A bit over two years ago, I wrote a M&E entry entitled “Down the Rabbit Hole.” If you haven’t read it, I recommend that you do for a good “oh, terriers!” laugh, and as a preface for the following post. At the time, Miles and I were new to competitive agility. We were both finding our footing in agility in so many ways, and on top of that, we were trudging through a good amount of other people’s judgments about the likelihood for success for wild wiry terriers in agility. That post was about the most major “wild terrier” event of our Starters/Advanced career. Writing and thinking about it was helpful for me at the time, because I could share it with an audience who would understand, and, the reflection and relaxed re-telling helped me learn some very important things about Miles.
Miles and I have come a long way since then, and we even have people cheering us on (thank you guys)! In my recent overview of our first year in “the big leagues of competitive agility, I discussed that when huge strides forward occur, long-term issues can begin to seem more glaring. I likened the effect to rigourous polishing of an object where suddenly with hard work, nooks and crannies become more noticeable.
So what are our ‘nooks and crannies?’ Where do our greatest weakness lie?
Down the Rabbit Hole, of course!
Miles is a “well-adjusted” Welsh Terrier. He gets to be himself, in all of his wild glory. The more work we do together, the more he “gets human,” and I “get terrier.” In all of our hard work together, all of our ups and downs, he has never been punished for his natural urges — he has been coached on how to channel them, and taught that with self-control and handler focus come rewards (and with excessive wildness and human humiliation, come breaks in the fun where Emma tears up and takes deep breaths far from the crowd over a soggy sandwich while Miles watches and tries to figure out why?). Miles has gone from a naturally “completely feral, no cares given to human expectations” terrier, to a wild wiry terrier who lives life to the fullest with a human teammate. Miles cares what I think a lot of the time, now that he has been taught to understand what I might be thinking in the first place. “Human” is many kinds of dog’s second language — to a wild wiry terrier, such concepts are even further removed from natural repertoire. I tell you all of this about how far we’ve made it as a terrier/human team, not to boast about achievements that pepper the way, but to talk about the rabbit holes at every level of the game.
Terriers don’t grow into placated “obedient dogs” once they gain understanding of general human structures (the daily walk around the block, a Master’s agility course) — their intelligence only refines, and they then find new ways to create excitement and mystery. It is ingrained in who they are. To be a human who wants to work with that, you’ve got to have a little of that personality, too… Falling down the rabbit holes is part of the deal, oh the bewildering moments, the soggy sandwich moments…
“Now, here, you see, it takes all the running you can do, to keep in the same place. If you want to get somewhere else, you must run at least twice as fast as that!” — The Red Queen, Alice in Wonderland
Rabbit Hole: He’s a Gamblin’ Man
Quick overview of what Gambles is: Gambles is an agility course where the first half of the run is a mad dash in whatever fashion you choose to accumulate as many points as possible. When a buzzer rings, that is your indication that it is time for the handler to get behind a taped area, and direct the dog to a short sequence of obstacles from a distance. For a more elaborate description and other agility terms, please refer to our Agility Dictionary.
When Miles and I started competing, our instructor at the time strongly encouraged new competitors to do Gambles first, to “get the willies out.” Why? Because in Gambles, you will never be asked to leave the ring or shorten your time if your dog is wild in the Opening portion of the run. The Opening of a Gamble is about the dog taking as many obstacles as possible — order doesn’t matter. Each obstacle is worth a set value of points, and each obstacle can be taken twice for points (more repetitions aren’t faults or disqualifiations, they are just not worth more points). Not only can you still earn points towards a Q with a wild dog, you can also use this run to blow off steam first thing in the morning.
Eventually, when you get into Master’s, strategy becomes important in Gamble Openings, because the amount of points you need are greater, and the positioning of the obstacles, especially high-point ones, becomes more challenging.
Miles has always demonstrated strong skill at distance work (primarily the closing part of Gambles). Difficult Closings have often been the place where I have felt the greatest connection to Miles at competitions. We excel at them, and they don’t come as hard to us as other agility challenges.
In our current class, Miles is typically focused and hardworking, and his skill level at all courses is good. Gamble doesn’t stand out. But at trials, Miles loves Gambles, and is always trying to make every run a Gamble — which costs us a LOT of Q’s right now. So why is he only Gamble-crazy at trials?
In class, we only ever practice the controlled Final part of a Gamble, and we never practice the speedy wild Opening part. Miles’ only knowledge of the Opening of Gambles is from Competition settings. So naturally, he associates Opening (wild) part of the Gamble with competition, and never with class (where everything is always structured).
