I am a firm believer it takes a village to raise a Novice A dog. The support you need when starting on this adventure is so very important. Here is our story.
I share photos and stories of Willow all the time, but rarely do I include myself. I prefer to stay hidden in the background, away from sight. But for me to tell this story I am stepping out from behind the camera, into territory that makes me feel awkward and uncomfortable. I’m doing so because 2016 was the year I learned about dog sports.
Before starting obedience classes, I didn’t even know what the term dog sports meant. Sure, I had seen agility dogs run courses before, but that summed up the extent of my exposure. Competing with Willow was never the plan. We went to obedience classes so we wouldn’t look like idiots when we went out for a walk. That really was my number one goal. I soon found out working with your dog could be fun. We did our homework and trained. Then trained some more. When Holli Murphy, our trainer, started making comments that Willow would make a nice little rally dog, I initially shrugged it off. Holli didn’t push, but instead steered our training sessions towards skills that we would need if I changed my mind. Cleaver girl, she had a plan, and it worked.
There was so much to learn. I didn’t understand the different levels, and every time I tried to read the rule book, my eyes would glaze over. I joked about needing a flow chart, just so I could understand what came after Novice A. I had lots of questions, and Holli always answered them. I learn by dissecting things, whether by watching videos, reading or walking through things in my mind. This proved no different. One of the most difficult things I had to learn was how to change directions. Don’t laugh! Doing a ninety degree left turn with a dog walking beside you isn’t easy. I agree that is should be, as we turn left numerous times a day, but we don’t think about it as we do. I had to dumb it down by removing the dog from the equation. My co-workers can vouch for me on this next one. Not caring if I looked like a goof, I walked the abandoned halls at work, at 4 o’clock in the morning, with only the security guards watching. I’m sure they chuckled as I walked back and forth on their cameras, looking like a zombie who didn’t know where it was going.
Our first trip outside of our regular training grounds was a fun match about an hour and a half away from home. My stomach sat in my throat the entire drive there. Willow was pretty cool, and just chilled in the back seat, oblivious to my tapping fingers on the steering wheel. So much was going through my mind. Would I trip and land on my face? How would Willow react to other dogs? My plan for Willow, was one of distraction, in the form of hot dogs. The plan for me? Luck, and a quick prayer. Thankfully our training pals, Trish, Kerry, and Reicher the GSD, were with us. Reicher is Willow’s rock. He is so calm, and used to being around crowds and dogs, that I was totally going to rely on him to show Willow there was nothing to worry about. Holli was also going with her two dogs, so there would be lots of support on hand to help steady the nerves.
In the end, there really wasn’t that much to get worked up about. Willow worked like a dream, and we got lots of positive feedback and kind words. We even got invited to another fun match. Below or pictures of all of us from that day. It is a wonderful thing to be able to hand your camera off to someone who can do more than point and shoot. The majority of photos here are ones that Holli took, and I’m forever grateful for them. Before these I had never seen Willow’s tail wag when we worked, only because I’m don’t look at her butt. I’m concentrating on not stepping on her, or figuring out how to do a right hand turn without tripping myself.
When you get to the bottom of this section of photos, stop and really look at them. Solvey is but a mere pup of 5 months in these. She is impressive, in her working drive and attention to her mom. Holli says it’s mostly because she is a great dog, but I know a lot of it has to do with her great mom.
Next up, enter a trial. Trish and I were doing this together, both newbies, both relying heavily on Holli to direct us. Riding on the success of the fun match, I didn’t really expect to meet any difficulty. Boy was I wrong. Despite my best attempt to keep my nerves in check, they were back. Willow’s breeder came to watch, as did a facebook friend that I had never met before. These next photos are from the Dartmouth Kennel Club show, where I got a very good dose of reality. My little nugget, while she could heal like a pro in class, and even in the ring at the fun match, found the noise and bustle of a busy show just a little too distracting. I didn’t help, as you can see how tense I was, with no eye contact. Momma totally disengaged from her pup. Shame on me.
This photo below is out of order, but for a reason. While there were serious issues throughout our entire on-lead healing pattern, the off-lead section was the best part. Sense my sarcasm. What you can’t see, or hear for that matter, is the ring full of Labradors behind us. It proved to be too much for my gal, so when from this halt, I commanded “let’s go”, Willow did not hear me, or if she did, she didn’t care. She just sat, looking over her shoulder as I progressed with our healing pattern. I went probably about 30 ft before looking at the judge, who then told me to call her. I’m pretty sure it was an “oh shit” moment for her, because she snapped to attention and hustled across the ring and back in to heal position.
We ended with a NQ (Non Qualifying) score, and I walked away with plenty to think about. I was disappointed, but at least that first trip in to the ring was over. It wasn’t all bad though, let me point out the positives. She rocked the “stand for exam” which was big, as she isn’t keen on strangers, especially those that want to touch her. Her eyes were glued to mine during that exercise, just as they should be. The second success was her recall. Aced it, after picking herself up from doing a faceplant. But the exercise that made me the happiest and the one I thought would be our weakness. It was the one minute group sit/stay. Willow is a bit lazy, and any chance to conserve energy she gladly takes. My fear was she would slide into a down. She did not. As for the three minute down stay, no worries there either. Big sigh of relief. Looking back I am now happy with the NQ, it was a wake up call for me. I expected a lot from myself. I am happy to say, Trish and Reicher walked out of the obedience ring for the first time, with a qualifying run and a High in Class score, and their first leg towards their Companion Dog title.
The next day we went back in, and received our first qaulifying leg. Our healing marginally improved, but her lagging still felt like she was a mile behind me. Oh well, any score over 170 was good for me. We qualified, and Trish and Reicher earned leg #2. Smiles all around.
