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May 12, 2017

Remember me saying that Clover and I had plans to take a big step in her dog agility training? Yeah. Never mind. We’re not ready, at all. True story. Our first-ever agility seminar turned into abject failure, leaving me floundering and trying to make the best of a bad situation. 

Without getting into all the sad details, which only make me emotional all over again, here are a few insights into the experience and our response to it.

Clover required constant management.

Clover required constant management, after being not keen at all (and definitely NOT quiet) being crated in the car or in the crating barn (which was nearby but separate from the training barn). Poor sweetheart was not coping well at all, and her non-stop noise put me completely over my own stress threshold.

I worked so hard on my own mental prep for the event, using strategies I learned in an online class I’m taking. I felt like I was doing SO well, then noise!

So, I ended up moving Clover’s crate to just outside the big training barn doors so that I could sit with her. From there, I watched and listened to the instructor the best that I could, which wasn’t easy.

Clover immediately improved, with me praising her and giving her bits of food to help her stay chill.  I took a few notes, but not as many as I would have liked because Clover needed a good percentage of my attention.

Clover literally could not do a single jump.

Clover literally could not do a single jump during either of our 2 times on course. She seemed overwhelmed (more distracted than fearful) when it was our turn to try the new handling moves we were there to learn. We’ve had some trouble with this in our regular class as well, but most times we’re able to get Clover to focus enough to try the sequences.

I specifically chose ONLY this part of the 3-day seminar for Clover because the drills only included a couple of jumps and a tunnel — NOT full sequences or anything too intimidating. Alas, it was still too much for Clover to try to work in a new place, with new people and new dogs.

So, I ended up running the drills ALONE. Essentially I used our “working spot” in the seminar to practice the body mechanics of these new handling moves.

I found the whole experience stressful, embarrassing, and wickedly discouraging.

Worst of all, despite my best intentions and planning, Clover responded like I’d thrown her into the deep end of the pool. That’s heartbreaking.

Cue the sobbing (once I got home). Lots of sobbing.

The Way Forward

As I’ve learned to do from my online mental prep class, I looked to my strengths for help. Using strategies I’ve used in the 18 years of running my own business, I:

  • Gave myself a full day to wallow
  • Took a couple more days to sort through my feelings for their true meaning (alone and with the help of smart friends)
  • Got straight to work on a new plan

With dogs, behaviors are simply information. The same is true for human emotions. It’s just information. It sucks. It hurts. But, it’s just information.

On the plus side of things, the experience gave me fresh clarity about mistakes I’ve made in the last year with Clover’s agility training. It’s a real bummer to feel like I’ve squandered a year’s worth of time and effort, but I’m working on a new plan to go WAY, WAY, WAY back and rebuild Clover’s agility training.

I’ll try to write more about the details and maybe even chronicle it here, but basically, I need to create some patterns and rituals, so to speak, that feel predictable and safe and motivating to Clover. This includes:

  • What happens when Clover moves from her crate to the agility start-line
  • How soon and how much Clover is rewarded
  • What rewards really matter to her (which may not be the things people tell you that an agility dog should love)
  • What things I need to stop doing because they’ve become predictors of stress to her

Our Own Way

To protect my own heart and mind, I need to move my expectations back into a safe place — where smaller goals pull us forward, where the intent is clearer, and where joy can once again live in our agility world (for both of us). 

I joked online recently that I have the opening lines from “The $6 Million Dollar Man” TV show stuck in my head (with gender pronouns replaced):

We can rebuild her.
We have the technology.
We can make her better than she was.
Better, stronger, faster.

The words aren’t quite right, but I think it’s fun to have a little mantra.

Ultimately, the goal is to find a way to help Clover run agility with joy and confidence (again).

clover happy face doing agility

And, if we can’t find that place or that balance in our efforts, then we may need to find a new hobby. But, that’s a decision for another day.

About the Author Roxanne Hawn

Trained as a traditional journalist and based in the Rocky Mountains of Colorado, USA, I'm a full-time freelance writer for magazines, websites, and private clients. My areas of specialty include everything in the lifestyles arena, including health and home, personal finance and other consumer interests, relationships and trends, people and business profiles ... and, of course, all things pet related.

I don't just love dogs. I need them in my life. Seriously.

  1. Thanks for sharing Roxanne, I have a Portuguese Water Puppy only 6 months old, and only doing basic training with me at the moment, but I’m so interested in the agility training side of training. I can’t wait for her to be a little older and more interested in learning all this new tricks. There are some good points to look out for, and great tips from your followers on slowly introducing Daisy into this field of training. I can’t wait. I will follow Clovers progress to see how she is getting on, Thank You and good luck!!

    1. That’s great to hear, Holly. Congrats on your new puppy, Daisy. There is SO much foundational work that you can do LONG before you start agility training. Clover and I are finishing up a 6-week online class on developing “engagement,” which is basically a way to get your dog to focus on you and perceive playing with you (even with out food and toys) as so fun that you can use yourself as a reward. I really wish we’d done this work early in our agility training. Good luck!

  2. I would highly recommend you begin crate training Clover to situations where you are out of site. I would also recommend you get her out to matches, Petsmart, Petco, crowds so she will feel comfortable in large inhabited areas and people. Dog shows, agility & obedience trials are overwhelming for a first time exhibitor, even more so for the dog. It takes time, patience and encouragement from you while they are at these events. Socialization, socialization, socialization is the key. Did the instructor at the event give you any helpful suggestions. I’m not sure where you are located, but maybe a beginner Obedience class will build her confidence and yours to help work in agility. I’m a conformation exhibitor, but I know from experience, dogs don’t accept all the excitement from a trial, show or even crowds easily. Hope this is beneficial. Seek advice from other agility people, find a good agility instructor, take a few private lessons, whatever it takes to help Clover feel comfortable again.

    1. I’ll work on that, Lyn. Thanks. We started crate training Clover on the very first day we adopted her. And, other than those early puppy days with crying, she has only had trouble in her crate (in public) twice now. We have taken her many places in public, but I haven’t taken her into an agility trial setting in quite a while. We did it a few times when she was young, but mostly so that my friends could meet her. We have done training classes with her pretty much weekly since we adopted her, and we’ve been doing weekly agility classes for nearly 2 years now. I’ll have to see about taking her to local events just to experience all the hubbub. As you know, typically the rules say you can’t have dogs who are not entered in the even (even though lots of people break that rule). We have a plan to get Clover working well at our regular agility class before I try branching out again. Thanks for your ideas and support.

  3. Have you been to events to watch only? You can bring Clover and keep her on leash while you walk around. She may become better acclimated to the agility atmosphere. She can see and smell the other dogs and maybe realize that it’s safe. At most trials you won’t have to be separate from her either. Just a thought. Good luck.

    1. Thanks for the suggestion, Mary. Yes. I did take Clover to a few indoor agility trials when she was young-ish — mostly so that friends could meet her, but also just to see how she did in that environment. I want to get her running happily again before I show her a trial environment again, but we might also try some “fun matches” that are MUCH more low-key, but even that it a ways down the road in our new plan. The place that hosted the seminar tries to hold monthly fun matches, so we’d be able to go back there and give it a shot.

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