Tell me if this has ever happened to anyone else…
So back several months ago, I apparently sent in entries to an agility trial. At the time, I (probably) thought, “Hey! This is MONTHS away. I’ll have plenty of time to train between now and then.” And then apparently, I didn’t think of it again. Or train.
Until the judging program arrived in my inbox. Oh boy… is that NEXT week?
Did you know that between Novice and Open agility, they add 6 more weave poles? That’s the sort of increase in criteria that one should really plan ahead for.
Where are my weave poles? Oh, they are leaning up against the fence where I put them when I dragged them out of the yard to mow. In October. Of last year. Doh!
So, I considered not going at all. As you probably know, I’m not at all a fan of “ring experience” when it comes in the form of asking the dog to do a bunch of behaviors she doesn’t really know yet, with all the pressure and distractions of a dog show. Then I thought I should go and at least work on her confidence in the environment, since this is something we’ve been prioritizing for the last couple months. So my plan became to go to the show, work through the ‘dog show’ rituals we’ve been training, and expect to just put her in the car and go home if she didn’t make it through all the steps.
We had several things working in our favor:
1. It was an outdoor trial where I could crate in the car and park in a quiet, out of the way location. So I had lots of opportunity to manipulate space and exposure, and give her plenty of real recovery time in between sessions.
2. It was a relatively small trial to begin with, and we are in Open, which is at the end of the day. That means by lunch time, there weren’t really all that many people or dogs left.
3. It was put on by our local club, so most of the workers and bystanders were familiar to her, and some were even her “friends”. (She’s an introvert dog, so she tends to have a few close friends.)
So I felt like this was a good next step in our training and preparation. The ritual we’ve been working on is intended to build her confidence by creating as much predictablity as possible over those elements which we can control. I can’t control other people or dogs, and indoor trials make space very hard to manage. But I can give her a predictable series of behaviors to offer in context, and reinforce those, while we work through a progression that also allows me to measure how she’s feeling at this time in this space.
Just in case, and because there is no time like the present, I did set up the weave poles and we did several sessions to refresh her (and my) memory. I knew we had no distance to speak of, but we were able to identify a set of scenarios where she was able to confidently navigate all 12 poles independently. And now I know what we need to work on to move forward.
Our plan for the trial:
- I park and set up the car (shade, fans, etc). Then I scout a quiet place to potty, and set her mat out in a strategic location where she can see the goings on, but be well under threshold.
- Then I cue her to get out of the crate, she reorients and I reinforce that several times. If that goes well (ears up, eyes bright), we do “let’s go” to the quiet potty location.
- From there, we “let’s go” to find her mat. She seeks the mat offers a down and is reinforced there several times.
- We hang out on her mat while she looks as much as she needs to. If at that point, she requests a break, we head back to the car. If not, we play a treat toss game.
- While playing the treat toss game, we take frequent breaks on the mat, and incrementally move the mat closer to the action (always looking for ears up, eyes bright before progressing). Any time something changes in the environment, we default to the Look at That game (Control Unleashed by Leslie McDevitt).
- If that is going well, we then take a structured walk around the space, using the 3 Steps game (gimme 3 steps), and return to the mat or car.
- The next step is to see if she’s able to offer any of her favorite behaviors, specifcally back up, spin, and wave. If yes, we go on to training! If no, then we take a break in the car and return to work on the mat and treat toss games.
Well, to my surprise, she FLEW through those steps and was *asking* to work after only our 2nd short trip around the grounds. So I took her over to the practice jump, and asked if she was able to offer to pop over the jump off cue, using the first step in our foundation jumping progression. She sais she was! So then we tried a few little jumping behaviors and games, wrapping, turning, changing sides. She was happy and confident and asking for more. Well, you can’t ask for better than that.
So, I put her back in the car and walked the course!
We repeated the steps of our routine, up to waiting ringside for our turn. She entered the ring confidently, stayed connected as I removed the leash, and sat briskly and with focus at the startline. She NAILED the weave poles and finished the course with good speed and focus and we qualified!
The judge commented that he’d never seen anyone enter an agility ring and *heel* up to the start line. Well, if you’ve got it, flaunt it!
Next up was JWW, and she was still happy to play with me. So we went for it. We nailed those weaves too! Unfortunately, I was so excited about the weaves, I competely forgot where we were on the course. Somethingsomething pinwheel, something serpentine? Was there supposed to be a tunnel at some point? Whatever, we ran over the last four jumps to her leash and celebrated.
We went back for day 2 and repeated the plan. Again, she worked through it quickly and stayed relaxed and playful. Yay! It’s working!
JWW was first and we KILLED IT! YAY! She was fast, confident, and happy to play with me after rather than needing to rush to the car (a big red flag for us in the past).
Our lack of training showed up in Standard, when presented with a very inviting A-frame (which is a strong, fluent behavior) or less exciting weave poles (obviously not so fluent), we got the off course A-frame. So we took a moment to reconnect, and finished the course with speed and confidence. YAY! So for a sort of surprise agility weekend, we came out with a qualifying leg each towards her OA and OAJ. Not bad!
Now, it would be a mistake to think that those Qs count as unmitigated success, or that she “knows” the weave poles. Those Qs were gifts from the universe. And while I never look a gift horse in the mouth, I’m going to write the universe a nice thank you note in the form of evaluating the entire experience, and then using that information to create a training plan. I’m also going to write the next agility trial ON MY CALENDAR. Perhaps with some kind of alert a month in advance. Sheesh.
Things that went well:
- Super pleased with how effective our pre-trial ritual worked. I planned ahead and actually stuck to the plan and made good choices. Clicks to me!
- I was very happy with her baseline confidence level in this environment. That tells me that the work we’ve been doing out and about is paying off. Which gives me hope for indoor trials!
- She took every jump that I cued (whether it was on the official course or not), and responded to my cues for direction changes fluently.
- I remembered 70% of the obstacles in the right order! (This is a notable improvement.)
- My car set up worked well to keep her cool and relaxed, giving us a nice home base to work from.
Things that we will be working on:
- Spatial awareness – mine. I have got to improve my ability to know where the hell I am on the course.
- Learning course patterns – me again. I have got to improve my ability to know where the hell I am going!
- Start line stays with action behind her. She never broke a start line all weekend, but twice when the leash runner was walking behind her, she turned her head to look and I saw her ears flick sideways. While her feet didn’t move, that doesn’t really count as a success for my stays. I need to work on her feeling comfortable with people moving behind her, picking up her stuff, etc. And then also add that to her stay picture. Two separate tasks there.
- Weave poles. Of course.
- I also need to work on my ring exit strategy. I realized once I got in there that my obedience/rally exit strategy doesn’t really work here. Among other things, the context cues for me are missing, so I forget to follow up on my plan. Ok, who am I kidding… I didn’t really have plan. So I’ll be thinking through that and rehearsing how we will end the course and what that will look like.
So all together a really good weekend. Now it’s time to work on that training plan!