(Featured image by Sean Cameron Photographic, September 2017)
I guess you could say it started back in the 1990’s when we would play Switch-the-Dog game to see if the dog would work with another handler or to experience (first hand) the frustrations of our fellow agility mate. It didn’t happen all that often, and was usually for just one run around a course. It was fun, but I’m not entirely sure it taught me much other than how much I loved running my own dog.
Then in 2012, I was offered a spot in a camp, and I couldn’t get my dog there with me (winter flight embargo). That was the start of this Training Thought.
Ivy (a gorgeous 4 year old border collie, beautifully trained by Cheryl Bartlett) was going to be my partner for a Dave Munnings workshop. This was the start of the first, incredible lesson: the importance of verbals. Ivy and I slowly developed a bond over the two day camp, and she showed me how well-timed verbals could provide the dog the information needed to adjust their stride, take the jump and get a tight and smoothly executed wing wrap. It was truly amazing to watch her, in a single stride, take that command, implement and let me get on with my own line.
When you work a dog who understands something you need to learn, they can be your teacher. Humans aren’t necessarily the instructor all the time.
As soon as I got home, I immediately implemented the verbals training with Kelsey and we benefited greatly as a team. This lesson would not have been as clear with my own dog because the two of us would be learning about verbals at the same time. Ivy taught me, so that I may then teach Kelsey.
Then, my next experience was with a variety of dogs in England, from Brooke (a border collie) where we ran a single course together and she taught me the importance of having the proper clothing so I didn’t slow down a fast partner, and some working English cockers (partners in another week-long camp) who taught me about the importance of building value for the handler and quick and seamless transitions. They also taught me about the frustrations of “Party for one” and ways to cut those out.
When you have no preexisting relationship with the canine member of the team, those transitions into and out of the work session are so incredibly important! You also have to become the Goddess of Good for the dog as early as possible.
Then the Summer of 2016 happened. This was a devastating summer for me in agility as my precious Kelsey was diagnosed with a condition that made most of agility too high-risk for ruptured discs. (We have since been cleared for modified agility, but we should no longer do certain obstacles.) August was our diagnosis month, and the month I attended a camp without a partner. While I was willing to go “Handler Only” and still get feedback on my mechanics, Sangie Brooks from the USA offered me her “extra dog,” Vette. I was a complete stranger to her, and yet she entrusted her World’s dog with me. Picture a very large, strong border collie. I asked, “What’s his course speed?” “6.5 yards/second,” Sangie replied. “Right. Got it!” I thought, “Run like stink!” 😉
Vette was a dream to handle! While he had slightly different words than me, we had a shared handling system and he was so honest with everything on the course. He felt like a large, powerful car that was well grounded (like his name – Corvette). We spent some time getting to know each other, but when he left his mama for me to “rescue him,” I knew I had a lifelong buddy. Vette taught me a beautiful thing….
When you handle another person’s dog and they end up having the same problems executing a maneuver the same as your own dog(s), then the issue isn’t your own dog at home, it’s you.
Vette (with the feedback of the instructors) taught me that the reason Kelsey could never quite get the Threadle-Slice maneuver was because of me. By the end of the camp, we both had it fixed. That camp could have been emotionally very difficult for me with no partner in crime / comedy, and Vette (and Sangie) rescued me from having to face it alone. (Thanks Vette – and Jenga also thanks you too.)
(Break & relationship building time: photo by John Hill)
But my lessons with Others’ Dogs haven’t ended there. Kathryn Stickney’s Crave has been my British teammate for a couple of trips now, and we had our first competition run together this summer (what a hoot)! Crave’s lessons for me are extensive, but here are the top two:
Be here, be present, and listen to me. Put away the jet lag, the worry, the nerves, ignore the other people and simply be here with me.
Be my protector and advocate. As my teammate, it is your responsibility to acknowledge when I’ve had enough even if you need more.
Crave taught me that when I wasn’t 100% present, then she didn’t need to be either. I am so grateful for that lesson as I also know my own dogs had tried to teach me that lesson in the past, but it took “Someone else telling me it” for it to really hit home. Also, when I knew the Crave was tired (and I didn’t want to over-train or strain my gifted partner), I had to be willing to look like that Crazy Canadian who would run the course with her imaginary dog for additional feedback. (Crave is in phenomenal shape, these were simply long days and I needed more lessons to get it right.)
I have been blessed with runs with others’ dogs since then and each one whispers a little secret in my ear, but these were big ones that I thought I would share with you.
Many thanks and heartfelt appreciation to the owners of these dogs for providing me with these opportunities and lessons with their dogs. Being trusted with your teammates has been a great honour and a blessing I cherish. xx
(Selfie with Crave after our run at Wales KC show… smiles and cuddles)