Our Q rate since we returned fully to Agility in March has not been great– last month in particular. Not great is kind — politically correct even– because truthfully it has tanked. Especially when compared to how we usually perform in the ring and how well we were performing back in the fall right before Worlds and immediately after. A sort of surprising rate since we have seemingly danced through a number of our AWC prep courses in practice, yet on the weekends we have struggled with simple courses.
This primarily comes because I’m asking for criteria in the ring that I also demand in practice—something many of us let lax on the hunt for double-Q’s and MACHs and yes, especially at large events like World Team Tryouts. A goal of mine in the fall was to re-train Bolt’s a-frame to a running contact. At 6 years old and as a dog that can easily leap from above the contact zone, I knew this would take time. It may have been scribbled in my plans for after we returned from Worlds, but it wasn’t in the stars for us. With all the time taken off for his recovery, I couldn’t with any good conscience run him dozens of times a practice over the a-frame to re-train the behavior. I feared training too much too soon, and I especially didn’t want to do it so close to Nationals and tryouts—so time slipped on, and our a-frame criteria wobbled.
I’ve heard many times from friends and fellow-competitors that our dogs only have “so many jumps” in them before their agility careers are over. It’s a thought I’ve taken close to heart, especially after our time off last winter. It’s what has influenced my decision to continue asking for Bolt’s two-on two-off behavior on the a-frame with a quick release when needed. I’ve been able to train it more frequently without asking as much from his body as a result. This may not be the case for everyone—but it is for us.
Last week Bolt and I attended our first team practice and I kept this in mind for those three days, more than last year even. I tried to be more deliberate, more consistent, and to repeat sequences less. I came away feeling more prepared and with a clearer sense of our training plan moving forward.
Still, I think we’ll continue to struggle in the ring for a bit longer. Who could blame him? Why now does he actually need to stop on his contacts? He doesn’t know that the World Championships are scrawled on literally every calendar I own with countdown clocks and training plans and goals—all he knows is that he got to run through it for so long and now, suddenly, he’s not allowed. I don’t blame my dog for a single instant for our Q rate. (I do blame myself though).
One of the best pieces of advice my long-time friend and mentor, Paulette, gave me was that dogs understand their training in black and white (not literally, of course), but in terms of criteria. If we let something slip in the ring over and over, they learn that it is acceptable. It happens with start lines, with contact criteria, tables, turns, and more. She warned me long before Bolt and I started competing to not fall victim to this habit—to always ask for consistent ring criteria, especially at local trials. To not get swept up in the rush of a great run at the expense of what you’ve trained. But, yet, here we are. It’s been a slow process re-training our ring performance to match our practice performance, but it’s getting there.
How discouraging to feel I’ve failed my partner in some ways—to have confused him so much. But I’m attempting to see this in another light: one of training for both of us. We place so much emphasis on our Q-rates, on consistency, on titles and ribbons, that sometimes it’s harder to see the small successes. So instead of focusing on the end result, I’m choosing to focus on the process.
Our runs of late have not all been perfect by any means, but they have held in each of them great success. Improved communication between us both; solid start line stays; efficient, pretty jumping; and an a-frame that is, mostly, what I’m asking for. Even more importantly though, they’ve each contained a dog who is consistently remaining healthy, sound, and happy. I’m working on taking some of the pressure I’ve placed on myself off and being mindful that this will work, that is has a purpose, and that it is worth it (even if my bank account begs to differ as I enter more weekends). There is no shame or embarrassment to be had over a low Q-rate—especially not when we use our ring time for the betterment of our dogs and for ourselves as their handlers. I choose something every single run to commit to—be it a blind cross, or criteria, or an independent send—and do not waiver from that plan. Yes, even if it means forfeiting an otherwise nice run.
It’s a challenge I think we should all take, no matter what our goals are. Pushing outside the comfort of a “safe” run or running-for-the-Q helps us grow as handlers and as trainers. Celebrate the smaller goals along the way—they add up, I promise, into the bigger ones you have for your team.