Are We There Yet? – – Does “There” Exist?

What is success?  It seems the Dog Agility Blogger Action Day topics keep swirling around these deep, thought provoking subjects.  You can see what others have to say here:

I’ve been chewing on this one for a while.  Success is such a personal thing, so here are my personal thoughts…

I started agility with a shy little boy who was afraid of everything…judges with floppy hats, kids near the ring, a breeze that blew from the wrong direction at the wrong time.  Success running Duncan meant keeping him happy, never showing disappointment to a boy who tried his best for ME, despite all the worries in his mind.  Learning to respect his weird little quirks took time, but once I accepted the good, shrugged off the bad and stopped asking for perfection, running him became a complete joy.

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And yes, I know those weaves weren’t quite right…but who am I to discourage antics with enthusiasm?

Fast forward a few years, to Dunc’s little brother, Desmond, a completely different beast with an entirely different yardstick of success.   The DesMonster wouldn’t care if the judge was waving his floppy hat while driving a Zamboni, he’s out there to play with ME and the agility toys.  My challenge is to never take those gifts of enthusiasm and freakish love of running with me for granted.

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I like competition, and love that we can compete against ourselves and our own goals.   Some of those goals include qualifying for certain events in the next year, and that meant laying down some consistent, Q/point gathering runs.  We don’t have a ton of trials, so we don’t have a lot of wiggle room for mistakes.  I began to second guess my handling choices that put a lot of trust in my boy, even though he’d earned the right to run that way.  I felt old habits try and sneak back in; of choosing the safer handling path, maybe not necessarily the right path, just to get through clean.  And I felt disappointment and negativity creep into my thoughts after nailing down 19 tough obstacles, just because I’d mishandled and we’d dropped one single bar.   I watched my boy’s ears droop when I was disappointed in myself and he saw my shoulders slump after a run.  What the heck was I doing?!?  I’d learned the hard way this didn’t work for Dunc, it certainly wasn’t okay for Des, either.

That broke my heart.  If you’ve read any of my ramblings before, you’re familiar with my fierce desire to protect Des’s joy.  And here I was, taking it from him.  Bad handler.  Deep thoughts and some serious mental browbeating ensued.   Time to refresh my definition of success:

Run With Joy.

Period.

We have time.  We’re both still learning.  And I want to enjoy each run on this adventure.

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So what does success feel like?  The completely cool part of this sport is that it can be something different for everyone.  I have no business defining success for any other agility freakazoid but myself.

My goal is pretty simple:  To grin at my bouncing maniac after the final jump, no matter if we smoked it or left a smoking yardsale of agility equipment in our wake (which isn’t out of the question).   To find the good in each and every run, and reinforce those good things.  This boy is bloody brilliant to me.  To me.  And that, my friends, is what really matters.  If I can run the course the way I believe it can be handled, or can hardly wait to take Des out to the field to practice, can smile and clap and holler for my friends and their own brilliant pups, well THAT feels a heck of lot like we’re on the right track.

We’re going to fail.  A lot.  The trick for me is to remember to learn from those failures without being afraid to fail again.  And accept that sometimes, no matter how hard I try, I will still fail at protecting his joy…but with practice I can get better at that, too.

There’s a lot of noise that can get in your head in this sport.  And sometimes I’m pretty bad at blocking it out.  But I’m pretty good at big, blunt reminders. And one of those comes from a quote from big wave surfer Jay Moriarty, who lost his life while free-diving at age 22:

“We only get to do this once, and it’s not for very long.  So enjoy it.”

Considering I’m having a birthday that ends in zero this year, maybe that’s a good reminder to reflect and remember that one day, I’ll be even more crotchety, sitting on my porch, my turbocharged motorized scooter nearby, hopefully with a pup at my feet and watching the neighborhood kids dare their friends to run up and touch my front door.  And what will I remember of my success?  Ribbons?  Challenges?  Or something else?

