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.

Friday, August 27, 2004

Oh please please can we qualify for the nationals?

Backfill: Aug 29 p.m. (from email to a friend)
It's dog agility this weekend and next. Both weekends provide me with opportunities to get Tika qualified for the big USDAA nationals in November in AZ. Gawd, I hope we manage it. There's one more chance two weekends after that, but I'd just like to get the stress over with.

Actually there are *3* events at the nationals--Steeplechase, Team, and Grand Prix, but the Grand Prix is the really big one and the one that people refer to when they mean "national championship". My dogs have only ever qualified for the Steeplechase twice in 8 years of competing--but it's a specialized speed event rather than the more general all-around Grand Prix -- qualifying in the Steeplechase requires that you be in the top some-small-percentage of the dogs, whereas qualifying for the Grand Prix just means that you meet the required standard performance. The challenging part about Qing for Steeplechase in this part of the country is that most of the top dogs in the country compete here, and the prizes are for cash, so they don't stop competing in the regional qualifiers even after they've qualified for the nationals, so the same dogs keep qualifying over and over.

And Team consists of 5 events--you and two teammates compete in four events individually and then all 3 of you compete in a relay. The combined scores of all 3 of you over all the events are compared to all the other teams to determine who Qs-- I *think* that the top 50% of the teams at any qualifier go to nationals. Odds are decent that we can do it, although all 3 dogs on my team this year are young and not that experienced yet. Again--kind of a specialized event.

Sooooo anyway Tika has one chance to Q for Team and two chances each to Q for Steeplechase and Grand Prix. Mostly I care about qualifying in the GP. The others would be bonuses.

AND I really want to qualify in Jumpers, because she's earned enough Qs in the other games to move up to masters if we can get only one clean jumpers runs. I think we're coming up on 30 total USDAA jumpers runs with only 2 clean (both in novice), so I'd really like to get there. But we have such a problem with knocked bars. (Takes only one to prevent a Q.) Still, we've been doing Susan Salo's jumping exercises and taking a few more lessons from her. Not sure that I can afford more, but I think they help. We shall see...

Monday, August 23, 2004

It's Been A While/That Old Deaf Dog

My, time flies when there's not enough of it.

Jake still teases me with his Am I Deaf Or Ain't I? scenario. When we're at an agility trial, walking to the start of the ring, I let him get ahead of me and turned away. There's a lot of ambient noise and distraction. I say his name loudly and he spins instantly, ears perked, eyes bright, looking for the goodie that he knows I have in my hand.

Sitting in my office, I have goodies in my hand. I wait until he's lying on the floor, head turned away from me. It's completely quiet except for the sound of the computer. I call his name. No response, although he's lying there with the ears-in-the-back-of-the-head posture, as though he's expecting to hear something. I call his name louder. Nothing. Finally he turns his head casually, as if it's something he just decided to do, then suddenly perks up when he sees me looking at him and holding food. Thirty seconds later--he knows I have the food--repeat with same results.

This puzzles me.

The other evening I was out with my sister in her car. Came home through the front door, rattling the lock and jingling my keys. Tika and Casey came blazing downstairs in a frenzy of ThankGodWe'reNotAbandoned-ness. Jake remained upstairs, out of sight, with the "woof----woof----" that says "I don't know why the other dogs are aroused and running around, but in case there's an intruder, I want him to know that I fully support the other dogs in whatever they choose to do." I started stomping up the stairs, saying his name louder & louder. Same level of time-delayed woof----wooof----woof-- until I poked my head around the doorframe into the bedroom, at which point he looked startled and shocked, and then absolutely delighted to see me there.

It's a challenge.

Talked to another agility person who runs a deaf Border Collie. I've been trying to come up with a gesture vocabulary for things--touching my nose means "good", swooping my open hand palm-up away from me and him means "release/OK"; I've always often used the forearm-swung-across-the-chest for "come" and forearm-swung-up-at-elbow for "sit", so you'd think he'd know those, but he seems oblivious. In agility, I've always tried to use a raised arm for contact equipment rather than pointing as I do for other obstacles. With Jake I've started using a wavy hand for weave poles.

She suggested having signs for every different obstacle that I'm likely to have obstacle discrimination on, so including a different gesture for tunnels than for jumps. Not a bad idea. She uses a closed fist for tunnels. I like this idea; we've been missing a lot of gambles lately in straight carry-outs to tunnels that he used to just blast through; now he seems to head out there, turn back towards me, see that I'm still pointing & gesturing, and loop around and sometimes make it back out to the tunnel. Maybe if I had a different signal that was for tunnels only, it would help. But I'll have to practice it a zillion squillion times and I don't know whether I have the patience for it.

People are asking me when I think I might retire him now that he has just about every championship in the book. (NADAC NATCH and O-NATCH; ASCA ATCH; CPE CATCH; USDAA ADCH and veteran's version APD. And even higher titles.) I keep looking at him running and thinking I have no physical reason to retire him. He looks like he's having a good time. Seems particularly to enjoy the time with me without the other dogs. Runs as crazy fast as he always did after his squeaky.

Oh, and that's another thing--he still squeaks a squeaky to make it squeak. Can he hear that? Can he detect the vibration? Is he just assuming that it's squeaking? Inquiring human minds want to know.

It's especially interesting to me now that I've been suffering for nearly 3 weeks with an ear infection or something that makes it extremely difficult to hear from my right ear. It's not like losing half of my hearing; it's like losing 3/4 of it. It's amazing what difference it makes, having only one side of good hearing. So I suppose Jake could have the same thing--maybe it depends on which ear is turned towards me (which I've sometimes had my suspicions about).

Oh, well, it's all a Learning Experience.

Friday, August 06, 2004

West Nile Virus vs Dogs Straining Themselves.

Tika investigates our main source of mosquito larva: the plant holder in the floor of the old pond


It is just not fair that mosquito-borne illnesses should creep into the American way of life! We used that lovely DDT stuff to wipe out the nasties that carried malaria decades ago--what's a few birds here and there? This year for the first time they're confirming the presence of West Nile virus in deceased birds in Santa Clara County.

Where before we were supposed to try to keep down places where mosquitos could breed, now we really ought to be taking care to ensure that we're never bitten. But musky-toe repellant should be for the outback! The hinterlands! The wilderness! Not for one's own backyard.

Or dining room.

Dog-modified screen door handle
See, my dogs don't get the thing with screen doors. Every time I try to leave a screen door instead of the glass door closed around the patio doggie door, some one of them crashes into it. At best, it knocks it off its tracks and it takes me 10 minutes to get it back on. At worst, it bends and cracks the frame. Tika has made my kitchen entry screen door almost unusable. Not quite, but almost. It certainly won't close and latch on its own any more, although I personally never wanted to do that. Doesn't look too good, either.

How does that go: Did you hear about the dog who ran through a screen door and strained himself? (OK, that's the best I can do at this time of the morning.)