Since Miles and I have been competing in agility, our local regionals have been held at the same large equestrian venue every year. The event draws between 300-400 teams from the Pacific Northwest. Each competitor has a total of six runs in which to attempt to earn enough points to qualify for Nationals, and to try for a coveted spot on the podium.
For Miles, there have always been two main struggles at agility regionals. The first has always been obvious: when hundreds of people gather to attempt to qualify for a National event in just one weekend, there is stress in the air. The second took longer to identify, especially because Welsh Terriers are so distractible in the first place! Several years ago, the organizer helped me figure out that Miles’ “alligator-set” Welsh Terrier eyes have difficulty seeing the obstacles against the glare of the bright footing.
Over the years, I have tried many things to lessen Miles’ stress in an environment that I know is challenging for him. Many of you reading have dogs like Miles that are prone to stress, overstimulation, and intense distraction. While the many little routines I have developed are agility-specific, I think my overall way of understanding how to navigate these challenges will benefit anyone with a similar dog: whether you want to compete, or just do daily things you find difficult.
My Stress, Their Stress
I was told by countless people when Miles and I did poorly at our first Regionals that I needed to be less stressed myself. They all said if I could be relaxed, Miles would be too. When I went into the next Regionals with no expectations and Miles still struggled, I realized that lowering my own stress was important, but it was only half of the battle. Just because you are calm, doesn’t mean the other people and dogs will be.
Skill Practice is Different Than Experience
Lowering stress for me and Miles has been a long and evolving mental process for me. First, I was honest about taking note of the factors within myself: I had hopes and dreams, and expectations based on the skills I knew we both had, none of which seemed to manifest when we’d compete at Regionals.
Often you work on skills with the hopes of applying them in the tough environments, but when you get there with your dog like I did, you are out of the boat without a life jacket. I know many people have struggled with this feeling with a terrier or high-energy dog. You wonder what you’ve done wrong. Instead of focusing on why it feels bad, I learned that once I figured out the root of my stress, I could do better. If there is a gap between your dream and your outcome, I realized that acknowledging what causes the gap is the key to moving forward. Too often we try to ignore things that make us feel bad, but being brave for your dog’s sake is worth it in this case!
Miles couldn’t perform to the best of his ability at big competitions, not because we hadn’t worked hard or because we didn’t have the skills, but because he was stressed by performing in an environment he found challenging. Miles didn’t decide to go to Regionals; I did. A dog doesn’t decide to walk through the city; you do. So often, we get frustrated and try to steamroll through the problems. I had to take the time mentally to realize that if Miles wasn’t coping, I had to do more to acknowledge the challenges, and to help him with them. Just as Miles can’t show off his skills normally in some places, I can’t do what I’d normally do for us to succeed. So much more goes into helping your dog perform in a place they find stressful/exciting. There is practice, and there is experience. If you know the experience has factors beyond your practice, you need to adjust and expand your approach.
Accepting the Environment’s Challenges
It might sound strange that accepting challenges is key towards countering them. So often we want to fight challenges, thinking we can change them. In this sort of case, where your dog is stressed by an environment, often it isn’t the environment you can or should try to change; it is how you handle it. Once I realized that environment is critical, I had to accept that what the other people and dogs do is outside of my control. Therefore, as Miles’ handler, I needed to put extra work into how I did the event with him. This is true any time you are in a public place with your dog, but it is surprisingly tough for many dog handlers in normal life, or in agility, to put in the forefront of their minds. If you focus on how frustrating, sad, or unfair it feels that the environment is causing problems for you and your dog, often you will be focusing on the wrong things, your own stress will stay high, and you won’t end up putting your energy towards the only thing you can actually change, which is how your dog experiences the situation.
Instead of trying to change things outside of my control, I began strategizing how I could work to make the experience better for Miles. I learned how to make myself a buffer, rather than trying to force other people to change. You never know what other people are going through. At a park, maybe a parent is having a very tough time. In agility, it is likely your fellow competitors are facing their own challenges, as well. Be understanding, accept the environment, focus on yourself, and most of all, put your efforts towards your dog.
