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by Brenna Fender


Success Hasn't Gone to Her Head

By Brenna Fender

Seventeen-year-old Tori Self made a big splash on the agility scene at the 2009 Cynosport World Games last November when she and her two-year-old Border Collie, Revolution, won the 22" Steeplechase. But Self, who is a senior at Hagerty High School in Orlando, Florida, has trained with Mindy Lytle since Self was 12, and has put agility titles on four dogs. With two Labrador Retrievers and two Border Collies (including five-year-old ADCH Chase), Self has gained a lot of agility experience, and had a lot of success, at a young age.

But success hasn’t gone to her head. Self is grounded, intelligent, humble, and wise beyond her years. Fortunately, she agreed to talk to Clean Run about her agility career so far.

Brenna Fender (BF): Describe your start in agility.

Tori Self (TS): I was first introduced to agility at around age eight through Animal Planet’s Zig and Zag TV show (which, in my opinion, never should have been cancelled… that was a sad day). However, at the time the only dog of the house was my dad’s 12-year-old Lab, Night. Night, though one of the greatest dogs that ever lived, was not about to become an agility star with his older body that was slowly losing function (but even if he was a two-year-old puppy—that dog was not going to leave his dad’s side to listen to an eight year old; still, he was one of my best friends). Night’s unfortunate death two years later left the house void of not only the refuge of a dog, but the smells, sounds, and hair that comes with one too. Particularly the hair. We were lost without the hair. So, along came Toby, a rambunctious little chocolate Lab with more skin than would be needed for three puppies.

Toby and I lived “normally” for the next few years, not beginning agility training until he was two years old. I begged and begged my parents for a shot at agility classes; their hesitation stemmed from my lack of interest in any other sport or activity I had attempted in the past. You know the drill. Kid asks for expensive equipment, be it an instrument, a riding saddle, and so on. Parents comply. Kid isn’t perfect and realizes the new hobby might require some work. Kid loses interest within a week…

Well, finally, in the spring of 2004 we discovered a trainer within five minutes of our house: Mindy Lytle. I’m still not sure what Mindy thought that first day we showed up at class, a gawky seventh grader with big teeth and an even bigger, goofy dog. However, for one of the first times in my life, I stuck with it. This was something I really wanted to do. Our first show was that November at a local USDAA club’s trial. Bombed it. I was in tears. Toby wouldn’t weave, wouldn’t get on the dogwalk, kept running out of the ring. But despite feeling like a total failure, I didn’t want to quit. Sure, I was disappointed, but I didn’t want to quit. That’s what made agility so special – even when we struck an ultimate low, I still wanted to push through with my best friend. That was just one of many lessons I have learned through my dogs over the years: you never fail until you stop trying.

BF: Did you do junior handling?

TS: I have never been involved in the USDAA’s junior handling program, I think mainly because it was never offered. However, I’m not a huge fan of the junior handling program, and I think any challenges that came with showing with adults allowed me to mature as a person. Plus, the challenges presented by the courses as my dog and I progressed through each championship level allowed for further growth in my handling and confidence on course. I did register with the AKC’s junior handler program, and I did my best to fill out the extra forms after each qualifying run. However, many of the forms never got signed by judges on days (mainly Sundays) when my dad and I needed to get home.

BF: What flavors of agility do you compete in?

TS: I compete in USDAA and AKC.

BF: Which is your favorite?

TS: USDAA is by far my favorite venue, mainly because of the games (Snooker) and the tournament classes. I often struggle to stay interested at AKC shows with only two runs over the course of a long day.

BF: At what point did you decide that you wanted to be very competitive in agility? Was it a conscious decision for you or did it just sort of happen?

TS: Interesting questions. I would definitely say the decision was both conscious and unconscious, and that, in a sense, I probably made that decision from day one. I am a competitive person by nature (as well as nurture), and have always had a competitive mentality, which was part of my initial struggle with the sport.

Something I have discovered over the years is that the learning opportunities, be it in how to train a behavior or how to overcome a relationship issue with your dog, are more valuable than any award from competition. I think this realization helped to shape my path towards reaching my ultimate goals. By releasing the desire and craving to win that I had, I allowed myself to better connect with each of my canine partners and to fully appreciate each experience thrown my way, good or bad. I learned to respect, understand, and enjoy the journey.

BF: When did you get Revolution? How did you chose her and where did she come from?

TS: Rev came home in July of 2007 from an agility breeder in Virginia. She had such a spunky personality as a pup, and, though I really wasn’t planning on getting a puppy until the following summer, it just felt so “right.” To be honest though, she had very limited interest in me and was much more involved with her toys and playing. I was looking for a dog with an attitude and she definitely fit!

BF: How often do you train? Do you take group classes, private lessons, or work on your own?

TS: Like most people involved in the sport, we’re constantly “training,” but formal training sessions involving agility are usually reduced to two, maybe three times a week. It does vary depending on specific events that are coming up or specific skills we’re working. I have a lot of the equipment at my house (Christmas and birthday presents for the past five years), so in the past year we’ve mostly just trained at home. However, I still work with Mindy Lytle in both group and private lessons occasionally.

BF: Do you feel like you are challenged or disadvantaged in any way as a teenager in a sport dominated by middle-aged women? Or do you feel like you have an advantage?

