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Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Agility Trials' trials

My dog and I do agility. I'm very proud of that fact and of Muggle's accomplishments because he's a rescue dog. Muggle came to us 1 1/2 years ago when he was 18 months old - an adult. He wasn't housebroken, had no training, no vocabulary, and had some fear of men and boys. We don't know anything of Muggle's past, but we've pieced together enough based on his behavior to conclude that someone kept him in the garage (he wouldn't cross the threshhold into the house unless I led him in on the leash). He may not have been abused, but he wasn't loved (still doesn't want to be picked up or held), and no one talked to him (thus, no vocabulary).

Those of you with dogs understand the importance of vocabulary. Like with children, the more you talk to them the greater their linguistic skills. Our previous dog, Spike, was also a rescue, but we found him when he was about 12 weeks old. He grew up being spoken to. By the time he was a year old, he could differentiate and select toys based on a verbal direction. Frisbee, ball, bear, tuggie - he knew each toy by name. He could even go to another room and select the one we asked for from a box full of toys. Muggle can't do that. He has just started to recognize the word "toy." He isn't a dumb dog, he just didn't learn his words when he was a puppy. But, he learns quickly. He was housebroken after two accidents. He was the star pupil in beginner and advanced obedience classes. He competed in his first agility competition a mere 14 months after we got him. And he qualified in Performance I Gamblers in his very first trial.

We just finished our third agility trial. The second one was a bit of a bust. Agility is a fine balance between speed and control. In our first trial, we did pretty good on control. In our second trial, we were fast, but out of control. In this, our third trial, we focused on control and qualified in Starters Gamblers and Starters Jumpers. 

People are very impressed when you tell them your dog does agility. "How do you teach them to do all those things?" That's actually the easy part. It's all about the treats. Dogs will walk over teeter-totters, A-frames, dog walks (like a balance beam), and jump through hoops-literally-for good treats. The hard parts of agility are 1) getting the handler to do the right thing so the dog can do the right thing, and 2) sitting through the trials.

I know why they call them agility TRIALS. It's like going to a big swim meet. Two or three days of sitting around waiting for your turn. When it finally comes, it's over in about a minute. Hours and hours of waiting for total of maybe 10 minutes of performance. It's exhausting. Especially on the poor dogs who know what that field means. It's time to play! And instead, they get stuffed into crates where they see other dogs getting to play. By the time it's their turn, they're either so ramped up that they get the "zoomies" and go crazy on the field, or they're over it and don't care anymore. Or, if you're lucky, they're at just the exact right balance of energy, enthusiasm, and desire to please that they will do whatever you ask of them, fast but in control. Last weekend, we were almost at that magical point-a good mix of both, but leaning slightly more toward the control side.

We'll work on speed. And continue working on control. And my handling skills. And the chute. We'll keep working on weave poles, contacts, distinctions, and vocabulary (Muggle might not know what a frisbee is, but he knows "go tunnel"). I have no aspirations of national titles and championships, just of fun. People always comment that Muggle looks like he's having fun when he runs. I think he's having fun, too, so we'll keep at it, despite the trials' trials.

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