by Arlene Spooner
One great thing about the dog world is that no matter how much experience you gain, there is always something to learn and each dog potentially has something to teach. I intentionally own very different dogs to try to get a well-rounded education. I have just recently joined the ranks of first-time Sheltie owners.
My five-month-old, Sweeper, is going to be my fourth agility dog, not including the countless dogs that I've trained or handled but did not own. I realized with my third dog, Blitz, that he benefitted from the fact that some early mistakes and lack of vision on my part had been cured, with effort, by my first two dogs. Since I know Blitz has also been a great teacher, I expect Sweeper will owe all three dogs a thank-you for making her life easier. And because there's always something still to learn, I'm sure one day my next dog will owe Sweeper a thank-you for everything she has taught me.
There are many minor lessons I've learned. Finding and tweaking contact methods, perfecting weavepole approaches, and lots of others resulted in each dog being stronger at the previous dog's major weaknesses. However, there are two very general and reoccurring themes that have finally sunk in. Lesson one for me is that my dogs are family members first and competitors second. It's sort of a motto. Not everyone feels this way about their dogs, and that's fine. For me, though, it's essential that my dog and I love and trust each other, even if she never sets foot in a ring, and that family and friends find her to be an "easy" dog. My rescue Cocker needed a lot of training on how to be a self-controlled member of society before we could start on agility, and she taught me that putting the competitive stuff on hold to get basic rules and manners down is worth the time. Not having to worry about my dogs' behavior leaves me free to focus on agility.
Fortunately for me, Sweeper's breeder, Kim Parker, is a master of creating very stable puppies. Sweeper met countless people, was carried and cuddled by kids, walked on various surfaces, heard unusual noises, and played on or with all kinds of toys.
She arrived at my house with a natural curiosity and made herself right at home. The transition was very easy for her, and I continued exposing her to new things in the world. I take her on walks to busy streets, baseball games, playgrounds, parks, and anyplace she's allowed. This is time I could be spending on agility training, but seeing her process and accept a new situation (the other day it was a very loud fire whistle just as we passed the firehouse) makes me confident that she'll be able to handle different environmental factors in the future.
Lesson two is more of a mantra than a motto, because I have to keep reminding myself that there is no rush. I believe with my Afghan's early training there was too much work and not enough play. With Sweeper, I want to give her time to have fun and be a puppy. I've started dogs in agility at all different ages and I don't see a difference in obstacle performance based on the dog's age when the actual obstacle was trained. Sweeper has had experiences geared toward obstacle performance, but I haven't started her formal obstacle training. Her agility exposure comes in the form of playing on her tippy-board (thanks to her breeder, she's been doing that her whole life), pushing through the bedskirt (like a mini-chute) to hide and then pounce on my Manchester, balancing on a dog bed while I drag it around, and the regular running, dodging and jumping she does playing in the backyard. When we start her introduction to equipment, I want her to see it as an extension of playtime with just a few rules added to the games.
I have to remind myself to be patient when people ask me what she knows, referring to agility, and I answer that she knows nothing. But actually, she knows to be quiet in her crate. She knows to sit at mealtime and to leave claimed bowls alone. She knows how to follow my hands, how to walk on a leash and ignore cars, how to charm anyone who wants to hold her and remain calm even if it's a stranger, and she knows that a quick response to her name results in playtime with Mom.
That's a lot of knowledge for a baby. She's got a long way to go and there's still a lot to learn, but there always is, and we both enjoy the education we're getting.
Arlene Spooner has been an agility instructor for over ten years and an AKC agility judge for two years. She has competed with several different breeds across all jump heights, earned 15 Championship titles, and has been in the Invitational finals twice with her Manchester Terrier. She and her husband live in Oradell, NJ with her Cocker Spaniel, Afghan, Manchester Terrier, and now her new Sheltie.