Meatballs & dishtowels

I’ve always thought that shelties came pre-programmed with food drive, until I met Seeker. His larger than necessary tongue flicks out when offered a new piece of food and he’ll gingerly take it into his mouth before, inevitably, it falls to the floor. We joked (and still do) that he’s got a hole in his mouth somewhere and oftentimes in the morning you would find me hovering near his food bowl, encouraging him to go on and finish. Some days he did, some days he didn’t and, unlike shelties of my past, we don’t rush to the e-vet on the days he doesn’t.

Food drive has always been an easy answer for skills training for me. It’s simple to shape a dog who will do just about anything for a broken off sliver of a stale bil-jac (looking at you Bolt) or get a dog through a fearful episode if you can distract them enough with something high-value (hi, Nike). Seeker though barely gave a meatball a second thought through months of foundation training and could easily disengage if the environment was more stimulating than the task at hand (read: girls are present or there is lots of Real Agility happening). Piece of meatball enters mouth, piece of meatball ends up on the floor. Repeat. Similarly, he was picky about the things he’d play with and to what capacity, outright refusing to tug or play in those same stimulating situations.

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He was a unique puppy when he came to us at 3 months old. Calm, soulful, and relaxed. Not exactly what we sometimes describe as the “perfect” agility prospect. He wasn’t tugging on the pants legs of passersby or darting around the house recklessly tossing himself off from couches. Some who met him in those early days gave me polite smiles behind confused eyes which clearly said, “Yeah? Him?” Yet, the important things I said I would always prioritize stood out more: structure, movement, temperament. He never went fearfully into a new situation—he was bold without being standoffish, quiet but playful, happy, easy. He settled into a loud, busy city easily and the subsequent move to the suburbs soon after. He held the capacity to work when asked, even if the motivators were difficult at first to identify. It was more than enough to work with.

It’s easy to get caught up in training for what you want rather than what you have. Linda Mecklenberg has a famous quote about making our dogs believe they are champions all the time—and I fully believe this. I think we should train for the dog we want and the goals we’d love to imagine them achieving, but that we must also train for the dog that’s in front of us. Identify the characteristics your dog possesses—is it focus, or intensity? What environments do they thrive in? What motivates them to work? It sounds like common sense, but getting caught up in the doing aspect of agility oftentimes supersedes the intentions behind the actions. I want my dog to be set up to succeed at every opportunity early in his agility foundation training. If he couldn’t handle distractions, I’d remove them and slowly add them back in over time. If he turned on more to tugging a dishtowel than the $30 Clean Run tug I want him to love (especially when there are nine of them in the house) I used the dishtowel. If meatballs became boring to his picky palate, I’d switch to something that entices him.

I try to drop the idea of all the things he “should” do and focus on what he’s actually doing. Since then, we’ve graduated to all sorts of tug toys, with him happily tugging along the entire session.

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My sessions with Seeker in the beginning were very short. Sometimes only a few minutes, ensuring that I was always the one to end them and not allow him to disengage—the goal was to leave him wanting more. Over time, we built those sessions up to longer and longer as he physically and mentally matured. The coolest thing? In this last year we’ve built the best working relationship I’ve ever had with any of my dogs. We fit together easily, we understand each other well already. He reads my body language well and I his. I know when sessions should end, even when I know we could go on and do more—a skill I did not have early on with Bolt. He’s thriving in every situation I put him in these days. And even when the surrounding distractions still prove to be more thrilling than his $30 tug, or the food I have on hand, he works. Without question, he’ll continue to work for me. That is the biggest success we’ve had to date– more than obstacles he’s learned, speed he’s gained, or anything else that looks like the end goal of agility.

I loosely set a goal back in the spring that he and I would debut this fall. Fall, if you have noticed, is just about to engulf us, and yet there is no real pressure to get out there just yet. We will dabble in UKI in the next week, testing ring nerves (mine, not his) and checking in on focus, some handling, and more than anything: to have fun. At this same age, Bolt was in AKC excellent and well on his way to qualifying for World Team tryouts before the age of two. It was as if he came that way, ready to compete out of the womb. Seeker on the other hand, is still learning his contacts, still practicing weave entries, and spending time learning how to appropriately use his long, sturdy body– some skills I glossed over with Bolt in an effort to debut.

I’ve never enjoyed teaching foundation more than I have with him. Maybe because he’s so thoughtful, maybe because he’s challenged me in new ways, or maybe it’s because he, like all the dogs before him, has taught me more than I bargained for. And that’s the best part.

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