Monday, April 26, 2010

My Weekend with President Obama

An Inspiring Weekend with the President, BRAC and the Starters/PI Handlers.

President Obama and I were both in Asheville, NC this weekend and at times were only a few hundred yards apart. He was there on vacation and I was at an agility trial across from the airport where they parked Air Force One. So although I'm sure he was completely unaware of the agility trial, we were in approximately the same location at some point during the weekend.

I can't speak for how his weekend went but mine was wonderful. I was at a USDAA trial given by a local club called Blueridge Agility Club (aka BRAC, at the Western North Carolina Agricultural Center. The trial was held indoors on a packed dirt surface in the McGough Arena. This particular agility club has been in existence since about 1992 and is known for putting on a well run trial. BRAC must know and believe the quote "An Army marches on its stomach." (attributed to both Napoleon and Frederick the Great) because they are also famous for the food they provide their volunteers. That may be one reason they are more successful at attracting volunteers than some of the clubs that provide only the bare minimum of snacks for their workers.

There are a lot of elements that go into putting on a well run trial but in my opinion nothing is more important than how the club treats its exhibitors. Exhibitors have more choices than ever about where to trial these days. During the Spring and Fall especially, people in this area can trial every weekend in either AKC, USDAA, NADAC or CPE so if the clubs want to keep attracting handlers to their trials, they need to keep this in mind and use good customer service techniques. In my opinion, BRAC is especially good at this.

Maybe there should be a quote like this: "Behind every good agility trial stands a good trial secretary". BRAC's trial secretary, Peggy Franklin (" one of the best. I love the way she sends out not only a running order with the entry confirmation but a trial timeline so you can see what time each class will be running. This is so helpful that I don't understand why it isn't standard practice. And Peggy is always quick to respond to any email you send or question you have and if she's ever grumpy I've yet to see it.

The Blueridge club members in general are friendly, hard-working and generous. The club even went so far as to issue credits for future trials when their December 2009 trial was hit with several inches of snow. Not only did they issue credits for those of us who couldn't travel to the trial, they even issued credits for those who were in town but had to miss classes because they were late getting to the arena. I've never heard of another club doing that and I've been trialing since they began holding agiltiy trials in NC. That sort of behavior doesn't go unnoticed or unappreciated by the average agility competitor.

One thing BRAC can't take credit for--or can they?--are the good results I get when I trial there. This past weekend was no exception. Devon not only qualified in 6 out of his 7 classes, he finished first in 5 of them and 2nd in the other. He also qualified in the Grand Prix which means he now has all his qualifiers to attend the USDAA Nationals in Kentucky this October. I would love to attend Nationals this year. I've never been to a USDAA Nationals and I think it would be a lot of fun and very inspiring.

Not that I didn't find plenty of inspiration at this trial. This weekend as I watched the Starters/PI Jumpers class that took place near the very end of the trial on Sunday from my ring crew chair, I focused on the handlers' faces as they flew by me intent on sending their dogs over "my" three jumps and into the tunnel. What I noticed was the intensity with which every single person brought to their run. No one was taking this run for granted, no one was just training in the ring. They each really wanted to do the best they possibly could out there even though--as far as they knew--very few people were watching. I felt truly inspired by their eagerness and ability to celebrate this one run. I intend to try to keep those faces in mind every time I run my dogs from now on.

Thanks, BRAC, for another great agility trial.

Thursday, April 22, 2010


I recently decided to start a blog just for the purpose of sharing some of what I've learned over the years from the many excellent teachers and trainers I've had the opportunity to learn from.

Like many agility competitiors, I started out "in horses". I started riding when I was 3 and rarely missed a Saturday morning riding lesson throughout the time I lived at home. I was a horse crazy girl who matured into a horse crazy woman so it shouldn't have been a big surprise to my family when I left the University of Rochester after 2 years to enroll in a full-time, live-in stable management and riding program in Maryland. I was determined that I would make a living with the beautiful creatures I'd loved all my life. The two years I spent at the school were among the best times I've ever had. In fact, if I could go back and do that again, I'd happily do so.

