I am running the first dog I have done agility with, and he happens to be a Welsh Terrier. Here is my overview of Miles and I as an unlikely agility team, a look at our past big year of competitive agility, and an in-depth analysis of the biggest learning curves from this year.
Welsh Terriers and Agility
Not many people run Welsh Terriers in agility. To many, day-to-day life can be so challenging with this unique type of dog, that many can’t even dream of why some of us would choose to partner with this kind a dog in a competitive off-leash sport where the dog must be able to constantly and skillfully flip between controlled adrenaline, and uninhibited adrenaline.
Miles’ personality, by nature, epitomizes everything that many people struggle with about his ‘make’ of terrier. Some of his quintessential wild wiry terrier traits include:
• Impulsive: Miles lives moment-to-moment. Concepts of “consequences” are not a part of Miles’ natural go-to repertoire. Miles is not hard-wired to factor the following into his decision-making: his safety and well-being, physical pain, and last of all, human expectations.
• Prey-driven: Any form of peripheral movement is instinctually what catches Miles’ attention, and by nature beckons his immediate physical response.
• High-drive: Miles is always “on.” If he is asleep and the tiniest thing happens in the background that might be of interest, he will FALL off of the bed to hit the ground running. No matter how deep his sleep, how tired he is, or how hard his body hits the ground, prior to the running part.
A Wildcard Team
Before I brought Miles into my life, I’d read everything I could find about the breed. I’d also found the perfect breeders for me, who were totally open and candid, aka, honest, giving, and informative. Still, like many future wild wiry terrier owners, the truth was, I had no idea what the average Welsh Terrier was really like. Not until I met and lived with this little ball of teeth, muscle, and attitude, did I “see.” Amazingly enough, in this planned but green pairing – when I met Miles, I “got it.” I had found my “breed.” Miles was it for me. So naturally, being the kind of person that gets along swimmingly with a wild wiry terrier (such people are just as crazy and rare as the breed, I assure you), I decided that our hobby together would be to do dog agility. And man, was I ever determined. I came into it and stuck with it in the first difficult years, never thinking about competing, but rather, determined to be the team I knew we could be.
I’ve already described why Miles was an unlikely candidate for this pursuit… Now, on to me!
Agility – the word itself does not fit me at all. The closest to successes I have ever had at athletic activities have been: being a solid endurance runner in my 20’s (I knew I’d made it when bus drivers stopped jerking to a stop for me, in the fears that I was experiencing a crisis and needed immediate rescue), beating people when playing badminton (and how often does that opportunity present itself?), and impressing guys I worked with by hauling very heavy things around in my “saving up for University” job on freight night.
I am terrible at memorizing any kind of athletic game, and competitive group sports only add to that confusion. I am completely incompetent at achieving grace at a high speed (does my driving count? I can whip into a parking spot with incredible accuracy at a high speed!). Okay, I can’t even walk gracefully. Whatever, okay? You get the picture! I have the ability to be heavy-duty – I am just not good at following structure or figuring out or following rules! My mode of operation is pretty much always “winging it!” Hmmm—now that sounds familiar to a certain type of dog. No wonder we click.
2015 – Our Biggest Year in Agility Yet
At the beginning of 2015, we’d already experienced so much in our short agility career. We’d gone from the dunces of our early agility classes (and man that was not fun), to being the “most improved” team according to many of our long-time onlookers. In early 2015, sometimes people would come up to me after me and Miles had done a run I wasn’t overly proud of at a competition, to say, “Wow! I just have to say, you and Miles have really improved!” At first, those comments confused and slightly irritated me. Then I realized, people were trying to communicate to me just how far we’d really come. We’d struggled, we’d worked hard, we’d fallen, we’d scraped our way back up.
2015 marked our entrance into the “big leagues.” In the beginning of 2015, we’d already completed Starters, and we were almost done Advanced, and we had our first three Master’s Q’s under our belt.
At the beginning of 2015, I finally secured us a spot in a serious agility class. It was an exciting and intimidating time.
