Late last year, Miles and I attended our first two agility seminars! Seminars for dog performance skills usually have similar criteria: you sign up in advance for a limited-space, intensive-style group coaching class. Seminars often feature a visiting instructor / expert / coach, and are a fantastic way to learn new things and be exposed to a new perspective.
Our First Seminar
When I heard that Kayl McCann was coming to my area, I was very excited and signed up for our first seminar. Kayl is an experienced and highly successful agility competitor (she has won 35 World agility medals!), and is one of only seven official OMD coaches in North America. I love the One Mind Dogs philosophy. Our instructor also teaches these methods. Late last year was the beginning for me of feeling like some of the basic skills of One Mind Dogs were starting to finally solidify into my consciousness. It was a perfect time to throw a shock to the system and attend a One Mind Dogs seminar! I truly believe in that approach…
Just when I find myself just starting to feel like I am “getting it” and know enough to make some sense of what might be to come– That is when I know it is time to venture out into scary new territory again!
The day of our first seminar, there was a terrible windstorm. The night before I had landed in Seattle, and upon arriving back home, I was shocked at the crazy conditions (clearly that was the beginning of the bonkers winter of late 2016 – early 2017). I unpacked my suitcase, ran out and got some groceries, and packed for the seminar. The next morning Miles and I got in the car, and off we went. There were fallen trees on the highway, but thankfully it appeared that many people had opted not to drive that weekend. When we arrived at the barn, the power was out. Kayl was professional and relaxed, and worked through the storm with no microphone!
When I walked in the door, the mood was unlike anything I’ve ever been a part of in agility. Everyone from the beginner session that was wrapping up had clearly learned a great deal, and they all seemed excited and serious about being there. The barn was quieter than usual. Kayl’s (and her boyfriend’s) young Border Collie was sitting off-leash on a table in the distance, waiting patiently with baited breath to be called over for demo duty. As we sat down for the opening of the seminar, not a single one of the dogs present were barking or whining. The room was silent. The mood was palpable: I could tell everyone wanted to absorb as much as they could. To be honest I began to get a bit nervous!
What I Anticipated
In agility, there is some pretty strong etiquette expected of anyone who is above the entry levels (the poor newbies, including myself not long ago, can be a bit intimidated!). I am comfortable with the general environment now, but upon entering the seminar, I wasn’t sure what to expect. I did know that I had waited a long time to attend one, because I wanted to get a lot of practice working with Miles in similar, but more familiar group practice events. At this kind of seminar, everyone is hyper-focused, there are many high-drive dogs off-leash working nearby each other at any given time, and there are usually no barriers in place.
The barn was divided into three or four stations, and during your turn, you would have a few minutes to warm up, and then the instructor would come over to give focused teaching. I was so impressed with Kayl. She was encouraging, confident, relaxed, and professional. Not only is she an amazing agility handler, competitor and trainer; she is clearly also passionate about and skilled at teaching people. She had this air of “I can teach YOU.” Her genuine love of teaching people, and ability and interest in teaching any kind of student was exhilarating.
Miles and I had three turns. The first, I was so nervous, I could barely remember or perform the skill. In my limited experience training with different instructors, I have had some yell corrections at me, ask me what I was thinking when I executed a move poorly and/or incorrectly, etc. But she didn’t. She focused on guiding me and shaping me from where I was, to where I could be. She already understood I wanted to learn, and tried to help me get there. She helped explain and demonstrate how I could better my movements for my dog’s path. She taught the One Mind Dogs method excellently, because she didn’t just repeat the goal that “you should make the best path for your dog” (most of us agree and strive to do that, but don’t automatically know how!)– she explained how I could. Her teaching method was highly efficient and effective for me. Despite being in a new situation and it being a short period of time, I made huge progress. By our third turn, I felt really excited, serious, and confident; just like the people leaving the last session had appeared to me when I walked in. I made major headway. My handling changed!
Welsh Terrier Reflections
Separate from the handler outcomes of the seminar, which were great, I was and am highly aware and reflective of what it meant for me and Miles to be present.
A very small minority of Welsh Terriers are observable at the higher levels of agility, or, in agility at all. This is definitely a breed with strong and different behaviors. For such breeds that aren’t overly “biddable” by nature and are uncommon in agility for that reason, many of the few that become good at agility also end up specialists. Maybe they are wonderful at agility, but they aren’t good at working off-leash around lots of other dogs, or maybe they aren’t good with other dogs at all, etc etc etc.
Situations like these kinds of seminars can be challenging even for a Welsh Terrier that excels at competitive agility, because in competitions, there are usually some semblance of barriers, the dog can be sheltered/crated in between runs, and there are other buffers in place. For us, it didn’t take being practiced at agility or a history of Masters-level agility competition for me and Miles to be able to attend and get the most from a high-level agility seminar: it took those things, and much, much more.
Miles is wonderful at agility, but he is not a specialist.
I didn’t train him to be one. Miles is my buddy in all aspects of life. He is an agility Welsh Terrier, and he can also walk nicely on-leash through a busy park. Miles is an agility Welsh Terrier, and he can handle a variety of random daily situations without poor reaction. Miles’ breed is known to have propensities for all sorts of behavioral challenges. Given that, I could have just focused on one thing and aimed to be good at it: doing well at competitive agility alone would have been an impressive goal! But if I had thought about Miles and agility that way when I started out, I wouldn’t have gotten a chance to attend a seminar like this one now, and we wouldn’t be able to progress past a certain level at this prime point in his career.
Becoming “good” at something isn’t mutually exclusive to being able to get even better at it.
When I reflect on that, I think about all of the areas where my focuses have been, how important they have all been (big and little), and what it has meant, and continues to mean to me to have an “unique breed” that excels at agility. It has been a big process, full of all sorts of stories and adventures, and overall, a rich life together. Because of the work Miles and I have done together and continue to do, we are able to benefit from a wide range of specific situations. For a dog like a Welsh Terrier, Miles being at a high-level agility seminar was way more impressive to me than him being the only Welsh Terrier at Nationals! Miles is my first agility dog, and I am Miles’ first and only agility person. We are in this life together, and after all we’ve accomplished, I am proud as to say that there is so much more ahead for us. My biggest tip to anyone wanting to pursue agility with an unconventional breed is: don’t become caught up in frustrations when dreaming of success — instead, work towards as many small successes as you can, and build on each one.
If you do it right, the one big success you dream of won’t be the end.