Monday, February 06, 2006

You Can't Always Get What You Want...

This weekend had exhileration, disappointment, massive self-recriminations. Something for everyone!


The "Nunes Agility Field" in Turlock is a lovely site that John leases (I believe) from the vet hospital next door. It's old reconditioned horse paddocks. From the approach road, the first indicator you see is the spaniel sign.

The weather in Turlock was good for agility. Overcast and looked like it wanted to rain on Saturday but never did; good weather for running dogs. Sunday was bright sunny but chilly (comparatively speaking--probably mid-40s overnight and gradually warming maybe to upper 60s later in the day), also pretty good for dog activity.

This weekend only Tika competed. Jake is now officially retired from USDAA because I just don't want to jump him at 16" (in veterans!) any more. He'll still do CPE, where he can jump 12" in veterans or even drop to 8" (!!) in the "specialist" category--I have to decide this month whether I want to do that for CPE Nationals in June. Frighteningly, Boost will be legal for CPE in 3 months but we're nowhere near ready; legal for USDAA in 6 months.

Tika had 6 runs on Saturday and 5 on Sunday, which is a fairly intense load for one dog, but she was constantly rarin' to go-- which was bad for our last run on Saturday, the Jumpers class. It was a convoluted Jumpers course with some tricky maneuvers required, but I thought that we could handle it and show off our best handling ability. It was also the last class of the day, so in addition to a couple of periods of frisbee in the field, Tika had already run 5 classes. I set her at the start line and walked boldly and confidently out for a 3-jump leadout (which was about 50 feet in this case, over a line of sharply angled jumps). I wasn't quite at the third jump yet, when Tika came charging over the jumps to meet up with me. She got them all beautifully in order and fast without knocking any, but as I said to her about leaving while my back was turned and without permission, "we don't do that here", and walked her off the course. She walked with me, obviously subdued in mood but agonizing over not getting to run. I was disappointed both because I wanted to try the course and, of course, because we desperately need Jumpers Qs.


One of the entertaining features of the site is the active railroad right across the street. Now imagine setting up your nearly deaf dog at the startline in the ring closest to the road, and a 100-car train starts rumbling past.

She never actually left the start line the rest of the weekend, although on two occasions she was standing in a crouched-and-ready to leap posture by the time I got into position, so she was NOT in a sit-stay. As reinforcment to her for doing that, I let her go, and as reinforcement to me for letting her to that, those were our only two ribbon-winning runs on Sunday. Oh, well, I could do worse that have a dog who loves doing agility.

The Snooker Experience

We had two opportunities for a Snooker Super-Q this weekend. Neither were straightforward, flowing courses for Super-Q level work. On saturday, for a chance at a Super-Q, one had to maneuver around and between several obstacles to get one 7-pointer and two 6-pointers. We made it very well and very fast through the turns and twists through the 1-7-1-6-1, but on the way to the next 6, I lost her briefly and she started to go into the #5 tunnel as we threaded past. Now, I could see her feet and they didn't touch the tunnel. By Snooker rules, if they had, I would've had to complete the #5 instead of the 6, and on this course, this would also have meant that we couldn't get a Super-Q because I already knew what all the other dogs in our class had done. We could still have gotten a regular Q, but we already have 6 regular Snooker Qs (compare to our 1 Jumper, 1 Gambler, 3 Standard, and 6 pairs), so who cares.

SOOOO I called her hard and she pulled back (what a good, responsive dog!) and made it onto the #6 teeter, but the judge whistled us off anyway. I asked why, and apparently Tika hit the tunnel with her nose as I called her off (at least, after judge's brief explanation and what other people told me afterwards), which meant that she had touched the tunnel, which meant that I had to complete the tunnel. So I suppose that even if I had known that she had touched the tunnel with her nose (which I didn't) and even if I had know that that was the same as touching with a paw (which I didn't), it wouldn't have done me any good to do the tunnel anyway.

In retrospect, I wonder--if she had brushed the tunnel running BY it on the way to #6, would she have had to complete it? Or does the touch apply only to the opening? You'd think after 10 years I'd have figured out all the nuances of Snooker rules, but there's always some new twist...

SOOOOOO moving to Sunday's Snooker: For the first time in probably a dozen Snooker competitions, we were actually not last or next to last but about halfway down the order, but I could already see that we had to complete at least a 6-6-6 opening to hope for a Super-Q. This would be a speed course as WELL as a handling course, because the distances from the 1s to the 6s were very long AND you had to threadle around and among several obstacles to complete the 1-6-1-6-1-6 sequence. Even some excellent dogs and handlers weren't able to make it through without mishap. The closing wasn't an obvious one, either, not a smooth flow; had a couple of sharp turns to nonobvious obstacles with traps. I saw several people make a sharp turn from the #3 weaves to the #4 Aframe and instead push their dog into the incorrect tunnel underneath the Aframe, for example.

