I knew it had been some time since I last wrote, but I didn’t realize it had been quite as long as four months ago. Normally in January I’d write of resolutions, plans of action, agility goals. My year would be planned within the first few weeks as it always has. That’s not the case so far, though. I still have a word for 2020 (spoiler: it’s clarity) but I have less goals. Well, let’s not get too far ahead of ourselves here– there are still and always will be goals, but they look a bit different.

It’s not that life has been quiet since October. Very far from it, in fact. In the fall, Seeker debuted in his first AKC show, earning a preferred novice jumpers Q and the first of what I hope will be many cute blue ribbons to attach to his blinged out leather slip lead. He was happy, easy, and fun that day and I all but forgot we were in preferred. Not that an addendum like that should be needed, but more on that later.

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In November Joe and I took a last-minute booked trip to Italy. It was something we had talked about doing earlier in the year as more of a whimsical plan than a concrete one and yet I found myself scheduling another flight to another strange place within the same year. There had been other hopes for that trip outside of visits to ruins and rivers cutting through cities and endless food and wine, that maybe the agility (and dog) stars would align, connections would be made and finally, I thought, I’d be on the path to what I wanted again in the sport. But pasta and wine had prevailed and the trip remained an exploration of a new country with far more to see than we could in six short days.

A vague way of saying: stars did not, in fact, align and in the end ruins and rivers were fine enough by me.

This journey “back” has been a long one.

When I recognized Seeker’s jumping issues at first it felt like a blow, like a death. Melodramatic as that may sound it had in many ways been one. I felt the goals I had tentatively let creep back in wash away nearly as swiftly. But in the weeks and months that have followed, that perspective has changed. I’ve let go of some bigger goals (for now, anyway), sure. I slowed down on a prospective show schedule and event schedule and setting up lots of weight to place on the shoulders of my bright-eyed, bi-black boy and took a step back.  I took away any sense of expectation because there were none to have– other than that he would be a nice dog, that I’d love him, that I’d continue to train him, and we’d work on becoming a team together.

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Hell, I actually did what you’re supposed to do with a puppy.

I got so caught up in the goal-setting of agility that I had begun to lose what the actual fun part about it was: this intense connection. Connection isn’t just in qualifying runs and making lists based on your YPS– it’s the feeling of breakthroughs and lightbulb moments, where your two very different brains and languages seem so sync in a profoundly simple way. Where body motion is louder than your voice and you two can glide through a complex task with little effort.

I’m not ashamed to say that the phrase “my next world team dog” had entered my thoughts often over the last few years of searching for a puppy. I couldn’t help it. That was still the Ultimate Goal, was it not? Weren’t you supposed to prioritize the characteristics that would get you to said goal? What I lost along the way though, was why it was the Ultimate Goal in the first place. I’ve felt so caught up in the chasing down what I’ve already had, that I didn’t stop and consider what got me there before. This is not profound, of that I’m sure, and I’m certainly not discovering some unknown truth, but for me it’s been like fog clearing on an early spring morning. There aren’t “world team” puppies. There are only puppies. Puppies with raw talent and tons of potential, sure. With drive for days and the kind of excitement about their future that bubbles up in your chest and causes your palms to turn tacky and warm before a first novice run. Goals are a byproduct of the connection and relationship we build with our dogs, not the precursor– I’ve confused that for some time.

Seek has lived up to his name(s) in more ways than one. He stripped back agility to what it was and what it felt like when I was just eleven and actual goals were still a long way off. Even if his jumping can not be completely fixed with time, it doesn’t take away all that we’ve accomplished already. It didn’t take away his skills, or the confidence we built together, or the drive for toys (and food!) that had been instilled. In fact, I’ve become prouder of what he’s capable of doing than nearly any dog I’ve worked with before. He faces his disadvantage each time with courage, determination, and an unrelenting happiness that I can’t help but feel too. And more than that: he’s exceeding all expectations week after week despite it.

Clarity, I realize, is sort of an ironic word to associate with the year dedicated to truly debuting your ETO dog, but still, I like it. In the coming year I will try to be clear with my actions, thoughts, and words. Clear handling paths, clear decisions. A clear heart and mind. I plan to shake up my agility life this year some more (I know, yet again vague) while keeping my focus on Seeker’s journey into the sport. An ETO career can be unpredictable and while I want to embrace every moment we’ll share together on it, I don’t want to lose this newfound love of the sport in the process.