a Taj MuttHall Dog Diary: There's a Price To Pay for Going Over to the Dark Side

Wednesday, March 07, 2012

There's a Price To Pay for Going Over to the Dark Side

SUMMARY: If I knew then what I know now.

Note: Dog agility bloggers are teaming up once every few months to all post on a common theme on the same day. Today is our first combined Dog Agility Blogger Event Day (well--second or third, we actually had an Agility Blogger Action Day some time back), and the topic is "If I knew then what I know now." See the list of other posters here; will be updated throughout the day.

So many people joke in the agility world about "going over to the dark side" after their first agility dog--or two, or three--do OK in agility (or not) but can't beat those beasts who seem to have been designed for the sport: The beautiful, driven, smart, workaholic Border Collies.

I hadn't intended to give in. I've always liked BCs and blue merles. I liked Boost's mom, Tala, long before there was even a vague hint of future puppies. And I just happened to be starting to think about a new dog when Boost's litter came along.

I agonized about the price. I paid $1000 for my rocket-driven girlie, and it was difficult for me to come up with that at the time and very difficult for me to justify when I was pretty sure that, sooner or later, I'd be able to find a rescue, shelter, or rehomed dog for a fraction of the price who'd do just fine. But, yes, I fell in love with her as soon as I broke down and went to spend some time with the puppies.

She has turned out to be a sweet and eager-to-please dog. She has all the drive, speed, and willingness to work that one could ever want from a dog. She was a natural on sheep when introduced to them; she has fabulous herding instinct and it's clear, when she moves into a ring with critters, that herding was what she was born to do.

She also loves doing agility; it is her job, and she loves her job; it is her exercise, and she desperately needs the outlet for her physical and mental energy; and it is her time spent with me, which she also loves beyond pretty much everything except maybe herding (usually other dogs, since we don't see many flocks o' grazing animals in Silicon Valley).

Each of my three previous agility dogs got better and better, as I learned more about handling and about training. She was going to be my best yet.

But she isn't.

As those who sometimes read my blog may know, we have a terrible time with refusals, runouts, and bars going down. Oh, and the recurring weave pole failures.

See, none of my previous three dogs ever had runout or refusal issues. (Definitions: A runout is when the dog runs past the plane of the next obstacle; a refusal is when the dog approaches the obstacle but then doesn't take it, usually by turning back. They actually represent a continuum of behavior--hard to draw the line between where refusals end and runouts begin--and they are scored the same.)

Of my previous three dogs, only Tika had bar-knocking issues, but at its worst, it was never anything like Boost's.

And weave poles--well, Remington was never fast in them, Jake was sometimes not perfect, but Tika has always had awesome weave poles (enters correctly and independently, fairly fast, and stays in until the end), so I figured, yeah!, I've figured out how to train them! But, apparently, not.

Yes, I'm getting to my point.

I'll admit that I'm 7 years older than when I got Boost; I hadn't yet had knee surgery when I got her; and I had competed in only 135 trials when Boost came home with me; I used to train in the yard almost every day and found it exciting and entertaining. Now, I have a crappy knee, crappy hip, additional years of aging that have been starting to show more and more, and another 120 trials under my belt, during most of which I have felt like a failure with Boost. And I have lost my enthusiasm for agility and for training.

How much of it is the been-there-done-that thing? And how much is the sense that I have blown my chance with my dog and don't have a great future to look forward to with her in agility?

Here's the thing: When I read back through my posts about Boost's training and agility experiences in the first couple years of her life, it is all there: The bars, the refusals because my timing is bad or whatever, the inability to do serpentines that cause runouts, the weaves that are on-again, off-again, and even the stupid contact issues that are now plaguing me again: Coming off the side of the teeter instead of streaking to the end. It is all there, all of it.

And I worked on some of it, sometimes. I think that I fell into the trap of thinking that, with experience, things would get better. I mean, things got better with all my previous dogs as we each gained more experience.

In fact, I'm still falling into that trap, as in, "Maybe if I do a ton of CPE trials, where the courses are usually simpler and often smaller (in total distance) than USDAA courses, we'll learn to run more smoothly together." I can safely say, after 4 CPE trials in quick succession, that that is not happening.

