Category Archives: trials

More deliberate practice

As Rush is getting older and more reliable, I find myself training him less and training myself much more. He turns seven in mid-May, and he’s absolutely in prime fitness, fast and confident. He loves agility, and delights in teaching people–not just me–how to handle.

My biggest problem in agility these days is not in planning how to run a course, but in execution of the plan. When too many handling moves happen too fast, I get confused and my handling falls apart. If Rush would just run more slowly, it’d be much easier… but of course he’s not interested in running slowly! I think of courses with “too many” moves as “pile on” courses. Things just pile on until I fall apart.

Having identified this problem, the next question was “how to address this handling issue?” It’s not an issue of learning how to do a rear cross or a Ketschker or a backside-to-blind-cross; it is an issue of planning and responding while I’m running. I have to be fully in the present and be executing the plan for the next few obstacles at the same time.

In keeping with the reality that deliberate practice is more successful than just running courses and seeing where things need work, Daisy and I have been creating what I think of as “nasty little sequences.” They’re short, they’re easy to set up, and they’re hard. This week, she set up this sequence. Now, this is not a sequence that you’re likely to encounter in competition (at least not in a local competition), but it absolutely requires precision handling–and precision handling is where I struggle.

Sequence by Daisy Peel

Sequence by Daisy Peel

It took me about twenty minutes to determine just how to get Rush to the weave entry without him taking that off course jump. Rush clearly thought it should be a 180 turn and then the weaves. I tried dog-on-left to 4-5-6. I tried “here, here, here” and a threadle arm with dog-on-left to 4-5-6. I tried a blind cross between 4 and 5, putting dog on right, and ended up so far behind that Rush came between the two jumps and took the off-course jump going toward the weaves. What worked for us, in the end, was a blind cross after 5, putting dog on right, and then sending him to the weaves. Of course, that’s an amazing weave entry, and I was so astonished when it worked that I cheered and he came right out of the weaves.

But how was this course a “pile-on” course? Well, things kept happening. I worried about the turn from 2 to 3 and spent too long making sure he went in the tunnel, so I was late signaling 4. I signaled 4 and then pulled him to the wrong side of 5. I got excited about making the blind cross successfully and forgot to tell Rush to weave. In short, I didn’t move on to the next thing as soon as I could.

When I finally got Rush into the weaves successfully, I was so thrilled, in fact, that I sent Rush to the wrong side of jump 7, forgetting entirely that it was supposed to be a backside. Then I forgot the threadle to 8 because I was so thrilled to get the backside of 7.

All of that is about one specific diabolical little Daisy sequence. But what is happening, as we do these diabolical little sequences every single time I work with Daisy, is that I’m getting better and better at not screwing up, even when things are “complicated”. Sunday, in fact, I went to a UKI trial and we had this run. We were the only dog to get through the course clean!


This year, as part of annual self-improvement day (New Year’s), I joined two different “Challenge” groups. One of them is Daisy Peel’s 2017 agility challenge group; the other is a running challenge group called the Hadfield 2017 Challenge. They have a few things in common; the one that stands out for me is that they are both mostly women, and both mostly women who are afraid that they’re not meeting some arbitrary external standard. “I’m not that fast,” they say. They write: “I’m not a very good handler” or “my dog deserves a better handler.” On the running challenge, they ask for advice about riding a bike in traffic (for cross-training) because they’re afraid of riding in traffic. Or about dealing with dangerous dogs that they might encounter in a new situation. Or about how to get up the courage to try a long distance race or a triathlon.

I think for many of the women in these groups, the “challenge” is overcoming their own fears. It’s that inner critic again: the one who knows all our secrets, including how scared we are to try something new–and maybe fail–or maybe just look foolish–or maybe trip and fall.