Unfortunately, the reality of trying to make a living by managing other people's riding and boarding facilities meant working for less than a living wage and working every holday and weekend. It didn't take long before I realized that my parents had been right all along. They had tried to tell me that if I truly wanted to enjoy horses, I should make them my hobby and not my profession. (Nowadays that may not be true, there are so many more opportunites open to women now than there were when I was young.)

So, I sadly gave up the idea of being able to spend all day, evey day with horses and went back to school. During that time I worked as a veterinary assistant, an animal shelter employee (heartbreaking) and then started my own business as a petsitter. The petsitting (which was a brand new idea in 1980 when I started Companion Animal Services)led to giving lessons in Obedience and was the beginning of my particpation in dog sports.

I got my first "performance" dog (a dog I had intentions of competing with rather than training only to be a good companion)from the shelter. I asked them to call me if they received a Doberman as that was a breed I'd always been attracted to but never owned. Almost all my dogs up to that point were aquired by adoption as adults and I trained them unconsciously by spending a lot of time showing them what I wanted and then praising/rewarding them. I had taken lessons with a client's Golden since my own dogs were an elderly GSP and a three-legged mixed breed and now I felt ready to get my own, very first Performance Dog (that's how I thought about it, in capital letters).

Jemma was found by someone hanging around a rural garbage dump and brought to the shelter. Since they had no information about her, she had to stay a week before they could allow me to adopt her. What a long week that was! I met her the day she was brought in, fell in love with her instantly, and then barely slept all week worrying about whether she would be reclaimed. Luckily (for me and for her) no one had any interest in reclaiming this little waif with long ears and no tail (obviously done by someone with no idea how to dock a tail) and she got to come home with me. Jemma turned out to be everything I wanted and then some in a performance dog. She was a fast learner and a beautiful heeling dog. The static exercise were a breeze to teach her and we easily got our CD on our first three tries with scores above 195.

Just about this time she became very suddenly completely lame on one leg and was quickly dagnosed with a ruptured ACL. At that time (1985-6) the method of fixing a torn ACL was to use stainless steel wire which left her very little mobility in the knee. She couldn't sit other than to rock back on her hip with her leg stretched out in front of her. I tried to continue with our Obedience training but it was just too hard without a sit so we started to doing nursing home visits with a group of people from the local kennel club.

I found these visits very emotionally draining and so, I'm sure, did Jemma. But we kept them up for years because I could see how much the residents enjoyed having a dog to pat. In fact they mostly seemed to appreciate the opportunity to reminisce about their own dogs, long dead or sadly given up when they entered the nursing home. I still feel so sad today when I think of how forgotten our old people are. And I'm convinced that I'd rather die than live without my dogs. I don't understand how we can be so cruel as to ask people to give up all animal companionship in return for the care they need as they age.

Happily, there were also the wonderfully fun visits we did as part of our volunteer Humane Education visits to local schools. Jemma and I would go to elementary schools throughout the county and talk to kids about the importance of controlling the pet population by spaying and neutering our dogs and cats and also talk about the kind of care these pets needed to be healthy and happy. One of Jemma's best traits was the way she would become very still as soon as anyone patted her. Her eyes would shine and she would quietly generate the most profound pleasure in the attention she received. She especially loved it when, at the end of my talk, I would allow all the kids to come up and pat her together. I never saw her happier than when she was surrounded by a sea of kids all stroking her with reverential gentleness.

Along with these types of activities, Jemma and I started learning about AKC Tracking as a sport. We were very lucky that a wonderful woman from the Kennel Club (an AKC Tracking judge)took us under her wing and taught me a lot about how to lay and map tracks, how to figure out scent behavior according to the topography, ground cover, weather conditions, etc. and then certified us for our first test. I guess there is such a thing as beginner's luck because not only did we get a spot in the first test I applied for but passed on our first attempt. I was more thrilled by that one title than I have been for any other I've acheived and I still have the certificate we got from the AKC.

