A well-trained addict: Six years later, the connection remains strong

Voices Of The Clarion

Posted: Sunday, February 19, 2006

It’s hard to believe it’s been six years since I became an addict.

It started when I saw it on TV, but I had never experienced it firsthand. Still, it was enough to whet my appetite.

Then I heard it had made its way to the Kenai Peninsula. I had to try it. It was all the rage. So I made a call and got hooked up.

A week later I made my first connection. It was a small sampling, but enough to make me want more. Weeks later, I was in over my head. Months later, I was a goner.

Anyone who knows me knows I’m talking about dog agility.

Agility is where a handler directs a dog through an obstacle course, hoping to complete it without faults, humiliation or a heart attack.

I started doing agility with Bailey, my golden retriever. Bailey was 4 and already starting to get a little gray in the face. She was timid, but she loved me, so she did whatever I asked of her. She jumped when I said “Hup.” She went over the A-frame when I said “Climb.” And eventually, she weaved her way through poles when I said “Weave.”

It was a struggle at first, though. Our initial classes went well until a dog ran through a tunnel in front of her, turning her into a fraidy-dog. It took some work to get her out of her shell, but Bailey perservered and started to blossom before my eyes — before everyone’s eyes.

For our first trial, I was a nervous wreck. I had more than butterflies, there was an all-out war going on in my belly. But we did well. Bailey knew what she was doing, even when I didn’t.

And that’s when I truly became an addict.

After a couple of years, Bailey and I extended our boundaries and traveled Outside to compete, which is pretty amazing when you consider we both hate to fly. But as I said, I was an addict, and Bailey wanted to please. It was an intoxicating combination.

I learned a lot from our travels, like how to pretend it’s funny when your dog refuses to go through a straight tunnel and starts barking at it while the large crowd laughs. That was a rough one.

I also learned to pick up any feathers that may be lurking in my dog’s path before we ran our courses. Apparently they freak out my bird dog. Go figure.

But we worked through these issues — and others. In fact, Bailey and I learned to be a team. I knew when I took her out for a run that it would be a dance. We were like Fred and Ginger.

OK, not quite that good, but when we got into our rhythm, it sure felt like it.

I know it sounds corny, but there are people out there who know what I’m talking about. It’s all about the connection.

Bailey and I definitely connected on one four-day weekend in Puyallup, Wash., a few years ago. Out of eight possible runs, we qualified in all of them. It was the weekend of a lifetime.

Bailey and I went on to earn many titles, including, appropriately enough, her master’s. She’s definitely a master of agility.

That’s why it was tough to see my girl slowing down in the last couple of years. Bailey’s just 10, but she has good days and bad ones, just like all of us. She’s a lot grayer, too.

I moved her into the veterans’ competition so she wouldn’t have to jump as high, and she quickly moved through the ranks from a novice dog to excellent quite swiftly.

But this last summer Bailey noticeably slowed down, and the old zip was starting to fade. She was telling me she was tired, and although she would have done it if I asked, I just couldn’t be greedy.

In September, I decided to give Bailey one last run on our home turf, a trial at Kenai Little League ballfields over Labor Day weekend. As much as it was hard to let go, Bailey had started to limp from time to time, so I waited until the last run of the weekend to let her shine for the last time.

As we walked to the start line, I knew I couldn’t push her, as much as I wanted that one last dance. We took off at the start and connected for five of the 20 jumps and called it a day.

I remember the roar of the crowd. It was an emotional moment. I hugged her so tight, it was hard to let go.

Since that day, Bailey and I have found another event to compete in called rally. It’s much slower, has just a couple of jumps, and she happily does everything I ask. It’s almost like old times.

This weekend there’s an agility trial in Wasilla. Bailey will be there, but in a cheerleading capacity. She has passed the torch to her sister Sophi.

Sophi has some big paw prints to fill, and we have a long way to go yet in becoming a team, but Bailey has taught me we can get there. In fact, she’s taught me a lot more about life than agility. Still, if it weren’t for Bailey, I wouldn’t be the addict I am — and I couldn’t be more grateful.

Dori Lynn Anderson is the managing editor of the Clarion.

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