Agility Spaz

Saturday, January 19, 2008

Viva Goes West, Pt. II

November 29, and the first question of the morning follows: if I am to be Viva's valet on this trip, where's MY *blinking* valet? Walking from the parking garage to the terminal, I can't decide which is worse, lugging Viva in her crate, or managing Viva on leash while carrying the crate in addition to the rolling duffle bag in addition to my carry-on. At least the airport provides so-called "smart" luggage carts (for people like me not smart enough to bring along an extra pair of hands), and this makes my decision easy. Viva heads into the crate and gets to watch the world roll by. She's been to this airport once before, when I picked her up here as a pup. Still, with so many people on the move, she's busily keeping track of everything and everyone crossing our path. The tram's a novelty, but the five other dogs waiting to check in at the Northwest Airlines counter aren't. Time to play! Isn't it?

The folks at Northwest are fabulous. I've done my fair share of airline bashing, and won't necessarily take it all back (especially the part about sleeping on Army cots in the baggage claim area of O'Hare Airport when the carrier involved lied about the availability of Chicago hotel rooms after a weather-related flight delay), but I was really impressed with the professionalism of all the employees involved with getting Viva on board and safely to LAX. The ticketing agent was unbelievably wonderful, the designated TSA screener was calm and helpful, and the flight crew made sure all of us with dogs in cargo received verification that our buddy was loaded before leaving the gate. I couldn't see Viva being loaded, but a colleague happened to be travelling to Long Beach on the same flight. From where he was sitting, she looked to him like her normal, cheerfully-intrepid, everyday self, both on her way into and on her way out of cargo. All I knew, getting on board, is that she had been so excited to find her Kong stuffed with peanut butter when I re-loaded her into her crate at security that she didn't bother to say goodbye.

Even so, she was pretty darn happy to see me when we arrived in Los Angeles. Again, the airline did a great job, getting all the dogs to the baggage claim area at roughly the speed of light. The airport, however, could be a bit more dog-friendly. Is there ANYWHERE to take a dog for, well, what she needed to do at that point in the journey? We found a patch of dirt, and settled in to wait for the shuttle to Long Beach. Here too the company was ready for canines. Our driver insisted that Viva would have no fun in back with the luggage, and loaded her crate into the front seat of the van. That way, he noted, she could look out the window. We had an agility Manchester Terrier and her owner/handler along for the ride as well, plus Karen Paulukaitis, one of the judges for the invitational. Paulukaitis was dogless, which I figure has to be one of the tougher parts of an agility judge's job. Bad enough to leave home without your dog(s), but then to spend the weekend watching other people's? She was the judge for Viva's last OAJ leg, and was not only very nice but set a really smooth course. I was psyched to see her name on the list of judges for the invitational, along with Lorelei Purdy's name. Smooth in AKC doesn't happen every weekend. My biggest hope for the weekend is to look like we might belong in this sport. A likely smooth course from Paulukaitis and another from Purdy make me feel optimistic, maybe even excited.

The excitement grows with the sun and the weather and the palm trees. My hometown is due for nearly a foot of snow over the weekend, so being in California to play agility feels like a special treat. Pulling up in Long Beach at the Westin Hotel, which will host most of the agility teams for the duration of the invitational, I realize I never thought a hotel this nice would accept dogs, much less embrace them. There are biscuits at check-in, courtesy of Eukanuba. The staff seems utterly unphased by all the animals. Viva wants to greet everyone, and the bellboys are happy to accommodate. Either the Long Beach Westin has a fabulous customer service ethic, one that extends to canine guests, or the hotel has made certain its dog-friendliest employees are on duty for the event. Or both. Either way, I'm impressed.

Viva is most impressed by the elevator. Agility teeters have nothing on elevators -- you can jump off a teeter if it startles you. The elevator, though, has no exit, at least not until the floor stops moving. Viva's eyes get big, she braces herself, but bounces out the door when it opens on our floor. I am so lucky to have a dog who is ready for just about anything. "What's next?" seems to be her motto. A new room simply means more space to explore, more corners and garbage cans in which toys or cookies might be waiting just for her. I spread my quilt out on one of the beds, figuring it'll protect the spotless white Westin duvet from dirty toes or a busy Icelandic Sheepdog tongue. What does Viva do? She jumps on the other bed, warming it up for our roommate's arrival. I set up food and water dishes and this action gets her off the bed. After she eats, it's time for a walk.