To do the three-6 opening, I had to leave Tika at the start line in front of the first #1 red jump and walk ALLLLL the way to the far side of the field to prepare for her to run to me across the #1 and past a couple of other obstacles and then turn her sharply 90 degrees and push her ahead of me into the tunnel. The first miracle was that she stayed while I led out. The second miracle was that she blasted straight towards me, not knocking the first bar (which she sometimes does when I'm so far ahead of her) and not even glancing at the other obstacles. And I spun and sent her to the #6 and we were on our way. My stress was so high, although I was trying to remain calm (remember how getting stressed about super-Qs has been causing my brain to shut down entirely time after time), that I missed a front cross that I meant to do, which meant that I had to *pull* her past an obvious obstacle instead of being able to run with her past it, and she did it perfectly without even slowing down.

And then, to my amazement, we were through the three sixes and into our closing sequence and the Super-Q was mine to win or lose! She did the #2 jump with a wrap to turn her 180 degrees without knocking the bar and blasted beautifully into the #3 6-pole weaves, which takes her just over a second to complete--at which point I realized that I had no idea where we were supposed to go next. And I came to a comlete standstill, brain frozen, looking around me for what made sense, and none of it did. And, true to form, as soon as I stopped giving clear instructions, Tika jumped up on me (and grabbed at my shirt). I'm not positive whether it was the jumping or the grabbing that got me whistled off (you're not allowed to make contact with your dog during a run although "incidental contact" is OK), but that dang Super-Q escaped me once again (and it would've been 2nd place, by the way) and, of course, it was the sharp turn to the #4 Aframe *behind* me where we were supposed to go. Sigh.

Our other moments of brain freeze and of self-recrimination came in the two Gambles; on Saturday we picked a nice opening and exectued it perfectly and had the 2nd-highest opening points (this isn't CPE, now, this is USDAA, where some of the people competing have often been in the top-10 nationally in Gambling in several different years), got the first hard part of the gamble, again like last weekend, a turn away from you to the opposite direction, and then I couldn't push her out over a jump that was right in front of her dagnabbit, a stupid issue that could be fixed but just a LITTLE bit more training and I know I need to work on that and I haven't been! And we fell apart completely in Sunday's Gamble, which was first thing in the morning; our opening was sloppy because I felt that my legs wouldn't move (I think they were frozen; wimpy californian numbs up in 40-degree weather), and we had bobble after bobble. Worst was right near the end of the opening, when I ventured in among the gamble obstacles to get some points--normally I stay away from there, because (a) if you knock a gamble bar in your opening, you negate the gamble, and (b) if you take ANY two gamble obstacles in a row, you negate the gamble--but I had a nice plan that had a fairly straight line into the gamble tunnel and back out without going anywhere near any other gamble obstacles. But because I'd been lagging her so much in the opening, I raced way ahead of her while she was in the tunnel to get back out to where I wanted to be, AND because I wasn't working her carefully, she came straight out of the tunnel (instead of bearing left towards me) and took the first jump in the gamble, thereby negating our gamble anyway, and then I was so flustered that when the whistle blew I barely got her over the first jump and she didn't even carry out to the blankety tunnel at all, so we didn't even practice the gamble well.

To add insult to injury, the judge commented to the group later that so many people had Qed on that gambler's course that she hoped headquarters didn't get on her case about it. (USDAA tries to keep the difficulty level such that it *is* a challenge to Q, whereas CPE, by comparison, says "we're happy if all the dogs Q", although the challenge level does rise the higher you go.)
Our home away from home.
The dogs monitor mom's camera activity, hoping that it will end up involving either food or frisbees.

Just Our Usual Run-of-the-Mill Unclean Courses

In Pairs Relay on Saturday, Tika knocked a bar, but again (since it's time-plus-faults scoring) she and her partner were plenty fast enough to earn a Q, although not place with the 5-point bar fault. In Standard on Saturday, she stayed at the start line, got her dogwalk up contact, but knocked *two* bars; just as in last weekend's Standard, I could take pride in the fact that we didn't go offcourse like more than half the other competitors, but no Q. In Standard on Sunday, she stayed at the start line, got her dogwalk up contact, *and* left all the bars up--but here's the kicker: The table was immediately after the dogwalk. I know from experience that, for some reason, whenever the table's after a contact and if I dont' get ahead of her (while she's waiting with 2-feet-on, 2-feet-off on the contact) so that I'm already moving and pushing towards the table, she turns back to me on the approach to the table and we earn a 5-point refusal. So I've PLANNED for this. I know EXACTLY how I'm going to do this...and then the dang dog stops two feet from the end of the dogwalk, not 2-on, 2-off! Argh! I don't want to go on until she's done it correctly, so I give her the Touch command once--she takes a step and stops. I say it again--and she jumps off the dogwalk and gets between me and the table. All I can do is turn and push as hard as I can--and as she approaches the table, she spins back towards me just before jumping on the table--and earns a 5-point refusal. Crap crap crap. As so many times before, "I can take pride in the fact that we weren't one of the >60% who Eed (offcoursed) on that course. In fact, the fault rate was so high that we actually were in 5th place, just narrowly missing a 4th-place ribbon taken by another dog who also had faults (this is rare in Masters) but who probably hadn't wasted time on the dogwalk down contact.

