Recently I was writing an agility update and realized that people might wonder what it feels like to be the human running the agility course alongside a dog. Not only a dog, but an Australian shepherd who is fast. Or maybe there are people in our audience who just wonder why I’m always the weakest link in our work.
First, it’s the human’s job to walk through each course before running it with a dog. Not only do you have to keep track of what is being asked of you and in what order, but theoretically you should be using this time to figure out how you want to ask your dog to take an obstacle for best results. We’re not to a level yet where we have such amazing insight into our dog’s tendencies, nor can we watch other dogs getting tripped up by a detail and think through how we might avoid the same pitfall. But theoretically this is all stuff the human gets to keep track of in agility.
Second, unlike others I came to agility knowing the human was a key part of the work, that we wouldn’t just be “training dogs” with no human involvement. BUT—getting involved in agility wasn’t something I was doing for ME. I was doing it purely for Rain. As she has been working over the last year, her behavior has changed and my relationship with her has changed. If I thought of agility as a human activity, I’d say no way—I’m not really interested. As we have started doing courses though, I’ve gained far more understanding about the handler’s importance in the process. It’s like flying a plane—a very fast, very barky plane. Often the reason Rain doesn’t get something right is because I am not doing something right. This means that I should be learning as much as she is, and because I’m there for her, I’ve been pretty slow about letting those lessons sink in.
Finally, Rain is FAST. When I watch our classmates saunter through a course, one with her tiny Papillon and the other with her deaf dog, I get jealous. Rain can outrun me in every scenario. Even when she’s in the kitchen and I drop a chopped vegetable at the cutting board, she slurps it up before I can bend down to keep it from her. She’s a lightning-fast dog, even as she approaches her senior years.
What’s it like running a course with Rain, then? It’s a little like storming a castle. You’re running with all of your might, trying to execute the tasks as quickly as possible, but doing your best to keep track of a thousand details. Details like at what point on the dog walk you need to say “feet!” so Rain will stop at the bottom with her back feet on the contact area. How far back you need to be to say “out!” so Rain will drive away from you to get a jump instead of bypassing it completely.
Ultimately your brain shorts out a little—or at least mine does—so having Molly there to observe is infinitely helpful. If Rain continues to not get a command, Molly can point out that I should say it sooner (this has been a big one), or my shoulders are pointing the opposite way from where I want her to go.
As you can see in the photo above I am leaning forward, running at full speed. I am trying to connect with Rain but also look ahead to see what I need to tell her. And this was just to use the dog walk, no other obstacles were involved! As you can see, Rain looks like she’s about to yawn of boredom.
Eventually, I’m hoping some of this will get easier. That’s how training works, right? You practice and build your skills slowly but surely. But with such a fast dog, I often ponder whether I should take up some form of running just to try and improve that aspect of my performance.