I know with certainty that the memories from these years I will treasure above all will be of a crazy bark, a leap into my arms and the unapologetic joy that makes up the amazing little dude I get to call my teammate right now.  That I loved, and was loved, unconditionally.  That I forged a bond with another creature far beyond what many people ever know is possible.

That’s what I’m going to be thinking about next time we step to the line.  I have this time to do this sport, with this boy, in this moment.  And when I put his leash back on, I’m going to be smothered in slobbery kisses.

Success.

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Digging In with the DesMan

It’s apparent that I’m absolute crap at writing about my recovery from fusion surgery and Des’s debut in agility.  I have a reason, but not a very good one.  Each time I’ve sat down to write about the positive strides I’m making in my return to normality from getting four screws installed in my back, I worry I’m risking the wrath of the cosmic monsters and I’ll experience some epic joint setback.  So…I’ve been quietly drinking gallons of milk, sweating and swearing my way through rehab exercises and getting out there to play with the DesMan as often as possible.  As if I could resist this face??

Desmond, South Jordan, UT, May 2013.  Photo by Randy Gaines.

Desmond, South Jordan, UT, May 2013. Photo by Randy Gaines.

When my husband was on the Helena Hotshots their crew motto was “Opera non Verba“, which loosely translates to “shut up and dig“.  So, following that wisdom, since I can’t seem to find the words to explain how Des and I are doing, I will simply show you.

As you’re about to see…he and I are DIGGING this agility thing!!

For those who can’t view the video with music, here’s the same video in a version that should work for you.  I hope you enjoy!

The Global Agility Movement?

We’re participating in the Dog Agility Blog discussion today – with many great blogs all discussing the topic of the “Internationalization” of agility.  Check out the all the surfing goodness here:

http://dogagilityblogevents.wordpress.com/internationalization/

A Merlie perspective on the ‘internationalization’ of agility…

DesMan - ready to travel?

DesMan – ready to travel?

International Agility – FCI, Worlds, EO, what does it have to do with my trialling with my Merlie boys?  Well, in the last year or two, quite a lot despite our feet staying firmly in our own little neck of the woods.  We’ve participated in several online courses with students from all over the world, focusing on international style handling.

With Duncan, I admired international handlers from afar and studied the gnarly European courses and puzzling moves.  You see, Duncan has always been a teammate who ran for the love of me… (and some cookies) not especially for the love of the course.  But while he can open up and fly on flowing courses, I learned to love the challenge of finding him a way through a technical course.  Pinwheels were a drag, wraps were a cause to throw on the brakes and I’d earn Dunc-glares.  So, I threw myself into learning how to handle efficiently, and find ways to preserve his hard-earned speed as often as possible.  While I’m not always successful, when I cross the line with a grinning Dunc after a twisty course, I feel we’ve truly done something special together.

Duncan and me at the gate

Duncan and me at the gate

Desmond, on the other hand, drug me into the international school of agility handling, and in no time at all, I was converted.  Being able to train and practice with friends and teachers locally is irreplaceable, and I count many fellow competitors from the region as dear friends.  But in addition, the cool part is that my agility community now also crosses the country and spans the world. Being able to bounce ideas off others also trying to push their boundaries well past what most of us see on the weekends is hugely motivating.

Desmond doing his SuperMan thing...

Desmond doing his SuperMan thing…

So what about the moves and skills?  After many moons of teaching Des to collect, to extend, to wrap and slice, I’d love to actually test those skills on U.S. courses.  While I may harbor distant thoughts to competing internationally, that may just not be logistically possible for me…or many others like me.  Until recently, it seems these super technical courses have only been seen a few times a year at WTTs or various venue regional/nationals, which is still something many teams can only manage once in a great while, if at all.  Why not offer some international-style course options like USDAA Masters Challenge or AKC’s rumored  ‘Excellent C’ for everyone to run if they choose?  For those who want to give it a shot, let’s push our boundaries and challenge our team skills way past our comfort zones.  Surprising things can happen…eventually that might become our comfort zone.  Or at least, a place that doesn’t scare the crap out of us while being scope-locked on the course map.

