Agility Spaz

Monday, January 29, 2007

Let It Snow

Last weekend, we received our first decent snowfall of the year. Decent, meaning enough to get the diehard cross-country skiers out onto the trails, with only the odd blade or so of grass surfacing in their tracks. As a not-so-diehard cross-country skier (Did I mention Viva likes to bite my skis?), I figured I'd use the white stuff to help with lateral distance training.

We are, at present, doing baby distance work. Five feet doesn't feel like a big deal, but ten feet? Ten feet seems like a good 2007 goal. Still, baby distance. We practice using cones in the backyard, though as someone has kindly replaced the local soccer field's trash cans with cones for the winter (???) we've been doing a good bit of work at said soccer fields during our morning walks. Since my instructor has observed on more than one occasion that I tend to cheat by moving closer to the cones than I plan, I've been looking for creative ways to mark my distance lines that don't involve littering or moving heavy objects. Enter last weekend's snow.

Snow, I discovered, is perfect for making distance lines. I can easily measure from my position to the cone, and then (Voila!) produce a nice, semi-orderly path of footprints in the snow. The line is there when I return the following morning, enabling me to run at a slightly greater distance from the footprints and, therefore, the cone. Viva and I had actually worked our way up to ten feet when disaster struck.

It snowed again.

Last night, we received enough of a dusting as to completely obscure my previous footprints. Arriving at the soccer fields, I could find nothing of yesterday's distance line. Nothing. The cones were still there, standing forlornly amidst a sea of white. I cursed my fate. (Well, actually, nothing quite so melodramatic, though I groused enough for the dogs to notice as I walked past the cones to the empty goalposts at the far end of the field, where we usually turn around.)

Gentle reader, I groused for a full fifteen minutes before the thought occurred to me that, having constructed a line in the snow once before, I could construct a line in the snow again. Eyeballing what seemed like a goodly distance (albeit a reasonable one) from the cone , I gave Viva her "Get out!" command, and she got out. Turns out I'd asked for more lateral distance than I'd anticipated, as she had to think about it as she approached the cone, but she wheeled around it like a champ. Good girl. I gave her a couple of treats, and proceeded to measure.

Seventeen feet. I made us a new, snowy distance line. Due to a temporary fit of chicken-heartedness on my part, the line runs fifteen feet away from the cone, rather than seventeen feet, but if I remember correctly, that'll serve when Team Viva gets to NADAC Elite a year or so from now. Of course, if we can go from ten feet of lateral distance to seventeen feet of lateral distance overnight, we may get to Elite sooner than I think.

Let it snow.

Friday, January 19, 2007

Raising the Bar

A funny thing happened when I reported to my sweetheart on the latest exploits of Team Viva today. Mentioning that we had dropped a bar in an otherwise lovely run, I noticed my brain pausing at the end of the sentence to turn that thought over once or twice. We. Technically speaking, I did not drop the bar. Though the day may come when I will run smack into a jump standard, or lose my balance, stick a hand out, and pull a bar down myself, in this particular run I was nowhere near the jump in question. Some part of canine, not human, anatomy persuaded the top bar of Jump #2 to pay special and sudden attention to the Earth's gravitational pull this evening, and the bar fell. If I were joking around, I'd blame it on Viva's double dew claws.

Those double dew claws did not drop the bar. They're pretty good at staying out of the way. I however can be complicit even when a good ten feet away from the bar in question. As a handler, I dropped the bar as much as Viva did, hence the voice of my subconscious ascribing responsibility to both canine and human team members when asked. We got off to a fast start on a course with a sharp opening turn, and I gave Viva more of a forward cue than was appropriate, and when she checked in with me while negotiating Jump #2 I wasn't where she expected and voila: bar down.

It has happened to all of us, the crash of a bar early in a run. For most venues, this ends a team's qualifying hopes, and can deflate both dog and handler. I find the experience puzzling, as years of training as a performing artist focus (in part) on what to do when things go wrong in order to salvage the performance. Even the greatest artists are occasionally imperfect. Their recoveries, however, are usually beautiful and often marvelous. Seasoned performers either carry on so gracefully that only the professionals in the audience are aware of an error, or, as one world-class pianist did when confronting a serious "you can't get there from here" situation in a performance with an equally world-class orchestra, acknowledge the flaw with some combination of humor, nonchalance, and humility, let go, and move on. When an error has been adroitly managed, it is almost inevitably forgotten by the end of the performance, at least by the audience and, I would argue, at least temporarily by the performer.

