End of the Year Review: I learned some lessons, and none of them were what I would have predicted

Last weekend marks the official end of the 2015 Agility Season for myself and pretty much everyone in the Maritimes. Even though we were 0/8 in the Q department after two days of competition, Raafi managed to finish off the year really well at our last trial, which might seem like a funny thing to say. We tried our hand at a few larger events this year and the last trial was a bit of an experiment locally as they had AAC courses being run in one ring and UKI courses being run in the other at the same time. And it seems it was the more unique events that really left an impression on me and Raafi as a team, giving me insight into the type of handler I need to be for him.

Probably the best Ribbon Whore Photo I've ever gotten to take
Probably the best Ribbon Whore Photo I’ve ever gotten to take

Raafi started the year off really strong. He picked up a few Qs and was running confident, fast, and happy, with our main issue being his competition weaves. That is actually pretty much exactly how we finished the year (with what I would call “slight” improvement on his weaves in competition). Running Raafi at home is a blast. He’s speedy, confident, and has a really nice foundation that means we can generally pull off whatever I throw at him. He’s also a surprisingly consistent games dog, especially considering how little I train specifically for games. As a result he’s managed to get his Advanced Game Dog title and his Master Snooker and Masters Jumper title all in the same weekend, and earlier in the year finally managed to get out of Starters Standard. And yet until this weekend I felt a bit let down by this year.

There were a few reasons, but I’d have to say retiring Mu is probably the biggest one. Even as I see his reactivity to other dogs reduce to barely inconvenient levels, I still feel a bit bummed out by not getting to show him anymore. However, he still gets to train as much as before, and, frankly, he’s as frustratingly difficult to train for agility as always, all of which should really cement the point that this is just not the game for him. I’m debating continuing to train him for agility or if I want to focus on something else (he loves disc and actually has the beginnings of some really nice heeling skills), or just continuing to train for fun with no real expectation of getting “competition ready” performances out of him. Regardless of what I decided to do in the future, intellectually I feel I’ve made the best decision for him for now, but it it’s hard to shake the feeling that we’re supposed to be training for something, not just for the sake of it. Fortunately I’ve got a whole winter to think it over for now, and in the meantime hanging around with my much happier and less stressed dog is really, really nice. Nice enough that I don’t want to contemplate frigging it up by competing him again.

Raafi on the way to UKI Spring Cup, doing his best to hide because the other dog in the photo dared look at him with her Border Collie eyes. He is maybe not the bravest dog.
See if you can spot Raafi on the way to UKI Spring Cup, doing his best to hide because the other dog in the photo dared look at him with her Border Collie eyes. He is maybe not the bravest dog.

Another reason I haven’t felt particularly satisfied this past year is that I haven’t felt the best connection with Raafi at trials. Even when he was running well it felt like he was slowing down, and I was having to do lots of cheerleading to get things done. This came to a head at Regionals last spring. After beginning the year with two fantastic trials as I’ve already mentioned, I felt pretty good at first about our chances of finally getting a qualifying score for Nationals. Last year Raafi was only 25 points shy, and I wasn’t even trying to get to Nationals with him; he was there solely for the trial miles. Just prior to Regionals this year I had some stuff going on in my personal life that was stressing me out, and I was worried that me being stressed would spill over onto my sensitive, delicate little flower of a dog. Now, normally when I run the Q isn’t the point. The point is to run hard and push ourselves to see how far we can get. But since I was stressed I decided to listen to the prevailing wisdom which was to set my sights a bit lower than normal. I figured a qualifying score was doable since we weren’t far off the year before, so I listed that as a secondary “It would be nice” goal, and my main goal to simply not be in last in my division (keep in mind that there aren’t a lot of dogs competing in the 26″ division in Nova Scotia, so it’s possible to be last with a pretty good score anyways). Not the most glamorous aspirations to be sure.

