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private agility lesson with a handler who has been on the AKC world team. I
thought Lilly looked great at 39 pounds, so I must have made a face because the
next thing she said, dropping her sunglasses just enough to make eye contact,
“This is agility, not conformation.”
And, she was right. Lilly looks phenomenal at 34-35 pounds.
Yes, compared to your typical pet dog, she looks skinny. Stand her next to a
bunch of agility dogs, however, and she looks just right.
experts call “normalization,” where the average, overweight body looks like the
norm, even though it’s not.
It’s like the time I wrote about the marriage of two
professional Ironman triathletes for The New York Times. I was one of very few
non-triathletes at the wedding, and I felt like a moose. Seriously, these
people have body fat percentages in the single digits.
suddenly regular dogs look huge. And, honestly, many of them are.
Lilly that she’s a performance dog. I make sure he knows that’s why I keep her
so lean. He always smiles and says Lilly looks perfect. I guess he too sees too
many fat pets, too much suffering from the long-term effects of excess weight.
Hottie, and Bosco. The dogs also hunt, so they don’t look anything like the pet
Labs living in so many homes. You know the ones. They look like big brown,
black, or yellow coffee tables. A little thick and wide.
dangers for agility dogs to carry too much weight through all those jumps, over
all those years.
remember she might be deeply loved, just not with too much food.
People who do not know better talk about agility as a sport only for dogs, like the dogs run and work alone, like they magically do all these advanced behaviors without any input. Even friends and family seem amused (at best) at our continual pursuit of canine learning. At our peak, we took three classes a week (one obedience, one rally, one agility). I call them all “puppy class” as a recognizable phrase for Lilly, and maybe that’s where I go wrong.
I’d venture to guess that 99% of dogs that do attend some sort of class at some point stop going after puppyhood. I’m pretty sure most dog owners consider basic obedience the end all and be all of training.
The flip side of that are pals whose dogs have played on agility equipment once or twice, then they talk about how good their dogs are at “agility.” Uhm, yeah. Sorry. Not the same thing.
Pardon the rant.
Before Lilly, I too thought just a little training early on would suffice, but now I know better. Thanks to her, I see it as a nearly lifelong pursuit of mental stimulation, exercise and socialization. Without it, I’m sure she’d be completely mental.
As Helen Phillips, an experienced handler here in CO, puts it in her email signature, “No dog comes out of the package bored; he only gets that way when his handler takes some of the fun out of life!”
Currently, Lilly and I train at least a little each day at home. We make at least one or two public outings per week so that she can practice being brave in new situations. And, we take one drop-in advanced class on either Wednesday or Sunday. (I hope to add agility classes back in soon.)
Public pressure made me feel a little odd, a little obsessed until I read the following in Patricia McConnell’s “For the Love of a Dog: Understanding Emotion in You and Your Best Friend”:
“… if your dog’s emotions are causing behavioral problems, don’t hesitate to seek professional advice. Even the best tennis player in the world has a coach, and dog training is a sport as much as anything else.” (page xv)
“The biggest difference between dog lovers and professional dog trainers is that the pros know exactly what their bodies are doing when they’re working with a dog, so they don’t confuse their dogs with random and inconsistent movements. That’s why I think of dog training as a science, a sport, and an art – and it’s the sport part that everyone can learn if they are willing to practice a little bit.” (page 97)
months, months to (goodness help me) more than a year, people began asking me
why I don’t just let Lilly stay home and get another agility dog to train and
run competitively. It’s an interesting idea, which begs the question … Which
came first, the dog or the sport?
For me, the answer is clearly the dog. Lilly is my puppy
girl, my best friend, my near constant companion. We do agility because she
needs it. And, despite everything, I know she loves it, even if she never
We first bonded over early medical drama and then training
and then training problems. Replacing her with another dog would feel like infidelity.
And, I’m nothing if not loyal to the ones I love.
I feel bad enough for Ginko, our big lab-greyhound, when he
makes sad faces every time Lilly and I head outside without him to train,
attend classes, or run errands. But, the truth is that he’s perfectly content
to just hang out, chew on the same ball … all … day … long. (I’m not kidding.)
Sure, he likes to go places in the car. He likes walks, and he gets to do those
things, but technically he’s daddy’s boy. Lilly is mommy’s girl.
I’ve tried teaching him a few agility things, but he shows
zero interest. None.
Want to go, go, go? Lilly’s your gal.
But, if you want to take a nap, then Ginko is your man. (In
fact, we might be headed for a little snoozle soon.)
While I wait and work for a resolution to Lilly’s fears, I
might start asking pals to practice handling their dogs for fun, but that’s
I cannot imagine simply moving on to another dog because I
find the sport so compelling.
