Agility Nationals boast the best of the best of the country, and on top of that, anyone registered with the AAC — meaning not just one country! This year, agility AAC Nationals were hosted in a city nearby to where Miles and I live. Given I had signed Miles and I up for Regionals, the pressure was on to qualify. At Regionals, I decided that if we qualified for Nationals, I would enter us. The close-to-home opportunity was too great not to miss. And now, as you know from our last entry, we qualified for (we were invited to) Nationals. So, we went!
Wednesday – Set Up
The first thing I learned about Nationals was that it is preferable to attend every day of the event — not just the competition days. I went on the first day of set-up early in the day, and was able to secure a good crating spot. Hours later, the main tents were completely full. I can’t imagine the stress of traveling from far away, only to be stuck tenting far from the events. Now I know that if I do travel to attend Nationals, I need to be there and ready several days before the event begins.
Thursday – Warm Ups
The next day, Miles and arrived at the venue to do a brief warm-up run. I was shocked to find that I was nervous for the warm up run! After all, no one was really watching, and our short time in the ring didn’t count at all. There was something about hitting the competition ring for the first time that got my adrenaline going.
Friday – Competition Day 1
The first day of competition, we only had one run out of the six — our first of two Gamblers. I took one look at the course map, and knew we wouldn’t get the final Gamble. It was beyond our current skill level. Instead of worrying about the final, I devised a good opening plan, to get a healthy amount of points. Miles ran really well, and did a mini gamble for bonus points. I was very happy with that kick-off to our first Nationals! When I looked at the results, only one dog in our class got that final gamble. When I saw that, I thought of a quick exchange a friend and I had earlier that day. While we walked the course, I said “Hmm, this looks hard.” She said, “I agree, and its Nationals, it should be hard.” I smiled and nodded in complete agreement.
Saturday – Competition Day 2
Our first run on Saturday was a Standard course — the course we had the most trouble with at Regionals. Miles is always a wild man on his first run, and the course was extremely difficult. Something occurred to me, as I waited for our turn to come up. I was less anxious than I am at trials, or at Regionals. That moment when you realize that you are gaining experience, and that bit by bit it is paying off — that is an amazing feeling! Instead of worrying about my wild man dog, or worrying about how the course was harder than anything we’d ever done at a competition before, I felt a calm sweep over me — and the reason for it felt clear to me. I was happy just to be there, and to be a part of it. To get to Nationals, you have to qualify. We had proven ourselves worthy just to be there.
Miles and I got out on the course, and we busted it out with no faults, and over 10 seconds under time! Glorious!
The next run was Gamblers. The final Gamble was easier than anything we’ve done in a long, long time. But being a logical person when it comes to competition, and being aware of the intensity of this level of competition, I knew not to count on “how things would normally be.” We ended up having a great opening, with Miles completing both of the two mini gambles twice! When the buzzer rang, I collected him for the final, and I knew it was over before it had begun. Miles was pumped from that great opening, and he was too erratic. I knew immediately that we weren’t going to get the final. Given Miles’ specialty is Gamblers, that was sort of “bleh.” Who would have ever thought Miles and I would need control in Gamblers? Welcome to Masters, and Nationals! I am not joking when I say that all of these new experiences have been good. In this case, I was pleased to know we have more work to do in Gamblers. For so long people have said what a good Gamble dog Miles is. I liked seeing a new level of competition, and skills to strive for.
The final run on Saturday was Jumpers. Again, the course was very tricky. But this time, as I walked it, I realized that the ones we’ve been doing the last few trials were more challenging. I was beginning to feel pretty relieved about that, until people started talking about how the course had two similar loops — and how they were forgetting which was which. That’s the thing about Master’s agility courses — there are always tricky parts, especially when you least expect them. This marks another important thing I’ve learned in my short time in the “big” competition ring! My walk-through is the most important part of how I plan for the course. Listening to others too much can be very crazy on your nerves, and can plant little seeds of doubt in your head, if you let it. The biggest challenge, and skill, when listening to other handlers in agility is to be able to pick up on the important ideas, and to be able to tune out anxieties. I tried as hard as I could to tune out the “yikes the course has two circles and they are similar” idea, and instead, I focused hard on how I viewed the course when I walked it. Instead of starting to imagine what I’d walked as “a loop”, and “another loop,” as some were seeing it, I kept my head clear, and focused on how I’d seen it originally.
