Monthly Archives: March 2015

“Win or go down in flames”–becoming competitive

Every so often I reflect on everything Rush has taught me about agility. First off, he made me realize that I needed to be more fit. Forty-some pounds later, I’m only about twenty pounds from goal weight. I’ve gone from barely being able to run for a minute (alternating with walking four minutes) to being able to run four or five miles at a whack. I’ve had to work hard to improve my handling, learning when and how to do blind crosses, optimizing my front crosses, and smoothing out my rear crosses. I’ve had to learn how to cue collection and extension. I’ve had to learn how to cue acceleration and deceleration. I had to teach Rush independent weaves–so I could get further down the course while he’s weaving–and a great startline stay. I’ve had to learn to be 100% consistent in my contact criteria so that Rush is 100% consistent in his contact performances. I’ve had to train an end-of-run send-to-leash because he is so wound up at the end of the run that otherwise he lunges at me. I needed none of these things to run Dancer. (The contacts would have been nice, but I take full responsibility for having done such a poor job training her.)

And Saturday I overheard someone saying (as I left the ring with Rush) “I wouldn’t want a dog that fast at that age.” I have no idea if she was talking about Rush and me, but I definitely hope so! (For the record, I never expected Rush to be as fast as he is–but I also have refused to try to slow him down.)

Shortly after hearing that remark–and giggling about it–I got into a conversation with two women about trying to win versus just running for fun, and I realized that, with Rush, just running for fun is not a choice I can make any more. I have to give it everything I can every single time I run Rush. I have to plan for success and then give it all I’ve got. And generally, if I can manage to give Rush the kind of direction he requires–timely and clear cues–we win or place in the class. In short, I am now trying to win every time instead of “running for fun.”

It’s been a long time since I thought of myself as a competitive athlete. In high school and college I was a member of two swim teams that did pretty well and my contributions were valued, although I was not a leader; in my twenties, I was a member of the Greater Boston Track Club at a time when its women did pretty well in competition, and occasionally was the fifth finisher who brought us a team placement. I remember with some glee the track competition where I put on a finishing kick that took me into third place in the mile from fourth, starting from about fifty yards behind as we came down the finishing stretch. (I also remember throwing up shortly afterwards and my disappointment that my time was 6:02; I’d been hoping to break six minutes for the mile.)

My thirties, forties, and all but the last few months of my fifties have not been spent in a haze of glory. But here I am, running a fast dog and a poodle at that. Poodles are not generally considered an optimal breed for agility; I derive a certain amount of pleasure from Rush’s success just because he is a poodle.

Being completely honest here: I’m really enjoying this ride. I’m thrilled that Rush is doing so well, and that he’s inspired me to change.

Official results CRAC AKC

Friday Standard Masters SCT 69 sec, 186 yards, 42.3 sec Q, 1st
Friday Time to Beat Q, 1st, 33.37 sec
Sunday Masters FAST 66 points, Q, 2nd, 36.01 sec
Sunday Excellent JWW SCT 47 sec, 168 yards, 26.91 sec, Q, 1st, fastest time of all 24″, finished AXJ title

Joe Camp on the other side of the camera

Joe Camp takes a lot of photographs of agility dogs. He’s an amazing photographer and I’ve been at more than one trial where his photos were the high point of the trial for me. (“Even if I didn’t get a Q, look at these amazing photos!”)

Saturday Joe was running Riggs for Lisa in FullHouse and I asked him if he wanted to run Rush, too. After he ran Riggs at the beginning of the 20″ dogs, he took Rush for about five minutes and played with him in the field. At the beginning of the 24″ class, he walked into the ring with Rush and I followed, so that I could run his leash.

This was the result. Note that Rush and Joe had never run together before. Good handling on Joe’s part, and good dog on Rush’s part. (If you’re wondering where I was while Rush was running, I’m wearing a turquoise sweater, and you can see me at two points during the run.) (And yes, that was a Q in FullHouse.)

This photo is my current favorite Joe Camp photo–but it is really hard to choose!

Photo by Joe Camp

Photo by Joe Camp

Oh my, Rush does have a sense of humor after all

I’ve said for years that Rush has no sense of humor, especially when it comes to agility. Now, I first got poodles because I love the poodle sense of humor, and Rush’s seriousness honestly gets on my nerves sometimes. I mean, really, he is so very serious about agility and he gets so annoyed with me when I’m not the handler he wants me to be.

But this weekend? Well, at the Longview CPE trial (where I was trial chair), we had a late-Saturday jackpot run where the send was jump-teeter-tunnel-table. First, he came toward me after the teeter and I had to send him back out to get the tunnel, which he took. Then he came toward me again and I had to send him back out to the table. He stopped and did his “I think you have two heads and I can’t understand a word you’re saying” look. Then he said “oh, got it!” and went to the table, backed up, put his back feet up, and did a perfect two-on-two-off contact.

