Last weekend, at nearly 26 months of age, Felix debuted in agility. He wasn’t ready for all classes so we played in three: snooker, gamblers, and jumpers. I agonized over when to bring him out; I worked diligently over months to prepare him emotionally for what is required of our dogs in this game we love. It could be argued that I am too obsessive; too particular. That maybe I should worry less and go with the flow a little more. Let me explain something, if I may.
I am terrified of dog-child interactions. Not just my dogs. Not just children I personally know and care about. Any time a child’s face is within striking distance of a dog’s mouth I get nervous. I hope to have my niece (she is two and a half now and lives in a different state) out for a visit sometime, and when she is here, my dogs will be in crates or basket muzzles. No exceptions. Excessive? Maybe. But her face (and, subsequently, my dogs’ lives) are not worth the gamble. I worked in the behavior trenches too long to see this differently. I stood next to dogs as they slipped into death by the euthanasia needle because they bit children. I cried with a close friend as her child went to surgery after their lovely dog made a scary mistake. I advised that shelter dogs not be adopted out, that beloved household dogs be re-homed, and I agonized over the families that were broken because humans forget that dogs are animals with mouths full of teeth.
My apprehension about trialling a young dog is not unlike my stress surrounding dogs and children. I make my living helping people undo the mess that is made when dogs that are inadequately trained, prepared, or supported are entered in agility trials. Not unlike the dogs-and-kids issue, most people get away with this. That’s why it continues. Dogs, by and large, are incredible. They put up with a lot of crap from humans (especially tiny humans). There is no one more grateful or aware of that than I am. I decided Felix was ready to play based on the answers to these questions:
Is my dog comfortable in the trial environment?
Since Felix was a baby this has been a high priority. I want him to feel safe around the people, the dogs, the noises, and the general chaos that is agility trials. He eats and tugs ringside, he can visit (or not) with dogs and people, and he can even lie next to the ring and chew a ball while other dogs are running. He has been like this for a few months now. After trialling, I am still happy with my answer here.
Is my dog confident in his execution of the equipment?
This is why I didn’t enter Felix in everything; and why I avoided some obstacles in gamblers. We were lucky that snooker only involved jumps and tunnels, but if it had included one of the pieces we were avoiding we’d have scratched or somehow worked around it. He told me his confidence about double and triple jumps is still not where I’d like it; I allowed him to run past them and did not insist that he take them. We have a plan for this, and I was thrilled with his confident execution of both the wall and broad jumps.
Am I confident that I can be a good handler to my dog?
On starters courses, yes. I am careful not to over face my dog with tougher courses right away, though those are what we do at home. I just don’t know him well enough yet to enter him in tournaments. That’s ok with me. After the trial I know that I need to trust my answer here a bit more and show up as the same handler in trials that I am in training.
Does my dog understand how to sequence in the absence of classic reinforcers?
Admittedly, I didn’t work on this for long enough. I felt comfortable going in, which is why Felix ran with the same delight that he does when I have a toy, but he was slightly puzzled when we ended and didn’t immediately go into a tug game. I have showed him the process of ending, leashing up, and heading over to the toy, but I’d say he hasn’t seen this enough times. Back to the drawing board.
I learned a lot from this experience and know what I need to work on. We are not ready to dive in head-first, but we are ready to dip the other foot into the water. In any case, I really enjoy playing with Felix, and I think he likes playing with me. As I often say, as long as the dog is still happy nothing is broken.