And for those who worry that the venues will become too difficult or exclusive for the EveryDog, I don’t think that’s going to happen.  I too, run an EveryDog, and I will continue to run and play with Duncan on courses that bring us joy, twisty or not.  There is a place for courses that are difficult, that make you think, to puzzle and walk the path a dozen times, to employ that handling move you’ve rehearsed a thousand times in your back yard…just as there is a place for fun, but challenging courses that can be run by everyone.

I get it, not everyone can run as hard and fast as they may have once done.  (I now have the hardware to prove it myself)  Some handlers blow my mind with their amazing connection and skills at a distance, or ability to flow like water around a course.  A gray-faced teammate wagging his way around the course with his beloved handler will always bring me to tears.  But that’s the beauty of agility; there’s something for everyone.  And Des and I vote for more course options for back sides, wraps, and pull-throughs.  Why?  Because I like a challenge, because it’s tough and because my legs still work.

And maybe…just maybe…after falling victim to our share of traps and NQs, someday we’ll get to experience rocking a monster course, look back, and spit in its eye.

Got Rubber?

Around my trialling neighborhood, rubber contacts aren’t the norm (yet).  While I think hope like mad that rubber will eventually come this way, it’s not currently on most of the equipment we trial on.  With Des’s running contacts, I considered that training on rubber might make him think he has traction in places he won’t on sanded wood and could launch himself the wrong way when he hit the gas.  But in the end, I went with rubber for two reasons:

1) I wanted the dogwalk that Des runs over most often to be as cushioned and safe as I could make it.

2) My DW sits outside in the sun and snow all year round.  After six months, my well painted and sanded plywood ramps were already showing cracks.  My DW frame is beautifully made (thanks, Tom!), but there’s really nothing anyone can do about the quality of ‘marine grade’ plywood these days.  I’m just happy I’m not trying to build a boat!

So in the fine tradition of peer pressure (tell your friends!), I hope the following how-to may take some of the mystery out of sticking down that rubber and that traction-riffic contacts could become the norm in our agility neighborhood too.  (come on, everybody’s doing it!)

I chose pre-made dogwalk skins from Rubber On the Run.  Why?  Dunc has run on  NADAC spec rubber belting, rubber granules glued to an epoxy base, and rubber skins, and they all have good grip.  For me, the granules were out…I’ve messed with epoxy a time or two and it’s easy to get it really wrong (reference above boat building fears...I had a bad experience)!   I wanted a flat, non-sticky-uppy surface that was sealed firmly to the plank on all edges.  It was a bonus that I think the skins are pretty, and who doesn’t love a pretty contact obstacle?   You can get a kit and form the skins yourself, but that was more than I wanted to take on, skill, time or garage space-wise.

Enough about the why – let me get to the how…at least in reference to the skin type rubber.  First off, my plywood topped DW didn’t have slats.  If you have slats, I’d strongly recommend taking them off to sand your wood base as flat as possible.  Trying to cut and fit rubber sections between wooden slats – and get the rubber tight to the wood joints – would be a nightmare.  If you want slats, the skins have a slat option.  More details on this later.

First, sand the boards as flat as possible so the rubber will have a uniform surface to adhere to.  If your plywood is warped at all, it might be better to just replace it.  I used a palm and belt sander.  The belt sander did the majority of the work, and the palm helped get the edges and areas around the screw heads.  When you buy sandpaper (and you’ll want LOTS of it),  find a grit as coarse as your sanded surface.  Then choose one coarser than that…it will look like paper with small rocks glued to it.  Just a warning if you’ve not used a belt sander before…before firing it up, HANG ON.  Holy crap, the darn thing took me for a ride the first time I pulled the trigger.   I used to run a chain saw at work, and I think that sander called the shots in a way that no Stihl ever did.

A good sanding will look like the center plank in the photo – some paint and sand base remaining, but a much smoother and glue-friendly surface overall.

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I then gave the ramps a couple of coats of paint each to seal the wood.  A small foam roller worked well.  If you need to adjust your contact length, this is the time to do it.  In my case, I was changing from 42″ to 36″ contacts, so painted the top and sides of the wood to match.

