As 2014 trickled to a close, something small but significant appeared in my email inbox one night. It was a note from Tracey — an agility competitor and judge who I have gotten to know since Miles and my first agility fun match. Tracey wanted to let me know that the instructor who I have long wanted to train with (who had also already invited me on as a student) finally had a spot open in one of her classes. I reserved a spot as fast as I could.
The first night of class, at the beginning of this year in January, there were weather advisories about heavy fog. This class is quite the drive from my home, but I was excited for the first session, and I was determined to go no matter what.
After finally squeezing out of the horrible bottleneck that is metropolis rush hour traffic, and getting onto the highway, I realized that maybe I was a bit in over my head. The fog was extremely thick, and I could barely see a thing. This stretch of highway has been going through renovations for years, and during this time, had choppy and unclear lane markers. I reserved my panic, because I was a bit encouraged by the lights around me of the other cars. For a while, we made our way down the highway together, a cautious steady herd (with the occasional exception of a rogue either genius or crazy person, weaving through traffic). Over the course of the next hour, my herd trickled off, and I was left alone on the dark highway, with no lights to gauge my way. Growing up in Oregon, I had driven plenty of times in heavy fog in the dark (half of the year, the town I grew up in looked like Sleepy Hollow!), but that was different. In Oregon I knew the roads, even the most treacherous cliffside rural roads, by heart.
When I finally got to the right exit, I felt a wave of relief — until I realized that I was faced with a whole new set of challenges — a maze of dark winding country roads, completely saturated in fog. My crumpled little chicken-scratch direction sheet started to seem pathetic!
Somehow we made it to class. As I pulled up into the dark parking area, I could see we were late. The parking lot had cars in it, and the barn door was closed, with barks of excitement reverberating inside. I took a deep breath, got us set up, and crunched along the gravel in my cleats in the darkness. Miles could smell the dogs, hear the excitement in the barn, and was frantic to check it out. I tugged shyly on the barn door, and the first time, I got the direction wrong. I took another deep breath, and tugged the opposite direction. The door creaked open loudly, and a burst of bright light hit my eyes. Two sleek Kelpies zipped around opposite sides of the barn, whipping through agility equipment. I looked around the space, recognizing all of my new classmates. Out of the five experienced competitors, three were also agility judges.
I had known that this would be a shock to my system for many reasons, but at that moment, I realized just how great a shock it would really be. The first order of business, in my mind, was to not hamper any of my new classmates with my significantly lesser set of skills. While I arrived hoping to train my body and mind to new ways of handling agility, these people were there to strengthen skills they already had been working on, living, and breathing for a long time. Skills that had gotten them to the top tiers of Regionals, Nationals, and for my teacher, to multiple World competitions. And boy did I ever want to make my respect for being a new part of that kind of training group clear!
The first few classes, the courses set up looked like another language to me. It was thrilling and totally terrifying at the same time. I told my new instructor, Wendy, that I wanted my portion of class time to be dedicated to a segment of the course. Wendy countered with the best possible instructions: walk the whole course, learn the whole course. It would have been easy for her to give me a little part to learn, and to practice it alone, but instead, she pushed me. When my turn came around, she had me run the course, until I stumbled a lot. At that point, she helped break it down for me, and we’d focus on that segment. I think the first few classes, I only did maybe 1/5 of each course. Wendy’s teaching was the perfect balance right off the bat of push, explanation, encouragement. I am grateful that she didn’t let me wimp out, and that at the same time, she broke things down for me to digest properly.
Now, I realize I have been saying “I” this whole time. Where was Miles in this equation? Oh Miles was there all right! Miles fed partially off of my nervous energy, and partially off his own extreme over-stimulation. For a high-drive terrier, whose unfiltered nature is to put all of his focus into locating moving objects, and then to channel every ounce of his energy into finding immediate ways to chase said moving objects, this was a candy land emporium of temptation for him. And there I was, completely immersed in trying to keep up, re-adjust, and balance my own arrival into this new world of agility. Terrier troubles were the last things I hoped to worry about on my immediate radar, but, I knew they would have to share significant airspace.
Up until then, Miles and I had only ever trained in situations where the space was ours for our turn (no other dogs running in the space), or competed with a maximum of one dog across from us running, separated from us by a barrier. Here, there were two courses set up, the main one, and a practice one. The first several times that I took off Miles’ leash, there was a Kelpie running on the opposite side of the barn.
Yes. Miles took off several times when I unhooked his leash in those early classes. Neither love nor hotdogs could dissuade him from his instinctual pursuit. Thankfully he had the sense not to go within five feet of them, but still, this is highly unsavory agility class etiquette. I am grateful my classmates took it in stride, and gave us a chance to prove ourselves beyond the first few classes. Of course deep down I wondered if all of my hard work training Miles would ultimately pay off in keeping his composure in this setting. Just like being there in the first place, in those first sessions, I had to try, and try hard, and push through the newness and the doubts.
Over the first few winter months, I skipped class when the weather wasn’t great. I attended when I could. I decided not to stress external factors, but instead, to focus on the bigger picture. I put my energy into starting to learn a whole new level and world of agility. With a Welsh Terrier!
Eight months of on-and-off classes later, I am still very new to all of the techniques, and I still get lost in the complicated courses sometimes. Every class, I put all I have into learning as much as possible, watching and listening to my classmates, and trying as hard as I can to not be ashamed when I stumble. It hasn’t been an easy process, because not only am I learning new things — I am also un-learning a lot of ingrained habits that I have accumulated from starting out in agility too!
Wendy has an eye for what dogs see when zipping around an agility course. One of the fundamental things she observed in my handling early on was that I had learned to focus on running obstacle-to-obstacle, whereas dogs are experiencing the flow of the course. To Miles, running agility isn’t about “Tire, Jump, then Weaves.” It is about the communication and understood movements between us as we make our way through a course. Learning that right away was fundamental in changing the way I saw my role in our team. In the past, when I used to get confused or lost, I would stop what I was doing. One interesting thing that started happening, was when I got lost, was that I started to find myself charging on to a few wrong obstacles, instead of stopping. This was wrong, but, it was also an exciting improvement to witness in myself. Finally I was starting to grasp the dog-teammate mentality. Movement, curve, and flow, over obstacle-to-obstacle-to-obstacle.
My new instructor and classmates really gave me and Miles a chance, and I have gotten to know them over the last while. I appreciate them as people, as agility competitors, as classmates, and as teachers. These people are serious about what they do, they are fun, and they are supportive of each other, and of me. I have learned many, many skills from each of them, and continue to.
And Miles? Miles is having more fun than ever running bigger courses, being in a barn, and running faster. Oh and my ever-improving handling? That is the best part for him!
So did Miles ever stop chasing the Kelpies? I am sure that question is on your mind. The answer is: yes, he did! Can you believe it? That Miles, a full-strength Welsh Terrier, can run in a barn, off-leash, with a Kelpie charging around nearby? Incredible.
Miles and I have overcome a lot to get where we are. Stepping out into uncertain new and intimidating places can feel like jumping off a cliff. Some of the best adventures in life start with the only certain things being determination and passion. In this case, nothing else felt certain, but, it was worth the risk.