This Dog

003

Last week was all about Youke.

Around here, the idiom of “the squeaky wheel gets the oil” often holds true. Youke is not a squeaky wheel. At least not within my small tribe.

I make a concerted effort to pay individual attention to the four dogs that make up JaYoBaCa each day. Nonetheless, for the sake of economy,, they are often taken out and about together. For the sake of fairness, I often divvy up the treats and special things in equal portions, although I confess to often slipping Youke a few extra. It’s my quiet way of making up for the attention he sometimes lacks as the least squeaky of all the wheels.

My house is full of strong personalities. Wallflowers need not apply here. Although truthfully, we could probably use a meek little wallflower to balance out the mix.

I theorize that I thrive on the chaos and the push and shove of the personalities shouting to be on top because I grew up in a large family that was rather similar. Which, really when I think about it, means I need to add two more dogs to the mix, or three if I don’t count myself. Then I would have the equal amount of dogs to siblings I had growing up..

The evenings at home in my house, particularly in the darker. colder winter months, with JaYoBaCa remind me of growing up with my brothers, and later the addition of my two youngest sisters. Dinner was always an especially chaotic and joyful time.

My mother didn’t really enforce a lot of specific petty rules on us. Of course we had primary boundaries, but for the most part, she let us figure out a lot of stuff on our own. Encouraging independent thinking can be dangerous later in life, for both humans and dogs, although mostly for others that are confounded and intimidated by that sort of thing.

However, she had a pretty specific policy when it came to eating dinner. Everyone had to gather together and sit down for it.

From the time I was a little kid and there were less of us at the dinner table than there would eventually be over time, dinner was a chaotic, loud and often opinionated affair. The loudest often won. For at least a year in time in my pre-teen years, my brother David was the loudest, and fastest, talker. Dave dominated the dinner time conversations. This was not a bad thing. Even then he was entertaining, opinionated and funny as hell. Actually, all of my siblings, were, and still are, funny as hell. Also, were, and still are, very opinionated. Unfortunately, during that period, my brother Seth was barely able to utter a word, and when he tried, he immediately forgot what he was going to say since he’d been trying for 15 minutes to get everyone’s attention. Of course, his sudden stage fright was a great source of laughter and derision from the rest of us. No worries. A year later he became the loudest and fastest talker at the dinner table.

From the time I was a kid until I moved across the country. family gatherings were full of laughter and a lot of talking – which was really shouting. We were a difficult group to infiltrate, especially for prospective and future in-laws or significant others. In fact, it was one such person that dubbed my family, The Loud Family.

I often think about that during the evenings at home now with my dog family. I realize a lot of people encourage that time as a quiet, contemplative time for their dogs. Not me. That’s when the household sees the most barking, the most playing, the whoo-hooing, the snarling, the bouncing up and down of favorite toys and just general chaos. It doesn’t usually last for too long, although in the winter months I like to get everyone revved up and racing around the house in play, sometimes for as long as an hour.

In my experience, most domestic dogs are naturally crepuscular creatures, meaning they like to be active in the early mornings and during dusk. Most of them adapt fairly readily to our diurnal preferences. Since I don’t appreciate dogs bouncing on my head at 6 am, every single dog that I’ve ever had has learned within a year’s time that Human Mommy likes her sleep and do not disturb until she stirs. Or if it’s 9 am or later and her lazy ass is still in bed, then excessive wigglings as a subtle hint or a paw swat to the face is allowed. Luckily for me, with the exception of Camm – who likes to employ the aforementioned, the rest have learned a gentle little lick or very intense nose-to-nose staring into the face of the sleeping human also works. Just be prepared to go back to the nest-bed at Human Mommy’s whim.

Within JaYoBaCa, Youke is the quiet one. But when we have those crazy, ridiculous and chaotic evening play sessions, Youke is fearless, snarling and growling and making sure he wins at all the games. No one messes with Youke during these games, not even Bossy Pants Camm.

Because Youke is the quiet one within the tribe, the dog that demands the least amount of regular attention and is generally so agreeable, I feel I often take him for granted. This is reinforced by his giving me sidelong glances and throwing disgusted looks at the other three.

Of course he could just be playing me. After all, my guilt often results in an extra dollop of cream or another spoonful of tasty things. Youke learned long ago that the power and intensity of his eyes has a certain effect on me. I’m his personal sheep, only with thumb dexterity and a spoon.

Which is all to say that Youke hasn’t been getting a lot of specialized attention lately. I’d actually been feeling, for one, that I was trialing him too much.

My plan was to take him out of practices for several weeks and to give him a break for a few weeks from any agility trials.

Therefore, last week. the agenda called for Brady to accompany me to an agility seminar and to only enter Camm for a few runs for the weekend’s trial and not to enter Youke at all.