This being my first time in Long Beach, I've no idea where we should go. The sky is darkening, so another consideration is the safety of the downtown neighborhoods. It's comforting to be walking a dog, but even more comforting when we run into another Midwestern agility team, Linda and Allie, willing for us to join them. Linda's been here before, having played with Allie in last year's invitational, and knows not only the direct route to the convention center two blocks away from the hotel but that there is a man-made lagoon behind the convention center with a nice walking path, good for pre-run warm-ups and post-run cool-downs. We cut through the convention center on our way to the lagoon and the row of restaurants beyond. The agility venue is nearly ready; the rings have been built, equipment has been moved in, the bleachers set up, surrounded by curtains, with banners hang from the ceiling. A sudden chill washes over me, accompanied by a wave of emotion. With Viva's injury, I didn't know whether we'd make it here, so in many respects this feels like a dream. We are here, Viva is here, Viva is happy and healthy . . . and completely unphased by the banners. I can't decide whether in this moment I'd rather have a canine perspective or a human one. Viva's not likely to get nervous, just excited. The weekend for her will be just another chance to play, albeit with slightly better treats! We spot the crating area, empty except for yards of tape on the floor, designating the crate space for each team. There is a handful of workers present, putting the finishing touches on the rings, checking the lights, setting up sponsor booths. Tomorrow, this place will be teeming with people and dogs. Tonight, for all its emptiness, it feels full of possibility. On the other side of the building, the Tournament of Champions has already begun, showcasing handlers and owners dressed to the nines and dogs groomed to within an inch of their lives. We pass through the gentle commotion to the lagoon, and out into the Long Beach night, lights twinkling on nearby docks. A light dinner of seared tuna and veggies from Outback, carried out so as to prevent canine loneliness, and Viva and I are ready for bed, ready to see what the weekend will bring.

Sunday, December 23, 2007

Viva Goes West, Pt. I

Never having myself attended a national agility event, I used to find stories of agility friends packing weeks ahead of AKC Nationals, NADAC Championships, and the TDAA Petit Prix vaguely perplexing. No longer. With departure for the West Coast looming, the evening of November 28 found me staring into the clothes closet, not just for a few minutes but for what probably added up to a couple of hours. I think I was hoping the closet, or at least one of my sweaters, would turn into some sort of oracle, dispensing much-needed wisdom along with a list of forgotten items. Agility shoes? Check. Trial confirmation? Check. Dog food? Check. Dog food taped to exterior of travel crate for use in event of airline logistical emergency? Check. Tranquilizer for handler worrying about said possibility of airline logistical emergency? Hmm. Yes, I was packing for the 2007 AKC Agility Invitational in Long Beach, California, and Viva was flying cargo.

Water dish? Check. Health records? Check. Reward frisbie? Check. Back-up reward frisbie, in carry-on bag? Check. Exhibitor tickets? Brief moment of panic. Perhaps they're under this pile of papers. The AKC puts a great deal of faith in its exhibitors, mailing us tickets ahead of the event. Perhaps the tickets are under the pile of yet-to-be-packed SmartWool® socks and sports bras? Or under the course maps from last year's invitational? Boy, do I hope Viva's pinwheel training is adequate. Judging from the maps, last year's courses were from all the best neighborhoods in Pinwheel City. Good thing Clean Run ran a Nancy Gyes article on the "Go on!" command while Viva was in rehab. I read the article, thought, "Gee, we don't have anything like that," and started training on the flat using a traffic cone. Maybe those exhibitor tickets are under the water dish? Could they possibly be in the folder of important information for upcoming agility trials? Um - yes. That would be right where I put them when I received them in the mail from AKC two weeks ago. Stressed? Me? No, I'm emphatically not stressed about packing my stuff and my dog's for a cross-country trip on an airplane to a national agility event for which we only got to train for part of the year due to an injury since which time Viva hasn't qualified in an AKC Excellent round to date. Good thing my dog is calm. Yes. Calmly removing all of her objects from the duffle bag or carry-on in which I have placed them, because she has forgotten until just this moment how wonderful that particular bone/frisbie/Kong/leash is. So wonderful she must play with it right away. Viva's got her head on right. She has no need for oracles. Viva has a Kong, a bone, two frisbies, a Nancy Holmseth tug toy, and suspects there may be a small bag of Solid Gold Tiny Tots treats tucked inside one of the agility shoes in the carry-on bag. Viva is happy.

