YoBaCaRy and I are on the precipice of change.
It somehow seems fitting that this should occur on the last month of December in the year 2020.
This year has been a lot of different things for most of the world, and most of it not particularly good. Still, some of those ridiculous and annoying memes I’ve seen posted do have an element of truth. If you were open to it, the year and the changes forced upon us certainly pushed many into some introspection.
I could get very deep here, but I’m deliberately choosing not to go into the deep end. Not quite yet anyway. But I am dipping my toes into the water and there will likely be some flailing around as I fight to keep my head above it all.
I think 2020 has been a very good year for my dogs. They have been the beneficiaries of a human forced to slow down, forced to nearly cease her business, forced to think about how she wishes to proceed. As a result, they received a lot more time in the woods.
I’ve lived a very dog-centric life for over a decade, but my dogs have not had this much of me since the summer of 2015 when my employer of 26 years severed my position. Much as I used that summer for introspection and thought about the next steps in my life, I finally relented and decided around May to do the same this year. As with that summer, my dogs have been my constant companions on treks through the woods over the past several months. Those hikes have taken us over miles and miles. Sometimes the dogs are a welcome distraction, other times peaceful and thoughtful partners as I meditate through forests. And admittedly, there are times when they have just been deeply annoying pains in the ass. See, unlike the summer of 2015 when I had Jasmine and a relatively stable little foursome, I now have Rhys.
Rhys was actually the first of my dogs to make me realize that the changes that March 2020 initiated were not necessarily a bad thing. Not a bad thing if you’re a young dog that needed a lot more attention and direction from your human anyway. Unbeknownst to him, those same changes were not necessarily so good for his voracious appetite and desire for regular meals. But, of course he did not know that and vastly appreciated the fact that his human was around a lot more and that he was getting a lot more attention. And within a few short weeks, I realized the difference as well. It was most profound with Rhys, but the older three, even with a much longer history of being with their human, blossomed with the additional time and attention as well.
Thus, I relented and finally decided to enjoy the shitshow that has been 2020, at least as much as is possible when you are a human forced to interact with as few other humans as possible while maintaining at least six feet of distance while your breathing apparatus is encased in a swath of cloth that advises you that coffee breath is a very real thing, and whilst worrying when your next roll of toilet paper may be in stock.
Thanks to my dogs and some of the wonderful humans I know that also enjoy the woods, the water, and nature in general, and taking walks, I’ve actually enjoyed much of the year. That is when I wasn’t a massive ball of stress and fear with endless loops of housing and employment concerns swooping in my head.
I attended an agility trial the weekend before Washington State essentially shut down in March. The trial was a blast and had an almost giddy atmosphere. On some level, most of us I think knew it was going to be the last one for a while. Indeed it was. March also saw not only the end of trialing, but the end of doing agility lessons.
Truthfully, I didn’t miss either that much. I’d been cutting back on trialing anyway due to the demands of my business and my focus on it. I also wasn’t able to justify the money spent on agility trials as I had in the past with the need to live “smaller” as a small business owner. I had also started to cut back on agility training for the very same reasons, coupled with the fact that Youke and Brady were older and had already Done All the Things.
Friends would tell me how much they missed training and trials. I just shrugged. I tried to understand. I did miss the human and social engagement of both. But I also just greatly enjoyed my dogs and watching them do other things that were a much bigger part of both their lives and mine. I started to observe them more – which is saying a lot since I observe them constantly. I noticed subtle changes, the result of more time spent with me and more time hiking and exploring.
As the months went by, I realized I did not miss trials at all. Part of this was because Youke and Brady have achieved more than I ever dreamed possible. Youke was already well on his way to complete retirement as I strongly believe in retiring my dogs while they’re still fit and able. I grimace when I think of some of the elderly dogs I’ve watched trying to run an agility course, working their hearts out either because they still like the game or, more often than not, because they are very good dogs trying to please their humans, humans that are pursuing their personal goals with an aging dog to feed their own human egos. I vowed long ago not to be one of those humans.
As the months rolled on, I was at peace with the realization that Youke’s last agility trial had been in March. He ended his career with a perfect and elegant Chances run. Perfect and elegant because at three weeks shy of 12 years old he’d been doing agility for over a decade, had nothing to prove any longer and, while not as fast as he once was, he still ran with his long, loping easy stride, making a course I used to think of as nearly impossible to do, look simple.
Brady isn’t, and may never be, ready to retire, but at some point I will make that decision for him. He ran in a trial in November, one of two that we’ve done since things eased up a bit after virtual lockdowns. During a Tunnelers run I saw changes that made me cringe, and truthfully, almost made me cry. It was the first time my superb and super incredible agility dog showed his age on a course. His time was still fantastic and his yards per second commendable – resulting in a first place – but the way he moved told me he is after all, not invincible.
