My pitbull Molly and I started our agility trialing journey in February 2013. I was going to write a post on this blog about that. About my very first agility trial with my very first agility dog. That post probably would have been, “Molly ran circles around me, the judge probably needs rotator cuff repair surgery for all of the faults that he had overwork his shoulders to signal, and all of my classmate’s dogs behaved normally and got qualifying rounds. The end.” I was supposed to write a post about our second agility trial but that post probably would have been, “Molly NQ’d all eight runs, made another judge eligible for rotator cuff repair surgery, helped me understand that “contact fly off” was more than just a term I had heard, and all of my classmate’s dogs behaved normally and got qualifying rounds.”
From the very beginning, Molly and I were behind other teams at our experience level. Woefully, painfully, embarrassingly behind. I knew two things: it was surely all my fault and Molly was a maniac. After all, I adopted Molly from a shelter that she landed in first as a stray at only 2 months old, and then adopted and returned back to the shelter in only one week for being “too much.” In agility class, Molly humped me and nipped my arms for the crimes of confusing or frustrating her. Molly was not a dog who was going to make a green, inept handler look good. There are dogs like that, and I have watched plenty of them. But that was not Molly. Molly was a fast running dog, she needed a handler who could work and think even faster. I was not that handler. Molly was moderately reactive. She could be around other dogs in many situations, but at agility trials she fluttered over and under threshold throughout the day and the result was usually a stressed up dog and our time in the ring suffered for it. We had so many problems. It felt like we had every problem. “Too Much”, indeed.
From those first two agility trials I realized that though we did have problems, I knew I wanted to fix them. I believed in Molly, far more than I believed in myself. I knew we could become a real team. I knew me and my pitbull, often the only pitbull at many of the agility trials that we would attend, could be something. Someday. At our third agility trial we earned our first agility title: CPE Level One Standard. The hosting club had run out of New Title ribbons, with the exception of one. It was crumpled and bent. The trial secretary found it in the bottom of a box somewhere and told me that she would mail me a better, prettier ribbon if I did not want the bent one. But I did. It made me smile, that for our very first agility title we would receive a bent and damaged ribbon. The CPE Level One Standard title is one that many teams breeze through, but it took Molly and I many failures to achieve, and I loved the imperfect physical ribbon to match the immense effort that Molly and I had to give in order to earn it. It was beautiful.
We pressed on, and our journey to become a real team began. I made every mistake. I learned that it is okay to make every mistake. I learned a lot of lessons. Molly and I worked hard on her frustration issues so that she could be more relaxed around other dogs, and in her crate, at trials. It was an agonizingly slow process. I analyzed every off course and error, hoping to find some way that we could improve. Molly was the queen of zoomies. She jumped in the ring crew’s laps and licked their faces. She once did a flying leap in the air and licked a judge’s face. Wrong courses were inevitable and expected. One memorable August 2013 run in the CPE game called Colors we racked up 155 faults and still managed to be under time. It was not a clerical error. Everybody knew my dog Molly’s name because I was forever calling to her in an effort to keep her with me. She launched off of the contacts often just a moment too soon, she leaped over tunnels instead of through them, she ran around jumps and took them from the wrong side, she blasted past the weave poles as though they did not even exist, she jumped out of the ring at least four different times. Photographers often captured her racing through the ring at mach speed with her lips blown back by the wind and her eyeballs rolling in two separate directions. I nicknamed her “NQ Moo”.
I unintentionally micromanaged Molly out in the ring. I panicked on the contacts and on the weave poles, I panicked if she looked like she might even be thinking of taking an off course obstacle. It stressed her out. She began to run slower and to show signs of stress other than zooming: sneezing, head shaking, floor sniffing. It broke my heart and I hated myself for not realizing how much I was upsetting Molly. We were more successful in the ring, Molly was running slower but more accurately, but that was not good enough. I wanted Molly to still be Molly. I feared I had broken her spirit. I overheard some competitors say that once a dog’s speed is gone, it is gone forever. That statement chilled me. Could that be what happened with Molly? Had I crammed her into the small box I wanted her to be in instead of meeting her speed, power and joy where it was at?
