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.