There are some things in life you can’t account for, no matter how hard your efforts. You can plan, research, study, wait, plan some more, but in the end, at times, it won’t change an outcome. That’s a hard truth for me to swallow. I plan, I make lists—on occasion I make a list with items I’ve already done just so I can check them off. It’s a way to handle anxiety, this. If I can order things (control them) then I can manage the chaos that’s sometimes too near. I handle This Manageable Thing so That Unmanageable Thing doesn’t cause too much trouble. It’s a flawed system, but it’s mine, and I’m fully aware of its complications.
Lists, however, are also flawed.
I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about how I’d say this. Writing tends to be the way I communicate most effectively—at work I’m often praised for how detailed I am in written word, sometimes painfully elaborate with my responses. I’m more skilled at this than I am at speaking and oftentimes it helps me organize the thoughts I can’t form into the right words at the right time. When I try to speak about this in particular it typically ends in tears and choked words and so, to alleviate that again and again, I’ll write it. I’ve shared most every step of my journey in agility so far in this pace, so this shouldn’t be any different.
When Seeker came home our biggest challenge was finding rewards. He wasn’t food driven nor did he like to tug or stay engaged in play too long with me. If you’ve followed my writing here you may have already known that about him. I worried early on that he may lack drive, biddability, or the willingness to work for me the way a competitive agility dog should. I worried about the things most of us do: what size he’d end up (I tracked his height weekly. Same day, same time. I kept meticulous notes); would he develop any fear, aggression, or sensitivity? (He never has. His stable, happy temperament is more than I could have ever hoped for); if he’d learn to use the ground speed I knew he was capable of (He has.). Would he turn out to be the agility dog I hoped?
He checked every item on the list I had literally written out. Size, structure, movement, temperament. He fits the bill in every way.
The one thing I hadn’t accounted for crept in quietly and slowly. A too-high take off here, a too long extension point there. His strange approach to unknown staircases or his jumping up small sets of stairs altogether. On walks in the woods he would heave himself over logs, jumping far longer and higher than necessary to clear it. It was minor things and he was figuring out his body, after all. He’s a long-bodied, long-strided dog—I expected him to not know where his rear end was for a while. He crashed some bars on occasion, but so far in between I thought he must have been learning from it. In my gut though, a different truth was unfolding. I didn’t remember going through the same issues in foundation training with my last dogs. I stuffed the thought down and continued, hopeful to work through things. Time passed and slowly I raised the jump height more as he aged. Fully grown, fully developed, skilled beyond where I hoped he would be. It would help him think about the job more, others agreed. He needed to learn to use his body more. He needed experience. Take a step back, they agreed when I brought it up. Spend more time jump training. Grids. Set points. Don’t move so much, try to run with him. If that doesn’t work, go back to square one.
So I did. Again and again. I took breaks from sequencing, for a month at a time, to focus on it. I would carve out time in each day to spend 5 minutes on it. I filmed everything, studied every effort frame by frame. I reached out to those who have shaped jump foundation training in the sport as we knew it. I couldn’t understand why it wasn’t improving despite doing everything I was. If I could teach the untuggable dog to tug—the dog who refused all treats to now scarf down cheese sticks—the one who turned on a drive and speed that surprised everyone who knew him—I could certainly teach him to jump. Of course I could.
What I didn’t account for was the possibility that in the end, I couldn’t.
My first sheltie had a version of ETS (early takeoff syndrome). Back in 2001 it was called “stutter jumping” as most dogs who obviously dealt with it would stutter noticeably before takeoff. She measured, lowered her head, and her little 14” body would leap straight into the air over jumps, sometimes clearing it by feet more than necessary. She crashed spreads more times that I could count, and it took a year for us to get out of Open when triples were the king of the end line. I was young and she was a borrowed dog before she was my own. I didn’t teach her foundation and at the time we tried to blame it on previous flyball training, or my inexperienced eleven-year-old handling long before we started checking her eyes. In the end it was inconclusive. Nothing worked. We carried on the best we could despite it.
We’ve been conditioned for a long time to take blame ourselves when our dogs aren’t successful in agility. We try to find the things we did wrong in foundation. We seek out the help of experts who can tell us exactly where to go back and what to do to fix it. When our dogs get injured we find the best in sports medicine, the newest ways to treat injuries. There’s usually a solution somewhere for something. But what about when the problem can’t be fixed? What if you’re like me, a list-maker, a planner, a problem-solver with a problem that can’t actually be solved? That’s what ETO requires you to come to terms with. It is not a training issue. It is not a foundation issue. Once you’ve determined the dog is physically sound to jump the possibility of a physical issue also gets ruled out. You whittle the list down until the last possible explanation is a simple one: a depth perception one.
It’s easier to blame handlers and trainers for the issue because it makes the cause feel more removed, less nefarious. Less likely to happen to you. Until it does.
I lived in denial for a long time about it. Hoping it would improve as he got older and as he gained more experience. But that hasn’t been the case. I’ve conferred with a number of those leading the field on this issue and friends who have dealt with it. Each confirmation from them was another blow to the perilously constructed reality was clinging to. I’ve accepted it more in the last month. I’ve said it out loud to the people I trust most. I’ve cried over it as if I were mourning the loss of a dog altogether. It feels much like the steps in grief which is at the same time confusing. He is not sick, I have not lost my dog. In every other respect he is healthy and happy and nothing will jeopardize him being loved by us and being part of our home. I feel guilty for being so sad about it. It seems trivial in comparison to so many other more terrible realities. But still, the feeling of grief persists.
Seeker’s judgement of bars is a thing we will have to manage together. I understand that I can’t fix it for him like I so desperately wish I could. ETO/ETS is like being alongside someone who is nearsighted and can’t exactly make out the sign in front of them. We can help give them clues, we can give them as much information as possible, but it will be an imperfect system. Still, I will be his sign-reader to the best of my ability. I’d like to develop a new style of handling that will work for him, that will keep him safe and happy in this sport that he has grown to love. I’m not sure what that future will look like, though I know it’s likely different than the one I originally hoped for.
I expect some people will still look for blame in me or in the balance of Seeker’s body (which is the most balanced, most perfectly-moving one I’ve ever owned). I expect criticism. But I want to have a say in the inevitable conversation about my dog before it becomes a hushed secret, or a rumor to spread. I also expect that throwing back the covers on this may help others feel like they’re being heard too.
Each dog has something to teach us and I’m taking my cue from Seeker on this one. Never has a dog taught me as much as he has in so short a time. I’ve learned patience in a way I never have before. I’ve learned to embrace the unknowns in a new way—lessening expectations and truly enjoying the present moment with my dog. He’s reignited a love for dog training and agility in an unexpected way. Every step on our journey has been fulfilling and I wouldn’t trade the experience for a moment. I’m so utterly proud of him.
Maybe he will surprise me as he has many times before though. I think adventures will still await us, in whatever form they come.
For more information on early take offs, please download the free Clean Run edition on the topic here.