Finding joy

Over the last year, I’ve been very vocal and open about the struggles Seeker and I have faced in training agility. It became obvious early on that he was struggling with ETO (more on what that is here) and that training wasn’t going to solve it. That in itself was a hard thing to reconcile with. As trainers we’re used to solving puzzles and problems for our dogs and others, coming up with creative solutions, fixing things, making them better. But over time, I had to come to terms with the fact that my new job was to keep him safe and work on finding ways to handle courses that would allow him to be as successful as possible. That hasn’t been easy all the time.

I dropped his jump height first, which helped alleviate the scary sort of crashes that happened occasionally with 16″ jumps. I took online courses specific to jumping, videoing everything and studying to see if I could find patterns or handling choices that made an ETO happen. I took advice and tried handling that was hard for me in an attempt to find something that worked. There are lots of dogs out there with what I call “functional ETO”– who can make it through courses safely, and fast, who have careers and make it to big events (sometimes the biggest) and find tons of success. Part of me held (holds out?) hope for that with Seek. I flirted with the idea of taking on another puppy, scaring myself off with every possibility, feeling both guilty over the concept and grieving the loss of what-could-have and what-should-be. I didn’t want another dog. I wanted the dog I have.

For all intents, we have been able to play the sport. Modified and with different choices, sure, but I’ve enjoyed training Seeker and finding creative ways to get information to him. He’s made massive strides in training over the last year, consistently putting together very pretty runs, with smooth lines and safe and mostly correct jumping.

This past Sunday, I was entered in my first agility trial since October, feeling cautiously optimistic both from the great training sessions we’ve been having and the fact that I’ve been fully vaccinated (make an appointment!). The day proved to be a reminder that with an ETO dog, a venue can never be taken for granted. It was a facility he’d never run in. The lighting can be dim and variable as the sun peeks behind clouds above a giant white dome. There are lines on the turf for soccer and football, throwing odd angles of white and yellow and blue across the field. The environment is loud and exciting and I couldn’t help but remember team tryouts with Bolt there, running fast and hard, with no fear that we wouldn’t be able to do so safely. Simple lead outs now give me anxiety that I never had before because more often, that is the part of the course which presents the most chances for poor jumping. I led out two jumps from the start in our third run, a simple setup that we’ve practiced countless times with success, without showing any motion as I released him. Seek took off yards early, arching far before the jump before coming down on the bar and rolling. He, as ever, bounced up and barked (surely would have bitten me if given the chance, telling me to get moving), and I, feeling a lump in my throat, made sure he was okay. The judge re-set the bar for us as I managed to say, “He struggles with straight lines,” before allowing him to retake the bar safely. We ran the rest of the run, fairly well with both poor and good jumping and I somehow made it out of the ring before learning how much harder it is to cry into a mask compared to running in one.

I’m so thankful for those who have been supportive to Seeker and I throughout the journey. There are many who have followed him closely, coming to terms with his limitations along with me, and feeling the referred devastation. Is that dramatic? Possibly. But for those of us who have had a dog with what feels like boundless potential stripped away, it is devastating. It’s the death of a dream and a goal. And while our dogs don’t feel this, we do. I want to validate those feelings for everyone who goes through it. For us struggling, we, like our dogs, are trying our best. Sometimes though, our best isn’t good enough. If you’ve been fortunate enough not to have experienced this, I count you among the very lucky. Be kind to those struggling. Be supportive. It’s already hard enough to go through the ups and downs of training success and failure without feeling the pressure of judgment and disapproval and gossip– especially from those who do not know the breadth of work and effort that’s gone into a dog like Seek.

I don’t know where our future trialing looks like. I’m finding, unsurprisingly, that I’m the type of person who likes to compete in competitions. I find joy and fulfillment in training Seeker, but that doesn’t carry over into the ring. I don’t find the stress and anxiety shows have given me fulfilling, and not being able to control the variables of a show environment factors heavily into that. I realize that to continue in agility like I want, I will need to take on another dog, though that is something to think on another day and another time. In the meantime, I’ve been dabbling more in nosework, to give Seeker a job that he can do well and enjoy, with the plans for our ORT and first trials this summer and fall.

I will always prioritize safety and fun for my dogs in this sport. If one of those things is no longer possible for either of us, I’ll stop.

But until then, we continue on with love and hope for what we can achieve together.