a Taj MuttHall Dog Diary: The Other Big Thing

Monday, February 05, 2007

The Other Big Thing

SUMMARY: Tika brings home some USDAA placement ribbons, a rarity.

Way, way back in the ages dark, our instructor at the time (Rachel) suggested that we should all have goals for our agility that we reevaluate at the beginning of every year, along the lines of "qualify for the nationals in all three events" or "lick that dogwalk up contact problem for good". My stated goal was for Tika to "Take 1st regularly at USDAA trials among the usual gang of suspects."

That was a long time ago.

We hardly ever place in the top 4 in USDAA events. In fact--for those of you who just love the fact that I have a database where I can pull this info out in half a minute--in Tika's 179 Masters runs through last weekend, Tika has places in the top four for placement ribbons exactly 11 times:
  • Two 2nds (her previous two Super-Qs)
  • Five 3rds (2 gamblers, 2 standards, 1 jumper; 4 at trials with fewer than 20 dogs)
  • Four 4ths (3 at trials with fewer than 20 dogs; 2 jumpers, 1 snooker, 1 standard)
We've never placed first in Masters. Never.

On Saturday, as the day drew to a close, it sank in that, not only had Tika earned her ADCH, but she had placed in three separate classes: 4th in pairs (and that's with an unknown 5-point fault; both I and my partner thought we were clean), and 3rd in both Standard and Snooker, all Qs. In one day, we had increased our lifetime number of Masters placements by over 25%.

It gave me an added cheery glow to the edges of the ADCH, but at the same time I couldn't help but note that there were still only between 20 and 24 dogs in our height class (our average Masters competition size over all this time is over 27 dogs, so this was a smallish trial this weekend), and even with the smaller number, we haven't managed to break the First Place Barrier.

This is in strong contrast to CPE trials, where it's unusual for Tika to NOT place first. As you might know if you've read some of my CPE posts, it is furthermore commonplace for Tika to have the fastest time or the highest number of points over *all* dogs competing on the same course, not just her own height class. I'm always a little disappointed when we can't pull off three or four of those in one CPE weekend. (It's just like, at at the CPE nationals, Tika takes 1st in most of her classes, 2nd in another, takes high in trial in Standard, and so on--but at the USDAA nationals I'm climbing all over myself with ecstasy when we place 10th or 11th in our height in even one event, let alone make it to the final round and place 22nd there over all heights in another event.) And there you have, in a nutshell, the difference in the competition between CPE and USDAA.

Sunday morning we started with Gamblers. Saturday's gamble was disappointing: Somehow in our opening sequence, Tika turned around on top of the Aframe and went back down the same side, negating a whole ton of points (and it wasn't a rear cross, either), and furthermore followed that by negating the gamble by taking a 2nd gamble obstacle in a row while I was trying to put on the skids and get back to her, so although she did the gamble flawlessly, we had very low opening points and no Q to show for it. So back to Sunday. Despite Saturday, Tika has lately proven to be a very good gamblin' dog, so there's been no stress, just fun for us.

The course presented lots of options in the opening, which meant that a clever course could possibly beat faster dogs whose handlers didn't think of that particular option. I like that, because sometimes I can come up with clever courses. And the gamble itself looked challenging and yet like one that I thought Tika and I had a good chance at while everyone else would crap out. I like that, too. (Being basically competitive.)

However, when we were told to clear the course, I hadn't come up with a course that I liked. My thought was jump, weaves, jump, tire, back through the tire, teeter, Aframe, jump, weaves, jump, teeter, aframe. But I wasn't thrilled with the back-to-back tire because Tika would be blasting at it after a wide-open run and it would be hard to make a tight turn; we had left the chute entirely undone, wasting a perfectly fine set of points; and I thought we'd have extra time left that we'd have to waste doing figure 8s on the two jumps this on this side of the Aframe while waiting for the gamble whistle.

I tried figuring out how to fit in weaves-chute-weaves-chute because it looked like a nice fast simple loop, and also teeter-tire-teeter-tire made a nice loop, but I couldn't manage to work them all in and also get two Aframes and still end up near the approach to the 1-2 instead of stuck in the back corner behind the aframe, teeter, and chute.