By the time we got to Master’s, Miles could still be wild and inaccurate in the Opening of Gambles and earn enough points to then get to the accurate part, the Closing, and show his stuff (like in class), and then Q. Sometimes, I felt like we were way too wild and disconnected in the Opening, but, when the buzzer rang, I still knew we had enough points to show our skills in the Closing, and recover with a stellar finish. Gambles have consistently been rewarding for both me and Miles on a lot of levels at competitions.
Last year, I still relied heavily on Gambles as our “blow off steam” first course of the day, using the same mindset I was taught in the beginning of our competitive career. I also rewarded Miles immensely for every Gamble run — because he always performed well (lots of points in the Opening, and good structured effort in the Closing). A lot of factors played into this — from our first instructor’s strong recommendations, to our ongoing success at Gambles.
In Standard, Snooker, and Jumpers — every single part has to be accurate in order to Q. In those runs, one extra obstacle will always automatically result a no-Q (small exception in Snooker, but basically, same idea). Too much wildness, and we must to leave the ring early, or slow down and repeat the hard parts that Miles finds demotivating. Last year, many of these runs were not only demotivating for us — they were far less likely to result in Miles being absolutely showered with rewards afterwards — whereas Gambles almost always elicited crazy joy from me to Miles at the end.
Looking back, it is no surprise to me now that Miles has grown to love Gambles at competitions. Miles has learned to associate success at competitions with Gambles — and he is now trying to will every run into being a Gamble. Look at how rewarding they have been!
By the end of last year, I was exhausted, burnt out, and so was Miles. I cover the reasons here. Even our Gamble runs at the last trial in early December were erratic, and too wild. As we’d improved so much at the beginning of last year, and shown it in the middle, I didn’t stop to take breaks and adjust my competition tactics to catch up with our newfound skill sets. Being a terrier, Miles is not only perceptive — he uses his intelligence to take matters into his own “hands.” He tried to fix it himself, and this meant Gamble mania.
Tunnels: The Refined Agility Terrier’s Rabbit Holes
Had Miles entered competitive agility without the high level of high-drive terrier-specific training already under his belt, his “rabbit holes” would have undoubtably have been the usual beginner-agility-terrier M.O. — bolting out of the ring mid-run. Given his previous high-drive terrier-specific training, Miles’ earliest wild moments were instead spent zipping around the ring, full-throttle, without a care in the world, ricocheting off of obstacles, people, you name it. The agility ring was Miles’ oyster — I mean pinball machine. But, he never left the ring. When he did, as described and linked above, I realized that mystery defines the rabbit hole.
At our first agility Nationals last year, we were half way through a spectacular Jumpers run, when suddenly, Miles looked me in the eye, and basically said, “Just a sec Em! I’m going to do this tunnel ahead! Be right back!” After completing the tunnel, he rushed back to me, and completed the second half of the course perfectly. One moment, which cost us a lot. One moment down an irresistible rabbit hole.
Part Gamble, part terrier wildness… Of course, it has to be tunnels.
The tunnel, the ultimate terrier joy obstacle in agility! Dive IN! Boom boom BOOM run through! Dark loud and winding! Like chasing a bunny down the rabbit hole! Surprises await down dark corridors! The unknown, the mysterious.
What is Ahead
My goals for 2016 are somewhat outlined in the previous post. Last year had taught me to be more careful to not over-do it, and to prevent/recognize burn out by better knowing when to take breaks.
A lot of extra tunnels were probably taken at the end of 2015 because I did not recognize our burn-out and take the breaks we needed.
2016 will also be our first year with some experience under our belt of the big leagues! To a lot of teams, this means intense focus on developing handler and dog agility skills. To me, it means that, but also, even greater work on everything related to running and being a teammate to a high-drive wild wiry terrier. These are skills that cross over with a lot of agility specific training — but aren’t ones I can refine just by the usual route of good agility classes, workshops, and seminars. Anyone who runs an unconventional dog knows what I mean here.
Unintentional gambles, and tunnels, will be where my greatest work will be — along with knowing how much to reward Miles for runs, regardless of how they show on the score sheet. Some wins will come easy, and won’t need huge celebrations. Other achievements won’t show up on score sheets, but will need me to recognize them, and to reward Miles with gusto. I can’t overlook those types of wins anymore. Those wins are what shape the bulk of my canine teammate’s experience.
I look forward to sharing our training, agility, and competition adventures this year — what will work for us, what won’t, and beyond. The exciting parts, the hard parts, and all of the moments in-between.
Some trips down the rabbit hole end with me falling flat on my ass right out the other end, with dust in my eyes. Other times, I find myself in a terrier’s world. I feel privileged to be granted a visitor’s pass now and then, even if sometimes a bit roughly and by accident.
It is nice just to be invited these days. I’ll try to share my observations as best I can!
A big thanks to those of you who comment with your thoughts and your encouragement.