The thing that I keep coming back to in understanding why we have problems with things that the other dogs didn't is that she is, first and foremost by instinct and breeding, a herding dog. She stops and changes direction on a dime. She pays utter close attention to things that are moving (sheep, me), not things that are stationary (jumps). She wants to get to where the action is ASAP.

So, if I had known when she was a puppy that, at age seven, she'd have only 3 Jumpers Qs in USDAA after 90 tries, only one Super-Q after 80 tries, almost never any placement ribbons despite her speed even when we do manage to Q (mostly because of time-wasting bobbles on course), here's what I would have done differently:
  • Recognized sooner that Boost is an entirely different kind of machine than my previous three agility dogs and approached her training and my own training in that light.
  • Gotten some coaching on a regular basis on my own fitness and running ability.
  • Made sure that we attended a lot of foundation training classes very early on.
  • Made the effort to rent the big agility field regularly to just let her run in huge loops, full speed, over agility obstacles and not work exclusively in my small yard and the tightly controlled confines of classes.
  • But most importantly, as soon as I realized that I had an issue--something that happened more than two or three times or that we never successfully managed--I'd have gotten help and followed the exercises and assignments closely and determinedly.
I don't know whether it would have helped--I like to think that I have a clue about weave poles, and for the first three years or so I worked aggressively on weave training, and that was never completely fixed, either. But I think we'd have done Oh, so much better.

Now, it's hard to get around the blasé feelings about training, the sense that it doesn't matter and I'll never fix the problems--Boost *is*, after all, already 7 and past her physical prime, just a fact.

It's hard. I did NOT know then what I know now, and it is a challenge for me to let it go, let it go, let it go, and find a new enthusiasm.  It is both an advantage and disadvantage that I know now EVERYTHING that I know now. Because I think that, if I want to be successful, I actually have to forget a lot of what I know now, shed the emotional baggage and history of failure, so to speak, to be able to get a new lease on Boost's agility life and training.

I'm trying to find within myself the energy and enthusiasm that I might have felt if, say, I'd have not gotten another dog, and then had suddenly found myself with Boost in my family, rehomed at age 7 with all of her training and foibles already in place. In other words, give myself a fresh perspective and permission to start over.

(The longer-term If I Knew Then question will be--would I have forsaken agility and taken up herding? But that's something for the distant future.)

P.S. In the end, I am glad that I wrote this post, although I agonized for days about what to say and how to say it, and almost didn't write it because of the pain I feel on this subject and not sure whether I could turn it into something positive--because the insights in the last two paragraphs didn't come until I had written everything else. Let's see whether I can do something with that interesting new perspective.


  1. Somehow I forgot to make the important point that I think that a lot of her issues on the agility field come from her strengths as a herding dog, because she reacts TOO quickly to me and pays TOO much attention to me. Like as if I were a sheep.

  2. OK, it's not too late; I went back and added that key paragraph. Sorry if you already read the post.

  3. Hey, isn't it the case that we get the perfect dog and then look back and say, well darn it, I'm not the perfect handler. I know your pain. Sometimes taking a break, thinking outside of the box, might bring a new perspective. You've got a good list to start with.

    Good luck, I wish for you to find the "fun" in agility again. It isn't about blaming yourself, the "Q's" or the placements. It is about the connection and little successes.

  4. I too feel your pain. AKA Gracie. But one thing that helps me keep fresh, feeling new, and still loving it with her after six years of training, countless runs with her running off, and just now starting to get a few Q's is that I realized that she's different, has different needs, different wants and different likes than Johann. And I get the joy in knowing that my relationship has grown tremendously with her over the years. Each Q has been like a MACH run with her. I almost wrote about Gracie today. But I too struggled with the end point. You'll figure it out, over the seven years I've known you through our blogs, you always do :). Sometimes just getting it out helps you know it better. And what I really like is that you've never given up, speaks volumes!

  5. I can relate somewhat too with Lucy. Almost 9 years old and just a handful of Qs to her name. She just doesn't seem to "get" and/or retain certain things the way Walter does. "it's hard to get around the blasé feelings about training, the sense that it doesn't matter and I'll never fix the problems" -- very much how I feel about her agility a lot of the time.

    I've heard it said that every dog we have is there to teach us some new valuable lesson or whatnot. Sure sounds like Boost has brought her fair share of lessons to you.