Me? I'm back to searching for wisdom among the sweaters in my closet. Any moment now, one of them will remind me that we're going to Long Beach to have fun.

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Sponge Bob and Mister Peanut

Rehab makes for odd relationships. In the last weeks of her reconditioning program, Viva made the acquaintance of two very special celebrities: Mister Peanut and Sponge Bob Square Pants. No, your eyes are not deceiving you. Sponge Bob. V had been working out weekly in the underwater treadmill at the University of Minnesota's Center for Veterinary Medicine when her rehab therapist, Lin, decided it was time to add resistance training. It was not enough for Viva to walk on the underwater treadmill, or trot on the underwater treadmill, or walk or trot on the underwater treadmill going uphill. No. We needed Floaties. Viva initially got Floaties for her hind legs. Decorated Floaties. Bright yellow -- can you see where this is going? Sponge Bob Square Pants Floaties.

Viva has been a really, really good sport through all of this. And I have been there for her through thick and thin. But Sponge Bob Floaties? I was laughing so hard I nearly needed Square Pants of my own. The following week was worse: four smiling Sponge Bobs, one on each leg. We got video footage of the event, which I will try to post here. In the meanwhile, imagine a very earnest, hard-working Icelandic Sheepdog, normally not a fan of water, taking step after step on an underwater treadmill, four Sponge Bobs at her side. Strange allies.

Mister Peanut, an enormous blue Physioroll, makes Viva far happier than does Sponge Bob. For one thing, there's less water involved. For another, well, this dog is a born circus dog. I figured it would take her a week to get acclimated to Mister Peanut. Nope. One day. She scrambled up the side of the ball and planted herself on top of it like a little kid on a water bed. We've graduated to all kinds of activity on the ball. No matter what we're doing, she looks comfy. Who'd have thought a gigantic blue peanut could become one of a dog's best friends?

Viva graduated from rehab at the end of August and resumed agility classes in September. She has been trialling since the beginning of October, and so far the knee is holding up beautifully. Her jumping actually looks better than it did before the injury, probably because of her gains in core and hind-end strength. We continue to do hill-walking daily, and alternate between ball workouts and stair workouts in addition to our normal agility training rotation. Assuming that her trial fitness holds, Viva will be representing her breed at the AKC agility invitational in Long Beach, California, in December.

Thursday, August 09, 2007

Leap of Faith

We are in Week Five of rehab/reconditioning, and a few things have changed. The best news is that last week's consultation with Cindy Hickey of Supreme Motion fame turned up no gait abnormalities -- Viva is gaining strength, and got a "normal active dog" massage with nothing in her body screaming to be worked on. It's taken us nearly three months to get to this point. I recognize it could have taken a lot longer. Viva's injury was minor, as they go, and we've been diligently working her program. And will continue to do so, even though it now involves jumping.

Yes, that's right, Miss V. has been given the green light to resume jumping. Granted, the jumps are Corgi-sized, set to 8" instead of Viva's customary 16", but they're jumps nonetheless. Which is why I thought twice before setting up the jump chute for the first time. I mean, the art of the jump was first thing out the window when Viva injured herself. No jumps, no stairs. Zip. Nada. Niente. Can something so bad for her earlier in the summer truly be okay now? Granted, we hadn't been able to completely eliminate jumping from Viva's physical vocabulary. She has jumped the rock wall once or twice when we weren't looking. (And once or twice when we are looking on in horror.) She jumped a double set to 20" when we were working on the teeter at a friend's house. Then she kindly offered to backjump it, when she judged from our responses that the initial jump clearly hadn't been what we wanted her to do. She has, on occasion, jumped over a sleepy Labrador retriever. And one or two or twenty curbs. So what's an 8" jump chute gonna do?

Nothing, as it turns out, except make her stronger and happier. She bounced the jumps set five feet apart. Bounced the jumps set five and a half feet apart. Six feet, six and a half feet, seven . . . all fine. Piece of cake. Bring on the competition.

She will be even happier when she gets her beloved tunnel back this week. A tunnel AND a jump chute? If there's a canine version of Christmas, believe me, we're celebrating it now. Rumor has it the weave poles may make their return this week as well . . .

