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.

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