Know your dog. Know yourself. Believe in both.

When you have a psychological test done (more on that another day) and you answer it honestly, it’s quite possible you’ll find a few things out about yourself you weren’t expecting. I scored in the 99th percentile for perseverance… in other words I don’t let difficulty or challenges stop me, to the point where I may need outside intervention. This came as a bit of a shock (that noise you just heard was my wife slapping me upside the head), because I had never seen this as a trait in myself. It would explain why I enjoy CrossFit so much and very much miss it.

The test results will also get you thinking… a lot. In regards to the pups it’s left me doing some deep dives on what I may or may not have done in Merlin’s training which has resulted in some of the Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde type trial stress he exhibits. With River I wanted to make sure I wasn’t destined to repeat those mistakes.

When I tell most people that Merlin has stress and anxiety issues at trials, I get a look of shock which is usually followed up with a statement of disbelief. It has taken me awhile, but I have learned to take this reaction as a compliment. If he isn’t showing such outward signs of stress that completely shut him down, we’re doing things rights. It means we are progressing.

If I look back to my teenage years, one of the most exciting times I can remember was the acquisition of the driving permit / licence. The licence was new and full of wonderment and adventure. It represented freedom from the “evil” and “controlling” parents. It was an all access pass to seeing the world with windows rolled down and music blaring. Now some 20 years later it represents car payments, insurance payments, stop and go traffic, construction, road rage, accidents, finding a vehicle that can hold 2 dog crates… the list goes on and on. Some how we have managed to take an activity that we couldn’t get enough of in our youth and turned it into quite possibly some of the most stressful experiences we go through on a daily basis. The act of driving and its purpose changed, turning something joyous into something most of us rather not deal with and at times loathe. I’m pretty sure this is how Merlin feels at trials.

The Blue Eyed Yin: Merlin
When we brought Merlin home, I knew I wanted to do agility with him. I did the research and felt like I had set us both up for success. We had solid obedience work and he was a very outgoing little guy. He got his CGC at 6 months of age and we were now enrolled in “Agility Foundations”. Over the next couple of months we were both soaking in a lot of information. We were going to class once a week and at least four days out of the week we would work on stuff at home. At one point we skipped a class level as the instructor thought we had progressed passed that curriculum.

Yin YangWe continued our training and when he turned 16 months old we entered our first trial. It was an awful experience. We were signed up for a total of 6 runs for the day. We got to the trial site at 6:30am and didn’t finish until 8:30pm. The trial moved incredibly slow, had what seemed to be an extraordinary amount of complaining by grumpy old women and I was wondering what had I gotten myself into. Why would anyone subject themselves to this? Thankfully I kept with it and we experimented in a few different venues before finding our home in USDAA. Going to the different venues gave me a glimpse of how environmental stress was starting to effect Merlin. Three of our first trials involved either major thunderstorm or shotgun blasts going off fairly close by. It wasn’t until more recent events that I truly saw how strong our connection is. When I look back at all of the things I did wrong with Merlin it leaves me wondering how we even get through a course without him wanting to kill me.

As our relationship grew and we started to trial more, part of me was looking for validation that we were doing things right. Some people were talking about us, more specifically his breeder/breeding, and not in a very complimentary manner. Mentally a switch went off and these voices started getting to me. I started looking at the different classes and what was needed to get the different titles to move us up to the masters level courses as quickly as possible. Clearly getting titles on Merlin would be validation of all the hard work we had put in and silence those that complemented me to my face and talk trash behind my back.

Around this time, I had a lot of changes going on in all aspects of my life and found myself with a new instructor and a new way of handling that would change everything I thought I knew about agility. We reworked a lot of our foundations to fit into a completely different handling system and tried to turn our weaknesses into strengths which has resulted in a great team on course… when he’s not trapped in his own head. He enjoys the game, but he’s still unsure of himself at times. This is how we can go from melting down at a start line, to putting up beautiful runs on challenging courses all on the same day. The less he thinks about doing, the better we are connected and the faster he is. As we continue our training I focus on doing less and rewarding more often. It’s a very fine line of too little versus too much when it comes to Merlin. Having a driven little female in the house has been great for sibling rivalry.

Merlin is my soft, noise phobic, cuddly, loving, lower drive BC who wants to do everything 100% right and will sacrifice speed to do so. He will take naps with the wife and he will alert me when my sugars are out of whack. I wouldn’t trade him for anything in the world.

The Naughty Spotted Yang: River
When we brought River home last year, it was quite possibly the worst possible time to do so. Diesel was still recovering both physically and mentally from his ACL surgery. Tucker, our 13 year old, was starting to feel the aches and pains of old age more often and I knew her days were numbered. I had lost my job and was looking at changing careers since retail was sucking the life out of me. Were we really driving out to New York to get a puppy? Yes… Yes we were.

