Wednesday, April 19, 2017

When Titles Matter More

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Marge's MACH is one of the things I am the most proud of from her competition career.  Her MACH ribbons, the bar and photos hanging on my wall, and memory of her victory lap and MACH party are tokens that represent all we have worked through to become a successful team.  More recently, she finished her CD title, which she probably could have gotten years ago, but I held her back until I felt we were both ready.  Same with Rally Nationals.  I've qualified for them a few times before, but only entered when I put the time in and knew that Marge would have a good time.

There are other things I am working on achieving with Marge, too.  Since she is now a seasoned competitor, getting her ready for the ring across an array of venues is not nearly as much work as it used to be.  I am spoiled in that she is a very easy dog to compete with, in many ways.  It sure is fun to look at her official registered name and see the list of prefixes and suffixes that have become attached to it over the years.  She is a jack of all trades type.  She is not the flashiest, but she gives her best. We've worked hard to form a real understanding of each other and routine for in and out of the ring.

However.. she is almost ten years old. None of it happened overnight, and I sure as heck wasn't worried about this stuff when Marge was learning to be a normal dog and approach life with joy rather than apprehension.

It seems that not everyone shares that sentiment with me.  I'd like to tell a quick story.

At a trial I was at very recently, I witnessed a licensed, fully approved judge essentially will a dog and handler team through a Rally course.  The judge gave the handler tips on getting the dog to move while in the ring, blocked the exit to the ring multiple times, and allowed the handler to retry stations more than once.  She told the handler to blow in the dog's face to get him to move.

Noble, right?  Helping a struggling handler in the ring, who may be a newbie?

No, I don't think so.

This was not a junior handler.  This was not someone's first dog show. I didn't mention that the dog was stressed or scared out of its mind, completely unable to work, and was NOT in the Novice class - so the handler was not new to this.   And guess what?  The judge gave that dog the minimum score of 70, allowing it to finish a high-level title, going so far as to proclaim "you're never going to have to do this again!"

(To be clear, there is nothing wrong with passing with a 70 -- I just feel that this team should have been excused for lack of teamwork, or at minimum given a non-qualifying score.)

What does that title really mean?  Are you supposed to feel good about getting a high-level Rally Obedience title when most other judges would have not only NQ'd you, but excused you from their ring because your dog was horribly stressed?

Maybe I am being too judgmental -- maybe the dog was elderly or ill and was going to have to stop training, and it was their last chance to compete for this Q -- but I do NOT think you should compromise your dog's well being to that extent to bring it in to a ring, and I do NOT think that rewarding the handler with a Q is the right way to go.  As someone who has competed with a dog who used to fear a lot of things, it breaks my heart to see this.  Dog sports should be fun for the dog, not just the handler.

There are other stories I could tell, too -- including what I perceived to be someone poo-pooing me for thinking about holding Red back from his CGC if I feel he isn't 100% ready at the end of his basic obedience classes (for my purposes, the CGC is closer to a barometer on a trial-like performance than it is a measure of community soundness), or, on a similar note, handlers who put dogs in the ring at a young age when it is clear they are not mentally ready for it.

The first few times that a dog goes to shows might be tough.  The first time an agility dog smells horse poop in a dirt arena or an obedience dog goes to a two-ring show might produce some interesting behaviors. I'm not saying every qualifying performance has to be flawless.  Not every obedience run is a 200 (none of mine are) and not every agility performance is a blue-ribbon, sub-30 second Jumpers run (none of mine are, either).  Dogs will be dogs - they will have zoomies, they will sniff, they'll even take a crap in the ring once in a while.  But even in the beginning, and especially in higher-level classes, I would hope that every handler that sets foot in a ring expects their dog to have some level of engagement with them, and is not just going through the motions solely to wrap up a title or get that last qualifying leg.

When did we forget that our dogs are living, breathing DOGS, animals who have no concept of a CD, an AXJ, an RAE, and the title certificates should be a testament to a great working relationship - not a badge for sliding by on the skin of our teeth, with no regarding for how the animal half of the team feels about it?

