A lot of you know I have a young dog, Felix.
As any good dog will, he is testing everything I once thought I knew, and solidifying something I do know: everything must take its own time.
Jumping, a basic part of dog agility, the obstacle that all of our dogs will perform the most over of the span of their careers, is proving to be a roller coaster for him (read: for me). Set up, engage brain, push off from the rear. Or, you know, fling with everything you’ve got and be sure your back legs reach new heights. Felix says both ways seem to get the job done, don’t they? So for now jumping itself, rather than sequencing with jumps, is our focus. We are doing grids, we are working on body awareness, and the bars stay as low as they need to for clean jumping thoughts to take place. Some days that’s sixteen inches, some days it’s twenty, and occasionally it’s a little higher (or lower).
Felix has had some fears, too. He is not a fearful guy in general, he just has fears (like all of us), and a couple of those fears have played into our jump training. A bar falling is quite upsetting, and a wing falling down is downright tragic. I did some specific counter conditioning of “things falling over” before we ever got near a jump, because I knew he was afraid of that (it all stems back to an incident with a baby gate). I believe that’s why he is always able to bounce back when these things happen, but it doesn’t mean they don’t affect him. If I’m not careful, I start to worry about all the things that can happen that might scare him. But when I take care to just ask Felix if he is ok, and then either proceed or step back, depending on his answer, I see that worry is useless and trust is everything.
The difference between drive and arousal is something I talk about with my clients on a constant basis. Felix shows me clearly what this difference is, and I am grateful to all of the dogs I have ever worked with who honed this understanding for me. Without them, I might be a bit lost right now with my puppy who is equal parts focus and bursting at the seams. He is joy embodied when we head out to our training field, and he can play with me in a variety of places now. He walked into the barn where an agility trial was taking place the other week, kept his head, shrugged off the dogs barking at him from an ex pen, and then promptly informed me he had had enough. We left, and I am really proud of him. While a lot of people sit ringside with their young dogs who are staring at the ring, refusing food, or unable to engage in play, that doesn’t sit right with me. If it takes another two years for Felix to walk into an agility trial and give me the same quality of play and engagement that I expect from him at home, then so be it. Would it be a bummer for me if I still couldn’t enter a trial when he was ready by all other means? Sure. I want to run him just as badly as the next person wants to run their young dog. I have vowed to honor my dog’s experience, and that means being sure he is mentally ready for the environment I will be asking him to work in.
Am I always doing the right thing? Far from it. When I lose sight of my values for a minute I do one repetition too many on something Felix is struggling with. I listen too much to other people, and sometimes catch myself looking for a formula, another class to take, another video or book or online subscription service. I forget something important; I have done this before.
When I trust and I listen and I lean in, I identify the struggle. I find the weakness and I work on that instead. Anytime anything is going poorly it is because there is a core piece missing; a foundation chunk that’s broken. I remember that I am good at breaking things down, and that just because a skill was presented to me in one order doesn’t mean that’s the right order for Felix and I to acquire it in. I accept that it’s ok to walk away from a project, let it sit for a while, and then return.
I remember what is important here, which is keeping this smile alive:
Thanks, Felix. I needed you so badly. I wish for all the perfectionists in the world to receive an angel such as yourself when they are ready to recover.