Hobby leads to unforeseeable progress in competition, flight, friend

Posted: Sunday, February 22, 2004

Last weekend was bittersweet for me. It was the end of an era. I've written about Bailey, my 8-year-old golden retriever, lots of times. She's my agility queen. I am her jester along for laughs, mainly.

The whole idea behind dog agility is to direct a dog through an obstacle course in a set amount of time; ideally, with no mistakes.

The trick is "ideally." It takes a great deal of time, training and dedication to teach any dog new tricks, and even longer to teach the person training the dog.

When Bailey and I took our first class four years ago, I had high hopes for my girl. I had seen agility on TV. Heck, it looked so easy.

"We can do that!" I scoffed.

Those hopes quickly diminished when she refused to go in the middle of the room and do anything unless every other person and dog in the room was squished in the corner and not making eye contact with her.

It was embarrassing.

Still, I was determined to see how far we could go. I started to work with Bailey on a regular basis, doing obedience, having her jump over logs outside of class and sticking PVC weave poles anywhere in the yard they would go into the ground.

Six months later, Bailey and I were ready to compete in our first trial.

She was amazing. She worked so hard for me, and I tried so hard not to mess it up for her. Luckily, we both succeeded.

The good news was we earned titles, ribbons and toys. The bad news was I was now hopelessly hooked on agility.

When I say my life would not be the same from that weekend on, you have no idea how deep I've gone.

"Hello, my name is Dori Lynn Anderson, and I am an agilityaholic."

If there is not a support group, I probably should start one, because there is no way I am alone in this. Even my husband has not been immune to this disease.

Mark came to classes with me, running Bailey from time to time and eventually getting his own dog to run.

It got worse from there.

I got another dog to compete with, he opened a side business making agility equipment, and we both began teaching classes.

Then it really got bad.

I went so far as to get on a plane with Bailey to compete in other states. There simply were not enough trials in Alaska, so I went in search of them.

The thing was, the more I got into it, the more Bailey and I began to click. We were having fun and doing well well, when I wasn't a basket of nerves, but Bailey seem to adjust to that. It was really more the flying she objected to.

The key was to keep our time in the air short, so we ended up going to trials either in the Portland or Seattle areas. One flight equals a less neurotic dog and handler.

Last year, Bailey and I went to Washington and had an incredible weekend. Without losing you in the terminology, there are two different kinds of courses to run each day a standard course, which includes a teeter, A-frame and table, and a jumpers course, which mainly has jumps. In a nutshell, if Bailey and I qualify in both runs at our level in one day, it is called a "double Q."

In four days, Bailey had four double Qs. Translation: She had a perfect weekend.

I never thought it would get better than that, but there was one more thing I wanted. In another nutshell, if Bailey and I qualified 10 times in the standard course, we would earn a master's title; the same goes for the jumpers course. It would be such a fitting conclusion for a shy dog.

Unfortunately, Bailey and I struggled through last summer. Come to find out, I am not the only one who doesn't like the heat. If the temperatures rose above 70, her runsslowed to a crawl.

It was a long summer.

Then autumn came. The temperatures dropped and Bailey's enthusiasm started to return, and with it, she started to run again. By September, we were one run away from her master's title in the standard.

Funny how much you stress when it comes down to the wire. Actually, I think the word stress is a bit mild for how I handled it. Let's just say I found an I'm-going-to-run-away-from-home note in Bailey's kennel.

But last month, that all changed. In the same trial where she had been perfect a year before, Bailey and I ran to a slightly different outcome. We went 0 for 3 in as many days. But on the fourth day, there it was, our master's title was just across the finish line.

All I remember was screaming, and then crying. Or maybe it was the other way around. In any case, it was a pinnacle moment for me and my girl.

In the meantime, while we were struggling to get that last one, Bailey and I had racked up enough jumpers courses to come up one shy of getting her master's there, as well.

To make a long story a little bit shorter, last weekend in Wasilla, that dream came true, too.

Bailey's career isn't over by any means. I'm just going to let her rest a little bit in the veterans' class. But you can bet it won't take long for her to make her way up the ladder in that class, too. She has spunk, ambition and the right attitude as long as the temperature is right.

The journey Bailey and I have taken together in the last four years has had many ups and downs, but each step has brought me closer to my dog than I ever could have imagined.

Dogs are incredible animals. In fact, through it all, Bailey has taught me so much more than I have ever taught her. She has been an awesome athlete and an amazing partner. But above all else, Bailey has been and will always be my best friend.

She is a master, indeed.

When she's not running agility courses with Bailey, Dori Lynn Anderson works as the assistant editor at the Peninsula Clarion.

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