A Scottie's Agility Journey! By Carol Vaseleski.
In agility class today, Katie Kinross Shadowchaser was running a fun practice course with her usual Scottie smile shining brightly. She strutted over the dog walk, turned and ran through the tunnel, took two jumps and left me in the dust when I sent her to the teeter. The teeter looks and acts like a playground seesaw. As the dog runs, it pivots on the center line so the side that was down goes up and the other side goes down. She scaled it and rode it down as the rest of the class cheered. You may ask “why?” Dogs do that every day. The answer is that Katie had not gone over a teeter for almost eighteen months.
Katie’s agility story began as her formal obedience story ended. After years of training and having fun at obedience and rally trials, Katie had stopped getting excited as we entered the ring. At our last trial, she stopped midway through the heeling pattern, sat down and scratched. She ignored my encouragement as I urged her back to action. I concluded that this was no longer fun for her, so we retired. When we both got bored, I decided to try agility. We discovered a whole new world of speed, challenges, and fun.
Agility training is different from obedience and rally training, though all three can be fun. Obedience and rally rely on handler focus, with the dog responding quickly and precisely to commands. Rewards are usually dispensed from the trainer’s hand for closer and closer approximations of perfection. Agility requires both handler and obstacle focus. Rewards are dispensed frequently to build drive and are usually provided at the point of success, not directly from the handler. This way, the dog associates the reward with its own actions regarding the obstacle, not with the handler. The dog relies on the handler to set the course (where to go) and on its own trained experience to complete each obstacle (what to do). This was a difficult transition for me after years of obedience training. Katie embraced it immediately. Other lessons were more subtle. I learned to be positive and appreciate Katie’s efforts. Katie learned it is more fun to connect with me and run a course than to dash around the ring by herself. I learned humility when I realized that every time she went off course it was my fault because I sent her there. We both learned that mistakes are just an opportunity to do better the next time. I had to learn to communicate with her without talking because she is very fast and I am quite slow. I could not talk and breathe and run at the same time. I had to rely on being where I could talk to her with the silent languages of hand signals, position, and movement. At trials, we qualified most of the time. We always had fun. Then, we had an unfortunate accident.
One Christmas, we got a practice teeter that Katie and I could use in the basement during cold weather. The teeter was her least favorite piece of equipment, so we worked on enjoying it. Progress was slow and steady, but she still merely tolerated it. One day, I slipped and fell against the teeter as Katie was at the pivot point. It collapsed on top of me. She fortunately rolled off the other side onto a rug. I screamed “NO” as I fell. She thought I was yelling at her. The perfect storm of training disasters had struck!
Fortunately, agility has some events that do not include the teeter, so we kept training and attending trials. We also embarked on a search for someone to help us get back on the teeter. Class and trainer number one advised me to buy really smelly treats and to place them along the teeter. I held her collar and lured her up one side and down the other while the trainer ensured that it did not move too quickly. Katie dearly loves treats, so she followed the trail. She did not enjoy this experience and did not learn anything. Class and trainer number two, our friend Gail Hubbard, offered a different solution. We isolated the scary parts of the teeter experience and created baby steps to address each one, one at a time. We played games by sending her up the teeter without allowing it to move and giving her lots of tiny treats one at a time when she got to the end. Then, we allowed it to move about an inch and did the same thing. Then, we ended the session at the beginning, just to ensure success. More inches followed until she was riding it down without trying to jump off. Many weeks later, the teeter dropped on its own about halfway down, landing on a blanket so there was no noise. Then, we introduced the noise. During this process, various members of the class would cheer her on to greater glory. Almost a year later, she jumped those jumps in practice and ran the teeter all by herself. The best part was seeing her actually enjoy the experience.
Agility is a challenge, a bonding experience and a thrilling game you can play with your dog. Our journey included a backyard class run by some friends who competed in agility. We moved to specialized classes at an agility training school and lots of practice in our backyard and basement. It’s amazing how much you can learn with three or four jumps and a tunnel. If you decide to take a journey of your own with your best friend, find a good trainer who can get you started safely, with a good foundation on basic skills. Whether you continue by yourself in your backyard, with friends in class, or at trials, you’ll never lose if you don’t give up. Each training session and each run is a new experience and a chance to learn.
This article originally appeared in the Bagpiper Magazine and is reprinted with permission of the author. Thanks Carol.