My next dog was Haven.

Haven was a special dog in every way. I bought her from a breeder in Oregon on the advice of a friend and named her Haven after a character in a book. I intended to do Obedience with her, the way I tried to with Jemma but fate stepped in when some friends invited me to join their agility club in 1990. Once we started really learning the obstacles, there was no turning back.

Once I started agility training, I never went back to Obedience and Tracking fell by the wayside, too. Agility was more like the Equine Eventing I used to do, more fast paced and exciting. And there was so much to learn! This was the beginning of my "seminar years" as I like to call them. Alone and with friends I travelled all up and down the east coast to attend agility seminars and camps. I went as far north as Canada, New York, Ohio, Massachusettes and Pennsylvania. Stayed closer to home in Virginia, North Carolina and South Carolina. Then drove south to Georgia and Florida. At each seminar and camp, with each teacher, I learned about agility and dog training. I must have spent hundreds of hours (I'm not going to even talk about the dollars) and driven thousands of miles to listen, learn and watch these talented individuals.

I just couldn't pass up a seminar or camp. In fact I'm not sure you could name a teacher I haven't worked with at least once. I was so hungry to learn as much as I could from whoever was willing to teach me that I would go anywhere for a semianr or camp. And I had a great time travelling and meeting people, making friends from all over the US and even a couple from England.

Haven was a wonderful dog and probably the smartest dog I've ever had. She was the ultimate companion because you could take her anywhere and know that she'd always behave impeccably. She had a natural grace and dignity that never failed her. Even at almost 16 years old she had a regalness that most people noticed right away. But she didn't like travelling to trials, she much preferred to stay at home and do agility in the yard with just me and my other dogs for company so I didn't try to force her to be something she wasn't.

Because Haven was a little soft and retiring for agility, for my next dog I looked for one who had too much energy to be a typical pet. I wanted built in drive and boy did I get it. His name was Simon and he was a handful from the day I brought him home. Where Haven never carried on when left in her crate, Simon screamed his head off. He also never stopped moving when he was out of his crate. At the time I didn't know enough to realize that he needed to learn lots of self-control behaviors, I just thought this was what a "high-drive" dog was like. He was also reactive to other dogs and people from a very early age despite all my attemps at socialization. He was never a dangerous dog--he never even came close to biting anyone--just very noisy and reactive. Because he was really such a little scaredey-dog, I never could quite understand why people who didn't know him were scared of him. But he did have a very intense look and a very deep voice so he was pretty convincing to those who didn't see right through him as most agility people could.
Despite the problems I had managing Simon around other dogs and people, I really enjoyed training him and the two us shared a deep bond, maybe deeper than I had with any of my other dogs. I'm sure one reason was his dependence on me and the other was the many long hours we spent training togeher. Simon was my seminar and camp dog; the one I took everywhere. And one thing I never worried about when travelling with Simon was that anyone would harass me. Just one WOOF! and look from Simon and no one was brave enough to approach if I didn't give the OK. Needless to say, I didn't do any Nursing Home visits with Simon :-)
Simon and I had a lot of first experiences together. He was the first dog I took to the Masters level, the first dog I took to agility camp, the first dog I felt was fast enough to compete with the Border Collies. I had hopes of getting the elusive ADCH with Simon, something that wasn't as easy to get at that time as it is now when there are trials every weekend with double Standard and Snooker classes.