When I am trial chair, one of the questions I always get from first-time competitors is “what happens if my dog poops in the ring?” My answer is: you leash your dog, then you clean it up, and then you take your dog out of the ring. Sometimes the ring crew will clean it up for you. Oh yes, and “it has happened to every single experienced competitor in this trial.” And every single new competitor is worried that they’ll be embarrassed. There is that horrible video that goes around the internet every few years, of an agility dog having a wonderful run right up until he stops to shit; I cringe every time, because that poor handler must feel so awful that she asked her dog to run when he needed to go.

We all worry about making fools of ourselves.

We all worry about our safety.

We all worry about appearing clumsy or inexperienced.

We all worry that people are judging us and finding us lacking.

But I’ve noticed that most people aren’t interested in judging other people. We’re watching because we want to learn. We want to be awed. We want to share our experiences with others. We’re not holding up signs with numbers. Really, we’re not.

The role of trust in dog agility

I have a friend with a worried dog. The dog worries when she’s in the agility arena at a trial, and so my friend worries too, and the net result is that my friend does not trust the dog when running in competition. This lack of trust means that the team struggles when competing in a trial. I’ve seen the two of them in training, and they are a lovely team when working  in a quiet training situation. In a trial, though? They’re both unhappy at trials. Her dog wishes she’d stay closer and let her know earlier what she wants; she wishes her dog could relax more at trials so that she could relax and run.

Watching them has made me think about trust and agility. I trust Rush to do his best to do exactly what I ask him to do–which is sometimes not what I wanted him to do (if I gave him an incorrect cue, for example). In turn, he trusts me to pay the entry fees and get him to trials on time. Well, partly that, but mostly, he trusts me not to get upset if he makes a mistake. He trusts me to make sure he doesn’t get approached by small dogs (who worry him, because he’s been bitten by several small white fluffy mix-breeds dogs). He trusts me to make sure big fluffy German Shepherds don’t bug him. At least, these days he trusts me about German Shepherds. For a while, he was convinced they were all out to rip his head off, and he got quite defensive about it. These days he’s much more relaxed.

So I’ve been thinking about how you build mutual trust with your dog.

Back when I was in high school and college, “trust-building exercises” were very trendy, and we would have games we’d play, like closing your eyes and falling backwards into someone’s arms. Or walking holding hands with one of us blind-folded. These were supposed to build trust, but always made me worried. Frankly, I didn’t really trust many people. It took building a true relationship with Jay before I got to where I trusted someone absolutely.

There are times when I don’t trust Rush. Around golden retrievers, for example. He’s had so many bad experiences with goldens that he has a tendency to assume they’re all nuts. Or around cats, all of who should be chased and treed, as far as he’s concerned.

In the agility ring, however, I absolutely trust Rush. I know that I can put him in a start-line stay and walk away from him. So I can walk away confidently and just toss his release word over my shoulder, no worries. I know he can get pretty much any weave entry. I know he almost never knocks bars. All of that means that if he makes a mistake, I don’t get upset–because I know he’s doing the best he can. How could I get upset with a dog that’s trying so hard?

All of which makes me think that trust-building with your dog is about a lot of things. It’s about protecting him from things he worries about. It’s about providing enjoyable exercise and good food and good vet care. It’s about consistent rewards and a consistent message in training, so that the same behavior gets the same response every time. You can’t tell the dog that taking the tunnel if your feet are pointing at it is wrong if yesterday you trained him to take the tunnel when you pointed your feet at it.

Lately when I go to the training barn, I’ve been thinking about building mutual trust, not about training the dog to obey orders. It’s a different approach, and I’m enjoying it.


My three-stride theory

In his never-ending quest to make me into the handler he wants, Rush has always been very vocal about when he needs his cues. He barks at me if I’m late, or if I’m in his way. As a consequence, starting very early on, I have worked hard to understand exactly what Rush considers a timely cue. I have come to understand that he wants his cue three strides before he has to make a turn. He can make a turn with two strides’ warning, but then it might be a bit wide and I might get a bark.