From late 2013 through early fall of 2014 I had a dog whose confidence was shaken but who was trying her hardest to be a Good Dog. I was going to try even harder to be a Good Handler. We took a month off of agility trials in summer of 2014. Not a long period of time, but it was very refreshing for us. I looked at our problem obstacles. I wanted Molly to enjoy weave poles rather than just surviving them. The A-frame and Dog Walk were areas where the stress borne of my micromanaging showed the most (fly offs if I even uttered a word or stopped my forward motion). The weave poles had to be re-trained from the ground up. Unsurprisingly, she never understood how to perform the weave poles independently in the first place. I taught myself to stop being so controlling and it was hard. I taught myself to trust Molly and that was even harder.
I stopped calling Molly’s name if I sent her off course. This helped her trust me and not second guess me. If I couldn’t be a good handler and not send her off course, that was on me. I started to trust her on the contacts, and she started to become more reliable. My own confidence increased as I (sort of!) learned how to handle. Molly’s speed was returning one trial at a time and it was a beautiful thing. By December 2014 we were ridiculously close to earning our CPE Agility Trial Champion title (C-ATCH) but we had to defeat our final demon, Standard class. We needed 9 more qualifying rounds in Standard class to get our title, and it felt like 9000. Standard was, and still is, our hardest class because Molly has to perform the A-frame, Dog Walk and 12 weave poles cleanly, and no wrong course faults! The chances of running a course and not faulting any of those four things was beyond difficult for us.
We left many more NQs behind us trying to chase those last 9 legs. I entered us in every trial , and often only in Standard class, in the Winter of 2015. One bitterly cold day I drove two and a half hours one way to a trial in a freezing cold barn because the hosting club was offering two rounds of Standard. We earned our third Standard leg that day and NQd every other class, I don’t think I regained feeling in my frozen toes for two weeks. More than one time I got caught driving my tiny 2WD car in the snow on the way home from an agility trial, foolishly chasing those coveted Standard legs. I learned that Molly would run her A-frame and hit the contact every time, if I just ran right along with her instead of stopping her and trying to control her. I re-trained her stopped dog walk contact and almost fell over the first time she actually stopped at a trial. Those last 9 Qs piled up and our Standard demon felt defeated, and it was dizzying that we had even achieved this level of competency.
You need 10 Level 5 Standard Qs in CPE Agility as well as requirements in the game classes in order to be awarded a C-ATCH. We earned our 10th Standard Q in April 2015 in the same building, with the same club, that we failed in so thoroughly at our first trial back in February 2013. Our 10th Standard Q was adequate but not a beautiful run, I was way too stressed and excited to do my job as a handler properly. But we did it. In 2013 I would have laughed if somebody had told me that Molly and I were capable of earning a C-ATCH. The idea would have seemed ridiculous and out of our depth.
We could never have done it if I hadn’t listened to Molly and tried my best to become the handler that she deserved, over and over again. I made every mistake with Molly that you can make. I trialed her too soon, before she was prepared to deal with the intensity of a trial atmosphere or could perform all of the obstacles correctly. I had little to no idea how to handle an agility dog. Molly might have been naughty in the beginning and never “saved my butt” when I made mistakes, but she was and is the best teacher I could ever ask for. I often think of Silvia Trkman’s words about her first agility dog, a Samoyed named Aiken, “When people ask what makes me so good, I always tell that if you want to be good, you need a bad dog. So bad, that nobody could help you. That’s when you have to think. And that’s when you learn.” Molly was nowhere near an Easy Dog. She was not a Beginner Dog. But she was My Dog and a Resilient Dog and a Teacher Dog. She made me think, and she made me learn. I didn’t get the agility dog that I thought I wanted with Molly, but I got the dog I needed. And I have a teammate that I respect and love more than words can ever say.