But unfotunately, just as it seemed that we were getting somewhere, Simon was diagnosed with Canine Cutaneous Histiocytosis. At that time there was hardly anyone in the country who knew about this disease much less had any drugs to treat it. The only thing they could suggest to (hopefully) keep it in check and prevent it spreading to his internal organs was Prednisone. Keeping him on a dose that would control the lesions but not ruin his quality of life was a constant struggle and it was heartbreaking to see what it did to him. Finally, at only 6 and a half years old he died during emergency surgery to repair some adhesions which had formed during an earlier surgery to remove an intestinal blockage. Even 10 years later I can hardly bear to think about his last few months. I was completely heartbroken when he died and didn't think I could ever allow myself to feel about another dog the way I felt about Simon. In some ways I never have.

While Simon was still alive, I decided that if I was going to spend so much time doing agility, I should really get a Border Collie. I had gotten to know the breed well since I'd been doing agility and admired their amazing athleticism and drive to work and play. I thought that I would rather adopt a rescue dog than get a puppy because I felt strongly that there were so many nice dogs in rescue that it only made sense to adopt my next dog.

I was lucky to contact a Border Collie rescue group just at the time that they were looking for another home for a dog that had been in rescue from a very early age and had been passed around due to his fairly pushy nature. Once I saw Jaime I was convinced he was the perfect agility dog. And still, after 12 years, I'm convinced I've never seen a more athletic dog.

In a lot of ways Jaime has been the easiest dog I've ever owned and in other ways, the hardest. Although he lives to work for me, he doesn't really want to be patted or fussed over very much. He's happy to curl up at my feet and sometimes will be very calm and gentle but mostly he likes to work and the harder, the better. He would have been a fantastic sheep dog. He would have liked nothing better than to work all day and then lie by the fire until it was time to work again. And he loves agility. At thirteen he's still sound and still ocasionally competes. And he is the dog that finally allowed me to acheive the ADCH I'd always wanted. But it was a bittersweet accomplishment since I had really hoped to do it first with Simon who had been dead only about a year when Jaime got that final Jumpers leg. But Jaime has taught me so much, more than any other dog I've had, and they've been some hard lessons, too.

Most people who know me know that I keep a "short" list of about 25 breeds that I say I'm going to get for my next dog. I just don't understand how peope can limit themselves to one or two breeds when there are so many cool dogs out there. For about as long as I've had dogs I've always wanted to have a terrier. I love their fiestiness (if that's a word) and the way they strut around with such self-importance. But for as long as I've had Dobes, Dobe peolple have warned me away from getting a terrier. Whenever I would tell someone who had Dobes that I wanted a little terrier, their face would grow very serious and they'd shake their heads somberly and tell me that it would be a big mistake to try to house a Dobe and a terrier together. Even the terrier people said that so I thought I'd just have to forgo having a terrier until I had no Dobes. But then I started doing agility and I saw terriers everywhere. Mostly Jack Russells but others, too, and they seemed just fine with other dogs--at least certainly no worse than any other breed. So when Jaime was about 6 I decided to get a Parson Russell Terrier which is almost the same as a JRT but possibly a little less feisty and with longer legs.

I can truthfully say that I've nver seen a cuter puppy than Devon. When I picked him up at the airport and looked inside his tiny crate, my fate was sealed. From that day to this I only have to think of him to put a smile on my face. He's such a happy-go-lucky, friendly and handsome little personality that he's usually welcome whereever there are dog people.
And contrary to what I had heard from many sources, he was the easiest dog to train (other than Haven) I've ever owned. He's very dependent on me, has to be wherever I am and makes me feel like I'm the center of his universe. His love of intereaction with me has made it easy to train him and easy to live with. I can take him just about anywhere other than where there's deep running water. For some reason, he has an obsession with jumping into pools of water and splashing and barking until you force him to come out. And if the water is a river or ocean, he has no understanding that he might not be able to get out which has led to some pretty interesting experiences over the years.
Other than that little quirk of occasionally trying to drown himself, Devon is a very biddable little dog and that makes him a good agility teammate. I spent a lot of time on foundaton training with Devon which I didn't really know how to do with my other dogs. In fact the words "foundation training" weren't ones I had ever heard until Jaime was about 5 years old when many of the mistakes I made in his early training were already irreversible. Terms like "impulse control" were brand new in the agility literature when Jaime was competing.
Just about the time I got Devon, there began to be a lot of conversation (and controversy) concerning handling systems. An instructor had introduced mt to the Greg Derrett system of handling and I followed that faithfully with Jaime for over 3 years going to lots of seminars and camps to learn it and apply it. However, after awhile I realized that my progress with Jaime had hit a plateau and I couldn't seem to move past it. Some of the trouble was caused by his early training (or lack of training) but some was due to his own lack of biddablility (for want of another word), some to my imperfections as a handler and some to the system that didn't take into account dogs like Jaime who tend to ignore training cues when hyped up on adrenlin.