    At least you know that she absolutely loves her time in the ring, no matter how the run goes -- that says a lot.

  6. WOW, I commend you for your honesty and I have a dog that is way different from any other dog that most of my trainers or I had worked with, and I too am having a lot of problems with my knees and pain;-), and so I feel a real kinship to you. Love your post I also got some great hints as I am starting my newest dog and have just recently realized all our training way in my small yard and have been making it a point to try to do some more stuff where she can let herself go and I can learn to be in sync and how to handle that being that I am really slow with my nasty knees ;-). Thanks for the fantastic post!!!!

    Kathy with Liz/Breeze/Cricket

  7. ahhhh....yes.
    They are QUICK.
    And we are not-so-quick.
    Best of luck to your future adventures with Boost...
    I'm certain you'll have some good ones!

  8. Good to be reminded that I'm not alone in having an "unusual" dog--although in one way or another, they're all like that, I suppose--just some of the foibles work out ok in the agility ring (tika still grabs my feet, but only at the end; I gave up on having her do 2o/2o contacts in the ring but it's OK because she usually gets her feet into the contact zone, stuff like that).

  9. Ellen, this is such a great post and one that I think a lot of people can relate to and draw strength from. I love the insight you've found about Boost, about her herding ability contributing to the problems you 've had. It took me many years to realize that I was never going to fix my major issues with Jaime but I attribute that to the fact that I had no one to teach me how to deal with a dog who would go into orbit if I took one step forward. So being able to run didn't help me at all.
    I also got to the point where I had tried for so long to fix our problems that I just felt like I had to give up and retire him. He also loved doing agility but I no longer loved doing it with him. Would I get another BC? I think I would but I know so much more now than I did then and as you point out, nothing can beat them when they're trained and handled properly.
    Anyway, thanks for your honesty and I hope you'll find an activity to do with Boost that you'll both enjoy.

  10. Oh boy, can I relate to this. Great insight, great lessons shared. I think every one of us has that "one" dog that comes to teach us something. Something big, something small, something that apparently we need to know (even if we don't know it at the time.) Maybe the lesson here is not to have regrets, to focus on the positive and to love our dogs for who they are, not who we wish they were. Boy can I relate... I wrote my own blog post on "If I knew then..." and I can also relate to how difficult it was to even get the words on "paper" and out there. Not easy to own up to our failures or regrets, very brave.

  11. Frustrating BCs!!! I thought they trained themselves:-0 I came from the JRTs to having Koa. In some ways he was easier, in some ways not. He is not superfast, he's accurate.. I know I could get more out of him if I only had time, trained him right, etc etc. But he did manage to get his ADCH, at age 7, so don't give up!!!!! PS Herding is easy for the dog but hard for the person....

  12. Another fellow "sufferer" here :) I had tons of motivation problems with my aussie, so when I got a BC from working lines I was sure it would have been a secure and easy way. She's 4 now and we have exactly one Q. She's exactly like Boost, totally velcro, wants to be where the action is and has tons of runouts - it's like she doesn't understand the point of agility is the obstacles. I made similar mistakes as you did, only partly it was my trainer's fault - she told me, don't do any straight lines with her! She's a BC, they're natural to straight lines, do only tight turns and stuff. And there she is, a dog totally not talented for straight lines, a dog that never focuses on obstacles but on me, a dog that has the stamina to run steadly for hours, yet she never ever speeds up to take an obstacle.
    I've given up on agility a few months ago, not because of her but because I realized I'm not the type of person that can work through a dog's weaknessess, when there are so many. And because I have other emotional problems with myself that I decided need to be adressed, not transfered on my dogs.
    I may try some herding, but the options here are very limited, so it's unlikely we'll do it regularly.

    And the crazy thing is, my hyperactive, hysteric BC that was never tired, no matter how active I was with her, how I trained with her everyday, either agility or obedience or frisbee - now that I do absolutely nothing with her, only long walks with an occasional ball thrown here and there - she's now a perfectly calm, behaved, relaxed dog, absolutely happy and has found her off button.

    I'm starting to realize certain life lessons are not as obvious as one would think...

