By Alice M. Hughey of Pomona, NY (photos by author)
Hetty came to us as a two-year-old. While my husband Ian grew up around dogs, Hetty is my first dog. Our best guess is that she is a scent hound/sight hound mix. Hetty had apparently been dumped before she was three weeks old and then spent the next two years living with a rescuer, much of the time outdoors in a kennel. When we first brought her home she would not eat without hand feeding, would not relieve herself outdoors if there was any noise, and would not leave her crate voluntarily. Six years later, she is still a fearful dog, but she has substantially more control over those fears. Much of the credit for her improvement goes to agility and all the agility people who have helped us along the way.
Although I eagerly look forward to every issue of Clean Run and all the information about course design and handling, with Hetty agility has never been about running courses, titles, or anything else except building confidence. I think it is important to remember the dogs for whom agility is so much more than just another game to play. Although she has a hard-won C-ATCH and is making steady progress towards a CT-ATE, the titles are not my most important measure of success. Our real successes are that Hetty is now willing to eat during thunderstorms, keep walking when there is a train whistle, play games in the presence of scary noises, and figure out the unknown without being frozen in fear of it.
We entered our first agility trial (CPE) the weekend of Hetty’s fifth birthday. It was at an indoor facility only 15 minutes from home. I signed us up for one Standard run each day. We arrived just before Hetty’s run and left right after. She Q’d in both runs and earned her first title. I went home thinking it had all gone very well. But we quickly got a dose of reality as we entered more trials. We went further from home and faced indoor crating and an outdoor ring. Hetty refused to enter the crating room once she heard the noise. We couldn’t even walk through it to get to the ring entrance, so we spent the day sitting outside (and getting sun burned). At that trial she started leaving the ring the first chance she got—something that went on for many more runs, though I’m relieved that, finally, after three years of competition and work it seems to have stopped.
At that trial we also discovered that Hetty was so afraid of the beep from the electronic timer that when she heard it, she froze in place shaking (or if she was in the ring, she ran into a tunnel). I had to carry her everywhere. Luckily for us, CPE allows us to do some obstacles on leash so we were able to finish the day with a few successful jumps (after the beep had finally been turned off) and a big celebration. We then spent months desensitizing Hetty to the beep while I contacted trial chairs to make sure I only entered trials where she wouldn’t hear that noise. Today, I feel a tremendous thrill when Hetty hears that beep and gets happily excited rather than shutting down in fear.
After a year and a half of competition, I made a list of the fears we had faced at agility trials. I easily came up with 30. Many were noise issues, but we also had problems with people (and cameras) looking at her in the ring, equipment fears, and other things. We had made progress on some, but others (among them gunshots and thunder) seemed completely out of reach. But I am amazed to now report that after another year and a half of work, Hetty has Q’d after a loud thunderclap and she has run a course clean (except for time faults) after there was a loud gunshot as we approached the start line. This is a monumental achievement since, when we started, these noises would have made Hetty completely shut down and either freeze or drag me so that she could get to a “safe place” (into a tunnel or out of the ring if we had the misfortune of being on course). Now, not only can I keep her from shutting down, but I can also keep her with me in the ring.
How have we achieved this progress? By going to more trials than I can count, by me training myself to stay calm and happy even when my heart is breaking (no, I’m still not perfect at this), by making sure Hetty has as much fun as possible at trials (even if it isn’t in the ring), by using lots of treats and desensitizing her to as many noises as possible. We have worked hard on getting her to do things in classes and at home even when there’s a noise that scares her. It has taken, and will continue to require, a tremendous amount of time and energy on my part as well as a consciousness of, and quick reaction to, any fear triggers that may appear.
We have also achieved progress in agility by doing what’s good for us on course whether it is “normal” or not. When she’s stressed, my handling with Hetty can involve lots of running the outside of obstacles, blind crosses, and various other maneuvers handlers are often told to avoid. It has also taken a lot of effort to figure out what kind of cheering on course might encourage her and what kind will shut her down. I am known for asking other people to greet her (and feed her) just before we go into the ring (sometimes complete strangers who happen to be working the gate). Needless to say, I am always trying to come up with new ideas.
As we continue to make progress on many of Hetty’s fears, Hetty has become more and more focused on me. Although it is great that Hetty has started to look to me when there’s something scary and then can forget about it when my demeanor says there’s nothing wrong; it also seems to have magnified her desire to please me. Not surprisingly, in Hetty’s case this can translate into a fear of making mistakes that adds another layer of ring stress. I made this worse before I learned to control my emotions since I would get upset when Hetty got upset or scared, creating a nasty spiral. So far, our progress at getting Hetty to have as much fun with me in a trial ring as she does in practice is coming in small steps, but there is improvement. Because Hetty is eager for as much human attention as possible, other people can make her excited enough to forget her troubles. So I sometimes ask other people to run her at trials when I am having difficulty bringing her out of herself. It seems that Hetty is distracted enough when other people run her that she usually has a good time. It is at some level, of course, difficult for me to watch, but it’s all for Hetty.