My mental game paid off — and I remembered the course perfectly. On top of that, me and Miles were a true team, and did awesome together on the course. The only bad part was that Miles killed important course time (3-5 seconds in Jumpers is an absolute eternity!!!) in the middle of the course to stop and scratch. I couldn’t blame him. I am positive he stopped to scratch himself because he was a bit nervous. The energy at Nationals is intense and hectic. Even if I wasn’t nervous in that moment, I don’t blame my teammate for being so! Other than his stop-and-scratch moment, it was a great run.
Sunday – Competition Day 3
Sunday opened, again, same as Saturday, with a Standard course for our group. I wasn’t overly thrilled that the highest-point-value run was first for our rotation on both Saturday and Sunday! Not cool! Plus, our rotation was later in the morning, meaning an extra-long wait till we ran. We were on-site at 5:30 am, but weren’t scheduled till 10:30 am. On top of that, there was a mixup with the event planning, and our first run was postponed to later than originally planned. I was sad when 10:30 am, which was nice and cool, passed by. The day got very hot before we’d even begun.
Given the postponement, all of my friends and family arrived well ahead of time to see us run. The long wait, combined with an audience of loved ones, caused me to begin to feel incredibly nervous for the first and only time that weekend. My parents especially were only going to see one run, so I didn’t realize how much pressure I’d put on myself for that.
Miles took two extra jumps, and botched his weave pole entry. We re-collected quickly from those mistakes, and ran the course fast. At our current skill level, it wasn’t awful, but at Nationals, at the big leagues, thats the kind of crappy run that can cost any team a placement. I was fine with Miles being wild (especially given the fact that I was stressed!) — but I’ll admit, I was sad my friends and family only got to see us at our worst of the weekend.
Our last run was Jumpers. By then, my family were gone, and it was scorching hot out. We were running way later than planned. Miles and I ended up having a beautiful run, with one glaring exception. Miles did his classic evil move as of late — and took off in the middle of our run, to do an extra tunnel! This was not handler error — I signaled a front cross as Miles completed a jump, Miles had the information of what was next before he had completed that jump, then he slowed down, looked at me, knew what I wanted, but looked at the tunnel behind us, turned away from me, and WALKED to tunnel, WALKED through the tunnel, and then came running back to me. We busted out the rest of the course perfectly. The top dog in our class had a time of around 31 seconds. Our run, with the painfully slow WALKING extra tunnel gave us a time of around 35 seconds. Nice, Miles! That is where we are right now — Miles likes to do that evil tunnel move. He did it at Regionals twice. In a way, I was lucky he only did it at Nationals once. I’ve got work to do on that one.
Our first Nationals was fantastic. We beat our personal score at Regionals by 30 points(!), and we got half of the faults we had gotten at Regionals. That is a huge improvement, especially considering Nationals is harder than Regionals.
The best part of our first Nationals? We belonged there.
It was only earlier this year that we were really new to the Master’s ring, and I felt unsure if we fit in. In a local barn, with a small group of people! When I think back to starting agility with Miles — I never even dreamed we’d compete at the top level of agility — and I never thought we’d make it to Nationals!
Welsh Terrier Notes
At our first Nationals, non-agility ringside and ring behavior were more important to me than anything. For a lot of teams, the primary concern is being skilled enough at agility to be eligible for Nationals. For people who do agility with Welsh Terriers and similar dogs, that is only one part of the challenge. A high-drive terrier can have all of the agility skill in the world, but still be, well, a wild high-drive terrier, and be totally wild unleashed. Normal competitions are challenging enough – Nationals is a whole other level of tough. Top behavior is expected. Dogs are off-leash in close proximity to a million distractions, often on grass, with no incentives other than their handler to guide them. Handlers cannot touch the dog during competition, or have food etc with them.
I run a type of dog that lives and breathes to do three things:
- To chase any and all moving objects, even ones seem very far away
- To work independently without people
- To always locate and know escape routes, and to dart to them at ANY given moment
Miles and I have worked our asses off. And he proved to me at Nationals that our hard work has paid off. We’ve made it. Miles was the only terrier of his entire kind there (Welsh, Wire Hair Fox, Smooth Hair Fox, Lakeland, Irish, Airedale), and he chose to work with me, instead of the things that come naturally to him. He went against his nature for me and for our team. He entered and left the ring with no incentives other than our work together, and never once considered chasing the dog leaving before him, or entering after him. He ran the courses alongside dogs running other courses in a 6-ring venue. He could see 6 other dogs running other courses, and he didn’t look at them. Children ran by next to the rings, all kinds of people watched, people played tug with their border collies next to the ring, he didn’t care.
We’ve got a successful Nationals under our belt! Go team Welsh Terrier!!