Sunday, March 23, 2014

AKC Rally Trial at Total Turf, 3/23/14

This morning we drove out to New Jersey for an AKC Rally double trial being hosted by the Lower Camden County Dog Training Club. This was Pongu's first shot at Rally Advanced, and I was a little nervous about going in, because it meant the leash would come off! in an AKC venue! and that might lead to stress and disaster.

Well, it kinda did, although not exactly in the way I was expecting.

This was our first time at the Total Turf venue. It turned out to be quite nice: clean, well-maintained artifical turf in a large field that allowed for fairly spacious rings (by AKC standards), plenty of crating space, and convenient benches for spectators. There was a nifty little cafe turning out better-than-average dog show food (which you might think is faint praise... until it's 5 pm and 38 degrees out and you haven't had a hot meal since your pre-dawn coffee at 6 am) and loads of free parking. Judging by the turnout -- 176 obedience teams and over 80 Rally entries per trial -- lots of other people liked it too.

Alas, Pongu was not one of them. Gone was the happy dog I had at our last two shows. In his place was the stressy, shaky, bug-eyed maniac I know so well from all our other trials. Sigh.

AKC shows, or at least the AKC shows we've been doing, are a lot bigger than World Cynosport Rally trials. If it were just the Rally part split off from the main event, they'd be roughly equivalent (actually, in that case, the WCRL trials would almost always be bigger), but of course that is not how it works in AKC. So the venues are very big and very crowded and scaredybutt dog gets very scared.

We didn't have much connection on our first run. On our second run, there wasn't much in the beginning, but about halfway through Pongu perked up and smiled at me and things got a bit better.

Despite that lack of connection, and despite the lack of cookies or leash or anything else, Pongu did pretty well. Both of our Rally runs had high jumps; going in, that had been the jump I most feared encountering, since Pongu had only seen high jumps twice before (once at an obedience run-through before our first CDSP trial last October, and once last week when the snow finally melted enough for us to prep for this trial), and both of those times he initially refused the jump before taking it on a later attempt.

At this trial, however, Pongu did those jumps beautifully. No hesitation. Nailed his jumps and came right back to Heel position on the other side. I was so proud of him.

Scores weren't bad, weren't great. Pongu scored 97 in both runs. All his deductions were on heeling errors (lagging or going wide) or slow Sits.

And then I lost us 20 points in our first run by doing two exercises incorrectly. I failed to pause after the end of each exercise, because I was still in a WCRL mindset where you never pause, unless it's for a cookie, because you want to shave that extra half second off your final time.

In AKC, that is a no-no. That is, in fact, 20 points' worth of no-nos. So we got hit for two IP penalties and our final score was a 77. Last place out of 14 dogs. BRUTAL.

I went back to the car and cried after that class was pinned, because I was so upset that I had knocked Pongu out of the ribbons to LAST. FREAKING. PLACE.

And then I read some dog books on my Kindle and sat with my dog in the backseat of the car and had some nice hugs, and Pongu licked the whiny tears off my face and I thought: this is so stupid, that I'm upset about a number on a scoresheet when it doesn't matter for anything. A Q is a Q. AKC doesn't tally points or placements for rankings in Rally. There isn't an Award of Excellence to be won with high scores in the A classes. So we didn't get a rosette, big deal. I'm already contemplating refusing any more rosettes in the future anyhow, why should I feel bad about not getting one today?

The important thing I learned today is that even when Pongu is stressy, even in a venue he doesn't like, even with no cookies or leash, he will work with me. And he will do it well enough to come in near the top of a competitive field, even when he's not in good form. That's important. That is huge. That is something that, a year ago, I would have sworn was impossible and would happily have sacrificed any number of small animals to obtain.

That afternoon, we went back in. Our connection was still staticky. Pongu still lost 3 points on lagging and wide turns and slow Sits. It wasn't a great run.

But I stayed out of his way, and our final score was the 97 that my dog really deserved, and that time he landed in the ribbons. Fourth place out of 13 dogs (lost third on time, but that's fine with me; I have always preferred the white rosettes to the yellow ones anyhow).

And even though I didn't really think it mattered, I won't lie: I was still happy that we got a rosette.

The walls of the cafe at Total Turf are painted with inspirational sports sayings. One of them -- the one that happened to catch my eye, by pure chance, when I went to the restroom after blowing that 20-point run -- was this:

"Winning will make you happy, but losing will make you wise."

And oh yes, that is true. Losing will make you wise. About why you're really in the ring, what your dog's performance really means...

...and, above all, how you will never ever (*&(#&$#$ ever fail to pause on a Sit-Stand-Walkaround again.

Monday, March 17, 2014

Beyond Ribbons

On Saturday, Pongu and I went to the Oakes K9 Rally trial at K9Jym in Colmar, PA.

His scores were mostly pretty good, if not quite as stellar as last weekend's. Our heeling needs a lot of work, particularly in a trial environment, and the Figure 8 With Distractions is somehow a lot more distracting at a trial than it ever seems to be in training. Scores: 208/209/209, 207 (repeated cue)/204 (two food bowl sniffs!)/205 (partial credit on retrieve bonus exercise). Placed in exactly half his runs, because it was a big field with some highly competitive teams -- not quite to the point of needing a 210 to place, but close! -- and gave me cause to reflect on how wonderfully absurd it is that I can be disappointed, however slightly, when Pongu "only" places in half of his B-class runs and "only" nets third to fifth place. There was a day, not that long ago, when I was ecstatic if he placed in any Championship-level run.