As I realized this, I started watching what other dogs do and when other dogs need their cues, and I realized that–at least in my observation–pretty much all dogs want information three strides early. Now, with a smaller dog, the dog might take three strides between jumps, and in that case the handler can wait until the dog lands a jump before cuing the next jump. Most border collies take two strides between jumps–and those dogs want to know where they’re going after the jump before they take off. Rush–with his huge stride–mostly takes just a single stride between jumps, and so his cues need to be very early in comparison with the smaller dogs.

Now, once I developed this theory, I started (kind of obsessively) counting strides as I watch dogs run. I see dogs put in extra strides to accommodate their handlers really often. It’s easiest to see when you watch dogs run jumpers. In this video of Rush running AKC Jumpers with Weaves, you can see Rush take an extra stride between jumps–going wide once and taking a stride toward me the other time–twice. Why? Because I was late with the cue. Hint: watch the striding across the back of the arena (before and after the double) and compare that to the striding before the bright yellow jump on the left side of the video.

This theory–that Rush (and possibly other dogs too) needs three strides to make a turn without having to throw in an extra stride–informs my choices in handling a course. How do I give Rush the information he needs without confusing him?

Human rewards: challenge vs. fun

Back when I was a high school chemistry teacher, my students would fairly often come in and ask if we were going to “have fun” that day. I’m pretty sure I never answered “yes.” I’m not a big believer in the idea that education should be “fun.” I expect it to be challenging, exciting, rewarding, enjoyable… but not “fun.” That may be a distinction without a difference, but to me “fun” is a matter of moments, and moments that don’t much matter at that.

When people tell me they do agility just for “fun,” I’ll be honest: I cringe a bit. I love doing agility (most of the time, anyway) but I’m also pretty serious about it. I put time, effort, money, hard work into being good at agility. Sometimes I don’t meet my own standards, which is discouraging, but I’m fully present when I compete, and I want to do well.

All of that said, I do find agility rewarding. I find running rewarding, although sometimes running is very hard work indeed.

For me, creating a challenge and then meeting it and then trying to do better next time creates a reward cycle. Karen Pryor–whose book Don’t Shoot the Dog is a classic of modern dog training, puts it this way: “what gets rewarded gets repeated.” We reward our dogs for behaviors we want them to learn and repeat. Sit, lie down, run through a tunnel, stop at the bottom of the a-frame.

As humans, too, like other trained mammals, we repeat behaviors that have been rewarded in the past. Enjoy a bite of chocolate? That taste is its own reward, and we’ll eat chocolate again. Find brussels sprouts bitter? We don’t like them and don’t want to eat them. Run a 5K race and the volunteer puts a honking big medal around your neck? You’re more likely to run another one. Or maybe you run to try and run faster in the next race. Or farther. Or to see those numbers on the scale go down. Or to see that Q on the results sheet. Or to see that your dog placed ahead of your friend’s dog for the first time. The cliche of human rewards is “whatever floats your boat.” Humans are better than dogs at anticipating rewards; we all know people who’ve worked for years to get that huge ribbon and title that we call a MACH (or CATCH or CATE).

And yes, some people call agility “fun.” For me, agility is way more complex than fun. It’s about challenges: challenges that are hard–can I get to that blind cross?–challenges that require analysis and experience–how can I best handle that line?–challenges that require training–leaving Rush in the weaves while I peel off and get farther down the course. I find meeting challenges inherently rewarding.

Dealing with Feeling Discouraged

It’s Monday morning after a fourteen-run three-day AKC trial, and I’m feeling more than a little discouraged. In fact, I’m thinking cinnamon rolls and hot chocolate (it’s cool this morning).

Why so discouraged? Well, I’m still struggling with those last five pounds, but this morning, because I ate rather less carefully over the weekend, it’s not those last five pounds–it’s those last seven pounds. Yes, my weight is up, not down. I have reasons (not excuses, which are different): I had the flu, my weight was way down (3 pounds from these last seven), I felt horrible, I nourished my soul and I ate too much. The flu kept me from running much (not at all for multiple days, in fact). I’m pretty much over the flu, and now I have to get “back on track”… Back onto my I’m-losing-weight-so-fucking-slowly-I-can’t-stand-it track. Seriously, I know losing a pound a month is better than gaining a pound a month, but really? I want it to be easy (don’t we all?!) and it’s just not. (Screaming in frustration.)