As that saying goes – “My dog is not a tool I use to excel
in agility. Agility is a tool I use to excel in my dog.” (CJD)
I have no idea who CJD is, but I agree with the sentiment.
Maybe all new handlers think the same thing, but I honestly imagined Lilly could be quite an agility dog. Her early learning curve and performance astounded me. As time went on and difficulties mounted, reality forced me to adjust my expectations. The question lately … “How low can I go?”
Before Lilly, I spent 14+ years with a dalmatian, so a border collie came as a real revelation in my life. She learns things easily. She responds to my requests. She stares at me all day long and reacts to my every move. It’s a real ego boost after more than a decade being loved, but ignored, by the spotted princess.
What’s interesting is that early on I found myself way more frustrated with Lilly than I ever was with Penelope because my expectations for her were so much higher. As long as Penelope didn’t behave like a total beast, I was happy. With Lilly, I knew she could do better.
I’m not saying that I thought we would win big ribbons, go to nationals, or entertain any delusions about getting on the world team. I simply thought she’d be good enough to compete locally on a regular basis and be pretty good. In other words, I figured we would not make fools of ourselves.
So, my expectations began there.
Later, I told myself it was OK that we do not compete, but at least we could train every week and run courses at class and just have fun.
Then, I told myself that it was OK we could no longer take classes since Lilly refused to work in public. I worked hard to believe that we’d be perfectly happy running agility at home.
After all, Lilly doesn’t mind the cattle and horses from the nearby ranch watching her as they graze by. (Seriously, we’ve trained with 50 head of cattle mere feet away.) She even smiles when neighbors watch from their balconies up the mountain and clap for her.
It’s something. And, it may be all we have.
I tell myself that’s OK, but deep down I still believe she’s capable of more. Only time will tell. After all, she’s only 3.
The first indications of trouble slid by me. I saw them, but I did not worry. Some I actually found endearing. Rather than stay by my side, she’d run to my coat like she was ready to leave, for example. It wasn’t until later that I realized my little sweetie, who is perfectly smart enough for agility, perfectly athletic enough for agility, might not be emotionally strong enough for the sport that captured my imagination.
It’s certainly possible it’s just not her thing, but the stark contrast between her performance when we’re alone (fantastic) and her performance when we’re not (non-existent), tells me it’s not that she doesn’t like agility. Currently, she just doesn’t like doing it in front of other people (and dogs). I still hope that’s a temporary condition.
Because I did not know better, however, I made mistakes that may have ruined Lilly’s chance at a competitive agility career.
I picked the wrong trainer for us, and I knew it the first day, when I went home in tears with terrible nylon rope burns on both hands. (Dogs were not allowed to be on leash, and the tiny ropes we could use cut like a hot knife any time the dogs moved quickly.)
But, I didn’t know my options, so I stayed put for several months. In that time, she chastised me for praising Lilly too much and later for not making training enough fun. She told me one week that Lilly should focus only on me, and later she got frustrated when Lilly would not work for her. She rarely said anything nice about Lilly, even though my girl was clearly a quick study. And, it took her three months to say one, small positive thing about my handling. Three months without a single word of encouragement.
I was unhappy. Lilly wasn’t running well, so we quit. Later, the animal communicator confirmed what I already knew. Lilly did not like this trainer and did not trust her – not the start we needed.
I accidentally corrected Lilly too much, which wicked away her motivation. I was the paper towel in the happy Kool-Aid stains in Lilly’s life. Every “Nope,” every sigh, every time I dropped my shoulders, telegraphed my disappointment as much (and with the same force as a harsh correction). I might as well have screamed at her.
Thankfully, our next trainer showed me how to stop this bad habit.
I did not understand the signs of her distress. First, she ran slower that usual. Next, she’d run, but then she’d slink off or go into tunnels and not come out. Eventually, she refused to run without Academy Award winning coaxing in my part. And, still, I thought it just a motivation problem.
By the time I finally got the hint (duh, mommy), Lilly refused to get out of the car or cowered the entire class.
As I’ve mentioned before, one particular encounter with another dog and the teeter-totter (before I’d introduced the teeter) may have set this whole agility fear thing into motion. Until that, she was doing pretty well. I suspect there are other triggers, but I’m not sure what they are.
Think of it as doggie post-traumatic stress. The first incident primes the fear pump. Any following scares increase those pathways, and any tiny thing after that triggers a full-blown response. So, seemingly insignificant things can cause a huge emotional cascade.
It makes me sick to think of what could have been, what should have been … if I’d only known better.