I expected to learn a lot, but I had no idea exactly what it would be.
The whole thing started earlier this summer, the day the Kenai Kennel Club ended the first American Kennel Club agility trial in the state in Soldotna. I remember standing in the rain that July afternoon talking with other agility enthusiasts. We were discussing how much fun we had. Then someone said it.
"You know, there's a trial in Medford. Ore., over Labor Day weekend."
I'm almost certain I raised my eyebrows. But reality sunk in.
"No, I couldn't travel Outside with (my dog) Bailey. That would be awesome, though."
Of course, by the time I got home, I scrambled to the computer screen and began looking at just how feasible it was.
The person responsible for my agility addiction -- Cindy Mildbrand -- already was going to the trial, so I planted the seed in another fellow agility groupie -- Mary Dougherty.
Within a week, dogs were entered, arrangements were made, and we were going to Medford.
"Oh my God!"
That feeling would overwhelm me from time to time over the next few weeks.
By the time we left town, I couldn't tell you whose suitcase was bigger -- mine or Bailey's. Of course, all I needed was my dog, my ticket and a crate to get her to and fro.
But I came prepared. The forecast called for lots of heat. I was going to a place where no one knew me, so I figured it was safe to wear shorts -- so I brought lots of them. My list of necessities was a long one, and I paid for it dearly when I went to put the suitcase in Mary's truck.
"I think I'm injured," I said.
She laughed. I took ibuprofen.
We took the red-eye out of Anchorage. Did I mention I was a nervous flyer? I should have. On top of that, I was traveling with a first-time flyer -- Bailey, who had no idea what she was in for.
A friend suggested ginger snaps to help settle my stomach on the plane.
"You're telling me that with all the things you need to get done before you go, you stopped to make ginger snaps?" my husband asked.
"Well, yeah," I snapped back. "It was crucial."
Fortunately, the advice was good. It did help.
As Cindy took a different flight, Mary and I stressed over whether we and the dogs would all end up at the same destination. The airline was most accommodating as we threatened to not get on the plane until we knew the dogs were, too.
When I finally saw Bailey's face in Medford, it was one of shear panic. A few minutes after her escape from the evil crate, she was normal again -- or so I thought.
Once we arrived at the hotel, Cindy and Mary declared a nap was in order.
"I don't take naps," I said.
Fifteen minutes later I found myself face down in my magazine counting sheep.
We decided to head to the arena later on and stake out our spot for the weekend. I can only guess that the feeling I had when I entered the arena was like that of a minor league baseball player moving up to the "big show" for the first time. It was intimidating.
The stands overlooked "the stage," as a tractor leveled the dirt floor, causing the musty odor to fill the building.
This was the big time for a woman and her dog from Kenai, Alaska. The thought of running before the crowd sent shivers up my spine -- and my heart straight to my stomach. I was going to need a lot more ginger snaps.
Cindy would run first, so we greeted the morning crew at Starbucks and arrived to a nearly empty arena.
The first step for me was familiarizing Bailey with her surroundings. I put her on a leash and we took a stroll. We headed for the steps down into the arena, but the tightening of the leash signaled a problem.
"No, no. Don't want to go down there right now, thank you."
Bailey wouldn't even get near the stairs, trying to dig her claws into the concrete. I eventually coaxed her down with food. But it was a sign.
As the long list of dogs ahead of Bailey's name dwindled, the killer butterflies arrived.
We began the prerun ritual -- a walk, some treats, a little warm-up -- and I found her a rock. For some reason, a rock motivates my dog.
I placed Bailey on the start line and a smile came to my lips. Somehow through my fear I heard, "And this is Bailey, a golden retriever."
Before I knew it, we were moving. Bailey sailed through the tire, over the dogwalk, following my every command. The weave poles lay before us, her entry was crucial, but she swished through them in true Bailey fashion.
She flew over the jumps, up the A-frame and into the tunnel ...
This apparently was not just any tunnel. It was an evil yellow tunnel.
As I stood in the middle of the arena with the judge, my friends, hundreds of eyes -- including two belonging to my father, who drove up from California to watch us -- I stood in horror as Bailey refused to enter the tunnel, a feat she had done thousands of times.
To make matters worse, she barked at it.
No matter what I said or did, there was no way she planned to enter that tunnel.
Finally, I did the only thing I could think of. I goosed her, gave her a push and ran like crazy to the other end and coaxed her through.
Unfortunately, by touching her, I disqualified us.
My goal, should I decide to accept it or not, was to get Bailey back in the tunnel.
As if that weren't enough, I discovered my retriever was scared of feathers. Yes, feathers.
Unbeknownst to me or my dog, there are lots of feathers in Medford -- both inside and outside of the arena. In fact, on her final run, Bailey was temporarily frozen as a feather appeared in the middle of the weave poles. It didn't matter, though. She already had refused to go into the tunnels.
But the trip was not a total loss by any means.
Through all of my stress and hers, as a team, we managed to make it through two courses with minimal errors and she earned a title. Funny, that was all I wanted in the first place.
When we touched down in Anchorage, I knew I got just what I expected. It was definitely a learning experience. But I also came home with a handful of memories -- and feathers.
I can't wait to go again.
Dori Lynn Anderson is the Clarion's features editor.
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