Terry Herman: On Top at 63
By Brenna Fender, photo by In Motion Photos
Terry Herman is 63 years old and has stood proudly next to speedy young handlers on the podium in recent national and international competitions like the 2013 IFCS Continental Championships of Europe, the 2013 IFCS Continental Championships of America, and the 2013 UKI US Open. Over the years, she’s had a lot of success with various dogs: her first two Poodles, Gilly and Kaki, were finalists at USDAA nationals four times and one time, respectively, and Gilly took second at the first ever AKC agility national championships. Herman’s first Portuguese Water Dog, Ria, won a NADAC Nationals (novice) , and her third Poodle, Mitey, won NADAC Nationals (veterans). Her current dogs are also very successful, with Miniature Poodle Idgie gaining international recognition. As Terry prepares to compete in May at the World Agility Open for Team USA, it’s a good time to look more closely at what makes the team of Terry Herman and Idgie so successful.
Herman is one of agility’s pioneers, beginning the sport in 1989 (when many of today’s competitors were in school—or in diapers!). At that time, she was already competing with her Miniature Poodles in obedience so she had a strong dog training background.
As a senior, certainly Herman encounters physical challenges that she didn’t in her early agility years, right? Herman says, “In my opinion, while age has probably created some new physical challenges, it’s the evolution of agility that has really been the basis for the increase in the physical challenges facing handlers today. When I started agility in ’89, we didn’t have to do as much running and handling as is required now. Back then we all aspired to be like JC Thompson, who used to do a demo of sitting in a chair in the middle of the ring and sending his dog around a course on mostly verbals and some arm/hand signals. That just wouldn’t work these days, especially on the international-style courses. I’ve never been a good/fast runner, so I’m not sure that I wouldn’t have had almost as much trouble keeping up if we’d had these kinds of courses 25 years ago. I don’t mean to imply that age hasn’t taken a toll. Obviously, I’m slower and less agile, despite the fact that I’ve been working on my conditioning to an extent I never did 25 years ago.
I compensate for my physical limitations by training to make my dog more independent. I do a lot of what many people would call distance handling, and that requires that my dog have good independent obstacle skills. I have to be able to move ahead or away while my dogs are doing contacts, weave poles, etcetera. I can’t afford to babysit them, because I won’t get to where I need to be. I also use verbals for a number of maneuvers like backsides, wraps, and turn-aways since I’m often unable to be where my motion alone would cue them. I’m also very lucky that I have a dog like Idgie, because she loves to do things independently. She isn’t the kind of dog who wants me right next to her all the time. In fact, she is often heard telling me to get out of her way! I will say that one thing that’s made it easier physically today than it was in 1989 is the improvement in running surfaces. It is much easier to run, pivot, stop, and start on a cushioned flat surface than on some of the lumpy, hilly, often muddy or slippery, surfaces we ran on regularly back in the early days.”
Herman works hard on her physical conditioning. That includes working with a personal trainer three days a week. What does she work on? She says, “Overall fitness. When I started working out a couple of years ago, I was totally shocked and horrified to find how bad my balance had become. I knew I had strength and stamina deficits, but I really had no idea how balance deteriorates with age. So I do a lot of balance work as well as weights, resistance, and cardio. Right now we’re ramping up on the cardio and exercises specific to running in preparation for the World Agility Open.” The physical conditioning has made a significant difference in Herman’s on-course performance. She says, “I hadn’t realized how much it had improved my speed and agility on course until I started running my Portuguese Water Dog, Chantey, after she’d been laid up with an injury for six months or so. Her layoff coincided with my start on conditioning work. When I started bringing her back, she was totally boggled by the difference in my speed and positioning. It actually almost required me to re-train her on some things. She just wasn’t used to my being ahead of or with her as much.”
Herman currently lives in Olney, Maryland, and trains with Bridget McKnight regularly. She also has lessons with Mary Ellen Barry and, when possible, Stuart Mah in Florida. Herman is pleased to have great instructors like McKnight and Barry nearby. She is also happy to take trips to Florida for training with Mah and enjoys seminars and private lessons.
Herman’s instructors have a lot of praise for both her and Idgie. McKnight says, “Idgie is amazing. Suzanne Wesley did a great job breeding such fantastic Poodles. She is just oozing drive and work ethic. Terry is amazing too and does a great job training and handling her dogs. She is a thorough trainer that starts with excellent foundation skills and doesn’t shortcut things. Too many people are in a hurry and don’t spend the time with the foundation stuff. Let’s face it, Idgie is fast and Terry isn’t. Without solid, independent contacts, weaves, and distance skills, Terry would be screwed! Terry isn’t afraid to try new things either and is always coming home from camps and seminars with new stuff to try.” To help Herman compensate on course for personal challenges, McKnight works with Herman to be creative. “Most AKC and USDAA courses don’t cause too many problems, but the international and challenge classes are a whole different ball game! Sometimes we try different sequences every imaginable way trying to come up with the most efficient paths for Terry. This again comes down to Idgie’s foundation training. It allows Terry the ability to do a great many things on course. Occasionally, Terry may have to give up the fastest plan for something she can physically do, but even on the most challenging sequences, there’s almost always a way to get the job done.”
