About Me

I Feel Your Pain

You would expect a bio to tout all the writer’s noteworthy accomplishments and accolades. I believe I have accomplished much in my fifteen years competing in this sport, but they are the kinds of accomplishments that are not rewarded with a trophy or a name on a plaque. They are the internal rewards of knowing how far you’ve come from where you’ve started, savoring the inner pleasure and joy derived from expanding your ability to communicate with another species with which you share your home, and the addictive anticipation of doing better in the future as you learn and become more skilled. I thought it might be helpful for you to read about the many challenges I have experienced in my own journey through this sport so that you can see that you are not the first to face your own particular struggle and–if you try–you can find a way forward.

Avocation Not Occupation

First, let me say, that I am not a full-time dog trainer. I’ve never won a National Championship or been on a World Team, but I have been successful with my dogs, each of them earning championship titles (well, my first came within two Gamblers from her ADCH before retiring, and my most recent, one DAM Team leg away after less than one year of trialing, so stay tuned). Like many of you I have a demanding full-time job; I’m a real estate attorney in a large law firm in Phoenix, Arizona. Like many of you, my dog training happens in the morning before work, in evening classes or practice sessions, and on the weekends. I have a small yard and have never owned an A-frame or a dogwalk. While we have many successful agility competitors here in Arizona, neither Phoenix nor Arizona are home to a big-name agility competitor or training facility. Like you, I have faced many of the challenges common to novice handlers. And while the journey was often difficult, sometimes frustrating, and occasionally disappointing, what I have to share with you is that perseverance, an open-mind and sheer doggedness can take you a long way.

Let me tell you a little about my dogs and evolution of my agility education and see if any of this sounds familiar to you.

Maggie (1991-2007)

I started agility back in the late 1990s with what was then my 6-year-old border collie, Maggie, purchased for $75 from a working ranch near where we lived in Montana. Maggie was a sweet biddable dog, but being the first dog I ever trained in anything and her starting the sport in dog middle age, Maggie was something of a velcro dog. While she did earn a MAD, Elite NADAC titles, and metalic championship titles in various USDAA classes, she just never wanted to work very far away from me and I retired her at age 12, two Gamble legs shy of an ADCH. Because Maggie was so pliable and while not slow, not a rocket either, I was able to steer her pretty easily around a course, relying heavily on the “call-off,” and managing contacts by watching for a foot in the yellow. At that stage in the sport, the 2o2o contact had not yet come into common usage, and frankly the courses in those days had nothing of the complexity we see today. But we struggled for years as I tried to find a way to get her to leave my side and complete those Masters gambles, missing several Qs by a fraction of a second, or by my own gaffes like stepping on the line. It was hard to give up the pursuit of that prize of a championship title dangling just a couple of qualifiers away. But putting our own personal goals and ambitions aside for the best interests of our dog is a challenge many of us have to face and learn from.  Our proudest moment was making it into the final round for Veterans at the 2001 Cynosport Games in Del Mar, California.  We went off course near the end, but it was an exciting experience.

Jessie (Born July 1997)

Jessie–Jezebel–came from the same Montana cattle ranch as Maggie. They had the same hardy father, a working BC that lived to be more than 20 years old. But beyond that connection, Jessie was nothing like Maggie. Crazy fast, impulsive, over-amped, barky, spinning Jessie. I liked to call her Valley Girl Jessie because she never seemed to have had a serious thought in her life, especially while playing agility.  I got a whole different insight into Jessie when, after retiring from agility I took her herding for the first time in her life. She was magnificient. Had old-time stockhandlers turning heads. “Where’s she out of?” they said to me. “Now there’s a sheepdog,” another said. Quiet, calm, steady, magnificent. Jessie was never serious doing agility because she never took agility seriously. Now, sheep, that’s real work. Sorry to say, Jessie was 9 before she got a taste of her true life’s work and while she earned her starters herding title, I knew nothing and had limited access to stock, so we never advanced beyond a few practice sessions and baby trials.