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Gluing:  I followed the manufacturer’s advice and bought the “Wozzit” glue instead of using a rubber cement type glue.  The huge plus is that the Wozzit glue allows for some adjustments once the rubber is stuck down…I could move the entire rubber sheet back and forth to make sure I had it on straight and lined the edges up carefully.  Once the rubber cement glue adheres to the rubber skin, you’re literally stuck with what you’ve got.  I can’t even stick a decal on my car window without messing it up…I was NOT going to screw around with a giant sheet of rubber!

The instructions that were included weren’t bad, but while they mention you’ll need clamps, they don’t mention how many clamps.  You’ll need a lot.  Fewer if you don’t have the skin with rubber slats, but if you do, you’ll need 1-2 clamps per section between rubber slats and some wood pieces to put between the rubber and the clamp.  What worked best was to spread glue on the ramp in foot long sections, unrolling the rubber and clamping as we went.  When we ran out of clamps, we stopped gluing for the day.  The next day, we continued where we left off, with no problems.  I’d imagine an A Frame could be done in a similar fashion…if you don’t use contact cement, a couple people could unroll/glue as they went, and adjust the edges as needed.

Here’s a picture of our gluing operation in action; note all the high tech devices that were employed to weight the clamped wood down.  It wasn’t pretty, but it worked.  Where ever the glued wood was in contact with the rubber, it stuck, but a few small areas near the edges didn’t get direct adhesion and weren’t stuck.  The next day, I shoved a knife blade with glue into those spots, re-clamped and viola!  Perfect!  One more tip – it was a little cold when we glued, so we put the glue bottle in a bucket of hot water.  The glue flowed and spread beautifully.

No soup for you!

No soup for you!

And here’s what it looked like when done.  The rubberized plank on the right still needs trimming.  We did that with a builder’s utility knife, but I’ve also seen some pretty handy trimming on YouTube with an old electric carving knife, if anyone can convince their Mom to part with that ’70’s must-have.

DW4And done!  The planks look beautiful, the rubber surface is almost flat on top.

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I’d mentioned slats earlier.  I’m not a huge fan of slats, but decided to get them because it’s required by the majority of the US and international venues, and didn’t want Des’s first taste of slat to come in a trial.  The rubber slats are formed out of the same rubber material, and literally fused to the surface of the contact rubber.  There are no gaps between the rubber surface and rubber slat, and the slats have a small bit of give, just like the surface itself.

DSC_2141And how do the boys like the rubber?  Des demonstrates below.  Well, maybe that’s not the best picture to illustrate paw grip…now that I think about it.

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I can’t address longevity yet, but upkeep in my sand field means I break out the broom to sweep it off every now and then.  It’s sat through quite a lot of snow and two weeks of sub-teen (and zero) temps this winter, and the edges remain where I stuck them.  We’ll see how it handles the thermal nastiness of summer, but so far, rubber does indeed rock!

Road to Nowhere? Who’s Car Are We Taking?

For the past year, Desmond and I have been taking online classes from Silvia Trkman.   We began with some puppy Tricks, went on to our first Foundations class, spent most of the summer Running Contacts and just yesterday finished our second round of Foundations.  It’s taken a buttload of hours, we trashed two pairs of shoes and countless holee rollers along the way.  Before my surgery we hardly missed more than a day of training in a row, and I was back on the field two weeks after, having interpreted the Dr’s direction to “walk daily” quite loosely.  Thankfully, my husband understands when I run outside at all times of the day muttering things like “diabolical weave entries” and leave old envelopes with scribbled sequences in random places around the house.

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Des and I aren’t done by far, but finishing this class made me reflect on how far both Des and I have come in the last year.  And how many MB of disk space I’ve devoted to video of the speedy merlie.  (I now have a 1 TB hard drive!  A terabyte!!  That seems like insanity to someone who still has floppy disks in a drawer somewhere.)  And…I just dated myself.  Awesome.