I’m pretty sure he then bowed to the (laughing, applauding) crowd and smirked.

Dremeling the dogs’ toenails

For some reason, I’ve been thinking a lot about the poodlie’s toenails lately. Maybe because Rush is back to clicking his nails against the bedroom door to wake me up during the night… maybe because I let them grow a bit too long and now have to get them back short, a bit at a time, so I’m doing a little bit every two or three days.

Years and years ago (March of 2010, in fact), I spent time training Elly and Dancer to allow me to Dremel their toenails. I remember holding a paw in one hand, the Dremel in the other, with a clicker under my foot so I could click. It was around then, in fact, that I started training “yes!” as a clicker substitute. It made it a lot easier. I started by rewarding them just for jumping on the grooming table with the Dremel in my hand; I moved on to lifting their feet and putting them down. I touched their nails with a silent Dremel. I picked up a foot and ran the Dremel and put the foot down. In short, I looked at every single part of Dremeling a dog’s nails and rewarded every step ten times before moving on. I fed them their meals with the Dremel running on the other side of the room, gradually bringing it closer. I did everything I could think of to make the Dremel, its noise, and the grooming table into very good things.

This morning I got treats and the Dremel and put the grooming table up… and Rush came running and jumped right on. With his new (post-neuter) interest in communicating his annoyance with me–rather than just snarking at me immediately–he was very clear about where the ticklish (or otherwise annoying-to-him) bits were. It took two treats per paw instead of the usual single treat per paw–but he was polite about it. (He was quite insistent, though, that the third toenail on his back left foot was especially challenging today, giving a slight growl-and-glare about it, twice. I stopped and checked for injury, quick location, pad tears… didn’t find anything; he let me finish the nail.)

The instant I told him “all done,” though, he jumped off the table and went right into his crate. I think he would have slammed the door behind himself if he could have. It was a masterpiece of communication: “that was tough!” But he did behave and he did lift his paws for me, and he did get eight liver cookies for his trouble.

I am consequently feeling quite smug. I spent months training all those pieces of behavior–and five years later I’m still reaping the benefits of that slow and painstaking training.

How I came to love dog agility

When my kids were young, we added a dog to the household, to go with the four cats we had at that point. She was a very-sweet-to-people mix that most probably included lab and golden; she was black and looked like a black golden retriever. Beautiful dog. Four years old. I’d had her six weeks when I discovered that she was incredibly fear-aggressive toward other dogs; after that, all my dreams of running with the dog at the off-leash park near our house vanished. I walked Lily at night, after everyone else in the neighborhood had gone to bed. Thankfully, she was amazing with children. Nonetheless, I breathed a sigh of relief when she died at age twelve, even as I mourned her passing.

A year or so later, I found myself wanting another dog, and my research led me to decide that a well-socialized standard poodle puppy would be a good choice. Active, friendly, good with kids. I’d met a lot of poodle mixes and liked them all. I looked for, and found, a breeder who raised her puppies in the house, with her kids. Elly was sociable and had a great temperament. (I do wish I’d researched health issues in standard poodles more thoroughly. I learned a lot of things from Elly besides agility.)


Elly was a very smart dog with an absolutely amazing sense of humor. Five months old when she came to live with us, she put us on notice immediately that she wanted to run the house. She could levitate onto counters, crawl under fences, and snatch a bit of food right out of your hand if you happened to glance away. She ignored the cats (mostly), loved the attention of the neighborhood’s children (of which there were many) and was happy to meet and greet the many dogs that lived nearby. She made friends for me at the local dog park, introducing me to every poodle owner in the area.

Left alone in the house for a few minutes, Elly would dream up mischief. She opened doors and strung toilet paper across the house.  I was a novice poodle owner and had no understanding of how smart the breed is. I learned from Elly how useful a good crate/den can be in keeping a dog safe. (With Elly, it was crucial because she was allergic to so many things.)

It took me about a week before I signed us both up for puppy classes. I knew nothing about positive training–the one class I’d taken with Lily was of the jerk-and-thank school–but I lucked into a great clicker-based class taught by the Seattle Humane Society. Elly thought clicker training was the best thing that every happened to her. I had to learn to cook treats for her–her allergies (and IBD) made most commercial treats off-limits–but the rain of treats that occurs during clicker training was Elly’s idea of a great day. Soon she’d learned all the tricks and behaviors the puppy classes offered. She earned her CGC at ten months old. I was hooked on training; Elly made it so much fun.

The question then was: what to train next. One of the CGC instructors suggested I try agility. Jay was going on a long cross-country bike ride (Everett, WA to Williamsburg, VA, 28 days! of more than 160 miles per day) and I wanted something to do while he was gone. I found an agility instructor–Pritamo Kentala–who would do twice-a-week private lessons with us and we were off. It only took that month to get me hooked. Something new to teach Elly all the time! New stuff for me to learn! Elly was tired and not so mischievous; I loved the challenge of working with her.

