After more than ten under-achieving years in agility with Carly and Stinky, I have paid my dues and deserve my little Dream Dog, Bunkey. She truly is the Ticket. Before I describe Bunkey's first USDAA trial, I must provide some personal history and explain that my heretofore failures in agility weren't Carly's fault. Carly and I started agility back in the old days, before 90 percent of agility handlers ran BC's. Although it's now commonplace, ten years ago it was a real show-stopping event when a super fast border collie flew around an agility course. Carly was awesome, full of drive, incredible speed, intensity, ability...all of the talents that have the potential to make a fabulous agility dog. Yessiree, we attracted a LOT of attention, while she was spinning and barking and I was flailing and yelling as we made our way around the ring. Many times she'd spin so much in front of the weave pole entrance that I thought she'd surely screw herself right into the ground! I'm pretty certain the phrase, "Great dog, too bad about the handler," was originally coined by a spectator watching us. Carly's career as an agility star was doomed at the get-go, because she was my first agility dog and my first BC. She taught me that foundation training is EVERYTHING, and her foundation training sucked. (Dogs ALWAYS default to their earliest learned behaviors.)
The fact that she never succeeded in agility wasn't really my fault (I didn't know any better at the time), and it wasn't her fault (it's NEVER the dog's fault)-- it just was what it was. So, we had a frustrating competitive career together. We both tried valiantly to overcome her first learned behaviors, but it was not to be... We always suffered with unreliable stays at the start, contacts that were worse than her start-line stays, no rear crosses, and a host of other issues. It's impossible to exaggerate the frustration, embarrassment, and thousands of dollars in monetary expense (including wasted entry fees, seminars, and private lessons from world-class trainers) that I endured trying to fix our problems. I learned a lot, but was unable to overcome them.
Then came Stinky, our BC mix that we rescued from the side of a highway.
I taught her 2-on/2-off contacts, solid start-line stays, rear crosses, and weave entries from any angle. Unfortunately, Stinky developed serious mental health issues along the way (I'm not sure why, but my story is that I blame her craziness on problems that she must have had prior to her rescue, and I'm sticking to it! Although, we did find her when she was a puppy!) When she was 3 years old, she became dog aggressive and out-of-control berserk in the agility ring, so our agility career never got past Advanced and Ex A and we were down-right lucky to get there!
Don't get me wrong -- although neither of my dogs ever earned a MACH, ADCH, or NATCH, I still had a really good time in agility. Our Q ratio was way less than 10%, in fact I'm pretty sure I hold the world record for longest ever No-Q dry spell. Carly and I once did 76 AKC runs in a row with no Q's! The good thing about not Q'ing very often is that when you do qualify -- it feels really, really great. Well, that's enough about my pathetic past agility career...
At long last, in February 2008, after waiting five years for the perfect breeding from Saga X Sooner (thank you, Annette), here comes little Bunkey.
Needless to say, at this point, I have a lot invested in this puppy. I'm not referring to money. This is strictly an emotional investment. Her success as a agility dog will (or will not) improve my self-esteem or send me on a tailspin toward depression. I know it's wacked to elevate a sport, especially a dog sport, to this level. The only defense I have is that I'm not alone. I don't understand why we're this way, but there are lots of people that are similarly wacked. I can name dozens of people who place just as much (maybe even more? Hmmm...) importance on success in dog agility. We nut-jobs have multiple agility dogs, we spend most of our disposable incomes on training and entry fees (after the expense of organic dog food, of course), we go into debt to buy RV's so our dogs can travel in comfort to agility events, and some of us maintain two residences (north and south) that we can barely afford, just so that our dogs have the perfect training climate year-round. I'm not alone in this obsession, as I mentioned -- I'm just fully in the thick of this insanity. ... Happily there, I might add...
After providing careful foundation training for my precious puppy (which I have already screwed up somewhat and am diligently in the process of correcting), I tentatively entered our first USDAA trial hosted by YAgility in CT on Halloween weekend, 2009. Since you now know my history, you'll understand that I was nervous, anxious, sick to my stomach, optimistic, hopeful, excited ... all of the above, and more.