Looking back now, agility with Jessie was where I made my first major advances in learning in this sport–as painful as it felt to me at the time. No one in the club where I was training had a clue how to deal with a dog that could spin 20 times between jumps, never seemed to be able to look forward for more than two strides and barked the whole time (mostly out of frustration, I came to understand).

Without contact criteria, we spent several trialing seasons with me trying everything except the kitchen sink to get my goofy dog to touch yellow.  Eventually someone turned me on this magical new training innovation called the two-on, two-off (2o2o) behavior, and even though we had a lot of bad habits to overcome, training a specific behavior made a huge difference in Jessie’s agility career. Jessie eventually earned an ADCH, Elite NADAC titles,  various championship titles and in the year she moved to Performance, took home an individual first in P22 Snooker and a second in P22 Gamblers at the 2006 Cynosport Games!

Kayte (Born August 2003)

My next dog Kayte came from Arizona Border Collie Rescue at five months, having been turned over to the rescue group by a 70-year-old woman who had purchased this over-the-top little smooth-coat pup from a backyard breeder. Quickly the elderly woman realized this little bundle of nuclear energy was not for her, and handed her over to ABCR, and I had the great good fortune of acquiring my heart dog.

Running Kayte, I liked to say, was like driving a Maserati down a mountain pass at 100 mph without brakes. If you made it to the bottom alive–what a rush! Otherwise–well, you get the picture. Kayte moved me into a whole new arena of agility training, as I was compelled to find a way to handle such a fast and quick dog, eventually hitting about the Greg Derrett Handling system, which then led me to Susan Garrett and her foundation training program at Say Yes Dog Training in Ontario, Canada. While Jessie had been a fast dog, too, she was very handler focused (remember the spinning?). Kayte, on the other hand, was just a bundle of neurons firing and she had trouble taking in both obstacles and handler at the same time and so picked just one at a time–usually the obstacles. The problem with that was that even though only about 18 1/2 inches tall, Kayte had a huge stride and always jumped extended, which very often led to off-courses and definitely wide turns.

From Greg and Susan, I learned all about handling systems, teaching collection, jump training, circle work and tons of other foundation skills I had never encountered before,  While Kayte’s qualifying rate improved greatly–and we earned her ADCH after chasing Super Qs for several years, Kayte exposed me to the prospect that not all the challenges we face with our dogs can solely be attributed to poor training. A couple of years ago, after some odd behavior in several trials, we discovered that Kayte had severely limited range of motion in her right shoulder. She’d had OCD surgery on that shoulder as a 9-month-old pup and had appeared to heal well, but after work with a physical therapist and a great rehab vet, I now suspect that her inclination to bounce jump rather than dig in for a collected stride or turn on landing rather than takeoff may have been in part her way of coping with physical limitations of which I was unaware. Because of the shoulder problem and other injuries, likely a product of years of compensation, Kayte now only trials sporadically a few runs a day.  But she is like the legendary racehorse Seabiscuit, never giving less than a thousand percent effort to the task at hand.

Rising Sun’s Brilliant Light (“Brill”) (Born June 24, 2008)

Brill, my first dog from an agility breeder, wasn’t so ready to give the thousand percent effort–not without knowing why. Perhaps the name has more power than we know, but Brill is my brilliant little geekster. If she were human, she would wear thick black glasses, a pocket-protector, and would have tested into MIT at age 14. Great, you say, after the somewhat mindless agility jocks, Kayte and Jessie. But this posed a new kind of challenge I was wholly unprepared for–and honestly, wasn’t sure I liked that much. Once again my dog took me down a new road that has only expanded my own skills and experiences. Having now been thoroughly indoctrinated in a handling system and Susan G’s foundation program, I was primed to mold my puppy into the greatest agility dog ever. Boy did Brill have other ideas. Being the little thinking machine she was–and fostered further by all the shaping work I did with her as a puppy (you can see clips of Brill’s early training on my YouTube channel JeanEmery12)–Brill approached all our training sessions like a Ph.D thesis.

