Sunday, August 29, 2004

Omigosh omigosh!

(excerpted from email to a friend) Omigosh omigosh omigosh. What a weekend Tika had! In the "minor" events--Snooker and Gamblers, wherein we basically invent our own courses and try to rack up as many points as possible within certain time and obstacle constraints, she not only did great and Qualified and took first in her height in both classes, but also got much higher scores than any other dog of any height in her entire level. That's always a big stroke for my admittedly competitive brain parts. In her pairs relay class, she did great, but her partner had a bobble, which dropped us to 3rd out of all the pairs in our entire level (nothing to scoff at, though, even if you're inclined to scoff).

So then we get to our Jumpers run, which I really wanted to Q so badly but have been knocking bars for 2 years--our first USDAA Jumpers run was in Aug or Sept of 2002--she was nearly stunning! Not a bar down! Not a single offcourse! She veered slightly in the wrong direction after 2 jumps where I was crossing behind (dang--and our instructor has been after us to practice more cross-behinds the last couple of weeks, too), which cost us a little time and dropped us to 2nd place, about 1 second behind the first place dog. But she Qed! So now she can move up to the top level (Masters) in all of her classes. Yow. I am jazzed about that.

THEN there was the Grand Prix qualifier, which was the other thing I really wanted. I ran her conservatively, which meant holding her on her down-contacts for a couple or 3 seconds, and tried to be relaxed and confident because when I get stressed I tend to do really stupid things or rush my signals. She looked perfect, all the way through! We did get one fault, and it wasn't for something I saw--it was probably missing an UP-contact on her dogwalk, which we have problems with periodically. But it was minor enough that we still qualified! Wahoo! So she's going to the Nationals in the Grand Prix and I can relax about that.

AND, BTW, Jake also qualified, so now they're both valid for the National Grand Prix--although Jake already had the option of merely competing in the "veterans" division, for dogs who have previously competed in the National Grand Prix (which he did twice).

Then there was the bonus Steeplechase regional qualifier. I walked the course--it was a challenging course, but the more I looked at it, the more I realized that we were completely capable of doing it. Our instructor starts dogs out at a challenging level in classes and works up, more or less with the goal that nothing we ever see in the ring would be more difficult than what we've already faced in class. It really paid off this weekend, because I went out there feeling just confident enough--my goal was to get through the course without an offcourse and hopefully no bars down--and there were many opportunities for a fast dog to go offcourse without the right handling--because (as I said) I've almost never Qed in the Steeplechase before.

Man, she was a delight to run. I watched the first 8 dogs crap out on that course, and then we ran, and she ran clean and plenty fast. (She ticked one jump bar, and I thought I heard it fall behind me, but interestingly the *lower* of the 2 bars fell, and that's not a fault!) Only 10 of 40 dogs would be going to the 2nd round and qualifying for Nationals, and she was in 1st place after 9 dogs(!). Then I had to watch through the next 32 dogs as, one by one, these awesome dogs, some with previous national championships, also ran clean with slightly faster times. We were in 10th place as the last dog ran--and they were clean, but slower than Tika's time. So we were Qed for the Nationals again and moving to the 2nd round on Sunday by the skin of our dogteeth! I just about floated away from the ring.

7 of the 10 dogs would get cash awards on Sunday, but I knew we didn't have chance for that, because I'm just some shmoe who does agility and sometimes gets lucky with my dogs. Although Tika is really a fine dog; still, I'm not the best handler in the universe, and because it's all about speed, the finalists have to use the most aggressive handling techniques and the dogs have to be letter-perfect without slowing down. It's only been 6 months since Tika stopped being a rebellious teenage novice dog, testing me on course, and began slowly to settle down to learn how to work well as part of a team.

The Steeplechase Round 2 is a time-plus-faults course; in other words, if you run the course in 35 seconds with no faults, you could get beaten by a dog who ran the course in 29 seconds with a 5-fault knocked bar (29+5=34, which is less than 35). So it's not only speed, but accuracy, too. And the courses are usually very challenging, even more than the first round. (Oh, and, yes, the dogs are usually so fast and so close together in times that a single 5-point fault is likely to make your chances of taking 1st pretty much zero.)