After sorting through that digital pile of video, I put together a compilation of our work since last summer.   For anyone following my long overdue fusion posts, all the shots with snow were post-surgery.   Make sure your speakers are on and I hope you enjoy!

Rock on, little DesMan.  You are a joy each and every day.

Fusion Part 1: Nuts and Bolts

Six weeks ago today, I had my lumbar fusion surgery.  I now have four titanium screws, two pins and some sort of cage residing in my back.  What, you ask, have I been doing with my time besides figuring out if I’ll set off metal detectors?  (They say I won’t.  I’m skeptical.)  I’m not really sure, but it’s gone by a lot faster than I’d ever imagined.   For those who stumbled this way looking for a fusion story, beware, I am a dog training and agility superfreak looking to find the fastest path back to the agility field running my pups.  And for my agility friends, I promise to throw in a gratuitous Merlie picture every now and then just to keep things semi-normal.

Mama, get better soon!

Mama, get better soon!

But for those out there looking for a firsthand experience of the L5-S1 fusion surgery with a person determined to be active again, I hope to…well…give you some hope – all while I’m hoping like mad that my own fusion will be successful.  It seems that 99% of the experiences on the Internet are written to scare the living crap out of you, by those who seem to relish dishing out doom and gloom.   I suspect most folks after surgery heal, recover, and get back to their lives, too busy to visit back pain forums.  While it would be easier for me to skim over these details and go right back to writing about something much more fun, (woof!) I realize sharing my surgery and recovery experience may help others facing the same fate, or any physical setback, for that matter.

“Being defeated is often a temporary condition.  Giving up is what makes it permanent.”     -Marilyn vos Savant

Brotherly love at it's finest!

Brotherly love at it’s finest!

My stay in the hospital could have been quite brief.  Shortly after being admitted, hooked up to various machines and started on what the nurse called the “you won’t care” drug, I suddenly and violently cared.  I cared enough to clearly visualize flinging off all the machines and running screaming out of the building, gown flapping in my wake.  Thankfully, clearer heads (and a heavier husband with excellent calming skills) prevailed, and I stayed put until the drugs kicked in, and then yep…I didn’t care.  Thank you, drug provided oblivion!

In what seemed like three seconds after I was wheeled in the OR, I woke in recovery with a friendly nurse hovering overhead talking to me, asking me questions.  But the only voice screaming in my head like a fire alarm was my own:  Do your &^%$-ing toes work??”  Left foot – check.  Right foot…hey right foot, yes, YOU!  Check.  <<Deep breath and silent thanks to a surgeon who paid attention in class>>  But back to that nurse…thanks for the ice chips.  I think you saved my life.

The next three days went by in a blur, more for me than anyone else.  They said I was under for about 3.5 hours, and anesthesia really screws me up.  For a while I was setting personal blood pressure records, some that may have qualified me as an honorary zombie.  BPs like 75 over 57 made the walks I took several times a day quite interesting.  I’d hobble out slower than a turtle with my walker, with my entourage of therapist, nurse and IV on wheels.  I’d make it to the corner, start seeing spots, and come racing back like a Citroen on the last stage of the Dakar rally…usually on two wheels, and sliding to a stop back in bed.  Thankfully, this wasn’t my husband’s first post-surgery rodeo, and he both expected and kept up with my I’m-going-to-faint-turbo-speed. The three nights weren’t bad…except for being awakened every two hours for vital checks by the nurses, (who rocked) and every other hour by a screeching machine that didn’t seem to do anything but wait until I was again asleep to screech.  Then there were the pre-dawn vampires.  Being jolted awake at 5:30 by a woman claiming she was from the lab wielding a needle and sub par vein-locating skills was not my favorite part.

THIS was my favorite part.  Many an ET joke was made...

