Wednesday, February 02, 2011

Walking Dog Agility Courses Obsessively

SUMMARY: How often do I walk a course?
A couple of months back, someone commented online about making sure that you really take your time walking a course and making sure that you know exactly what you're going to do so that you don't have to actually think when you get out there with your dog.

How many walk-throughs?

So: How many walk-throughs does that take?

The answer: As many as it takes you.

Is that a cop-out? Not at all.

I might see a top handler walk a course six or seven times--or 10 or 12--or more. (By "top handler," I'm talking about those who so predictably end up at the top of their class in competitions.) And another top handler might cruise briskly through a couple of times and be done with it. It doesn't seem to make a lot of difference--they both remain top handlers.

I've encountered some Masters courses where I barely needed two quick walk-throughs--one to get the pattern, and another skimpy one to make sure I didn't miss anything. Others I've walked parts of repeatedly and still not felt completely comfortable about.

Everyone jokes about "obsessing" about courses. You *know* that, if the course is left open for half an hour for walk-throughs, there will be people out there walking it over and over and over. And even so, during the actual run, some people's brains (ahem. Well. Yes.) will still go south or timing will be complete crap at some critical juncture.

And you know that, if the walk-through is limited to 8 minutes, the top handlers will still be the top handlers.

When am I done?

Here's when I decide I've walked enough--choose any one of the following:
  • It's easy.
  • It's memorized.
  • It's frying my brain.
  • I'm the last one out there.

It's easy

Even at the masters level, some courses are straight-forward enough that I'm not likely to get lost and there are no unusual challenges *for me*, so I can handle it on semi-autopilot. I mean, do I really need to walk through a big loop around the outside of the field, with no traps as off-course potential, more than once?

Obviously that's an oversimplification, even for Novice courses these days, but I know you've seen 'em where the flow is so smooth that you'd have to work extra hard to go off-course. (And, thank you, I'd rather not start thinking about that possibility because, sure as shootin', I'll end up trying to run it that way.)

Plus--if I think it's easy but see that other people are walking and walking and walking, I might start fretting about it--"what have I missed?" (see "It's frying my brain). Often, that just means that it's an easy course *for me and my dogs* but it might not be that easy or obvious for someone else and their dog.

It's memorized

This is when I can close my eyes and run the course in my head. Welllll--I do move my feet and arms, but usually taking only a few square feet of space. Do I know where exactly I want to make my turns and crosses? Can I picture clearly the body language I'm using all the way through and what voice commands I'm using when? Do I know the rough spots where I have to more carefully watch my dog's reaction and have my Plan B clear in my mind?

And, BTW, I don't usually bother with this if I already stopped at "It's easy."

It's frying my brain

There comes a point at which I am beginning to stress about whether I can do a good job on the course. I can--and do--completely hose a course because I'm overly stressed about whether I can do it. Much better for me to walk away and go browse the vendors for a while.

Maybe it's a handling situation that I know will challenge me and my dog, and I've walked it 10 times already and now I'm just fretting about it.

Maybe it's a handling option where I like (or don't like) two different choices and can't make up my mind. Walking it repeatedly both ways will not help me to decide and it would just make me lose my concentration on the rest of the course. Because I've walked the options multiple times, I'm more comfortable taking my decision to the sidelines and applying the "let's see how those choices work for other people" filter.

Besides--I have two dogs to run, typically 5 or 6 runs a day per dog, typically two days in the weekend; that's 20-24 runs. I don't need to wear myself down physically and/or mentally just on this one course.

When I'm running and forget what obstacle is next, I can guarantee that that's not because I didn't walk it enough. It's because--doh--sometimes I have brain freeze. That's it. And I'm more likely to have brain freeze if I've evaluated multiple options in multiple locations and spent time on all of them. One can really overanalyze.

But that's something that I know about myself. For example--when I really really really want a Super-Q, I can't walk it a lot or analyze it a lot or figure out what everyone else is doing and try to figure out a better way. I have to pick something and walk away until it's my turn to run, or it goes all to pot.

I'm the last one out there

Unless there's some really good reason why I'm the only obsessing one left (e.g., I started much later than everyone else), it's just time to stop. If everyone else is done and I'm still wandering, then, really, what could I possible glean from continuing to walk that everyone else hasn't already gleaned? Maybe a new handler on a novice course... but at the Masters level, really!

And in conclusion

But that's how *I* decide and that's what *I* do. Tomorrow I'll talk about how I walk a course. Which is also how *I* do it and not necessarily how anyone else does it.

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