And then the fates intervened.

Brady did something to a paw last Sunday. I took the dogs out in the yard and he suddenly pulled his paw up in dramatic fashion and started hopping about on three legs. I thought he stepped on a pine cone and was being a bit of a diva. That notion was reinforced when two hours later I took the dogs out again and he was walking and trotting normally. That evening I took them all out for a walk/run/play ball adventure. He was gimpy again on Monday.

On Tuesday, the first day of the two-day seminar, I reluctantly brought Youke along too, thinking he might have to sub for Brady during a few of the lesson sessions. Youke ended up being my working dog for the entire day Tuesday and for all of Wednesday as well. When Brady was still favoring the paw on Tuesday, I sent an email to the trial secretary and asked to substitute Youke for all of Brady’s runs. Of course, Brady stopped favoring the paw immediately after I made that decision and has been fine since.

In retrospect, I really should have signed Youke up to be my working dog for the seminar in the first place.I had a suspicion as to what the material would be and how it was to be trained. Brady would have had a conniption.

Although it meant a wake-up alarm of before o’dark thirty – and Youke took those Human-Mommy-doesn’t-like-to-get-up-at-o’dark-thirty lessons to heart, he was still a trooper and obediently came downstairs from the nest-bed and got in the car for the drive both days. He also worked and played enthusiastically with me for two very long seminar days. He had only one moment when he made it very clear in his quiet way that he was stressed out and didn’t want to work the session any longer. I’m pleased with myself that I recognized what was happening and immediately advocated for him, telling the clinician that he was frustrated, that I was frustrated and that we were done with that particular part and would be moving on. I’m pleased with myself because there was a time in the not-so-distant past when I would not have done that and stood up so firmly for my dog.

It was the right thing to do. In the next and last session of the seminar, Youke was refreshed, playful and ready to work.

When it comes to agility, Youke is a mixed bag. Sometimes I think he’s in the Jasmine camp, and does it only for me. Other times, it’s pretty clear that he’s really into it and thoroughly enjoying himself. I do agility with Youke because of the latter. I’ve also learned to read the difference and to use the information to my advantage. A bit more on that later.

I think many agility dogs are like Youke, although most of their handlers will tell you their dogs love agility. It is my opinion that most dogs that do agility do not love agility. they do it for their humans. While I firmly believe Brady is that rare dog that actually really loves agility – he, like ALL dogs, is perfectly happy doing other things as long as those other things are fun for him and engaging in some way.

The interesting thing for me about the seminar last week was not the content of the sessions or the performance of my dog per se, but was the observation that whatever you are doing with your dog when it comes to performance sports anyway, it has to be fun and reinforcing. For the dog. And it helps if the human is fun and reinforcing too. I knew this already and have known it for a while, but what was so powerful for me last week was how much my relationship with Youke matters.

I’m not going to get all squishy in this post about my relationship with Youke, except to say it is pretty squishy and special. I made a dedicated effort during those two days to keep connected with my dog, but most of that effort was concentrated away from the seminar itself and away from any sessions we were participating in. I took regular breaks and had long sessions with Youke playing and just walking about and exploring the place we were at. That had the added benefit of keeping me relaxed too. Rather than get frustrated if a certain sequence wasn’t going well, I either walked away from it with him or stopped, went backward and back-chained and rewarded for progress. The one time I felt myself becoming increasingly frustrated and realized I was applying my frustration and pressure to perform on Youke, I stopped the session immediately and we went out and played ball on our own for a while. I also genuinely expressed my pleasure to him at all the good things that occurred. That had the impact of boosting his confidence, as well as my own. Confidence is a powerful thing.

Being genuine is also powerful. Unlike partners in bed, dogs always know when you’re faking it.

Despite my concerns that two days of trialing on top of two days from the seminar might prove too much for Youke, I was pleasantly proven wrong.

Perhaps the biggest thing to come out of the trial this past weekend was renewed confidence and trust in the skill set and team work between Youke and I. Also that play as a reward and as a connection in our relationship matters, A lot.

When I first started working with Youke, I knew I had a potential distance dog – a dog that could work at a distance from me and compete in the various distance skills competitions that all of the agility venues offer. In fact, from the time he was a puppy and exhibited his natural outrun to me, I worked and encouraged Youke. Since I never really pursued working sheep with Youke beyond less than a dozen sessions, that huge natural outrun has never been fully tapped. But the possibilities in terms of working distance with him are there. Since Youke’s natural inclination is to work further from me, after a while, I started building more value for working closely with me. But since I really had no idea what I was doing, I started thinking I was messing him up. And I lost confidence.