Two weird poodle grooming tools

I have recently purchased two very small grooming tools that have proved to be incredibly useful. I was specifically looking for tools to solve problems. First, I wanted tiny round-tip scissors for trimming ear hair, hairs around private parts, between toenails, that kind of thing. I found a pair of “preemie nail scissors” at a sewing shop, where they were sold for trimming embroidery threads. Not exactly these ones but these are close. Yes, they aren’t cheap, but guess what? Sharp and well made matters when you’re trimming inside a poodle’s ears.

Next, I looked for a pair of round-tip tweezers that wouldn’t pinch skin. I was sure someone must have designed such a thing, and sure enough, I found these “skin friendly tweezers”. I was appalled by the price–who pays $20 for a pair of tweezers?!–but figured I would return them if they didn’t work as advertised. When they arrived, I got them out of the package and tweezed some hairs on a friend’s arm, trying to pinch his skin. Couldn’t pinch skin, and the arm hairs got pulled a few at a time. Just what I needed to get those hairs out of the poodle ears. I have not found hemostats work well for me–too much risk of pinching ear skin. I’ve done a few hairs at a time for a few weeks now, and the poodles’ ears are relatively free of hair and, best of all, they’re not worried when I pull out the tweezers.

Do older athletes–dogs or people–wear out?

In the last few weeks, I’ve encountered a huge amount of age discrimination in athletics. References to how dangerous it is for “older people” (seemingly defined as those over 40) to run too much because the knees “wear out”. References to how competitive athletics are “too strenuous” for the elderly (which was defined as “over 55,” much to my horror). Seemingly sensible articles on dog agility saying that dogs have a set number of a-frames or jumps or agility runs and will wear out and break as they get older.

For humans, at least, these ideas turn out to be nonsense. Running turns out to be protective of knees–because runners don’t get fat and have good circulation, as described in this article and in this article, too. If you like math, this article explains why the impact per unit distance actually decreases as you run faster and therefore running is actually easier on the knees than walking (or the same, at least).

My favorite article talks about high-intensity interval training (HIIT)–the idea that you should work really hard for a few minutes and then moderately for more minutes of recovery–and explains how interval training has huge benefits when compared with “CME” (continuous moderate exercise). HIIT reduces body fat, lowers cholesterol, reduces blood pressure, and improves sugar metabolism.

Why is that my favorite article? Well, HIIT sounds a lot like agility trialing to me. You walk the course (CME), then sprint the course (one interval), then walk to cool out the dog and yourself, and repeat multiple times all day. There’s only one catch to considering agility as HIIT–you’re supposed to do the intervals with not too much recovery. That’s easily fixed, though–do one fast sprint before you go in the ring to warm up, then do another after your run, and voila, you’ve done three intervals. That’s enough to make a difference.

All of that raises the question: what about the dog? Well, the only study I could find was this article from 1984 about sled dog training. Guess what? HIIT was good for Siberian huskies. But that’s it. I couldn’t find any other articles. There is a reference in this article to the study of the metabolic pathway used in HIIT as determined by research on dogs but not verified in humans. Nonetheless, I’m pretty sure HIIT is good for dogs too. The healthiest dogs I see are at agility trials. (I found an article that says that retired racing greyhounds have a longer-than-expected lifespan. Makes sense, if HIIT is good for dog health.)

Okay, so intervals are good for you and good for the dogs. Ignoring for the moment the question of jumps or a-frames, what’s the catch?

The catch is recovery. It turns out that HIIT requires adequate time for recovery and that recovery time increases with increasing age. While a young dog or a young woman might be able to do three HIIT sessions a week, an older woman or an older dog might only be able to do one or two sessions. But it turns out (if you read deep into those articles) that even one session a week helps. Even a single session increases insulin sensitivity.

Here’s one more really detailed article for you.

Stop reading and go train whatever it is…

It’s health and happiness day at the dog agility bloggers networks. Lots of articles here. I’m sure they’re all offering great advice.

Here’s mine. Stop reading and go train whatever it is. Want to have more stamina? Walk more, run some. Do it with your dog and it will help both of you get more fit. Plus, walking outside has proven health benefits. Just wear good shoes.

Want to be more flexible? Set a timer and do a few stretches after your walk–just two minutes worth.

Want to be faster? Do some sprint work.

Stronger? Hill work.

Lose weight? Join Weight Watchers if you think public shaming will help (it works for me) and you want a balanced diet. If you can do the easy stuff–no soda and no candy and nothing that comes tightly wrapped in plastic with an expiration date–start there. If you’ve already done that, well, think more exercise and smaller portions. Go to bed a little hungry. It’s not rocket science.

Just stop reading and decide to start. Now.

EDITED to add: I wrote an article about staying fit as you get older, for people and maybe for dogs: you can find it here.