Since this system didn't seem to be working for Jaiime and because I had nothing with hich to replace it, for awhile my agility training with Devon floundered. I knew I needed another system of cues but was at a loss how to come up with my own system. I knew I didn't want to go back to just trying this and that move but I also didn't feel that my old system would work very well for Devon either. I felt it relied too heavily on training every behavior needed on an agility course rather than on the intuitive action and reaction I'd been used to feeling with Simon in the past and when I rode horses.
I had been hearing a lot about Linda Mecklenburg's system of handling at that time and knew that many people used it and were very successful with it so I decided to attend one of her Foundation Training seminars. I'm so glad I did, it was one of the best learning experiences I've ever had.
Linda's system seems to rely more on the natural kind of cues that most people used to use long ago in agility--before everything got so technical. If you run forward, your dog "feels" that and also runs forward. If you stop, your dog should, too. It mimics the way people dance with each other, getting physical cues from each other's movements rather than from one person telling the other what to do. At least that's my very imperfect understading of it. It still requires training the dog to look for certain cues and to respond in a cetain way depending on the feedback offered, but it seems far more intuitive and less reliant on training to me.
And since I've been using the ideas I learned at that seminar, I'm much happier with the way Devon and I are running as a team. We've become far more consistent and now I find that if I want to qualify on a particular course, I usually can. My goal now is to get much faster so that we can be really competitive.

And as I work on that challenge, I have another young dog to train in agility. I got Zodi in response to missing having a Doberman around the house. As much as I love Devon and Jaime, it just felt like something was missing. I really had to search for Zodi because I was afraid of getting another Dobe with serious health probems or temperament issues and there aren't many careful Dobe breeders around who would let their best puppies go to a Performance home. I had interviewed several Dobe breeders over the past few years and found that most of them weren't even willing to talk about letting me have their best puppy unless I would co-own it or send it out with a professional handler. But I was determined to find a puppy so I emailed everyone I knew and asked them if they knew anyone and wound up finding a puppy much closer to home than I could have hoped. When I first saw the litter I didn't know which of the two bitch puppies I would get but I knew which one I wanted. One was very shy and timid and the other was all over the place, exploring and jumping all over her brother. Luckily the breeder decided to keep the shy one (I don't know how she turned out) and I got Zodi.

Zodi is two years old now and is as sweet a dog as you'd want to meet. She has a wonderful sense of humor and enjoys herself whenever she can. She's also nothing like either Haven, Jemma or Simon, being far more independent and more easily distracted from training. If a bird flies by or a she catches sight of a bug, she's off to investigate. It mostly makes me laugh when she does things like this but it has slowed our progress toward being ready to compete in agility. Luckily I've learned a lot of patience over the years and know that there's no hurry and that the fun we have together is all that's truly important.

So, that brings me up to the present. I'm currently doing a little of everything; teaching, training, competing in agility, traveling and spending time with friends and family. I am especially enjoying teaching people just starting their agility training. I remember so clearly how exciting it was to learn to communicate with my dog in such a unique way. I also remember just how difficult it was to find good instruction back then and how far I had to travel to find it. So I strive to be the best instructor I can be and share all the experience I have gained while at the same time knowing I have so much more to learn. That's why the subtitle of this blog is "Live to Learn".