One person among the many who have helped me deserves special credit for Hetty’s success. She is Arlene Spooner, a top competitor in her own right, but also a teacher who truly understands that different dogs have different needs, and that it’s not just about agility. She has helped Hetty to overcome fears in classes and lessons, and she has been a wonderful source of suggestions, celebration, and commiseration, depending on what was needed. Arlene has encouraged me to keep challenging Hetty as she becomes more able to deal with her fears; whether by getting her to take a jump (indoors) during a thunderstorm or having a class full of people approach Hetty while she is on the dogwalk so she discovers it can be a fun game, rather than something to be worried about at a trial. Because of these challenges, Hetty’s comfort zone, both in agility and real life, has expanded immeasurably. Without Arlene’s support, we probably would have stopped trialing with Hetty long ago, leaving her governed by her fears.
Our second dog, Thula, is also a rescue but an almost fearless one. When she joined us, we were able to leave the two dogs alone together at a trial. Before that, Ian or I always had to be with Hetty or she would shut down. Thula is a more typical agility dog who has done well in her first year of competition. With Thula, the types of challenges we have to overcome merely range from missed contacts to off-courses and sniffing in the ring. I now understand why other people tell me agility should be fun all the time, though I still wish I could make them understand that it’s worth doing with a dog like Hetty even when it isn’t fun. And make no mistake, at times it is one of the hardest things I’ve ever done. I didn’t fully realize just how challenging Hetty is, both in agility and daily life, until Thula arrived. Without a doubt, though, Hetty has already gotten much more from agility than Thula (to whom it is truly just another game) ever will.
When I think back on our most successful runs of the past year, I think about the last run for our C-ATCH—not for the run itself but for the hard work and progress it represented, and the relief that it was finished. I also think of the trial where something was scaring Hetty to the point that I had to carry her to the ring for a couple runs because she wouldn’t walk, but then, amazingly, the ring became her safe place and, not only did she run with me, but she even Q’d. I think of the run where the judge realized Hetty had frozen on the dogwalk because she was being stared at and not only looked away, but spent the rest of the trial looking at her sideways—giving me a great opportunity to help Hetty regain confidence in the ring after a problem at a previous trial. I think of the run when I fell down in the ring and Hetty checked in with worry, saw me laughing and decided it really was a game, and ran like a crazy girl (but she saw right through it when I tried sitting on the ground in another run). I think of a recent run when Hetty was so excited to be playing in the ring with me that we absolutely smashed our previous highest point total in Full House. And mostly, I think about a wonderful and challenging dog who is sometimes a complete puzzle, and sometimes the perfect agility performer. And I look forward to discovering what progress we can make in the next year.
I have received an amazing education about dogs through Hetty. Although I wish I could wave my magic wand and eliminate all her fears, it has been an extremely rewarding challenge to try to work through them. Agility has turned out to be a great way to do that, and to me Hetty has been incredibly successful.
By Ann Przybysz of Cudahy, WI
Josie is not my first agility dog. She’s not even my first Sheltie, but she was my first real agility challenge. Like most people that find agility, I had a dog that needed something to do. I knew a friend that did agility, so we tried it. We were never going to compete; it was just for fun. Then we competed, we got hooked, and we never looked back. So when my first dog was getting close to needing to retire, I started looking for my next dog. I knew I wanted everything that my first dog was not. I wanted speed, structure, drive, confidence, and youth.
Josie was the perfect candidate. She had been turned in to the Wisconsin Sheltie Rescue at the age of one for “having too much energy.” She was placed and returned twice for tormenting the resident cats and nipping at guests. She was confident, outgoing, and full of drive. No one could have asked for a more perfect agility prospect. With my rose-colored glasses, I was neglecting to see the other part of her history. Josie had been tied to a front porch where she learned that if she barked at things, they went away. Cars, dogs, people, bikes, pretty much everything came into sight and then left. Reacting by barking had been highly rewarded.
We started by taking a basic obedience class, but I was very anxious to start her in agility as well. She was so smart, and so ready and willing to do anything for food, that it was hard to be patient. What I didn’t realize was that she was working for food and didn’t yet have any sort of a relationship with me yet. I was just a food dispenser. Josie was out to take on the world by herself and she was pretty certain that no one was going to protect her. She was exceedingly reactive to everything, but being stubborn and anxious to compete with her, I ignored the warning signs and pushed on.