And then there was the agility. Okay, I’ve spent four years now working toward being the handler Rush needs and requires. And on Friday, I managed it for two runs, one in FAST and one in Jumpers. We won Jumpers, beating border collies and fast Dobermans. That was great, and the run was a pure pleasure, but I had three runs with multiple faults and stupid mistakes and sometimes Rush makes me feel like a complete idiot. And then Saturday was worse, with the only clean run being in Time to Beat, and even there, we’d have had a refusal if refusals were called in T2B. I just wasn’t there for him. And Sunday was worse than that. I felt like a train wreck, dropping old rusted pieces on the tracks as we went. Rush jumped over the a-frame contact for maybe the second or third time in his agility career; he had not one but two flyoffs from the teeter, which he has never done before. (Sunday he did a perfect teeter.)

Sooooo…. not on track on the diet part, dropping rusted parts on the train tracks in agility. Feeling old and fat and slow. And unsuccessful. And did I say slow and fat? And old? Especially old. (My son reminded me that he’s turning thirty–which he considers old–in September. Yeah, if he’s old, what am I?)

Feeling desperately discouraged, in fact. Like what I’m doing just isn’t enough, and I don’t know what else I can do. I log every bite I eat and I mostly eat pretty carefully, and I’m running and swimming and biking to get fit and fast enough for Rush, and he just keeps getting a little bit faster and a little more insistent on perfect handling.

I can catalog a few really good things about the weekend: my knees held up, despite walking a total of 72000 steps over the three days (and I biked and ran on Thursday too). I was fast enough to make it to a blind cross before the last jump–a triple–in Jumpers on Sunday (but I only pushed for it because I’d already blown the Q). I successfully sent Rush to his leash on every single run of the 14 runs. I won a free three-day entry to another trial. Pieces of every single run were good. Our last run on Sunday, despite not Qing, I managed to set a really nice line for the first 15 obstacles. Of course, then he took an off-course tunnel and then missed his weave entry, but… fifteen obstacles is pretty good, right?

From here, where? Well, I guess I’m back to doing what I’ve been doing. I’m going to go for a run, to burn calories, keep Rush fit, try to get faster, and enjoy some time in the woods on my favorite bit of trail. A short run, then off to the barn to try to get Rush to fly off the teeter again, just so I can remind him that he’s not supposed to do that. And then reward him when he does it right the next time. At least, that’s the plan for this morning. I can plan for success, right? Even if I’m old and fat and slow, with a fit fast dog who needs me to be a much better handler than I am.

Havin’ some fun tonight!

This post is part of the Dog Agility Bloggers Network series on FUN. After you’ve read this article, go to this link to read more articles.

A few years back, my daughter Stacia introduced me to the idea that there are three types of fun. In Type 1 Fun, you have a good time, but it’s kind of an ordinary good time. For example, Type 1 Fun might include a nice dinner with friends with a chocolate brownie for dessert. It’s fun, but it’s readily accessible fun and requires no special effort. Type 2 Fun includes some element of challenge and difficulty. Perhaps you make the dinner as a group and you try a complicated recipe or two, something like Chicken Kiev with a molten chocolate Lava Cake for dessert. Type 3 Fun? Well, Type 3 Fun involves some danger, it might not be all fun during the actual event, and part of the fun is the story you tell afterwards. To continue with the dinner-with-friends analogy (which just might be getting a little strained, but oh well, we can all deal with it), the three of you get mugged while coming home from the store after buying the ingredients for dinner, one of you ends up in the emergency room and meets the love-of-her-life while waiting for treatment, and then you have a late dinner at the best restaurant in the area and the chef hears the story and makes you a special flaming dessert, which sets the tablecloth on fire, so you don’t actually get to eat it. That would qualify as Type 3 Fun: great story, some pretty awful bits during the actual event.