We entered our second trial in June. Friday night we signed up for a practice session with a stand in judge. I felt we could use all the ring time possible. Willow was spot on, even when the “judge” tried to crowd her and force her out of heal position. Nope, she was glued to my left leg, and my heart was smiling, I had my dog back. We had also signed up for the Canine Good Neighbor test, and passed with no issues. I had big hopes for the next day, and promised myself to relax and enjoy the day.
Trish sat this trial out, but was right there as my cheerleader. She set up Reicher’s crate with the obedience dogs and not in the conformation area, all so Willow wouldn’t be alone. Something a true friend would do. She even had me singing (to myself), Mary Had A Little Lamb, to try and steady my nerves. A busy mind doesn’t have time for nerves. I should mention that Reicher became a Grand Champion at this show, so Trish had some nerves going on as well.
As you can see below, we received leg #2. I say received, as I was surprised when our number was called that we qualified. I turned left when the judge called for an about turn, and Willow lagged to the point she was probably close to ten feet behind me, before I called to her. With this class, there were only two entries, and the other dog got up from one of the stays, so NQ’d. That meant we got High in Class. The photo of me with my open mouth, looking like I’m going to bite the Judge, is me laughing at what he said to me. He said something along the line that I had a great little dog, and the next time I go in the ring I should try to breath and not hold my breath the whole way through.
Our breeder, Jane Bond, came out to watch, once again, but this time she got to see us qualify. I snagged her and outside we went for a few pictures of her with us. My daughter who stood ring side for our first trial, was once again along for the trip. For a change, she was the one doing the cheering on, and she also took the photos of us outside. Holli took the ones of us in the ring.
We now had two legs. When I explained this to my non-doggy friends, believe me, I heard plenty of jokes about 2 legs verses 3. After this last trial, I suddenly realized that there was no deadline to how long it took us to get that third leg. If it took another year, then that is what it would take. It was actually like someone hit me over the head when this break though took place. I relaxed and didn’t feel so stressed. Why I thought this, I really don’t know.
The next trial I decided to enter was only an obedience trial, no conformation shows. That meant one ring and limited distractions. We had been doing some rally training, so it only made sense to enter a class. Without going too far into describing rally, it’s sort of an obstacle course with signs, where you do what the signs says, then continue on to the next one. The best part of rally is you can interact with your dog, something Willow was used to. That class also ran before the obedience class, and could be use as a sort of warm up. Three of us ended up with perfect scores of 100 out of a possible 100, so it came down to who completed the course the quickest. As the Judge called out the winning number, I actually looked at the other teams to see who it was, then realized it was us. Trish and Reicher finished right behind us in second place. It was a great way to start the day.
Next up, obedience. As we entered the ring, the judge quietly said to me, ” I’m expecting great things from you.” Lovely. No pressure there. In the end, things went AWESOME! We did have a bit of a lag when we started the off-lead healing section, but I used my one additional command to call her to heal. I think she missed two sits on halts, but other than that I couldn’t have asked for more. Finally, we were leaving the ring, with a performance to be proud of. The group stays went well, and we had our third leg, and our CD title, with a score of 195, and a first place finish.
So what did I mean with the title , it takes a village to raise a Novice A Dog? There were so many people that helped us achieve this goal. With competition of any kind, there are always those people that don’t want to help others succeed. I am happy to say that this has not been my experience. First of all, there would have been no way we could have done this without Holli. I will forever be grateful to her for showing me how incredible it is to work as a team with my dog. Even if we called it quits here, which we aren’t, the bond Willow and I have developed is something new to me. Willow works for me because she wants to. It does help that I offer good treats, but that really only gets you so far. If there wasn’t mutual respect between us, I don’t think it would mater what I offered as a reward. As I look at the photos of us healing, with her eye fixed on me, my heart swells with love and pride. I’m running the risk of people thinking I’ve lost it, in saying these things, but those of your with pets will get what I mean. Would we have had a bond had we not signed up for that first class with Holli? Probably, but I doubt it would have been this strong. My gratitude towards Holli doesn’t stop here, as her talents are not limited to dogs alone. These photos may be on my blog, but were taken by her. I cherish each and every one of them.
Next on my list would have to be my husband. He knows how important this adventure is to me, and understanding why going to training sessions sometime trumps us humans getting supper. While he doesn’t follow us to trials, he does enjoy watching us practice at home. I occasionally catch him using hand signals with Willow, and he has even used them on me. Don’t laugh! After having a nap one day, I really didn’t want to get up. My husband came in to the bedroom, verbally told me to get up. When I ignored him, he gave a perfect hand signal, calling for a sit, from my current lying positing, smiled then left the room. I got up. My daughter also is very supportive and had accompanied me to 2 trials and the fun match, and has let me crash at her apartment and smuggle my Willow in for the night.
Trish has been both a support and inspiration. Where I struggle, she picks up, and where she needs help, I can step in and offer it. There is nothing better than having a training partner to critique you and bounce ideas off. It also helps she travels with lots of treats that Reicher really isn’t interested in. We usually start our training sessions with Willow”s wiggling butt sticking out of Trish’s bag, as she checks out what goodies Trish brought. I also don’t think I would be doing this if Trish wasn’t.
Willow is now Goldwater’s Willow CD, CGN, and I couldn’t be more proud of her. We have goals for this next year, and it’s going to take lots of training and dedication. That pesky dumb bell may be our biggest hurtle, but I have confidence in my trainer, and more importantly in my dog, that we can do it. I can’t wait to see where 2017 takes us.