Our first run of the day was Gamblers. I counted on Q'ing in this event, and planned to use the opportunity to proof contacts. I laid out a reasonable, flowing course for the opening that would allow us to be in good position for the gamble which looked like a piece of cake, given that we were in Starters. I led out past the first jump, looked back at my little wonderdog and prayed a silent 2-count (proofing her stay). She didn't budge (TG) and I said OK. Jump, tire, tunnel, go weave. She flew past the weave entry, I called her back to restart, missed again. Oops. Let's try again. Oops. Again. Oops. I was SHOCKED and disappointed because her weaves are usually spot-on. We have worked entries a LOT at home, with great success. The buzzer sounded and we proceeded to the gamble section, which was the piece of cake expected, but earned no Q. At that point, I wasn't worried, just a little disappointed, and looked forward to our next run.
Our first standard run was almost perfect. Solid stay, excellent contacts, fast table down, no dropped bars, no off courses, fast and flowing, EXCEPT she popped out of the weaves twice before she got it right. It was a qualifying run! We won no placement ribbon because, "Why?", you might ask? Because I held her contacts, thank you very much! That was a first for me! I also had her stay on the table for an extra 2-count before I released her. That Q was better than the any blue ribbon I've ever had.
Our next run was pairs. I suggested to my partner (a stranger to me) that Bunkey not run the half that had the weaves, for obvious reasons. She said her dog was really slow in the weaves, but I was OK with that. We qualified no problem, perfect run on both halves, our partner's slow weaves were offset by Bunkey's blazing speed on her half (even though I again held her contact at the Aframe and see saw).
Our qualifying ratio the first day was 2 for 3. I was very happy.
I also ran Carly and Stinky in one event each that day, which were train wrecks, and treated Carly to a massage. The canine massage therapist told me that Carly had significant heat in 3 locations (elbow, back, hips). Maybe I should retire her?
The second day started with Snooker for Bunkey. I was slightly terrified. Did I have the focus from that little girl to resist taking off course obstacles? Oh well, it's only for fun! ... Of course, I'm greedy and planned a course that would earn high points. Not a prudent choice for a green baby dog, but I am what I am. I did a lead way out past the first red jump to the 7 point obstacle which was the seesaw facing in the opposite direction. Pause, breathe, OK. Here she comes. Red jump. ONE! Come, come, see saw. SEVEN! Hold the contact, OK. Run way around the outside to the next red jump. (Bunkey -- "WTF, Mom?") Amazingly, she stayed with me without spinning or barking. What a dog. Red jump. ONE! My plan was to take a 4 point obstacle in the center, but Bunkey got the Aframe in her sights and was up and over the top before I could react. Not being my first-day-in-Dodge, nor my first-think-on-the-fly-in-Snooker, I tried to regroup and asked her real quick to bump-it, but it was too late because she realized it was the wrong obstacle. She flew off half way down to come back to me. ZERO! No problem. Keep going. We headed toward the next red jump, passing by 2 other jumps and a tunnel. Way hard, but she was focused. ONE! Onto the next obstacle -- Tire. FOUR! I was thinking, "OMG! We've actually made it to the closing section. Unbelievable! Keep it together now. Home stretch." TWO! THREE! FOUR! FIVE! SIX! SEVEN! Thumbs UP! Bunkey Q'ed in SNOOKER on her first try! What a dog. Missed first place because of the zero point Aframe, but who gives a sh--? Not me!
Next run was our second standard run. Again, almost a perfect run, similar to the first day, except her weaves were a little better. Only had to retry once. Held all contacts and extended the table stay and still got first place.
Now, at this point in the weekend, I cannot begin to tell you how over-the-top happy I was with my little girl. We had Q'ed 4 out of 5 runs. That's an 80% qualifying ratio. Now I know it's only Starters, but remember where I came from. I didn't know anyone at this trial, I recognized some faces and dogs from the few trials I've done with Carly and Stinky, but no one knew me (TG). But, Bunkey sure did turn lots of heads! "Where did you get her?" "She's amazing!" "What a cute dog...and so fast!" I was walking around the arena in a daze with a stupid smile plastered on my face. I'm not kidding -- my heart was about to burst. A friendly, wizened fellow that handles a fast BC came up to me and said, "Your little dog really is something special! You've done a great job of training her. Wow!" That compliment was more than I could take. Tears of joy started leaking down my chubby cheeks. I know it's goofy, but it's true.