The result of these lowered expectations was my dog living down to them, and me not handling it at all well. I had my first, and by god I hope only, full blown competition tantrum after Raafi ran out of the ring in the middle of our second gamblers run, resulting in us getting a zero for the round. He was slow, we were making silly, avoidable mistakes all weekend, he was checking out, and it was really not fun at all. Also, lowering my expectations so much completely killed my competitive edge, and I have to wonder if Raafi was confused by not feeling that energy from me. Funnily enough even with our less than great performance we weren’t last in our division, so I met my primary goal, and even with the zero he only needed four more points qualify for Nationals, meaning if he’d just stayed in the ring I would have met both goals with pretty sloppy runs. Clearly my dog had a lot more in him, but I wasn’t running him like that was the case. It was a bad, bad weekend, and the following weekend running at the UKI Spring Cup was no better as I spent two days trying to run damage control rebuilding his and my confidence on some courses that were really too technical for that purpose. The following weekend we were at a regular trial and lo and behold he was running exactly like he was before Regionals, and even produced our first 100+ point gamble. I wasn’t running him with lowered expectations, and I wasn’t worrying about running clean, and my baby dog reminded me what he had to offer.

The rest of the summer and fall was filled with some ups and downs, further complicated by the fact that I’ve had less money and opportunity to trial this year than any other year before, and exasperated by Mu hitting his breaking point. I was then really happy to find out that there was going to be an extra trial this year, and that they would be running two rings, one with AAC classes and one with UKI classes. It was a new venue, and the last hurrah, so I went in with a very specific goal, much different than the one I set at Regionals, which was “Run the dog you know he can be, not the one you hope he isn’t.”

That phrase is a slight twist on one you’ve heard before, which is to “Run the dog you have.” I’ve said that here, and it’s been said plenty of other places (no idea who coined the phrase, and really, who cares?). It’s a good sentence to keep in mind, but it also assumes you know which dog you’re going to be in the ring with. For most of this year I didn’t know if I was getting Confident Raafi, or Delicate Flower Raafi. I would start and hope I had the former, but was prepared to deal with the latter. That seems like a really logical attitude to take with a soft dog, but it also implies that I doubt my dog’s abilities. If you go to line thinking about all the things you don’t want your dog to do, you’re dog will likely do them. Funny how that works.

Love seeing my little buddy running his heart out!
Love seeing my little buddy running his heart out!

This last trial I decided to change things up and assume I was getting Confident Raafi. I ran balls to the wall from the start, and Raafi rewarded me by keeping up the same energy and focus throughout the weekend. There were lots of small errors (his a-frame needs revisiting and the aforementioned trial weave issues), and yes, at one point he decided to itch himself in the middle of the main gamble, putting us over time (ah, the joys of seasonal allergies). Basically, all things that I knew we were having issues with. However, around those small errors was a dog who was into the game, and coming back for more even when things didn’t quite go to plan. He reminded me how fun he is to run, and not just with one round surrounded by a lot of mediocre ones, but with multiple solid runs, usually in the more difficult classes. Much more fun running against world class dogs and feeling like you deserve to at least be in the same ring as them.

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So we’ve just finished our annual extended break which I use to sort of reset and let any soft tissue injuries heel. It’s also a good time to reassess and come up with a training plan for the next few months. Last year the list was pretty long (like finally get his running contacts properly trained). This year we’re finally moving into smaller and smaller pieces, and once we get them figured out this little guy is going to kill it.

Raafael’s Winter Training Goals (in no particular order)

  • Make this dog as addicted to weaving as he is to dogwalks.
  • Remind Raafi that the yellow part of the a-frame is not a spread jump.
  • Work through Linda Mecklenburg’s new Mastering Jumping Skills book to see if I can get him to jump a tad more efficiently.
  • Work on Raafi’s overall flexibility
  • BONUS: Continue working on getting independent turn cues on a verbal (no rush, but it would be cool)

In all likelihood that list will get modified down the line. However, so long as this winter doesn’t suck like the last one, we have lots of time to get this stuff done right.

masters heat dogwalk

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