I chatted with our classmate, Ashley, who's always a good one for aggressive courses because he's regularly blowing everyone's socks off with his runs with Luka, so he always has lots of obstacles and covers lots of ground, plus he's in 16" so in no way in direct competition with us. (Although most friends will share their courses--even for super-Qs--it always feels weird to me to ask someone for ideas when you're both hoping for placements.)

He started with the jump-Aframe and went out to the tire, which I hadn't even thought of, duh-- Hence jump-aframe-tire-teeter-tire-teeter-aframe-jump-weave-weave but he couldn't figure out how to get the chute in. Duh, I thought, and said, "weave-chute-weave-chute", and we both departed with pleased excitement about that course. Had a nice flow to it and, if I released Tika from all four contacts immediately, I felt that we had a chance at it.

To wrap up what's again becoming a long story, Tika executed perfectly, the whistle blew as we were entering the last chute so we didn't get those last 2 points; she's really fast and sent out nicely for a change ahead of me across #1 and #2, caught my meaning immediately as she blasted out of #2 and pushed herself back out to #3 instead of continuing to veer towards me, got the up contact, did a fast dogwalk, stuck her down contact, and made it over the #4 before time ran out without having knocked any bars. Another Q.

The almost-end of the story is that, not only did she Q, but she placed 1st in the 26" class. And, sure, there were only 22 dogs, but we're still competing against perennial national finalists like Rachel Sanders and the amazing Fable, Greg Leal and Coty and Tala, Susan Cochrane and Aiko, Tania Chadwick and Kidd... So I was very pleased and proud.

But the real end to the story is that our score ended up being the highest of all 82 masters dogs, all heights, even Luka, who ran a modified opening that exchanged some points for a chance to do the dogwalk in the hopes that it would help Luka realize it was there and make the gamble. They did get the gamble, but who knows whether it was because of that or just because they know what they're doing anyway.'

The top left quadrant of the accumulator sheet. (Click for larger image.)
What a thrill! And I'm not being facetious. This was a bigger feat to me than the ADCH, of all things, maybe because I knew that, eventually, we'd just get that Dang Super-Q and finish the ADCH, but I wasn't convinced any longer that we'd ever get a 1st, let alone high score, in Masters.

But we drove all out on this one; I sacrificed later contact stability for an instant release, and pushed pushed pushed, and yet felt no major stress because nothing at all of any significance hinged on our Qing or placing. This reminds me of a comment made by, I believe, Jo Sermon, on more than one occasion: That the worst thing that happened to agility in the U.S. is titles. She says that, in the UK (at least until recently), you advanced to higher levels only by placing and there was no such thing as a Qualifying score/minimum acceptable level. You had to go all out all the time to try to beat other dogs, but because there are SO many dogs competing over there and so few placements to be had, the stress level was low, resulting in an attitude of, ah, what the heck, I'm not going to win anyway, I might as well get the best I possibly can out of me and my dog and just have a great time. She said that coming over here to the states, she sees people overhandling, overrestraining, undercompeting, and so on, and so often not letting their dogs be as good as they could be because they're so worried about doing things letter-perfect to get that minimal Q.

And I'm somewhat guilty of that. I almost always hold Tika on her contacts because, otherwise, she starts blowing them off entirely and then we get faults and lose our chances to Q. But, when it's important to me to finish among the top--such as in Snookers and Steeplechases--I release her as fast as I can and drive her as hard as I can and we do reasonably well most of the time. So I wonder what my agility life would be like if I drove her like that all the time?

And maybe it's time to find out. We have no reason left to hold it in. Sure, there are bronzes and silvers and golds and, maybe, someday, platinums if we Q enough, but really that ADCH is the plateau beyond which one's entire agility career stretches out beyond. Huh. Something to ponder.

1 comment:

  1. Wow! You really had a big weekend. Winning Masters Gamblers really is a big thrill, especially in that company. You guys rock!