The first change for us was beginning a class with a coach who is highly accomplished both as a competitor and instructor, and with classmates of whom which 3/5 were also long-time Master’s-level agility judges. For me, joining a serious training culture and class meant driving a far distance to get to class and other practices, and dealing with some pretty major social anxiety surrounding my want to learn about and attempt to perform complex new skills quickly, around some seriously skilled classmates. My goals were to avoid being a burden to my classmates as much-less knowledgeable competitor, to watch and learn as much as possible and to try my hardest, and simultaneously, to work hard on training Miles the Welsh Terrier to be a controlled dog on the sidelines in a highly-charged, open, and often off-leash environment. At first, being a newbie to competitive agility, walking in with a Welsh Terrier— it felt as crazy as trying to enter an Olympic training arena and trying to catch up and fit in, while simultaneously juggling a pineapple on top of a basketball on top of your head. You can read about our experiences starting serious agility training here.
Miles and I ended up flourishing from the change of pace. We were ready for it, and we clearly had been craving it more than I could have know. People at trials noticed a HUGE change in us and were astounded at how far we’d come in such a short period of time.
By spring, we were primed to step up our practice even more, by arriving early to class for a few private lessons with another student and our instructor (most of which was spent on the human side of the team! We needed it!) and by attending the events that my instructor holds pre-Regionals. It was a busy and exciting time, full of learning. I thrived. Miles was in peak form, and raring to go. I entered us in Regionals, feeling nervous, but also very excited.
Regionals were crazy and suspenseful, but, we were ready. You can read about our experience of Regionals here. We performed well despite a massive heat wave, and Miles’ extreme aversion to heat. Miles had his moments of heat-stress paired with Regionals over-excitement, and did some crazy wild-wiry-terrier fault-accumulation. I was pretty proud of my handling – I’d come a long way, and when Miles was wild, I was able to re-group him in much faster time than ever before.
Miles also busted out an impressive Gamble on the first day, which earned us our first (and only ever, so far!) placement ribbon at a Regional or National event! We didn’t make the cut for the podium (no way!), but I was more worried about if we had qualified for Nationals! It was a close call, but, we qualified, and I was so overjoyed, that I cried under my sunglasses when our names were called.
We took a few weeks after Regionals to rest up. Next up, we did more training for Nationals, complete with a fantastic pre-Nationals training day with my instructor and a few teammates. One of my best memories from this year was that just-before-Nationals training day. The glorious feeling when we started the day working our butts off, and then by the end of the day, proved what we could do in two amazing jumpers runs—the heat and the sweat and that hard practice and then two beautiful runs as a connected team? It felt like heaven. I remember trying to balance exuberantly rewarding Miles with freshly roasted chicken breast, all the while shooing wasps away. I remember the smell of the grass where we were practicing, and the hum of the air conditioning on high as Miles happily slept as we drove home in the beating sun.
It was a lot of work, some parts intimidating and scary, but really, really fun.
After that, it seemed like no time until Nationals!
You can read about our Nationals experience here. We had a blast, way more fun than at Regionals, and although we didn’t place in any of our runs, or make the podium, I was very happy with the experience, because I felt that we belonged there. We’d also beat our score at Regionals!
Random memory from Nationals? Every night, I drove Miles and I home, and when we got home, I’d wash our stuff, bathe Miles in soothing lukewarm water, get dinner ready, and get our fresh gear ready for the next day. The Saturday of Nationals, Miles and I were fresh and clean, and I was getting dinner out of the oven, feeling very organized. Then, I realized that I hadn’t heard my phone buzz for a while, and, it was nowhere in sight. After searching the clean apartment, I heard the sloshing of soap in the washing machine, and put two and two together. Yep – my brand new iPhone, which I’d just bought to replace my six-year-old iPhone 3, was destroyed. I should have been upset that I’d then have to wait for several months to be able to get a new phone, only having access to my old phone which only worked when plugged in — but instead, I was sad because the dead phone had on it the only two perfect runs I’d ever had captured on video of me and Miles. While very sad, I look back, and am proud that two such runs happened at Nationals.
Newbie Master’s Burn Out
After Nationals, we continued with classes and trials. And we struggled, all the way up until finishing for the year in mid December. Looking back now, I think what we’d done that year had been a lot for us, with so many learning curves and breakthroughs, that we both became seriously burned out. We’d changed and improved so much, and then, I didn’t even realize we were burned out, and we hit a wall. I learned three things from our first major plateau:
1. Success Brings Greater Challenges
When you succeed immensely, challenges become bigger, and harder, while weaknesses that were there all along begin stand out. It is kind of like the problem with polishing something – the nooks and crannies start to become more glaring.
