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.

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Plan B? Nah, This is Definitely Plan C…

Well, damn.

I’ve seen more than enough MRIs of the lower spine to know that the one I was looking at had a pretty screwed up L5-S1 disc.  The problem was that the image on the screen was, for the third time, of my own back.

This is just the latest chapter of a losing 13 year battle with this disc, including two previous back surgeries, and I was fresh out of options.  So, in mid December, I’m having spinal fusion surgery.

In the span of an hour, my plans for the next six months to a year have changed drastically. Instead of debuting my brilliant little boy, Des, I’m going to instead be inventing Rube Goldberg-like devices to be able to tie my own shoelaces.  The cool (and disturbing) part is that I’ll soon have titanium parts: screws, rods and bionic thing-a-ma-doodles.  You can bet the first time I run post surgery I’ll be making ‘na-na-na-na6 Million Dollar Man sound effects.  The not so cool part is that I won’t be able to even shuffle around outside with the Merlie Boys for a couple months, and if all goes well, not back to running at all until sometime next summer.  Gah.  I haven’t gone three days without working Des in a year.   Mr. Neurosurgeon, I think you’ve officially taken away my birthday.

How did I get here?  Well, if I had a nickel for every time I’ve been told “you’re too young to have xxx back surgery…”, (as if that fixes things) I could buy you lunch.  But since I’m a few years shy of 40…

Some would hazard a guess that it came from the years of hanging my arse over the side of a boat, my unofficial major in college.

That’s my said arse in front, in the blue lifejacket. San Diego Thistle Midwinters, January, 1997.

Others may speculate it came from hauling 1/3 of my (then) bodyweight across the countryside for weeks on end and spending days bent over digging as my means of employment with the St. Joe Hotshots?

A few years after my hotshot days, I guess the crew didn’t stop digging <ahem>to take pictures.

Or years later, dragging almost that much weight around for fun?

Mmmm….red rock canyons!  How I long to have red grit in my ears again!

Or maybe I’ve just been too stubborn to slow down combined with a bad draw in the joint lottery?  Whatever.

If you’ve read this blog before or know me peronally, you might think I lean towards a little ‘too’ positive (at least where agility is concerned and after I’ve had my coffee).  Well, now you know why.  Every time I’ve stepped to the line in the three years since my last surgery I’ve known two things:  to cherish each and every run with my amazing teammate, and that each day that my body carries me around the course is a gift.  Life is too short, too good and running Merlies too much fun to let this slow me down permanently.  So let’s screw this problem down (literally), and get on with things!  With luck, Des’s debut will only be delayed a few months, and I’ll be running harder and faster than ever come summer.  Because if you’ve seen the DesMan lately you’ll understand why that’s gonna be a requirement!

I have a few weeks left before my surgery, so I’m putting my time and mobility to good use.  I’m aiming to get Des to full height on his dogwalk, and his channel weave poles closed.  If we don’t make it, that’s okay, but goals are good.  Stay tuned for video progress!

I’ll apologize now, in the coming months, I may be posting a little more about surgery and recovery than about agility.  But I’ve learned there’s that there’s a huge lack of positive stories about surgery and a return to athletic pursuits on the internet to help others facing the same situation.  So I plan on documenting mine.  Because I’m determined that I’ll be back out there Running Happy as soon as the doc says it’s safe to do so.

Thanks, C for finding this, and you and G for getting this picture! It’s Dunc’s mantra!

It’s been a while since I was a professional dirt thrower, but some of the lessons learned on the line become ingrained for life.  Hotshots have a pretty straightforward mentality on tough assignments. Here’s the PG-13 rated version:

“The hill is steep.  So the heck what.  Quit your bitching and get going”.

I know this isn’t going to be a walk in the park.  But I’m going to get going, and keep going.

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 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!