Thursday, July 26, 2007

Switchback Mountain

Having extended the hill workout portion of the controlled walks so that we are now going up and down the closest hill three times per walk instead of twice, we added switchbacks to our repertoire this week. If there's anything crazier than walking up a hill very, very slowly, it's walking up a hill on a diagonal very, very slowly. The entire neighborhood probably thinks I'm nuts. Viva continues her "Stop, Drop, and Roll" routine on the switchbacks, so every now and then we have to start the hill all over again. Maybe we should charge admission?

This week's protocol is not all bad news on the speed front, however. Viva has graduated to trotting through the ladder. What seemed like an easy tempo progression grew vaguely complicated in its execution when V took it into her head that she could get through the ladder and claim her cookie even sooner if she jumped a few of the rungs. Hmm. Don't quite like the look of that. I shortened the leash and lured for a time, and she quit leaping. Hey, a trot ain't a gallop, but it ain't a (controlled) walk either . . .

Then there's the teeter. You would have thought a truckload of bacon had materialized in our backyard from the look on Viva's face when I set the teeter up this morning. Viva hadn't encountered an agility obstacle since her injury back in May. She was VERY happy to get six passes at it, despite the 90 degree heat, and looked like she could have kept at it for hours. I'm happy to see both hind legs engaging as the board tips. We're making progress.

For the curious, Viva's daily reconditioning menu consists this week of:

20 squats (sit to stand, moving hind legs only), twice daily
20 leg lifts (balancing on left hind leg plus both front legs for fifteen seconds at a time), twice daily
20 left circles, twice daily
20 right circles, twice daily
10 trips through the ladder at a walk
5 trips through the ladder at a trot
6 passes at the teeter
2 controlled walks, 30-45 minutes long each

and, even though it's only July, a partridge in a pear tree.

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Speed Limit

Canine rehabilitation is an interesting proposition. If anyone had told me five years ago that I would be spending half a day each week driving my dog to another city to torture her by putting her on an underwater treadmill, I would have said they were crazy. Then again, five years ago I had never trained a dog. I had yet to encounter the sport of agility. I had fallen in love only with humans, never with a canine, and definitely never with a sport. Given an injury to my fuzziest best friend, the choice between doing nothing vs. doing something was an obvious one. Surgery not needed at this time but reconditioning recommended? Sign us up. If there was a way to reduce the probability of future injury for Viva, we were in.

That was before the bit about controlled walks. Week One of Viva's reconditioning program included walking on a treadmill, walking on an underwater treadmill, and a series of home exercises to do between rehab appointments. Squats, which consist of repeated sit-to-stand without Viva's front legs moving forward, were a piece of cake. Weight-bearing exercises likewise left me and Miss V. pretty much unfazed. Hold her right hind leg in the air for fifteen seconds while dangling something tasty in front of her mouth? Can do. Walk her slowly through the rungs of an extension ladder laid flat on the ground? Pff. Been there, done that, way back in puppy agility. Then came the dreaded controlled walk.

For the controlled walk, Viva has to stay in heel position with her head up, moving no faster than a walk, for between a half hour and forty-five minutes. Even with the bonus of hills and serpentines thrown into the mix, are you kidding me? For someone happiest moving at six yards per second on an agility course (that would be Viva), being permitted to take only a single step in the same amount of time is sheer torture. Worse than the underwater treadmill, except when the jets are on. (Jets=scary!)

Viva is resigned. She figured out the first week that "Easy!" means she will be prevented from moving forward at a trot, so she's begun to respond to the command. Click, treat. That makes life a little bit better in her world, but she still gets frustrated. Every so often (but at least five or six times on each controlled walk), she lies down, rolls onto her back, and shimmies. And shimmies, and shimmies. In between her shimmies, she shoots me this look, as if to say, "You still planning to continue this controlled walk thing when I stand up? Think I'll shimmy some more." I lost my cool a little bit on Monday, picking her up off the ground in order to keep going with the walk, and in that moment felt a kinship with any parent who has picked a child up off the floor mid-tantrum. Don't get me wrong. Viva was doing something that felt better to her than a controlled walk, and I don't begrudge her the physical relief. I do wish I'd taken obedience a little more seriously back when we were still taking obedience classes. Especially since I have a hunch there are more controlled walks in Viva's future. She actually gets tired midway through these walks. Different muscles are involved, I guess, than the ones she uses daily for tearing around the house.