Being Organized and Prepared
If you are taking your dog out in public to a place you know they might find stressful/exciting, I’ve learned that planning is everything. Be ready before you step into the environment, rather than “winging it.” In agility or in other public places with your dog, it can be easy to focus on your own worries, and forget that your dog is there, too, and they didn’t choose to be! They don’t know exactly what is happening, and in many ways, they are at a disadvantage to you. Think of how nervous you might be, and imagine it is tougher for your dog. You can counter that disadvantage by supporting your teammate in critical moments.
In agility, I’ve learned not to do my course obsessing right before Miles and I run. It is tempting to use the 15 minutes right before a run to focus on your needs, but if you run a stress-prone dog, you can’t do that. When I get Miles, I’ve taught myself to use the time just before we run to make him feel safe, respected, and as relaxed as possible. When I enter the ring, I barely look around. I’ve already memorized the space, which is extra work indeed. In agility, some people break connection with their dog to hand the leash to the leash runner. If your dog is easily stressed, it is better to thank the leash runner ahead of time for picking your leash up. Below you can see the photo of this moment. It is an important moment for Miles. The leash will come off and I will walk away leaving him alone for a moment, so instead of ignoring him as I leave him, I keep eye contact with him, and show him that he is not alone.
Your Confidence Is Important
I used to think that because I ran an unpredictable dog, that to cope, my plans would also have to be unpredictable. I have come to realize that is not the case at all.
With a dog who finds many environments stressful or exciting, I used to think that unpredictable plans were inevitable for me, not a choice. I’ve come to realize that this was the wrong way for me to think. That was me surrendering to the chaos Miles felt, and not realizing the ways in which I could prevent some of his chaos, especially by taking complete responsibility for my side of the equation. Just because you work with an unpredictable dog doesn’t mean you have to live or plan unpredictability. If anything, it means you need to find ways to be more predictable. I have worked very hard at this.
Confidence doesn’t mean telling yourself you can do the impossible under great confusion and stress. Being decisive doesn’t mean you have to force yourself to be unsure. Being confident and decisive for your dog just means realizing the skills you have worked for, and trusting them. Trusting yourself will be one of the hardest things you have ever done. I know it was for me.
My dad identified the need for me to be more confident in my plans at AKC Nationals earlier this year. I was really worried about a tricky part of the course and what Miles might do, so I tried to come up multiple plans that I could have ready in the moment. My dad who has never done agility and who has only ever watched us, listened to my planning in the hotel, and then provided me with the best agility advice I have ever been given. He said, “If you aren’t sure, Miles won’t be sure, and he will definitely become unpredictable. If you are very clear and confident, he will be, too. You should decide the best plan for both of you, and stick to it. Don’t second guess yourself, don’t change your plan mid-course. Don’t be unpredictable.” Everything competitively has changed for me since following this advice. I no longer see bold moves as “risks,” I see them as confidence in our skills. I am now enjoying and celebrating our skills in different environments. I am doing moves with a Welsh Terrier that no one ever would think possible— with gusto and success.
Don’t Leave The Responsibility Up to Your Dog
A lot of working breed types of dogs are anxiety-prone, because they are hard-wired to be constantly working. Most dogs are not constantly working, and when they are working, the work is very different from what they were bred to do.
If you are always projecting “I am worried and unsure,” your dog will feel like they have to step up and take responsibility. Someone has to! Often what looks like unpredictable or “bad behavior” is the result of your dog trying to be the responsible one.
I am sure many off-course tunnels in Miles’ and my early- and mid-career agility were taken by Miles, because I seemed so unsure. Miles was not “naughty,” he was trying to be the responsible one! When Miles and I started, he had a reputation for being “the naughtiest agility dog” around. I am sure people said that because they wanted to be sympathetic to me. I never believed that to be true. I didn’t know if we’d ever do well, but I knew Miles wasn’t trying to be “bad.” I am glad I kept an open mind to what I didn’t understand. In agility, it is common for people to blame their dogs for off-courses. I am grateful that for all of those years, Miles was patient with me as I worked my way up to becoming a better handler, and a worthy teammate for him.
Tough dogs are only tough because it can be so challenging for us to figure out what they need, and how to evolve in order to be better for them.
When I came into my own handling skills and developed confidence, I stopped holding Miles back, and became a teammate he could excel with.
Miles was so proud of his beautiful dog walk contact, that he wanted to stop and show me!
How’d We Do This Year?
