaay different!  Stay tuned…

Leavin' on a jet plane...

The Sky is Falling, the Sky is Falling!!

Okay, kidding, but for Duncan, maybe it is.  You see, Desmond, baby brother Desmond is now bigger than he is.  I’ve tried to get a good picture of them for a couple weeks, but was slightly suspicious due to Dunc positioning himself uphill of Des each time I got the camera out.  I’m on to your tricks, now Duncan!  There is no way Des will stand without bouncing, but at just under five months old, I think he’s now about 15″ tall.

It's only his ears! I'm still taller than Des, really!

Des is a typical teenager.  He slouches.  So it’s been difficult to actually see that he’s gotten taller.  To make things more confusing, for quite a while his back end has been taller than his front, so he looks like he’s perpetually going downhill.  I’ve noticed the front landing gear is starting to catch up lately, so he’s beginning to lose a little of that funny stance, but some is still in evidence.

Maybe the third picture of Des standing still, ever.

Being taller in the rear isn’t slowing Des down one bit.  It looks like his back wheels are perpetually trying to overtake the front.

For a gangly little guy, Des has always been impressively coordinated.  He can jump flatfooted from the floor to the dining room chair, the couch and my eyebrows.  I’d like to claim that he gets that from me, but unfortunately, I just lucked out.  His fuzzy mama was also impressively coordinated.

In the last few weeks, I’ve continued his foundation training with a few sends and some outs.  (Because I’m gonna need to be able to cut corners to keep up with fuzzy Mad Max).  We’re also working on shaping Cik/Cap, Sylvia Trkman’s method of training tight turns.  With Dunc, I depend on body language and good timing <cough, of course I have good timing, cough> to succeed with tight turns, but Des is hinting that he’ll have the ground speed that will demand earlier turning cues.  Here’s a short video of our recent work.  I just love that he’s already letting me run the other direction while I send him forward to that classic agility obstacle; the bucket.

I can fly! I don't need a magic feather!