We are adding tight circles this week to the reconditioning protocol, and Viva got to trot on the underwater treadmill at Rehabilitation Appointment #2. I'm told she gets to start ball workouts pretty soon. Not chasing balls as much as standing on them. We'll see how much of a speed limit is involved . . .

Monday, May 28, 2007

Love, Loss, and the Disabled List

Sometimes it takes a small loss to begin to understand a large one. Viva was placed on the disabled list this month after an unknown incident or series of incidents led to a brief but noticeable case of lameness. The vet's best guess at the time was a minor tear in the left CCL (canine ACL, as best I understand it). Either way, time and rest were anticipated to be Viva's best helpers, so we took a month off from trials, stairs, jumping on (and off) the bed, not to mention counter-surfing-while-balancing-precariously-on-one's-hind-legs. Viva was peeved about the countersurfing ban, but a good sport about the rest. I'm grateful the injury appeared to be minor.

Nonetheless, I've spent the rest of the month noticing small changes in my thought patterns: Monday morning quarterbacking, sudden panic about normal canine behavior, a perverse desire to dent people who are mean to or frustrated with their dogs. Driving home from a trial at which I volunteered but did not run a dog, I thought to myself, "Guess I'm one of the normal people this weekend." Normal, as in people who do not have multiple PVC jumps, a tunnel, a brightly painted teeter, or a set of weave poles in their backyard. Normal, as in people who sleep in on weekends, go for a bike ride with their families, or call their mothers on something other than a cell phone, say, from a shade tent, while waiting for the endless stream of 24" dogs to finish Excellent Standard so one can run one's 16" dog in Excellent JWW.

In this context, what's the opposite of normal? Weird? Mutant? Special? For better or worse, there is something special about agility people. Moreover, I've apparently begun to think of myself as one of them, abnormal in whatever peculiar way(s) agility people are abnormal. Psychologists, I'm guessing, could talk about this in terms of identity. The understanding ones could even talk about an agility person without a dog to play with as a person vulnerable to a sort of an identity crisis: Who are we, really? And how do we know who we are?

Six years ago, I suffered a career-threatening injury to my left thumb. While it is true there are a couple of one-handed concert pianists on the circuit, the injury stopped me in my tracks both personally and professionally. Part of the trauma was the sheer pain involved, but equally trying in an odd way was a not-so-subtle shift in identity. I had not, pre-injury, been aware of the extent to which I thought of myself as a pianist. Of course there had been telling moments, as when a kind board member of a national piano competition asked me what my hobbies were and I drew an complete blank. There may be a few classical competitors who can simultaneously prepare for a major performance and dabble at a hobby or two, but most of the musicians I hung out with at the time were pathologically focused on music. Take the music away, and what do you have left?

In the months of hand rehab and reconditioning, months which ultimately stretched into years, I figured out that I had a fairly well-defined personality, a sense of humor, a fabulous partner, a decades-old longing for a puppy (hence Viva's entry onto the scene), and a kinesthetic fascination with fiber that ultimately developed into a knitting habit. I liked my job, even if I couldn't play as much as I wished, but I discovered I didn't like it enough to let it own me 24/7. In an odd way, the injury saved my soul. Certainly it got me a dog, who got me into agility and managed to convince me that the best days were not the ones entirely spent locked in the studio pounding away at a Steinway. In short, though I was indeed a pianist, I was also something more than a pianist. I suspect even sometime-pianists are, like agility people, impossibly far from normal, but I no longer mind. Normal is perhaps an impossibility -- the .5 in 2.5 kids. Ask anyone with children: they'd much prefer to be above or below the norm if the norm is sitting at 2.5.

Then there are dogs, who couldn't care less about norms. They care about routine, and they care about their pack. They notice changes in routine and changes in the pack. Viva misses agility, at least when there are agility obstacles around. She is bothered by the reduction in activity ordered by the vet, and she lets us know by barking a lot. With her activity level gradually on the rise, she is barking less. Perhaps that was a canine identity crisis of sorts. In her world, she went from normal to abonormal. The return to normal pleases her.

As for me, I am thinking less and less about the disabled list and what we can't do. It's more enjoyable to be in the moment with what we can and are doing. I managed to get through a trial this weekend without wanting to dent anyone, though for the most part that was because people were being really good to their dogs. There are more ways than agility to enjoy the summer. We'll get back to abnormal soon enough.