I'm not going to pretend titles don't matter.  It IS very satisfying to get recognition on a job well done, or on hardships overcome.  But please don't forget about the journey, or forget about the dog, more importantly, in the process.

Tuesday, April 11, 2017


At the end of March, Louie, Marge, Red (wait - who's Red?! Yeah, I haven't formally introduced him on the MargeBlog yet), and I traveled to the AKC Rally National Championships in Perry, Georgia.  Marge has qualified for other Rally National Championships in the past, but the perfect situation presented itself this year for us to go.   It helped that the competition was in Georgia - Marge's home state, where she came from.  Certainly makes for a good story.

We rented a GMC Yukon XL - an absolutely massive, fully loaded truck.  It isn't that we couldn't have fit in my Ford Escape, but this was a lot more comfortable.  Yes, I drove it too!

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Marge did great at the competition, with scores of 86, 99, 98, and 97 out of 100.  If not for that 86 (a 10-point hit that we suffered was likely my fault) - we would have been 29th out of 148 dogs.  Instead, we were 56th.  Still amazing.  I beamed with pride the entire time.

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The other really special part of this trip was the detour we took on the way home.  About 2 1/2 hours to the north of the competition is a town by the name of Ellijay.  Ellijay just happens to be where Marge came from before she was transported to New York and I adopted her.

We wrestled a bit about whether to drive through there or not - it was a bit out of the way - but ultimately decided that we had to.  Chances are that I'd never find myself in Georgia, with Marge, ever again.  How amazing would it be to say that I took her home?

Before our tour officially began, we took the dogs to the Chattahoochee River Recreation Area not far away for a hike.  How fun!

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Our first official stop was to the Cherokee County Animal Shelter - a open admission, but progressive, shelter.  This is more than likely the place that Marge and her litter came through before being pulled by the now abolished Noah's Bark Rescue Group.  I went in and said I was there to give a donation, but risked having the shelter staff think I was nuts and told them part of the story after cutting them a check.  They seemed genuinely interested to hear about Marge.  (They did send me a card thanking me for my donation in MEMORY of Marge week or so later -- yikes! I'd like to think that they meant in memory of her stint there but I know it was just an honest mistake!)

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Before leaving, I went back to the kennels.  I knew that I shouldn't have, but I did.  It has been about 8 1/2 years since I've been in a shelter, and I guess I forgot how intense the emotions would be.  After a bunch of tails wagging at me from behind kennel doors, I couldn't take it for longer than a couple of minutes and went back to the car to bawl.  It made the whole thing so real... to think that either of my dogs could have had a setting like that be their final landing spot was a gut-wrenching thought.  It was especially tough to think of Marge, given the fear issues that she used to have and other quirks that to this day make her unique, not finding her way to me.  I don't mean to give myself a pat on the back, and I am not perfect, but even to this day, Marge is not a normal dog and I truly wonder what could have happened to her if she was in the hands of someone who treated her differently than I have.

Our next stop was to the town of Ellijay itself.  We drove around it for a few minutes.  It had a touristy feel, with antique shops and gift stores and even municipal parking, but it's pretty far away from everything, so I'm not sure who's going there to visit.  It was very cute.

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While there, I plugged in what I believe to be her former foster family's address in to the car GPS.  I have it because I am good at stalking online (and proud of it).  I can admit all of this without any fear of them being upset or anything... because they are both deceased.

We were taken on some twisty mountain backroads (no dirt roads, though!), and reached a gate to a private road.  We couldn't go any further, but my guess is that the house that Marge lived in was just beyond here.  Really cool.

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We let the dogs potty in a park back in Ellijay proper before hitting the road again for our first real portion of the trip home.  What an amazing experience. My rescue dog from Georgia got to go back nine years later and compete on the national stage before getting to visit her hometown. Very few, if any, people are able to say something like that. Really think about it. Let it sink in.

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