After nine months of training, I entered her in her first trial. We didn’t do well. At that trial, a seasoned competitor told me that I needed to work on my relationship first. I didn’t really even know what that meant. I believed that I had a great relationship with my dog. I provided food, water, shelter, exercise, and training as well as love and, in turn, she seemed to want to come home with me at the end of training. What more was there?
Since our first trial hadn’t gone very well, I decided that even though she could do all of the obstacles at home, we needed more practice in a group setting. We started training at a facility that ran two dogs at the same time in opposite ends of the building. We had been placed in the intermediate class, but Josie wouldn’t even do one jump without charging the other dogs and barking her head off at them. It was horrible. I dreaded class and every week I was certain that we were going to be kicked out. Who would want such a disruptive dog in class? But I also needed the help they were able to give me. If they would keep us, I’d keep trying.
We worked extensively on focus. Between runs, Josie and I did little tricks and games to keep her calm and under her threshold of reactivity. I had to make working with me more interesting and all the other activities around us less interesting. It was hard work. This was nothing like going to class and chatting with my classmates like I was used to doing.
We spent another year training and then I decided she was ready to trial again. Our first show went great. She even qualified a couple of times. This was the wonderful dog I knew I had. But it all changed one month later. We were at a NADAC trial and I had entered her in all 12 runs for the weekend. By the fourth run, she went into overload. But again, the ignorant human just kept taking her up to the line to run. She ran to the end of the dogwalk and just kept running, charging a dog that was at least 100 yards away. Thankfully, she never made contact, but the judge made the decision for me that I didn’t seem able to make for myself. She excused us from the trial. I got in my car and cried for the entire hour-and-a-half drive home. I told my husband we were done. I had a great dog that would never be able to do agility outside of our backyard because she couldn’t control herself.
More upsetting was that, after our great success at our first trial, I had entered some more trials for the summer. I had made the decision to never run her again, but I was out a lot of money already. I decided I would go to the trials I had already paid for, but I was going to change the way I trialed. I would quit while I was ahead, not worry about the Q (besides, I wasn’t ever entering any more trials, ever again, so what did a Q matter?) and make this a positive, successful adventure for both of us. No matter what went wrong, if Josie and I were connected to each other, she wouldn’t be venturing out on her own to take on the world.
I was shaking like a leaf when I stepped to the line that next time. I was terrified she was going to explode. We did two jumps, she came to me and we went back to our crate and had a celebration. We continued to trial like that for a long time. Even though we could have gone back and fixed a weave pole entry or picked up the missed jump, the Q was just not worth the potential set-back in our trust of each other.
Very, very slowly, Josie and I developed the relationship that we needed. Almost every day, she and I go for a long jog together. We’ve worked on looking at things and then looking back at me instead of just reacting. And, most importantly, I have learned what “too much” is for her. There is a limit to what Josie can tolerate. Although that limit gets bigger and bigger with each stressful situation that we encounter and successfully deal with, I have to be able to see when it is time for a break. I was trying to rush the process and, with this dog, that process needs to be very slow.
We have come a long way. We continue to work on looking at other dogs without reacting. I always walk a course taking note of where she might lock eyes with another dog and I figure out my ending routine so that she won’t be facing the next dog on the line or the group that is congregating at the end of the course. She and I have begun to trust each other. She is starting to understand that the game isn’t about the food, but rather about having fun with me. She still gets food, but we have a relationship. And I have learned that she is more important than the game. Even if she has the perfect structure to be great, no dog will get very far if he can’t trust the person standing next to them. I will protect her at all costs because our relationship is more important than anything else.
Josie is a happy, confident, fast dog that I adore, regardless of how good or bad we are at agility. She is funny and smart, and thinks that every person has been put on earth for the sole purpose of giving her attention. I would take another dog just like her in a minute. I am forever grateful for how much she has taught me. Every day I learn something new from her.
My first dog taught me how to do the crosses and train the obstacles. Josie taught me how to work as a team. Hopefully, my next dog won’t have to suffer through any of my past mistakes, but of course there will be other lessons for me to learn.
Last year Josie and I started in AKC. In 12 months she went from Novice A to Excellent B. For the dog that was almost retired at three years old, that is more success than I ever thought possible.
Author’s Note: Since this article was written, Josie has earned a number of titles—AKC MX, MXJ; USDAA AD; NADAC Novice Superior Versatility, OAC, O-OJC, O-TN-O, TG-O, O-WV-O—and we qualified for the 2011 AKC Nationals.