Personally, I try to avoid Type 3 Fun.

Incidentally, this is a photo of some Type 2 Fun I had with my daughter last summer. Anything that involves wading through icy water is automatically Type 2 Fun. At least, that’s my opinion. I did like the effect of the ice water on my knees, though. Alleviated the soreness a bit–it was quite the hike. (However, the story is not epic, no one was hurt, so not Type 3 Fun. Now, if I’d slipped and floated downstream a bit, maybe then.)

Photo by Stacia Torborg

Photo by Stacia Torborg

I have been competing in dog agility since sometime in 2005, when my Elly–my Novice A dog, who barely finished her Open titles–was two. She was indeed a challenge to run, between her sense of humor (several judges burst out laughing at her antics during her agility career) and her health (she had multiple health issues and died at not-quite-nine as a result (three years ago) and I still miss her). I have good stories to tell about Elly–she stopped in the middle of a run to play bow to the audience, she thought contacts were electrified, she left the arena to go ask the hot dog vendor for a snack (and that’s just the beginning)–and it was never dull. I learned, with Elly, that a sense of humor is key to enjoying agility.

Photo by Joe Camp

Photo by Joe Camp

My second poodle, Dancer, is very serious about agility. She wants very much to please me. For her, the fun of agility isn’t about the course or the challenges or the jumps: it’s about me. She wants to run with me, hang out with me, be my companion. I had to learn how to make agility fun for her, and it was a challenge for me. A good challenge, though, as she taught me a lot about dog training. Dancer will do anything I ask her to do… if it doesn’t scare her. For a long time, the teeter scared her so much that she just couldn’t do it. Not no way, not no how, not even for rotisserie chicken, her personal favorite. It took me three years, and I wrote an article for Clean Run about how I did it, and that? That was rewarding because it was challenging and it took a lot of thinking and because I learned so much from her.

And long-term difficult challenges that you meet and beat? Those are fun.

Photo by Joe Camp

Dancer expresses her opinion about the teeter: photo by Joe Camp

My Rush, my big boy dog, the one I chose as a puppy even though I swore I wanted a small girl from the litter right up until the moment Rush stole my heart? His proper poodle name is Alchmys Absolut Pleasure. Alchmy is the breeder; Absolut is a tribute to his father, a white poodle from Russia; and the Pleasure? That’s all mine. I’m superstitious enough that I believe that dog names can be self-fulfilling prophecies. I’d never name a dog Chaos, as just one example. So I was hoping, with Rush, that I’d get that excitement, that surge, that incredible feeling you get when you give it what you’ve got… and it works.

From the first day with Rush, when I insisted that he wait for his dinner, just like the big poodles, I knew where I was going.

puppy Rush waits for a treat with big poodles

What I didn’t know, when I started with Rush, was that he would enjoy agility every bit as much as I do. I didn’t know that he would be fast and long-strided. I didn’t know that he would change my life completely. I had to learn how to handle, how to run, how to give it all I’ve got every single run. I didn’t know how thoroughly he would live up to his name. He has truly been an absolute pleasure to have in my life. Type 2 Fun all the way: it’s not easy, it’s not simple, it’s challenging, and it’s exciting.

Rush? Here’s how Rush approaches agility (article continues below photos).

Photo by Zoe Zimmer

Photo by Zoe Zimmer

Photo by Joe Camp

Photo by Joe Camp

After finishing the first draft of this and letting it sit for a few days, I found myself thinking: “from the dog’s perspective, is agility Type 1 or Type 2?” My first thought was: “of course, for a dog, it’s Type 1, because all fun is Type 1 if you’re a dog.” But as I thought more about it, I realized that many dogs bring problem-solving skills and anticipation to their agility careers (and to herding and hunting, as some other examples)–and that, for those dogs, agility is Type 2 Fun. I know that Rush anticipates his agility run; he grows very intense as we move closer to the gate. When he watches a dog we’ve been following all day, he starts pulling to go into the ring. He hunkers down and stares at the first jump and his eyes flick back and forth from me to the jump and back to me and back to the jump as he tries to understand what I want. He tries to read what I want, and he barks in frustration when I’m late or confusing–and still does his best to follow my lead.

