Saturday, March 10, 2012

Three Dogs, Nine Hard Lessons

NOTE: This post is a participating entry in the Dog Agility Blog Event, "If I Knew Then What I Know Now." Thanks to Agility Nerd, Steve Schwarz for organizing this event! 

Old Shaun and the hardest of lessons.

Profile of Shaun: U-CD UAGII White Pines Little Shaunee CD RE OA OAJ RL1-AOM. First Toy Fox AKC Rally Novice (RN) and Rally Excellent (RE) titles.

Shaun was an agility dog by default. He was a rescue from the county pound who had already been declared vicious and was slated to be gassed. Thanks to a kind shelter worker, who hid him under her desk, we managed to get him in time. 

At the time of his adoption, Shaun was nearly starved and was believed to have survived being pit bait. We were looking for something to save to somehow soften the reality that we couldn't save my dear old Chihuahua/Pug/Manchester mix, JoJo, who was dying of a brain tumor. 

Shaun's problems were more than I could deal with alone, so I ventured into dog training. Looking for ways to boost his confidence, we eventually got into agility training.

Shaun's hard lessons:

  • Some very difficult problems can never be completely solved. Do your best. Find joy in progress. Love your dog.
  • Dog shows aren't for every dog. Shaun was stressed by showing to the point that he developed serious health problems. He retired and has lived a mostly healthy life to his current age of almost 15 years old.
  • There is no substitute for experience. The mistakes I made with Shaun still pain me. I was well intentioned, but could not help the things I could not know. Agility training has improved immensely in the decade since Shaun competed and a person can't help but appreciate what a gift these advances must be to today's first time dogs and handlers. To those of you out there who are just starting out: Find the best mentors you can. And LISTEN.

Determined little Taylor, just hours from becoming AKC 2011 4-Inch Preferred National Agility Champion (PNAC)

Profile of Taylor: AKC 2011 PNAC PACH2 U-CD (HIT) Wingssong Sweet Baby James CD RE AX AXJ MXP5 MJP7 PAX2 OFP, 2nd Place Finalist, 2010 AKC Preferred National Agility Championship 

Taylor is small but mighty with the heart of a lion and the mind of a brain surgeon. He also struggles with a very fragile body. Despite patella surgery, continuous tooth issues, early takeoff syndrome (ETS) and an eventual diagnosis of Progressive Retinal Atrophy (PRA), he never stopped, never gave up.  

From the beginning I knew I would have to be very careful in how I managed him and that his career span probably would short. He repaid me by becoming the best agility dog I probably ever will have. Not in the tradition sense, but in what he gave me in heart, focus and a fierce dedication to accuracy. 

He brought me to places I never would have expected and that I probably would never have been otherwise. While his issues no doubt limited him in what he might have been able to do, I consider him my greatest gift of all.

Taylor's hard lessons:
  • Never underestimate the importance of optimum health and structure. Taylor far exceeded what he should have been able to do with what he was given. We were lucky. Though he is now mostly retired, he still struggles daily with pain and progressive blindness. Bottom line, the blessing of good health can never be overvalued.
  • A rocky mile up a mountain peak may be worth more than a hundred on smooth road. Sometimes, the brightest burning candles burn quickest. Recognize a gift you're given, even though it might not be exactly the one you wished for. 
  • A "slow" dog run well can beat a faster one. Taylor had good ground speed for his tiny  size, but stutter stepping probably cost him a second per jump. I taught him to take the inside of the bar and his quick mind quickly discovered how to find the most efficient paths. In places many teams found demotivating, little Taylor found his advantage.

Samurai's Lesson: How to tame a warrior 
without defeating his spirit.

Profile of Samurai: Wingssong The Seventh Samurai NA NAJ TBAD TG1 NAC

My first glimpse of Samurai was of a hyperkinetic flicker of pumpkin orange flame striking up like Bic lighter amongst a bevy of "normal" Papillons. The sight of him fired up a dread in me that lasted for years. At six months old he had no natural focus, no socialization and no sign of stopping for anything good.

We took him home anyway. The combo of reasons included a bet taken on a structure that screamed "speed" and a somewhat foolishly considered (at the time) trial month to see we could strike some kind of a deal, him and me.

What followed was a good two years that started in a zone that spanned from insanity to madness and ended in a place that smells tentatively, sweetly of hope. Intensity, as it turns out, burns two ways: Outward to the world, and inward toward the heart. Slowly, we are learning to temper the first as we increasingly discover the charms of Sam's loving and graceful spirit.