2. The Mental Game of the Plateau
Suddenly, the immense thrills of our hard work and the fast progression of leaps forward in our success fell off into the background, and all I could feel was the loud screech as we arrived at the standstill, and the agonizing silence when we got there. It was a depressing time for me, and I didn’t understand it.
3. The Progression of Success
Change and success don’t always come easy, and improvement doesn’t always happen in a perfect, steady progression. But that can be hard to understand in the moment. And when you begin to understand, it can be hard to accept, in the moment! In this kind of plateau, trying harder doesn’t always help. It can be an uphill battle for the determined.
These moments are where a lot of people give up, and believe me, I have too— in pursuits I didn’t care about as much about. Plateaus are demotivating, and they challenge everything you thought you knew about your hard work and achievements.
Tough Things I Learned Being New to the Big Leagues
1. Recognizing Burnout
When you have worked very hard and accomplished a LOT in a short amount of time, it can become difficult to recognize the difference between the usual uphill battle of challenges, and burnout. When you get so used to working very hard and seeing results, it can be hard to stop for a second when things seem tough and to recognize being burned out.
2. When Big Changes are Happening, Know When to Take a Break!
Agility is addictive. I know this because I see us all out there at trials, Saturday morning at 7am, freezing our butts off, walking a course. If any random event is enough for us to do that, en mass, just think of how addictive it gets when we experience success. When I look back at 2015, I see a lot of struggle, hard work, and success, and I also see one glaring failure – and it wasn’t something Miles or I did at a trial – it was my failure to know when to take breaks.
2. Your Biggest Strength Can Become Your Biggest Weakness
When Miles and I became good enough to begin competing in agility, it became clear that Miles’ strength was Gambling. Gambling is the ability of the dog to follow handler instructions from a distance. Even a lot of high-level teams struggle with this skill, and to be honest, it isn’t a skill that is valued in a lot of competitive applications of agility. I’ve seen it most in AAC where we currently compete, and in watching videos of world events.
This year, in our first year of Master’s agility, even when we had an unsuccessful trial day otherwise, Miles could usually do something impressive in the Gamble run to bring my spirits back up, and to earn us praise from fellow competitors. I reward Miles after every run, good or bad. But this year I REALLY rewarded him when he did well — Q’ing runs, and almost always, Gamble runs.
It took me until the end of the year (and help from friends) to realize this — but Miles was beginning to get over-excited and think about Gambling in every run. This cost us many, many potentially qualifying runs. We would bust out an amazing Jumpers course, for example, and Miles would add an extra distance obstacle (aka a Gamble) to the mix. To him, it was irresistible. He wanted to have fun, and to earn my praise at the same time. To him, gambles are what his is naturally GOOD at, and what have gotten him the most praise from me over time. In the moment, I didn’t understand at all. I was thinking “how does he think I will be happy about this?!” But to him, I am thinking he wasn’t seeing a clear enough distinction between gambles and everything else.
The next step this year is to figure this out. I will still be rewarding Miles, but I will be very careful with how I run Gambles (I need to have a set plan and stick to it in the opening, for example, rather than running and rewarding willy nilly!), how I reward them, and how I place emphasis on big rewards at trials in general. I need to reward the “close calls” in other runs more heavily, and make good gamble runs positive, but less WOOOHOOO!, so that I can shift the emphasis.
3. Put it into Perspective
In early December, I was feeling so deflated from our burn out period, that I was loosing sight of all our accomplishments from 2015. It made me negative and fatalistic! I was starting to think we’d reach a permanent plateau, that something was terribly wrong with my handling, and/or that Miles had lost it. Well, yeah, something is wrong with my handling – I need more practice. And yeah, Miles IS bonkers, he’s a Welsh Terrier that does agility at a high level! And finally, no. I don’t think we’ve reached a permanent plateau. Just under a month away from agility has taught that. I have a better perspective, and I can see how far we’ve come, I have a better view of the challenges and the fun ahead.
So here’s to wild card teams…
And to great success to all in 2016!