THIS was my favorite part. Many an ET joke was made…

Up to this point, I haven’t mentioned what the pain was like.  I know what 10 on the pain scale feels like, and I expected something close to that.  And…I didn’t.  Yes, there was a constant pain, yes, it sucked, but it wasn’t impossible to tune out the majority of it most of the time.  Maybe I was lucky and the drugs worked, maybe I had a talented surgeon, (and I believe I did) or maybe the back gods decided that by my third surgery I deserved a break, if not a frequent buyer’s card?  Whatever the reason, I’m thankful.  Sure, it hurt like hell to sit up and move around, I felt like my lower back had been replaced by something made by Cyberdyne waaaay before the T-101, and I wanted to boot every time I stood up, but I could handle it.  Getting through this was my quickest route back to getting my life back.

To remind me of that goal, I brought a little photo album filled with pictures of the pups that would have put any grandmother to shame.  I accosted any nurse who dared to come close enough for me to show them.  One nurse who’d been around the block a time or two happened to be quite a dog lover, so she’d ask to see a new picture every time she came in.  On my last morning, they said I could go home…after a therapist taught me how to climb stairs.  But she’d not be back until afternoon.  Having already been through two more minor back surgeries I was sadly familiar with the stairs routine.  My new nurse friend winked at me,  and before I knew it, I’d been shoveled into a wheelchair and deposited at the curb where my husband waited to take me home.  Never mind that I only made it two minutes in the front seat before crawling into the back for the rest of the ride home.  Never mind I recited a ‘don’t boot in the truck, don’t boot in the truck‘ mantra.  I was home.  With my pups.  With my family.  The worst was behind me, with a lot of healing to come in the weeks ahead.

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Weaves…Contacts…and a Deadline!

When my surgery date was set, I had five loooong weeks to wait.  That day, I set a goal of getting Desmond to full height on his dogwalk and closing Des’s channel weaves completely.  While I didn’t want to rush him, for me, a deadline is unbeatable motivation.  As a serious bonus, it’s provided a welcome distraction full of happy puppy thoughts and given me a reason to get out there Every.  Single.  Day.   As if I could resist this face…

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There’s nothing like knowing I’m going to be a chair jockey for a couple + months to motivate me to get outside and run.  And in the last five weeks, that’s exactly what we’ve done!

Des and I began working weaves in earnest around his first birthday.  I’d happened across the channel method as a part of the online classes I’m taking, and decided to give it a shot.  I worked him a couple times a week for a few months, succeeding at some gnarly entires while gradually closing the channel, yet leaving it open enough not to actually make him weave a lot.  In November, I began to close about an inch a week, and he weaved his first completely closed set right after Thanksgiving.  Since then, he’s blown me away with his ability to hit entries…at speed or with the meanest angles I can dream up.

And his running dogwalk?  Each time I’d raised the height of his dogwalk in the previous month, he never flinched, adjusting quickly to maintain his lovely striding.  That is, until we hit 45″; a mere three inches short of full height.  All of a sudden, things fell apart.  His strides became shorter, and he missed the contact over and over.  I pondered what to do. I promised myself he was *not* broken, no matter how heavy the sinking feeling in my stomach.  He needed to build back up his confidence.  With Duncan, I would have dropped the height and built back up a little less quickly.  But this is Des, who charges at most things like his fur is on fire.  So, I decided to take my cues from Des and do the same.  For several days, I ran alongside the dogwalk like a madwoman, making a heck of a racket, and most likely worrying the neighbors and scaring the wildlife.

But it worked.  Des got his striding back and began to fly.  A week later, we raised it to FULL HEIGHT!  

More than six months.  Learning to see his stride.  Learning to reward a good stride.  Des learning to adjust his own stride.  Dragging myself out before sunrise to beat the heat, rushing home and running in my work clothes to catch the last few minutes of daylight…it’s been a long journey.  One that’s been truly worth it.  What?  Video?  Of course!

We aren’t done yet…we still need to work turns, but getting to full height on the dogwalk and competition weave poles were two large and rewarding hurdles.  Ones that will help carry me through the upcoming months of forced idleness.  While I may be watching Die Hard (hey, it’s a Christmas movie…) or Downton Abbey reruns, I’m sure a small part of my mind will be be doing mental handsprings over what Des has done.  And looking oh, OH so forward to running him the moment I’m able to do so again.

Yippie ki-yay….