Sam's hard lessons:
  • Never underestimate the amount of work it will take to deal with a reactive nature. If you choose to take on such a dog, know that it will take a daily commitment and an unflinching steadiness in the face of the unexpected.
  • The more reactive the dog, the greater the value of positive training. The old ways would have us break the spirit to save the dog. Better ways help us get in touch with the angel that resides within. Reach in and pull up until he IS that dog for all the world to see. 
  • Never give up. Kindness is a powerful force for creating transformation. By this I don't mean "going easy" on the dog. In fact, doing it right is the toughest job you'll ever have. It means building a bridge to a dog that does not always want to cooperate. No matter what he says or does you need to keep steadily on. Breakthroughs will come if you make a plan and stay the course. 
Thanks to my good dogs Shaunie, Taylor and Samurai. You have always been, and always will be, my best teachers.


WonderPupsMom said...

Oh how I wish I could call and talk to you on the phone! Imagine knowing nothing about Agility and then starting with a 'Samurai' dog... that would be me! Thanks for your advice and most of all your encouragement. So many people have told me that maybe I should give up agility if Gilda won't trial but I just can't give up on her and trialing isn't my goal... thank you thank you thank you! I'll be following your blog for sure...

ViewFr4Inch said...

Hi Dee,

Yes, reactive dogs definitely give us a wonderful opportunity to learn! When I first started training Samurai, I knew there was a chance I might end up only running him in empty rooms. That's the truth!

I've tried to set attainable goals for him from the beginning, and by that I don't mean titles! For one thing I decided I would try to train a skill set as far as I could on my own.

Basically, so he could learn as much as he could about agility in a super low stress environment. The other part of the plan was to find a class environment where he could practice skills he already knew in an environment with more distraction.

The third leg, which really is the first leg, was to sign him up for a reactive dogs training class. This really gave structure to some of the Control Unleashed work we had been doing all along. I really feel fortunate that we had a reactive dogs class to go to since we were able to set up some specific situation that Samurai found difficult, such as areas around weave poles.

Also since he is dog reactive, we were able to work on our conditioning exercises around other dogs who were on the same page.

Fourth, after an initial and highly unsuccessful debut in AKC, I've switched him back after some time in reactive dog training emphasis to little outings in Teacup, then CPE and now as he is getting better, NADAC.

All of these have lower key, lower stress, slower pace, more supportive than AKC or USDAA. I started with just one run a day, and would add another only if he was doing well (a benefit of day of registration). He's gradually increasing his confidence and control to the point where I'm hoping to test him out again in AKC, possibly this summer.

BTW, Samurai is my third agility dog, not my first. Shaun was my first one. Poor Shaun!

I'm on the debad list, so feel free to contact me anytime!

Basically, I would say, don't go by "other people's" time frames with Gilda. Keep working on your reactive dog plan daily, especially now since the weather is getting nicer.

Set "baby step" goals for her training. Celebrate her every success as if she had just won the Nationals. Be ready to back up one or even several steps if she is stressed or reverts to old behaviors. Most of all, be happy with her, find joy in your relationship. Be confident that she is indeed the very best dog in the world.

She's know that and once she is sure you will love her no matter what, she'll break her heart trying to be "that dog" for you. Cross my heart.

Hang in there. You've got some exciting breakthroughs coming. Just wait!

Kelly Ely said...

So very insighful and eloquent! Each story was also inspiring! Taylor's story made me want to cry and Sam's my head shake. Surf is not reactive but shy and cautious. Your post reminded me to have patience, a plan, and to stay our course....Thank you for sharing. Kelly & Surf of

Elf said...

What a journey! You obviously love a challenge. ;-) I like your point about slower dogs being able to beat faster dogs. There are plenty of dogs I see on course, even in our very competitive area, who look not-so-special, not-so-fast, but yet who still qualify in Steeplechase or earn Super-Qs in Snooker because they and their handlers are a smooth working team who never put a foot wrong or waste any yardage. As you note, slow tight turns can easily beat fast really wide turns.

ViewFr4Inch said...

Thank you for your comments. Due to the focus of this event, I chose the hardest parts my experience with my dogs for this article. I'd like to reinforce that they are all three angels to me. They love me in spite of my own many imperfections and are the light of my life.

minnow said...

Glad I checked back in here, lots to read! Good for you for seeing it as an opportunity to learn.

ViewFr4Inch said...

Hi Minnow! Thanks for stopping by! Miss seeing you and the Aussies. Hope our paths meet again soon. In the meantime, enjoy those fluffy, gorgeous dogs of yours!