Stinky ran another train wreck of a standard run. What a wacko. Screamed the whole way around, crashed mulitiple jumps, had lots of off courses, fly off's, the whole shebang. I didn't care, I had a Bunkey dog to redeem my reputation.
After the previous day's report from the massage therapist, I had considered pulling Carly from her only event that day -- PIII Jumpers (16"). I decided to walk the course and see if it looked easy for her. It was perfectly designed for Carly. No left turns that required a rear cross (she's sight impaired in her left eye), and no tight turns. So, I decided it would be her retirement run. I asked her if she wanted to go, and she enthusiastically said yes, of course. Tugged, barked, and pulled toward the ring just like usual. This is it, Carly, one last time. Stay. I turned my back to lead out past the first jump and she broke her stay, just like usual, and passed me by, just like usual. Our final run was just like the old days, with the exception that I didn't worry about the numbers on the course. She did about a dozen jumps and we hauled ass toward the finish, with Carly certain that she had run clean and fast. I didn't tell her otherwise. I rewarded her with her frisbee, just like usual, and told her she had won a blue ribbon and that she would always be my best girl.
I had signed up to be the timer in the next event which was just about to start running, only a few minutes after Carly's retirement run. I sat in the timer's chair and started to cry for real. So much emotion was manifested in that moment -- sadness for Carly's retirement and her old age and infirmities, regret for not achieving what could have been with her because she such a great dog. Those thoughts came too soon after the intense high of Bunkey's earlier successes. It almost wasn't fair to Carly that Bunkey should do so well on the day of Carly's last, predictably typical sloppy run. But, like I said before: It wasn't unfair...it just was. The scribe sitting next to me asked, "Are you OK?" I slobbered, "I just did the retirement run with my best friend." I told her about Carly's arthritis and that we had to stop after a ten year agility career, what a good girl she was and how much she would miss agility, and the scribe started to cry, too. I quickly hopped up to set some jumps and composed myself.
While I was timing that class, I daydreamed about Bunkey's next run, the last class of the trial which was Starters Jumpers. I had looked forward to that run more than any other that weekend because I could showcase her speed. No held contacts, no weaves to worry about. I fantasized about what her time would be -- 18 seconds, maybe 17? My head was huge with over-confidence. You would think it was the Steeplechase Finals.
At last, I walked our jumpers course. Wow. What fun the Starters class is -- so easy! I thought, "We're gonna nail this course. Maybe she'll do it in 15 seconds!" I saw virtually no opportunities for off courses. Our potential problems were a broken start-line stay or a dropped bar, but I really wasn't worried about either one.
At last, it's Bunkey's turn! Stay. I led out past the second jump (absolutely required because of a tight turn into a tunnel headed in the reverse direction). I looked at her, paused, breathed, heart pounding. ... OK. Perfect, jump, jump, front cross into tunnel. I called, "Bunkey, come!", while she was blasting through the tunnel. She needed to look for me while she was coming out of the tunnel to have a tight turn to the next jump, but ... reality set in. My little monster flew out of the tunnel at 90 MPH and took an off course jump about 50 feet away followed by a second off course jump before the "Bunkey come!" had even registered in her brain. Heh, heh, heh. Very funny. We regrouped and finished the run, taking the rest of the jumps and tunnels on course, but earned no Q.
My bubble was burst. We have a lot of work to do. Even a Dream Dog needs to have solid foundation training and experience. We're going to be working on weaves, improved handler focus, jump collection, etc., etc. Hopefully, Bunkey and I will have a long career together --learning, training, practicing, trialing, having a lot of fun, and occasionally qualifying. My goals are modest, and my hopes are that we will both stay healthy and honor the legacy of Carly's potential that was never realized.
On Sunday night, I came home to a huge banner hung on the side of our house, painted by my wonderful, agility- supporting husband, that said, "Congrats! Karen and Bunkey!" Jim knows.
So, this is how it feels to have a good dog. It feels great. I couldn't be happier as we face our future together. Thank you, Annette. And, thank you, Carly.