Just one more time ...: Dog handler jumps through hoops for the perfect season

Voices of the Clarion

Posted: Sunday, September 10, 2006

Another year of competition has ended at the Anderson house.

My husband, Mark, and I run dogs in agility trials. That means we attempt to direct our dogs through a course of obstacles without injury or embarrassment.

In Alaska, the trial season starts in February and runs sporadically through September. Each year it seems more trials are squeezed into an already tight schedule of events based on what dogs love to do — obedience, field work, herding, tracking, conformation, etc.

It’s really quite a blessing so many people are active in dog groups in the state. When we started in 2000 there were three agility trials. That number has grown to 13 this year.

Those of us who partake in this hobby consider ourselves part of a unique family. Oh sure, it’s called a competition, but we all started out with the same goal: to have fun with our dogs. And no matter how much work goes into our training, we all enjoy seeing each other do well — even those running against our dogs.

As active members of the Kenai Kennel Club, Mark and I are quite involved in the three trials hosted by the club each year. One of my responsibilities is to seek out judges from across the country and entice them to our neck of the woods.

Well, you might think they need to be enticed, but it’s quite the contrary. I have yet to have a judge turn us down except for reasons of conflict with their schedules.

You see, our reputation precedes us. Once the word got out about our rather laid-back trials, judges were intrigued with the concept.

In the Lower 48, trials are limited to about 600 dogs, while we peak between 200 and 250. Their trials are run in separate classes nonstop, while we bounce back and forth, giving the judges a chance to watch, relax and do their paperwork.

But this isn’t what impresses them the most. What sticks with them and what has been repeated by them for years is how amazed they are at the camaraderie of the competitors.

It’s not uncommon in the Lower 48 for handlers to run their dogs and leave. However, that’s a rarity in Alaska. We truly enjoy watching and cheering on our fellow handlers and their companions — from the first run of the trial to the last.

We all know how much effort goes into getting to the start line for the first or thousandth time, and we know there are good and bad days.

Good days are generally fewer, but so sweet when they arrive.

For example, take my golden retriever Sophi. Sophi is my second agility dog. We had a lot of success initially, but two years ago she hit her wall and started to lose interest.

Mark had the same experience with his first dog, Tucker. He nailed his first few trials, then for some reason started running out of the ring.

Mark and I spent a lot of time looking for answers. We tried lots of different methods and heard lots of advice. Sometimes it worked, sometimes it didn’t.

Mark eventually found a new partner, Cayenne. Her name is extremely fitting. They’re still trying to click, but he doesn’t care. They’re having a blast — and she stays in the ring.

I decided to go another route. Sophi and I began practicing obedience, hoping the change would create a spark.

Sophi seemed to take to it right away. She liked the more strict commands and rules and was doing fantastic in training, so I decided to enter her in a trial.

We loaded up for a trip to Palmer. I had a good feeling about this — until we entered the ring.

OK, Sophi wasn’t the perfect heeler, but eventually she picked her nose up off the ground and came and sat by me. Points off for pokiness. She did well in other areas, but still pokey. More points.

In the long run, Sophi barely passed, but it does not say “Barely passed” on her qualifying ribbon! I figured first-day jitters.

Day two: More pokiness, more point deductions.

I actually thought she might pull it off until the recall exercise. All she had to do was stay on one end of the ring until I called her. Simple? Halfway to me, she dropped and rolled around in the grass. After a few seconds of bliss, she apparently suddenly remembered what she was supposed to do and jumped up and came and sat in front of me.

“I’m so sorry,” said the judge as she handed me my leash.

“Me, too,” I sighed.

Last weekend Mark and I competed in our last agility trial of the season. I hesitantly entered Sophi with the goal of not stressing over her lack of enthusiasm. Two of her runs were pretty ugly. There was carnage everywhere, but you know what? She had fun — and she was actually running.

But the third run brought the summer to a perfect close. Sophi and I clicked. It was awesome. I directed, she listened and moved. No one got hurt, and no one was embarrassed.

I’ve got one more event up my sleeve. I’m going to take Sophi back into the obedience ring. I just know she’s got it in her to make her mom proud one more time.

Besides, it’s inside, so there’s no grass.

When Dori Lynn Anderson isn’t training dogs, she’s the managing editor for the Clarion.

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