In addition, she did not like to play with toys. So I spent our first year together learning to work in shorter and shorter increments– a training session might be less than 30 seconds–and I worked and sweated and studied everything I could get my hands on about teaching a dog to play. My previous dogs had been toy freaks, obsessed with frisbees, balls and tugs. I was completely unprepared for taking this detour off my grandiose training schedule. The task was hard and often demoralizing (“My dog doesn’t want to work or play with me!”), but while I made lots of mistakes along the way, one thing I did not do: give up. Eventually Brill turned on to toys, and to agility, and me. Brill’s breeder had warned me that her dogs were slow maturing. I had no idea what that meant, but now, after waiting until she was 26 months of age, in less than a full year of trialing Brill is one leg short of her Agility Dog Champion title and is working on her MX and MXJ. The future with Brill is exciting and yet to unfold.

POSTSCRIPT:  On July 31, 2011, Brill earned that ADCH, holding her own with two great teammates to finish the title with DAM Tournament Q and silver medal.  DAM tournament is a five-run event, where teams of three dogs combine scores in Standard, Jumpers, Gamblers, Snooker and Three-dog Relay.  Mia Grant with Vic, and Leslie Hobensack and Teg were her fabulous teammates.  Brill actually won Team Gambles and together the three dogs won Team Relay with a second place finish overall.  Here’s that run.  It was great fun (and I’m actually glad it is over…it’s tough trying to run clean for five runs in a row!).

Chico and Vinny

I’ve had two other dogs that I’ve trained in agility but that have not trialed much. Chico was a little chihuahua/terrier mix that preferred cuddling to jumping and my current snuggle bunny, Vinny, a foreclosure refugee found abandoned in one of the many nearly vacated subdivisions peppering the Phoenix metropolitan area these days. Vinny is the sweetest and smartest dog I’ve yet trained. He learns best copying and mimicing behavior he sees getting rewarded in other dogs. I swear he learned 12 weave poles in about 12 hours! Vinny is the most enthusiast, exuberant, and happy dog I’ve ever trained–in practice. Put him in the ring and he freezes up, overwhelmed I guess, but by what I am still trying to figure out. So for now Vinny is my practice buddy and we’ll see if he eventually overcomes his stage fright to let the world see what a great little guy he is.

You’re Not Alone

I hope by now you realize that when you see someone running their dog in the Masters or Excellent ring, and it looks so effortless and easy, there is often a lot more to the story.  Many of these competitors have worked a long time, often (although not always) facing hidden struggles and frankly years of work. Stick with it and one day you will be running in the “big” ring also, and others will be looking at you and your dog with envy and awe.

Videos

Competition videos of Brill, Kayte and Jessie (unfortunately Maggie pre-dated my camcorder) can be viewed at my YouTube Channel: JeanEmery12.

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3 Comments

  1. Kathryn Wauters says:

    This is so great, Jean. So encouraging and well written. Much needed for us novices to keep us going. You are also a great first teacher! Hope we get a chance to work with you again. Love the pictures.

  2. Chrissy Donovan says:

    Thank You so much for taking the time out of your busy life to “publish” ! I am ALWAYS looking for help with my handling and tips for keeping Nefi sharp.(Nef has several NATCHs & V-NATCHs). We only do NADAC but I’m sure there will be plenty of instruction that will cross over. I have a new,(unplanned)rescue pup and not a class to be found(at the moment)here in Tucson. I can’t wait to read thru your info for tidbits to add to my training bag.

    Thanks Again,
    Chrissy Donovan

  3. Mary says:

    Great info about your dogs. Gives everyone an insight to how different each one can be. I knew Maggie & Jessie well as Maggie was still competing a bit & Jessie was barking up a strom out of frustration just like another frustrated dog we know. Rocky Racoon. Rocky was way more obstical focused & so dang quick that there were constant call offs (hence the barking). Kayte came into your life not to long before I moved out to Queen Creek, so I did not know her as well, but loved to watch her run when the opportunity arose. Have never gotten the opportunity to meet Brill or see her run. Looks like I am missing a lot. Miss Chico, he was so sweet. Miss you & many of the Agility community. Just do not have the heart to trial without my heart dog yet. Bringing her along is not the best option because my high drive girl still has tons of heart and wants to be out there even though she can not even clear a 12″ jump any more. Put the bars on the ground and she will tear it up.

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