Always pushing myself to be aware of what is going on, and thinking through challenges over the last several years has allowed me to get the most out of agility, and most of all, my relationship with Miles. All of these mental strategies have been worth their weight in gold. This year, I was the most relaxed I have ever been at Regionals. I felt great stepping into the environment, and even when things didn’t go as planned, I reacted well. Most of all, Miles and I enjoyed ourselves.
For years, agility coaches have been telling me to “think about the dog’s path, not about the obstacles.” For years that was a concept I struggled to understand. At big competitions, the agility courses felt like a series of landmarks that we had to bounce between, like a game of “hot potato.”
This year when I walked the courses, I didn’t see landmarks and traps anymore. There was no “get to this jump, get to that tunnel, avoid that tunnel…” Instead, I felt a flow, and could see our path instead of the obstacles. The courses were becoming a new language in my mind. When I was planning my path, I could image what it would feel like to be running with Miles, and I couldn’t wait to run the technical courses with my buddy. I began overhearing other people say out loud as they walked the course, “we’ll see what my dog does, I have no idea what the heck will happen, I need to block that trap but I don’t know if I can!” For the first time, I didn’t feel that way.
The year I didn’t think of traps as traps, but rather as gray areas outside of our path. We did not have a single off-course (where the dog takes a trap). Off-courses have been a regular part of our Regionals routine for years. No longer! This year we also had zero obstacle faults (missed weaves, knocked jump bars, missed contacts, etc). Miles knew what I was signalling, and he felt supported in his job. He had a handler he could trust. We walked away from the whole shebang with only one fault — a “refusal” in our first run, a Jumpers. It happened because I didn’t support a jump, and Miles turned to look at me and avoided all obstacles! In that moment, I never felt so relaxed about a technical mistake. I cannot complain about my terrier listening so well to me that he obliged and did not do the jump right in front of him!
Once the mistake was made, I also handled it better than I ever have. In previous years, I would’ve panicked and fallen apart and left it up to Miles to guess how to fix the mistake (if you let a Welsh Terrier guess, they will go to a tunnel!). This year, I calmly re-grouped, switched Miles back around to the jump, then went on my merry way. I felt confident in the reason for the mistake, and at peace about fixing it. In big agility events when something goes wrong, it is easy to panic and make it worse, or to come apart at the seams. Mistakes in agility can be kind of like dropping BBQ sauce on a white shirt. You have to be calm and timely and know what to do!
We were fast and clean in our Standard runs too, which absolutely stunned me. Standards used to be our kryptonite. I felt like I was floating on clouds during those runs. I signalled the path so well and Miles loved every minute. Finally, he must’ve thought, my handler feels sure of herself! His had some environmental stress before and after our runs, but during our runs it all melted away, and we experienced unfiltered bliss together. No longer did his stress come out the worst on-course. Now, it was where he could be himself.
Our only real struggle points-wise this year was both final Gambles (distance work). Both times, the Gamble was set in direct sunlight against the black and white fence and away from me, Miles dealt with his long-time vision problems on the bright synthetic sand. I can’t fault either of us for that sort of problem. Even though Gambles are our speciality, it didn’t feel like a failing of our skills.
Miles rarely barks in agility, unless he is feeling really happy and confident. It was so exciting to see him do this at Regionals for the first time.
I felt so connected in our runs. It was a magical Regionals.
Miles is the first Welsh Terrier in the history AAC Agility to stand on the Regionals Podium — and in one of the most competitive height classes!
It was such an honor for Miles to be the first Welsh Terrier on the AAC Agility Regionals Podium. Given we missed the opportunity for major bonus points with our Gamble struggles this year, I was amazed that we had awesome enough Jumper & Standard scores to be the only team in our highly competitive height class to stand on the podium with no gamble bonuses. It is funny to achieve one of my biggest agility bucket list goals with a Gamble dog (they are usually Miles’ specialty) without any Gamble bonuses. It made it even more special to earn this place in the classes with which we have had the most trouble with.
It can be surreal to achieve bucket-list things. Being on the agility podium with Miles was always a dream for me, but it isn’t what I remember about Regionals. That shocked me afterwards. I don’t even remember the podium ceremony. The part I will never forget? Running as one with Miles. Those moments tearing around the course, everything else melted away for both of us, and we were one. Those are moments with my buddy that I will remember for the rest of my life.