We got two more QQQs knocked out, bringing our total to eight; it is now theoretically possible (but unlikely, because it's not a great venue for him) that we could finish Pongu's MX at his next trial on March 30th.

More important to me than any ribbon or placement, however, was Pongu's attitude at this trial. The venue wasn't new for him; we've trialed at K9Jym several times before. But the facility had recently been renovated, and the new setup threw off several other dogs who, like Pongu, had only seen its earlier incarnation.

It didn't seem to bother him too much, though. Pongu wasn't that stressy for his first couple of runs. He wasn't on the top of his game either, but we did decently well.

During the lunch break we went back to sit in the car and I reread Suzanne Clothier's Bones Would Rain... and thought about how lucky I was to have these moments with my dog, relaxing together in the early spring sunshine, playing a game of cooperation that challenged both of us and our shared skills as a team. I thought about how lucky we were to have come into dog sports during a time when motivational training was widely accepted and highly developed and available to us both locally and online. Because none of this would ever have been possible for Pongu, or me, if we hadn't had the help of so many patient, knowledgeable teachers showing us the way.

And when we went back in, Pongu was -- again! miraculously! -- smiling, happy, and relaxed. Our scores were actually a little worse on the second go-around, what with his sudden interest in the food bowls and a repeated cue in Level 1, but those were mistakes of enthusiasm rather than stress, and I will take them with joy.

As for our Level 3 run, I had forgotten our dumbbell at home and the bonus exercise on the second Level 3 run was the retrieve. I didn't have a retrieve object. What I did have was a fuzzy squeaky toy that Pongu had earned for placing in a previous run.

So I threw that out there, and he grabbed it and brought it back to me for a few steps, then tossed it aside and came in empty for a clean Front and nice finish. We got 5 of the 10 possible points and finished the run with a 205. And I was thrilled with that, because just a few months ago, there is absolutely no way that Pongu would have touched, let alone nearly done a proper retrieve with, a strange new squeaky toy he'd just gotten a couple of hours ago.

Pongu's enthusiasm for being in the ring is still fragile and fleeting. He's still not a stable or particularly confident dog. It's easy for him to get overwhelmed and shut down. But I've never seen him as happy as he was the last two trials, and it seemed to me that his relaxed state lasted longer at this trial than it did the previous one.

That's a victory that goes far beyond ribbons.

Sunday, March 9, 2014

WCRL Trial at Let's Speak Dog, 3/8/14

Yesterday we emerged from our monthlong break with a WCRL trial in Nazareth PA. I meant to spend our time off working on various issues that plague us in Rally competition, but instead I mostly ended up working on Utility scent articles because of... absolutely no good reason, since we're nowhere near trialing in Utility in any venue. And when we weren't doing that, we were working on the broad jump (which doesn't exist in WCRL) or breaking down aspects of the drop on recall (which does exist, but only shows up occasionally in Level 3).

So I wasn't really sure what to expect from Pongu in the Rally ring when we went back. This hasn't been his favorite venue in the past (although I like it a bunch, because it's next to a dollar store where I frequently find awesome training props and across from a supermarket that has the best guilty-pleasure donut case on Earth), which doubled my trepidation.

But he did fine. In fact, he did better than fine.

Pongu started the day stressy and squeaky and dandruffy, as usual, and it was a long day (single ring double trial = we got up at 5 am and didn't finish our last run until a little after 5 pm), so by the end he was running out of steam.

But in between, he was miraculously, totally relaxed for a couple of those runs, and he stayed relaxed for the entire run. Pongu was happy and smiley and eager to work in a trial environment. I have never been able to get that from him before, and it made me indescribably happy to actually be working with 100% of my dog. That NEVER happens. Never! But it happened that afternoon, and he pulled perfect scores on those three runs.

Final tally: 207 (repeated cue)/210/NQ (difficult off-set jump on a Level 3 course; I would have been really impressed if Pongu had managed to hit that one, since it involved veering out and then back in at really sharp angles and was tricky for a dog to differentiate from a straight recall with a booby trap jump) on the first set. 210/210/206 on the second set (repeated cue, crooked Sit). Picked up one more QQQ, so we now have four to go for ARCHMX.

We took High Scoring Rescue Dog in both trials and landed in the ribbons on every run where we qualified, which made me happy because there were some great teams at this trial. Both of our second places were to Edith the border collie, who is a rockstar and extremely difficult to beat (when she doesn't beat you on score, she'll beat you on time), and our third place was to two dogs being run by a multi-OTCH/MACH handler, so it's hard for me to feel too disappointed about that one either.

But the most important thing is that for much of that day, my fearful dog wasn't fearful. He was just happy to play this game with me in the ring.

And while the magic of that moment quickly faded, and crazypants dog went back to being crazy, the memory of it is still with me.

We did it once, we can do it again.