Jumping for Joy

OK, so now I can talk about the really good stuff. Sunday's Jumpers course looked, at first, like it had tricky bits, but as I walked it, I became convinced that it was actually a good course for our skill set. Indeed--although Tika stood up at the start line and was poised to go despite another 3-jump leadout--we zoomed through the course without a flaw and got several compliments on our run afterwards. We ended up with a Q in 4th place of 18 dogs, which in this crowd I'm extremely pleased with. We were less than 2 seconds behind the first place dog; we might have been able to squeeze another second out on one turn that I deliberately allowed to be wide to avoid calling her sharply over a jump and risking knocking it.

That Steeplechase thing

Steeplechase is unusual in the dog-agility world in that (a) it's a national qualifier (CPE doesn't have national qualifiers, by comparison; in USDAA, only the Grand Prix and DAM team tournament are also national qualifiers), (b) it has a qualifying round on one day, in which only 30% of the dogs Q (compared to, say, the Grand Prix where all dogs are competing against a minimum standard and in theory they could all Q), (c) it has a 2nd round on Sunday for qualifying dogs (none of the other events have 2nd rounds) which is popular to watch because of the speed and skill of those top 30%, and (d) the top finishers in round 2 actually get cash prizes (only event in agility that does so).

Once again, this was a tough crowd. I can't list everyone, but we're competing directly against Nancy Gyes and Panic--Nancy who has been on four (?) World Cup teams with two of her dogs, winning international events, multiple-times Grand Prix, Steeplechase, and DAM national winner, etc. etc; Susan Cochran and Aiko the wonder-border-collie (the one who should've been mating with Boost's mom in which case I'd have never gotten one of the puppies) and winner of the 2004 National Grand Prix (or was it Steeplechase); others from our around California who are in an elite group of consistently high performers and hard to beat.

There were 31 dogs in Tika's height class, so 9 would Qualify for the nationals and then go on to the second round. It was a tough, fast course in which we knocked a bar early, and my heart sank--Steeplechase is another time-plus-faults run, so if we could make up the 5-point fault by running 5 seconds faster than other dogs, we'd be OK, and there's no question that Tika is fast--and then we had two bobbles where she almost went in the wrong direction and I had to call her back, which wasted some of that precious time. Then, going over the last bar, I heard it rattle loudly behind us and I knew we hadn't made it. One bar, sometimes; two bars, never. But as I was congratulating her on a job well done (she is SO good at paying attention and not slowing down to do it), I looked back at the last jump--and by some miracle the bar had not dropped.

As it turned out, I could "take pride in the fact that we were not among the roughly half of the dogs who offcoursed", AND we had "only" five faults, so we were in 8th place out of the 9 qualifiers. YAHOO! we're Qed in two fo the 3 events for nationals; only DAM to go.

On Sunday, we watched Nancy and her 22" dog, Ace, win the 22" group--and go completely offcourse with her other 22", International champion, national champion dog Riot on the most-challenging part of the course, a turn into a straight tunnel followed by an immediate 180 onto an Aframe that, because of the course layout, you could handle by doing one of the following:
  • Try to cross in front of the dog as they were turning to go into the tunnel, but you had to be really fast to avoid getting in the dog's way or pushing them onto the back side of the Aframe
  • Try to cross in front of the dog *after* the tunnel, but you had to be able to send your dog out over a jump and trust them to turn into you and come into the tunnel while you raced for the other end
  • Wait for the dog to come out of the tunnel and then move in behind them and flip them to the right away from you and up the Aframe.
Nancy tried the 2nd with Riot and Riot didn't make the tunnel entrance, instead going up the frame. Not sure which she did with Ace.

So with Tika, having walked all alternatives and deciding that I couldn't possibly make those crosses, I tried the wait-and-flip method. Well, she blasted out of the tunnel, I moved in and signaled a turn, and somewhere in the ensuing melee I stepped on her, whereup she yelped (excitedly) and turned in to me and danced at my feet but my insistent pushing and commands apparently counted as "direction" and she made it up the Aframe--and thank goodness in teh Steeplechase they don't have refusals, it's just time wasted on a really fast course. The rest went without incident AND (another miracle occurred) all her bars stayed up!

So we had a bobble. Nancy and Panic had a bobble whre Panic almost veered off course onto the wrong obstacle but Nancy called him back, so they had a bobble. Of course I as usual I had my video camera with me and never thought about it all weekend, so I don't have it on film to try to determine whose bobble took longer. But, as it turned out, we could take pride in the fact that we were one of only 3 26" dogs who didn't have faults or E--so I am absolutely thrilled beyond belief that my dog took 3rd in a Steeplechase qualifier! Sometimes things are good. And I got a check that actually paid for my entry fee into the Steeplechase. :-)

Overall

Tika handles so nicely and pays such close attention; she has truly matured as an agility dog. I just wish I could get over this one-fault-always thing we seem to have going. In the 10 classes we ran, even with faults or screwups, she placed in the top half in 8, the top third in 5 of those, and earning placement ribbons in 2 of those. It's not the first-place ribbon I keep wanting to earn in this crowd, but I'm very pleased with the results.

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