For some handlers, the agility performance can in some sense be similarly salvaged. There will be no "Q" of course, but with the loss of the perfect run can come the freedom to risk, to play, to lift the spirits of one's teammate. I remember a piano lesson with my major teacher in grad school, in which he observed that my best playing often followed on the heels of a memory slip, as though the crisis focused my artistic attention in a way that run-of-the-mill success did not. I find myself thinking back to today's Jumpers with Weaves run, in which my handling after the dropped bar was rather decent, and wonder whether I am becoming the same as an agility handler as I am as a pianist -- more focused during and after a crisis than I am when a crisis has not occurred. Or perhaps it is the sum of those long years as a pianist that enables me now to let go of the dropped bar, to quickly and easily find my way back to my handling groove.

And Viva? Dropped bars tell her that for an instant life did not go according to plan (though she may have already realized this, and barked her realization at me, by the time the bar is accelerating toward the ground). Wrong courses I can hide from her, by choosing a new path that gives her a flowing line. Refusals? I'm not sure what goes on in her doggy mind at those moments when I (or we!) make a minor adjustment. I don't want Viva thinking that bar-knocking is a good thing, but I wonder what I can do to get her back in her groove as quickly as I can get back into mine. My colleagues in the physics department have not managed to perfect an anti-gravity ray for me yet, so I'll be stuck pondering this for a while -- at least until I get my handling down to the extent that the bars lose their affinity for the ground. It takes two of us to bring a bar down. It'll take two of us to keep them all up.

Monday, January 01, 2007

Perfect Days

How do you define the perfect day? Does it involve learning something new? Executing flawlessly? Staying out of trouble? Winning the lottery? Romping in fresh snow with your dog? Having kept track of 2006 losses in my local agility community, I'd have to say my perfect day is any day I get to hang out with my loved ones, both furry and not-so-furry. And then there are super-perfect days.

I was privileged to witness just such a day during Thanksgiving Weekend. Gypsy, the Minnesota pug of Ultimate Weave Pole Challenge fame, was diagnosed with a life-threatening heart condition back in September. Treating it involved surgery, many trips to the good folks in veterinary medicine at the University of Minnesota, prayers, tears, well-wishes, held breath, etc. To make a long story short, Gypsy came through surgery with flying colors. No complications. Major sigh of relief. Fast forward two months. There, on the start line at a local AKC trial, is Gypsy. Not her sister Shaili, not Princess Daisy, but Gypsy. The one and only.

Let me interject here that I don't generally cry at agility trials. Whoop? Yes. Cheer? Yes. Do the Wave? Sometimes. Cry? Not so much. Nonetheless, as Gypsy launched herself onto the course in grand style (Go Gypsy!), I found myself all choked up, tears streaming down my face. Gypsy ran as though nothing had happened, as though she'd been getting her regular agility fix without interruption all through the fall. Surgery? What surgery? Gypsy ran happy. She persevered. And, let me tell you, nothing spells perseverance like a pug on an agility course.

These dogs are such a gift to us. Their passion, their focus, their joy, their ability to live in the moment . . . all these are things I discovered when dogs entered my life. Did I have perfect days Before Dogs? Probably. I certainly had less mud on the rugs, less dog hair in my dinners, fewer chewed-up shoes in the closet, but also far less fun. Nothing like my very own super-perfect day at a local NADAC trial this weekend, where Viva turned in six qualifying runs out of six entered. The Qs were nice. The smoothness and sheer uneventfulness of the runs were also nice. But the look in Viva's eyes on the start line of each run? The very fact that we were there at those start lines together? The snow angels Viva made during warm-ups and cool-downs? Those were the things that made Saturday super-perfect.

Wishing you many, many super-perfect days in 2007,
Agility Spaz