Longtime agility instructor (and very successful handler) Stuart Mah has great things to say about Herman’s relationship with Idgie as well as her handling and training skills. He says, “Terry’s success with Idgie comes from the close working interaction relationship. Everybody says that they have this when they run, but very few actually do. Terry and Idgie definitely have that special kind of relationship that allows them to excel. Terry also knows that, due to her ‘advanced age,’ she can’t … do certain handling maneuvers that younger handers can. [Terry compensates] by having more types of skills on the dog than the average handler. Witness Terry’s first place finish in the USDAA Top Ten across all categories, not just one or two. Only a handful [of handlers] have ever done it. That shows a balance in training and in the handling. They can apply their skills across the range of course types so that she might just as well use a gambler skill, a send, for example, in standard as in gamblers. This allows her more flexibility to handle so that she isn’t locked into one method of handling. This also allows her to be able to set up things properly rather than just rushing around.”
Internationally known handler and instructor Mary Ellen Barry also sings Herman’s praises: “Terry is very driven and works very hard on building skills. Idgie is a phenomenal dog and Terry has brought out the best in her. Idgie is super high drive and sometimes can be pushy. Terry has been very good at working impulse control with her and is excellent at maintaining criteria on course with start lines, contacts, etcetera. Terry has kept current with handling trends towards international courses and has very good instincts in choosing a handling strategy. Terry works very hard on her physical well-being. Terry does have verbals trained for when she just can’t be exactly where she wants, although her primary physical cues (motion, shoulders, and etcetera) are still in support of what her verbal cue is saying. However, Terry is still able to cue the dog very well with motion because she keeps moving, so she does not fall too far behind the dog very often. Getting commitment to obstacles and staying in motion are keys for handlers of any age.”
Aside from physical conditioning and working skills with great trainers, Herman has a few more secrets for improving her agility performance. “Three things I think help a lot. First, I watch a lot. When I’m at trials, I love to work on the ring crew so that I can watch how people handle things and how dogs react to cues, signals, course configurations, etcetera. I think I learn as much from the less experienced or less competent handlers as from the great ones, because it’s sometimes much easier to see what doesn’t work than the more subtle things that do. I am also a camp/seminar junkie, and I’m fortunate that, being retired, I can go to a lot. (Here’s where age is an advantage!) While I do watch videos and study courses, I really am a physical learner, so I love going to camps and seminars to try new things and see what I do and don’t like. I’ve never been to a seminar or camp where I didn’t learn something, even if it’s what I don’t like. Finally, I learn a lot by teaching. If there’s one thing I’ve learned in 25 years of doing agility, it’s that there are very few absolutes, and my students keep challenging me to come up with new ways to solve different problems or issues.”
Other competitors have taken note, not only of Herman’s success, but also of her outstanding and fun personality. Alaina Axford-Moore, who has the distinction of owning the first dog to ever earn a USDAA title, has traveled to events with Herman and says she’s a great traveling companion. Axford-Moore praises Herman for her accomplishments and says, “I think Terry is successful because she stays in shape and is a great dog trainer. She knows how to motivate her dogs; they love to work! I am super excited for her! She is proof that hard work pays off. Maybe being a ‘seasoned’ agility handler is her advantage.” Terry’s friend Sandy Costello shares the praise, saying “Idgie is a spectacular little dog because Terry has done a wonderful job training her. I don’t think Terry’s age has much to do with it. She has stayed in shape and she and Idgie have become a great team. They are very much ‘in tune’ with each other and Terry has taught her skills so that she doesn’t have to be on top of her every second so she can save a few steps. As with all of us, the older we get, the more effort we have to put in to stay in shape. I think Terry keeps up with Idgie very well.” Costello also praises Herman’s behavior outside the agility ring. “In all the years I have known Terry, she has always been very supportive of her competitors, is willing to share any training tips, and has always been a good sport. I respect and love her,” she says.
Terry has a few pieces of advice for other agility handlers who are older than the average: “Obviously, physical conditioning becomes more and more important. Being a ‘weekend warrior’ is a whole lot harder and more dangerous at 60 than it was at 40. I’ve also become a huge fan of massage, especially at trials. I find that if something starts to bother me physically and I can get to one of the very talented massage practitioners who are coming to more and more of our trials, they can often fix it before it becomes a major problem. I’ve learned to take advantage of their skills and not try to tough it out. I’d also suggest that it’s easy not to run full out when you’re at practice or in a class, and I think that’s a huge mistake for those of us of a certain age. You need to be even more conscious of training the way you trial, and vice versa, because it’s just too difficult both physically and mentally to keep switching gears. Finally, on the mental side, I’m a big fan of training without numbers. If you can remember an unnumbered 20+ obstacle course in training, a numbered course at a trial is a piece of cake!”
Thanks to Terry Herman, for sharing her insights and path to success with us. She’s an inspiration, not only to handlers that are older, but to all of us who love agility. We wish her great success at the upcoming World Agility Open in May and in all her future endeavors.
Learn more about Terry when Sally Silverman interviews her in the May 2014 issue of Clean Run magazine!