The other reason why not competing in trials was okay was because I’d already made a decision in March about Rhys. That decision was made pre-lockdown. I realized that Rhys was not, and may never be, ready to play agility at a competition event. He’s talented and when he’s not overly aroused, he’s good, but competition events do not bring out his best. Once we were allowed to resume training again, I made the decision that I still want to train with him. It’s good for me as a handler and it’s good for him to engage his body and brain. However, over the summer and fall I watched him disintegrate in group classes, while he thrived in our weekly private sessions. In our private sessions I have the luxury of a super flexible instructor who can adjust according to what she sees and thinks he needs at that moment and who doesn’t have the burden of instructing and dealing with other teams in that moment, the luxury of time to work with Rhys and my instructor on those things, and the lack of pressure to do full courses or to be perfect. That lack of pressure, for both me and him, is better for the both of us. All my dogs feed off my emotions, positive or negative, but Rhys more so than the others. I become frustrated and flummoxed, begin feeling pressure and stress, and it travels right down to him.
Rhys and I will continue to do private lessons, but I’ve decided group lessons are off the table for now.
That left Camm. Camm has been the only reason I’ve remotely thought about trialing.
In early March, Camm obtained her agility championship in CPE. It was a fantastic moment and a joyful one for me – because that whole human ego thing. I think though she was appreciative of the excitement too, especially since she got a lot of cookies and her aunties were pretty happy for her too. In March, she was also six qualifying Chances scores away from her NADAC agility trial championship.
Despite not doing much in the way of regular training, we were syncing up as a team regularly again. That all came to a halt.
I didn’t miss trailing, I didn’t miss the pressure of competition – something I’ve greatly enjoyed in the past, but I did feel some measure of frustration that we could not work toward that goal. Admittedly, my goal and not Camm’s. The issue was that she and I have been stymied at various times just as we are syncing as a team. The most notable example was when she broke a metatarsal and was out of training and competition for months. It occurred just as we were really beginning to work well together. It took a long time before we were in sync again.
Plus, I know that Covid-19 isn’t magically going away at the end of 2020. I know that 2021 is still going to see the impact of the wrath that 2020 has brought.
Therefore, I got in my head that I wanted to work seriously toward that N-ATCH with Camm, and NADAC’s video runs program made that possible. Thus, we began working toward that achievement, slowly, steadily.
The good thing I guess is that my dogs are remarkably consistent. Camm’s “Q” ratio for video runs is on par with her “Q” ratio at actual competitions, which is to say that we don’t really “Q” all that much.
I took all of the dogs to the beach for a four-day weekend in November. It was a birthday trip for Camm and I as we are about a week apart in dates, and a sort of fuck you to 2020 for a while so the dogs could run to their hearts’ content on the beach and I could both forget about the real world for a while and contemplate my future steps. Many deep thoughts that weekend, but mostly happiness at being alone on a beach in the mist with the surf pounding in my ears while watching my dogs run, play and explore. They also attempted to eat and roll in a few dead fish and crabs, but thankfully not the dead sea lion they found washed up on the beach.
Maybe that worked. More likely, working Camm in the backyard after a failed effort the weekend before and reminding her that turning around and barking incessantly at me isn’t helpful to our teamwork, was the key that finally did it.
Anyway, this past weekend Camm finally achieved the one remaining goal in agility I had for her.
Brady also did a thing the same day and earned his third NADAC agility championship title. I figured why not. He was was neck and neck with Camm going into the summer with the needed Chances qualifying runs, he’s more consistent than she is and – SOMETHING I NEVER THOUGHT I’D EVER SAY, he’s a pleasure to run these days. Plus, he’ll be 11 years old in a few weeks and I’m not sure how much longer we’ll have to play agility games.
With the the achievement of Brady’s third N-ATCH and Versatility NATCH (which means we’ve Done All the Things Very Well) and Camm’s N-ATCH and Versatility N-ATCH, I have for the first time in over a decade, no agility goals. None.
I think I may be done.
Probably not done with agility altogether and probably not completely done with agility goals. But no goals for my current crew and any future goals, presently undefined, are years ahead if I continue to pursue the sport, and I’ll let the dog or dogs I have at the time play a significant role in defining those goals.
Any agility i play with my dogs at this point, training, play or competition, will be gravy. It feels oddly freeing, yet very ungrounded. I’m okay with that.
Agility, as I’ve said for years, has been a part of our lives, but doesn’t define us.
We still have a lot of trails and beaches to explore.