Yin YangRiver’s first 7 months with us have been very different than any other dog I’ve owned. She is by far and away the most driven dog that has been under our roof. I didn’t want to make the same mistakes I had made with Merlin, and our training went in a different direction. She has had the least amount of “rules” and I often refer to her as a feral dog in need of training. At some point we’ll figure out that whole walking on leash thing. She has also been the youngest of our dogs to figure out what relaxing is.

We did one “Puppy Class” that I think left most of the other owners in a state of shock – I guess they had never seen a BC “smiling” and growling while tugging on her leash after successfully leaving treats on the floor. We were using the class for distraction training and politely excused ourselves from group play activities to focus on attention and preventing her from getting injured as most of the class was 2-3 months older. We were on the anti-socialization program if you would. We were doing more relationship building games, body awareness work and playing while allowing her to figure things out on her own. We didn’t enroll in any agility classes, instead we opted for taking a series of foundation seminars that are run about every 6 weeks.

River is an independent little bitch who is very biddable. She is over the top in everything she does and I don’t think she’s had a bad day in her life. She’s developing into a very sound little girl that has very little fear, a whole lot of recovery and a tremendous amount of speed. Merlin and Diesel can both attest to the fact that she will wear you down with her cuteness and perseverance, and then swipe the toy they had out from under their noses. She loves to work and I have to be careful to stop well before she’s ready to. She’s very hungry to play games and much like a teenager learning to drive, she always wants to be out there – it is my responsibility to always leave her wanting more. There hasn’t been a day since we got her that she hasn’t made me smile and laugh at least once.

The Human Factor
I’ve tried to avoid making the same mistakes with River as I did with Merlin, but in a brief moment of clarity I realized that it is impossible to do that. They are very different dogs both mentally and physically. The boy who must do everything right and the girl who will do everything and see if any of it was right. Additionally the dynamics of the house are very different. The experiences that I’ve been through are also very different. The “support staff’ I have in my life is much stronger. With all of these variables I may make similar mistakes, but they will never be the same mistakes.

Merlin and River are walking on different paths and different timelines to achieve similar goals. Events and experiences in our lives are always changing and each dog will respond differently. River does have an advantage over Merlin, and that is the confidence I now have in myself. I am no longer seeking validation at the expense of myself or my dogs. I know where I want to go. I have a plan to get there, and I know I belong there.

As she gets older and starts to train more and eventually trial, we will enjoy what we do every time we go out. We will stay in the Starters class as long as is needed to make sure we are ready for the next step. Then we’ll sit in Advanced as long as it takes to make sure we are ready for Masters. I have goals for both Merlin and River. Those goals have some very different and difficult challenges, which in the end will make the journey all that much better.

In the grand scheme of things we are not on this planet very long, and our dogs are here even less. At the end of the day the titles are great and the “Q’s” are nice, but it’s the journey that I will always keep with me. Merlin and River have shown me it is going to be quite the ride. I believe in my dogs and more importantly I believe in myself. You have to. If you don’t, why should anyone else?

I will. Just Wtach Me.

The Good The Bad & The Ugly (USDAA NC Regional Recap)

Over the last seven days, Merlin and I have done more agility training and trialing than we’ve probably done in the last seven weeks. We were fortunate enough to be able to attend CSA’s Spring Camp which featured John Nys and Dudley Fontaine. The courses that we worked during the seminar didn’t leave me with any “How the ef am I going to handle this sequence?!?” moments which left me feeling pretty confident where our handling had gotten to as a team. I was able to get some wonderful insight on handling a low drive, nervous dog. We figured out some new games to play to keep Merlin excited and happy at the start of our runs, which made the seminars very well worth it. John covered a bit more of driving hard to the next obstacle, while Dudley focused on figuring out the fastest line of the course. It was a wonderful combo that really drove home some great information and I look forward to working with both John and Dudley in the future. Neither looked to re-do anyone’s style of handling and this was a great primer for the USDAA North Central Regional the following weekend.

The Good, The Bad & The Ugly in reverse order… who really wants to end on the ugly?

#NCRegional2015 The Ugly (Merlin The Broken Collie)
The majority of Saturday was a very emotional and frustrating day. We had some very nice team runs on Friday. Merlin was confident and flying off the start line as though he had something to prove. Later in the night I found out that one of our team members needed a Q for cynosports – no big deal, we were all running great. If Friday was our Yin, Saturday morning was our Yang. Merlin had decided that start lines were stupid and broke all three of our morning runs. He popped out of the weaves, which he’s been rock solid on since getting his first rib put back into place. Some how he managed to skip a set of poles and correct himself so he exited the correct pole. I missed the pop and that resulted in an E for team jumpers… CRAP! After our first run the majority of his back and pelvis was hot to the touch. We ran Fancy Jumpers next and he was moving slow and pokey. So slow that I was focused on his movements looking for signs of injury and forget where the hell I was supposed to be going for the course.