TS: I felt briefly challenged by this when we first started agility training, just from the sheer intimidation of competing with seasoned adults. But I quickly realized that my feelings of nervousness and doubt were present in everyone else too, regardless of age!

Everyone has always been so supportive; I can’t recall ever experiencing rude or demeaning comments from adults because of my age. I think the biggest advantage I have had has been the opportunity to learn from people so much wiser than myself, not only about agility, but also life in general. I have made several friends through the sport who I otherwise would have never met (people my mom has always referred to as my “grown-up women friends”), and I couldn’t be more grateful for that.

BF: Have you been to many agility national championships?

TS: This year’s USDAA Nationals was my first ever national championship.

BF: Were you nervous?

TS: I was definitely nervous, but I think it was more out of excitement than anything.

BF: Do you use any particular mental management techniques before big agility events?

TS: My mental game is what I used to fear the most about agility and my progression through the sport. I felt like that would be my biggest obstacle to overcome. Despite this fear, I really haven’t gone out of my way to ever mentally prep for a big event (my only two “big” events being the Southeast Regional this past year and Nationals). I think my lifestyle and home environment has helped prep me over the long term. I live in a house full of love, support, and encouragement. My parents have never pressured me to be the best, but rather, simply to be my best. Not only that, but I have learned over the years just how important to is to live every moment to the fullest, both in and out of agility. If you think about it, the whole situation is very simple. Just do it. It’s just like Nike has been preaching to us all these years: just go out and do it. Because really, no matter who you are, what do you have to lose?

I will say that I picked up a subconscious pattern of mine at the Nationals in each of our runs. As we stepped to the line I would get really goofy (Rev is the total opposite, she thinks I’m nuts) and stomp around or stick my tongue out at Rev. This goofing off not only relaxed me, but it grounded me and focused my head.

BF: How did you prepare for this year’s Cynosport Games?

TS: Well, by accident, we didn’t do any agility for about two months before the Games (minus two group classes and one AKC show). I (stupidly) signed up for a challenging course load this year and was slammed with school work during our planned “prepping” time. But it was a really interesting lesson for me. The time off actually seemed to help us more than I think actually practicing would have.

BF: What did it take for you to have the winning run in Steeplechase?

TS: To be honest, I really don’t know. Specifically within the run I have been told it was our second entrance into the weave poles. Not having an overlay, I can’t say for sure. In the long term, I put a lot of time into foundation training, but more importantly into our connection outside the ring. I’m sure the relationship Rev and I have was a key element. To transfer that relationship into a dance is such an intense feeling that you almost just melt away into it.

BF: Can you describe what that experience was like for you?

TS: The run felt fantastic, until the end. Rev slipped a bit right before the second to last jump, and I was sure we had just knocked ourselves out of contention for a placement. When we finished I gave Rev a huge smile and told her, “Good try girly, you were awesome.” I hadn’t watched anyone’s previous times and didn’t dare look up at our own. When we left the ring and Tim Verelli told me we had the fastest time so far, I about fell over. One more dog. Even if the next dog ran faster than us, we would still get second—in the Finals. My face must have been hilarious, because I was in total shock and (quite literally) could barely breathe. The shock lasted well into the following week (even now I can’t believe it). After our run, Marcus Topps (Marcus Topps… that’s like meeting a rock star or the President) came over and gave me a hug. Nancy Gyes said, “Congratulations.” Mary Ellen Barry said, “Congratulations.” Jennifer Crank said, “Congratulations.” And so many other amazing handlers and trainers. Idols. All of them. That was intense.

And then, they played her song. My Revie’s song! I’m a huge Beatles fan, and remember dreaming about her song being played after winning finals of something, but I never (ever) thought it would actually happen! What was really cool to see is that Rev (of course) had no idea she had just won. She just wanted her cookies and to go swim. That’s so humbling. It was such a beautiful reminder that, hey, it was just an agility competition.

BF: Do you have any advice for others who would like to do well in national competitions?

TS: There are no guarantees. There are no guarantees that you will win and there are no guarantees that you won’t. All you can do is your best. If you have doubts, you may surprise yourself. I had no idea we would make it as far as we did… trust me, I was pretty surprised. Be competitive, have fun, and just do it.

BF: What about advice for other young handlers who’d like to make it to the top?

TS: Keep moving forward. The more time you spend in the sport, the more you will learn, change, and grow. I know, I know, it seems overstated at times, but it’s important to remember that it’s the journey that counts, not the destination. However, I don’t think this is something that should be dwelled on, because trying to overanalyze the journey is almost just as bad as trying to reach the destination too quickly. Go with the flow and enjoy it; immerse yourself into it. Don’t over-think the journey, respect it and live it.

BF: What's next for you? Revolution is so young, what do you have planned for the rest of her career?

TS: My biggest goals for Rev and I are really just to continue to come together as a team, continue to learn from each other and to see where that takes us. A minor bump in the road will be college, which I start next year. I’m not sure how much agility training and showing I’ll be doing, but we’ll be having fun with whatever new adventures come our way.

BF: What do you do outside of agility?

TS: Outside of agility I mostly eat, sleep, do schoolwork, and play with the dogs. I’m not involved with any other sports, but I am a member of the math club! I’m truly a nerd at heart.