I also began competing in a lot more CPE trials. The venue doesn’t demand a lot of big distance skills typically and requires certain skill sets that Youke eventually proved pretty good at, plus he’s an awesome snooker dog, and we went on to get our first C-ATCH last year. I sort of threw aside the ambition of pursuing the equivalent in NADAC, But after getting that C-ATCH with him, I renewed the notion of a possible N-ATCH early this year.

The distance challenges in NADAC are, in my opinion, the most difficult of any agility venue. I also feel that there are specific skills that need to be trained to accomplish the distance challenges in NADAC. I used to think that those skills were super tricky and hard. But really, good handling is good handling.

Youke has met the criteria needed for a N-ATCH, with the exception of the Chances qualifying scores. This weekend we came a step closer.

Actually, after a drought of qualifying scores in Chances, we’re on a bit of a roll it seems.

I hadn’t actually worked on any distance skills with Youke for a long time and even stopped entering him in Chances. But when I got the bug again early this year, I started pursuing the goal again. He’s now in a class which emphasizes some distance skills and the lessons I take with Brady helps me to see what I need to work with Youke as well. After we finally got a Chances Q in March after a long string of zeroes, my confidence came back. With each attempt at a trial we’ve been getting better. The funny thing with Youke is we often get the hard part, but I get lazy on the “easy” parts and we fall apart.

I walked Saturday’s Chances course fairly quickly. It seemed pretty straightforward. I learned a long time ago not to obsess and worry over a Chances course as more obsession often leads to over-thinking, which can lead to over-handling. I was actually super busy at this weekend’s trial as I was not only running Youke, and Camm in a couple of classes, but I was also the chief ring steward. I didn’t have time to continue walking the course and obsess over it. I decided I’d simply trust in my dog. If it happened, great. if not, I’d try to realize what I did wrong and learn from it.

We ended up running it perfectly. And I do mean perfect. No hesitation, no looking back on Youke’s part. Just that lovely even stride of his through an a-frame/tunnel discrimination, a loop toward me, then a loop and flip out away from me and back for the finish.

We ended up having a good day overall, despite the fact that on his last run I was so tired and distracted that I forgot the course after the opening few obstacles. No matter, we looped around and out and celebrated the day.

Strangely enough, on Sunday, the first run of the day was similar to the last one from Saturday. I didn’t forget the course this time, but Youke apparently forgot his brain.

Poor Youke.He was probably pretty fried as it was his fourth day of doing agility for all intents and purposes. It was clearly a time when he was going through the motions and playing agility with me because I wanted him to, but he was making it pretty clear he wasn’t personally into it.

So I did what I promised myself I’d do during the drive to the agility site that morning if such a moment happened. I didn’t force him to take the course as numbered and found a way to just make it super entertaining and fun for him.I  even identified the portion of the course where he was likely to take an off course. I know my dog, so I was right and he went off course right where I thought he would. (Or was it a self-fulfilling prophesy? Food for thought perhaps.) I sped up and got all loose and wiggly myself and just ran a course of our making. Naturally we came off and had a big celebration. The goofiness served its purpose. Youke sped up himself on the off course portion we made up and on this second run of the day smoked the course and was once again taking joy in the run itself.

On the Chances course for Sunday, Youke had a gorgeous run. It was fairly challenging course, although again I simply told myself it was either going to happen or not. Surprisingly, I was only really worried about the ending. The ending had a side-by-side-frame/tunnel discrimination – a fairly typical occurrence in NADAC classes. I knew Youke was getting tired and feared he’d go for the tunnel, rather than the a-frame as the numbered course called for.

I have a well-formed habit of peeling away from my dogs on agility courses. I’ve made improvements, but it’s a well-ingrained habit and it drives my dogs nuts. Brady and Camm scold me for it. Youke just comes with me. On what was the easiest part of the course, I peeled, taking for granted that Youke would take the obstacle in front of him.. Youke came with me and crossed the distance line, thus negating our chances for a qualifying score. I didn’t hesitate and re-directed him and we did the rest perfectly. And I celebrated with him in a major way when we got off the course.

We’re getting there.

The day ended, as it so often does in NADAC trials, with Tunnelers – a course composed entirely of tunnels. For Youke, Tunnelers at the end of a trial is like getting to eat a big fat piece of chocolate cake. Fun and self-rewarding. Still, it was the end of a full two days for him on top of a working seminar earlier in the week. I squatted in front of him before I took the leash off and whispered in his ear the magic words that can make him fly, even when he’s exhausted.

“Are you ready?”

It was his fastest yards per second all weekend and we ended all squiggly and happy.

Overall, it was a good weekend of agility. Not just from my perspective. I know this because I watch Youke frequently on course. I guess I’m not really supposed to do this and often get rebuked for looking at my dog. But I like to see him smile and as I told someone this week, we’re kind of in love.

Youkeooking Exchanging glances on course.

004 The happy Youke smile.

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