I find myself thinking about Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire: as Ann Richards (Texas politician of note) said “after all, Ginger Rogers did everything Fred Astaire did. She just did it backwards and in high heels.” From the dog’s point of view, running agility (without a map or any way to know the course in advance) must be like that–and for a dog that likes a challenge and finds excitement in challenge, what could be better? Type 2 Fun, for sure.

Ice and snow and a weekend report

We had snow followed by frozen rain last night. Everything is coated with about a quarter-inch of ice, including the sidewalks and roads. Everything I planned to do today has been cancelled. It’s too icy to go for a walk, much less a run, and I feel restless and kind of claustrophobic.

Berries and Ice

Berries and Ice

I am kind of surprised by how restless I feel. It’s a snow day! I should feel like lazing around drinking hot chocolate–but I want desperately to go for a run or a walk or something. I put on my trail running shoes, which have pretty good traction, and guess what? they don’t have enough traction for the layer of ice that’s covering everything. I couldn’t make it ten feet from our back door. So maybe I can run later, after things thaw, but for now I’m stuck in the house.

I went up to Elma, Washington for an AKC trial this weekend. One of my plans for 2016 is to try more AKC, because I’m not very good at it, which to me is a challenge. Saturday was a bit of a disaster. No distance and a dropped bar in FAST. I slipped and fell on my ass while running Rush in Time to Beat–we still finished well under time, but he did drop a bar, and I sent him on an off-course, and so on. Jumpers was another dropped bar, and Standard was (if I remember correctly) two off-courses.

Sunday was much better, which bolsters my theory that the key to doing AKC courses is to do AKC courses. Rush was one of two dogs to qualify in Excellent FAST, with 75 points and a first place. Onward to Time to Beat, where I threw all caution away–because I can’t run him and be cautious–and he ran the fastest time of all the dogs, not just of all the 24″ dogs, and earned himself a ten-point Q.

And then I made the mistake of checking the weather forecast for Portland and I started worrying about getting home safely and what time we’d leave… and we had a refusal in Jumpers (and he still had the fastest time in the entire class, but no Q because of the refusal) and we had a few more problems in Standard but he had an absolutely amazing table performance, catching the edge of the table perfectly without needing an extra stride. Rush was awesome but I need to be completely and utterly focused on running him or I screw up. It’s a good lesson for the New Year.

Running Rush to win, not Q….

It’s a lesson I seem to learn over and over again. With Rush, I can’t handle conservatively; there is no “conservative” option. Trying to protect a Q by going with the easy option? Not a possibility–Rush wants to run fast and furious and I better be there to help him do that, or we’re doomed.

At the recent CAT CPE trial, I was kind of focused on Dancer, since I was hoping to get her CS-ATCH2 title (which we did), and so I walked courses thinking mostly about how to run Dancer, who is a “four-foot run-with dog.” Yes, she has four feet, but what I mean by that is that she wants to run along with me, about four feet away from me at all times. It’s pretty easy to set her path–just find a line that takes her over the obstacles, and then run parallel to that line at a pace that works for her.

Rush? Not so much. He might be a four-foot dog, if I could run a five-minute mile.

However, I’ve been doing what I can, and I can now sprint 100 yards in 30 seconds. That means that–if I can figure out how to run those 100 yards while directing him around a 150-yard course–I have a distant hope of not getting too far behind. Distance handling, a good leadout, and go-ons are my friends, and my enemies. Stopped contacts? Very useful as a place to catch up and even get a bit ahead.

But rear crosses? Well, under instructions from Daisy, I’m trying to avoid those. Video review has shown over-reliance on rear crosses to be a weakness.