I got Merlin back to the crating area and started checking him out. His range of motion was lacking in the shoulders. His back was hot and bouncing up and down as soon as you touched it. The ribs were nearly as bad as the back. I got him over to Dr. Lisa and we gave him a good going over. He had been adjusted earlier in the week, and on Saturday it was as though he had never seen a doctor before in his life. Lisa got him to settle back down the best she could, but I now needed to figure out what the rest of the weekend would hold for us. Was he hurt and this was causing the stress and inflammation, or was he stressed out which then triggered the inflammation? Dammit Merlin, hold up a sign. I pulled him from Grand Prix, but really didn’t want to pull him from Team Snooker as it would mean certain doom for our chances at getting the Q our teammate needed. Lisa didn’t think it would be an issue, and I could come up with a plan that didn’t involve a lot of hard turns on his body or a start line stay…

We got through snooker and he was definitely running better. He was able to run in extension with no issue and ended up missing a weave entry since I was out of position. What the hell… lets go play some Steeplechase.

#NCRegional2015 The Bad (Questions With No Easy Answer)
Merlin has been running great over the last two months, so I was absolutely baffled as to what happened on Saturday. It once again left me questioning if I should be running him in preferred versus championship. Is it the a-frame that is causing his stress and flare ups, or is it just the environmental stress of trials that is causing his inflammation.

One thing is for certain, he does not enjoy start line stays in the least at trials. Keeping a connection with him when he’s in a stay versus when we sling shot the start is a night and day difference. For the foreseeable future, I don’t see us using a start line stay. I want to build his confidence out on course, and not shut him down. Those first 5-9 obstacles it takes us to regain a connection just isn’t worth the lead out. We’ll continue to work on it, but for now speed and drive is more important to me than a dog that can hold a stay at the line and be stressed.

High hits and managing of the A-Frame have been an issue for us for a few months now. They will have spells of being really good, or being really bad. He managed to miss an A-Frame while doing a 2o2o this weekend which cost us some points in Team Gamblers. He shot right past the contact zone and then rocked back. This gives us something to work on.

#NCRegional2015 The Good (Who was that dog?!?)
After everything we had been through on Saturday, we still had Steeplechase to run. The course had nice flow to it and I didn’t think it would do any harm to run him. You can check out the course map below. I had decided before walking that I would not hold him to a start line stay. We would sling shot the start and make the 60′ straight line sprint to the tunnel work one way or another. I ended up blind crossing between jump 2 and 3 which left him hot on my heels. At this point something magical happened. He was moving around the course at a speed I had never seen out of him. Anything that happened earlier in the day was clearly not in his head. Any inflammation that was present sure wasn’t slowing him down. He was a free spirit on course. We had connected immediately after the blind and kept that connection the entire run. He finished 9th out of 89 dogs in a very competitive 22″ class. This was quite possibly the best run we had ever had in a trial environment. I saw the dog I knew was hiding behind his mental and physical issues.

We were now headed to the Steeplechase Finals on Sunday. The course was a let it all hang out sprint, with the only real sticking point being a bitch of a weave entry. Once again we took a sling shot approach to the start line and off we went. Everything was going great until he had a high hit on the first A-Frame. I knew the fault would take us out of contention, but we kept pushing. He nailed the weave entry like a champ and the crowd started cheering louder. Merlin was feeding off of it and I found myself once again with a BC on my ass during a blind cross. I hope that someday my shoulder mobility will return were I can reach back a little easier. We finished off the course in 27.82, a full 2 seconds under the qualifying cut off time. I was beyond thrilled and didn’t give a shit that he missed the A-Frame. After everything he had done this week, the stress he showed physically and mentally, and now running in a finals with more people watching us than ever before… he was running, nipping at my heels and feeding off the crowd cheering us on. My boy was happy. I was ecstatic.

It really ended up being a pretty special weekend. I hadn’t planned on running much more than Biathlon, Grand Prix and Steeplechase yet I found myself on a team with Judy Riley and Mary Lou Hanlon aka “The East Coast Hotshots”. They are both very skilled handlers with some amazing dogs, and our team Batsh*t Crazy Fantasia ended up finishing 8th overall. It was very exciting and a privilege to be running with them. The three of us quickly became friends and had a wonderful time. Judy we are are very thankful for your extra loud cheering during the Steeplechase finals. I still think next time the team name should be “One Working Pancreas”.

Time to take a bit of a break, set some new training goals and work on some of our weaknesses to turn them into strengths.

Steeplechase Round 1 [Video] [Course Map]
Steeplechase Finals [Video] [Course Map]