    Thanks for this post - it made me feel a little less stupid and incompetent dog trainer. :)

  13. Great comments to which I have nothing to add not being an agility dog Mom...but truly you have great readers!

  14. There was a great story in the book 'Born to Run' about ultra-runner Scott Jurek and his crazy ninja mental management skills. He was running Badwater for the first time and had never done a race that far or really prepared for such an undertaking. It's 140 miles through Death Valley and one of the most difficult ultra-marathons there is. He collapsed at mile 60 and lay on the side of the road in a pool of his own vomit deciding what to do next. I think he was at least 20 minutes behind the leader of the race. This excerpt from the book was his solution.

    “There’s no way, Scott told himself. You’re done. You’d have to do something totally sick to win this thing now.

    Sick like what?

    Like starting all over again. Like pretending you just woke up from a great night’s sleep and the race hasn’t even started yet. You’d have to run that next 80 miles as fast as you’ve ever run 80 miles in your life.”

    He got up, dusted off the vomit and went on to win.

    1. It's a great story. I think I'm better with very short-term goals--like, ok, RIGHT NOW, get up and keep going--than with long-term goals--like, ok, every day for the next 6 months, get up and do xyz. I remind myself that I've done that before, fairly regularly (finished my college degree, for example, kept my consulting job for 20 years, for example). One. Step. At. A. Time.

  15. And as an aside to emphasize what an underdog Jurek was, the leader of the race had done the race numerous times and came in very prepared. He had a support crew of 3 vans leapfrogging through the course to provide him supplies, pacers, encouragement, etc. Crews are vital to success in an ultramarathon. Jurek's crew consisted of his wife, a friend fighting a hangover and another friend, none of whom really knew the first thing about crewing and to make matters worse they all ended up arguing with each other so they became more of a liability than a help.

  16. I will never understand why people call it the "Dark Side"...I've had Border Collies forever and they are my light and life lines. I love this story about your journey with a different type of dog. Border Collies do present such a different set of skills and timing needed in order to do agility. Many people that switch breeds feel that the changes will be easy. And there are some things that are much easier, but as you so eloquently and honestly stated it's also important to do things different because of the nature of this type of dog. The athleticism and response and drive (or want to) is very strong and they can learn very fast. So you best make sure that what they are learning is what you want them to learn. And also because of herding, they learn to anticipate patterns in handling or movement without handlers even recognizing. I am sure that you will continue to improve with Boost and you will be better for her contribution. Don't you just love dogs and the lessons they teach you? Thanks again for your wonderfully written blog.

  17. This is an excellent post, Ellen. I, too, went from dog #1, a Collie/GSD/Golden mix (now 95% retired) who loves the game and loves to play it with me, and put up with all of my horrible newbie handling, to dog #2, a BC mix who is much more sensitive to proper timing/position and much more likely to shut down/bark/stress out if my handling is off, which unfortunately still happens more than I would like. She finished her C-ATCH last October at 5 years old. I was going to make a little tribute video in her honor (have done this before for friends and thought I'd finally do one for myself!), but when I sat down to compile video highlights, I saw what seemed like endless bumbling and mishandling. Watching the footage just made me feel sick at my failure to be the handler she needs me to be. I flat out abandoned the video idea.

  18. Such great comments from everyone. One thing I didn't know then that I know now is how supportive the agility community is and how much people are willing to share what *they* know now.

  19. Great post. This topic certainly has made us put ourselves out there. lol.

    We sure do learn a ton from our dogs! The great thing about dogs is that they don't really care about Q's or titles. It's all about the moment for them. So our feelings of inadequacy and shoulda-coulda-woulda don't affect them at all.

  20. I dont have a BC but a fast little sheltie. I cant even run her so I would never run a BC. LOL 40 excellent jumpers runs and not one Q. We've been close a few time but a dropped bar. But usually, she goes off course. Its furstrating, depressing and irritating. How do all these people do this and make it look easy????? What am I doing wrong??? But I always feel my worse about things when I dont have a plan. But once I pick myself up and figure something out, I start feeling motivated again. When Miley can run again, Im going to practice more blind crosses, I tend to get behind when I front cross and then things go horribly wrong. So now I have a new plan and feel better about life and agility. Just know you arent alone. I think there are more us out their in your boat but people dont want to talk about it.

  21. thank you so very much to all