I ran as aggressively as I could throughout the CPE trial. The run that was the most fun was a standard course where the finish was a full outside circle of the arena with Rush going full speed. I ran the inside line, repeating “go on, go on, go tunnel” as appropriate–and Rush was great; he never looked back.

Our worst run? The last run of the day was Jumpers. As I walked it, I knew Dancer needed just that one Q to get her CS-ATCH, and so I walked the course, over and over, planning how to get Dancer through it. I never stopped to think how to run Rush! The course had numerous 180 turns, with tunnels beckoning from the other side–and I ran Rush through the course, shrieking “Rush! HERE!” at every possible off-course. We got through it, he got his Q.  But it was very crunchy.

Total for the weekend? 8 Qs for Rush out of ten runs, with five out of five on Sunday. Yeeha!


Shaming the handler….

Many years ago (2003), Greg Derrett (a world-class agility handler who has much to offer the community) published a video with the catchy title Great Dog, Shame About the Handler. Shortly after that, I started training and competing in agility, and for several years, that phrase was what you said about another handler when you saw a wonderful dog confused by its handler’s errors. And people also started saying “my dog needs a new handler” or “my dog is advertising for a new handler.” You can buy t-shirts that say “my dog is handler impaired” and “watch us and learn stupid handler tricks.” (It’s not all bad: you can also buy a t-shirt that says “handler in training, please wait a few months before passing judgement.”)

In one of the very first trials I went to, I was checking results and I overheard someone talking about Elly and me and what a terrible team we were. The handler was very clear: she didn’t think I should be there, I shouldn’t have even tried to compete in that class, and while it was a “shame about the handler,” it was also a shame that the dog wasn’t very good either. It was incredibly painful to listen to. I certainly hadn’t asked her opinion, I’m sure she had no idea I was standing right behind her, but she did consider it just fine to extensively trash me and my dog. I contemplated giving up. For years, until I realized what it was doing to my spirit and my approach to agility, I would answer compliments with “yes, well, shame about the handler.”

On Saturday, I told a woman at the trial I was attending that her dog was great and the first thing out of her mouth was “he needs a new handler.” She was doing a pretty good job with the runs I saw; I could understand why she’d say “I’d like to be a better handler” but she had nothing to be ashamed of.

Okay, I’m feeling exceptionally curmudgeonly lately, but I’m sick of this, folks. We are all doing the best we can, we all love our dogs (or else why would be buy them all those treats and spend all that time training), we’re not about to rehome the dog, and still we say “my dog needs a new handler”?

How about we change this concept? There are so many other things we can say:

  • Thank you, I love his teeter
  • I’m trying to be a better handler
  • I find it very challenging to run him
  • Thanks, we had some parts I really liked
  • I need to improve my rear cross/front cross/blind cross timing
  • I’m really proud of how far we’ve come
  • I’m working on improving his weave speed

I’ve been training in running for the last year, and I’ve never heard anyone say “oh, I can’t improve” but somehow in agility, I hear handlers mock their own abilities regularly. I hear handlers mock the abilities of other handlers.

I’m not a particularly PollyAnna-ish person; I don’t think everything should be sunlight and roses at all times. But these remarks I overhear at every trial, trashing handlers who’ve done the best they can? It sets a tone, and the tone is not an enjoyable one.

This weekend, I was really struggling with Jumpers with Weaves. Three runs and no Q; my bad timing was to blame in all three runs, as Rush took off-courses or spun or both. I said to someone “Jumpers eats us alive and spits us out” before I realized that I was doing exactly what I hate hearing other people do: setting myself up so that I couldn’t succeed, no matter what. Now, I’m trying to say “he’s got such a huge stride that my handling has to be dead on or I get a spin or off-course, but I’m making progress with cleaning up my timing.”

In fact, we only had one error–that spin!–in our Jumpers run on Sunday; the rest was pretty amazing. Yes, it was an NQ, but look how far we’ve come!