So they set the course, and the first time I walked it, there were clearly half a dozen quite challenging handling choices--even the very experienced, successful handlers were trying several methods to see how they felt. And yet--and yet--I felt that it was a course that we could do without looking like dorks. Once again, all I wanted was to not crap out on a course where only the best were competing--no offcourses, no stupid spins because I didn't identify the next obstacle quickly enough, no running past obstacles. And I felt that we could do that. Didn't matter if we came in 10th but looked good--the whole rest of the trial shuts down while the Steeplechase Round 2 runs, so *everyone* is watching.

That doesn't actually bother me when I finally get out there--no time to worry about it, I'm so focused on my dog and my body and the course. But *beforehand* I could think about feeling humiliated if we mucked up, and my stomach started manufacturing butterflies. And yet--again--and yet--I still felt that it was a doable course! In the past, I didn't always feel so confident about that with the challenging top-level courses.

There were several places on the course that required particular attention or clearly masters-level handling skill, but one place in particular had me double-guessing.

At that place on the course, you had to send the dog ahead of you over 2 jumps and straight into a U-shaped tunnel and they'd blast back out at you and have to make a weave pole entry straight ahead. To be in the best position for the sequence *after* the weave poles, you'd want to try to outrace the dog and cross his path between the tunnel exit and the weaves, but the dog *really* blasts out of a tunnel in that kind of setup, and the slightest misstep on your part could knock them off the weave pole entry. And Tika has been fairly solid on her fast weave-pole entry the last couple of months, but it hasn't been that long since she was regularly bobbling the entry when blasting straight at them full speed without my giving her guidance--sometimes hit the first pole so hard that she'd knock herself right past the 2nd one for a fault, or fly right past the first pole and enter at the second. I walked it both with that cross and with the weaker but safer move of staying on the inside of the weave poles. I wasn't at all confident about trying to make that cross-- because I didn't think I could get there with Tika's speed, and if I tried and missed, for sure we'd blow the weave entry, and I didn't want to do that--and even if I got there, I wouldn't be giving her guidance, I'd just be picking her up on my left side and moving with her, and she'd have to rely entirely on her own (still limited) experience and skills to manage that weave entry. So I decided that I had to do the 2nd, conservative, choice, staying inside the weaves.

Then I had the advantage of watching 13 dogs in the class ahead of us. These are all really fast dogs. Two or three handlers stayed on the inside of the weaves, but they really had to work to get into position for the next sequence, as I had expected. But all the others *made* that cross between the tunnel and the weaves, even with their blazingly fast dogs! I decided that the only way I could be competitive was to do that cross. One handler did the cross but ended in not quite the right place and, sure enough, it caused problems for her dog in the weave entry. My resolve wavered, but so many others were making it that I finally decided "If THEY can do it, *I* can do it!" and decided to go for broke.

I also saw that almost all the dogs were knocking at least one bar, dropping them rapidly in the placements.

Well, boys and girls, she was a lovely thing. Did everything I asked, all the complicated turns and crosses. By the time we got to that pre-weave cross, she still hadn't knocked a single bar. I went for the cross--and got there perfectly! She smashed into the weave pole opening and my heart skipped a beat, but she was in total control and stormed those poles! We got through the next tough sequence beautifully--and then there were only 5 jumps remaining to the end, with a couple of tight but not difficult turns-- and, sigh, she knocked *2* of them. Maybe because I was relaxing and getting sloppier. But it was a totally beautiful run. I had pushed my limits as a handler and her limits as a working dog, and we both came through beyond my expectations. I was (and still am) one happy handler.

In fact, so many dogs were knocking bars or missing the weave entry or other bobbles that cost them time, that Tika ended up taking 6th place overall--for a big check of $10. She was actually the 4th fastest dog--which I'd been wondering for a while how she'd stack up on a well-run course in comparison to these other wonderful dogs--but the first-place dog, who was the 5th fastest, was the ONLY one who didn't knock at least one bar, and the times were all so close that that made all the difference.

Am I waxing ebullient? I'm a happy mom.

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