Sunday, February 15, 2015

Marge Goes to Westminster

Wow, wow, wow.

A day like this takes me back to my first couple of days of agility trialing, where I was completely neurotic, overprepared and had no idea what to expect. Waking up earlier than I need to so that I can arrive to a trial 2 hours earlier than necessary, packing way more than I need to so I don't stress about running out of treats, wondering how my dog is going to do in the ring.

Wait, let me expand upon that. Wondering how my dog, my Novice A to MX/MXJ dog is going to do in the ring surrounded by literally hundreds of people at what may be the biggest trial of her life.

The Days Before

Hype was building around this event.  Though trials like the AKC Nationals and AKC Invitationals actually require more than just a pair of Masters' titles to get in to, the Westminster Masters Agility Championship gets tons of press coverage from location and name recognition alone. News articles were coming out all over the country, agility demos were being given on live TV, and this girl was wondering how a dog that used to be afraid to walk around the block was going to deal with the crowds, noise, and excitement of such a highly publicized trial.

We got a little publicity of our own; our local newspaper featured us in an absolutely awesome story on Friday about our participation, complete with pictures and video.  I absolutely loved how they emphasized Marge's beginnings and my attitude about her performance at the show. After getting her growls out early (I mean, she HAS to keep me a little bit humble and growl at the reporter, obviously!), Marge was a total ham during her photo shoot.  We didn't have any agility equipment to use, so I set up a pair of cones and had her "jump" through them.

I got to deliver the newspaper to my customers on Friday with my dog's face printed across the front page.  AWESOME.  Definitely the highlight of my paper girl career.

The Morning Of

My clock was set for 4:30 AM.  I awoke at 4:09 and decided that trying to fall asleep again was useless.  I tried my hardest to not bring things I didn't really need as I envisioned the massive pile of bags splayed across my living room floor 5 years ago at my first show.  Treats, water, and crate/bedding in tow, we were off to Manhattan.

Unloading was fairly simple; part of the reason I wanted to arrive early was to keep things as low stress as possible.  We went in, checked in, got my complimentary Pro Plan T-Shirt and goodie bag and set off for the restricted crating area.

There was plenty of crating space behind the scenes, in a less accessible area of the trial site.  There was SO much room that we were in our own row of benches at one point.  I didn't want Marge to be completely alone, so I moved her to a row nearby where some other local exhibitors had set up.  Absolutely no one bothered us there all day.

She settled right in on her brand new crate pad.

We then tackled the next problem.. pottying!  The show had a policy that all dogs needed to show a release form each time they entered and exited the building.  To discourage people from leaving, they set up exercise pens with pine shavings for dogs to potty in.

I wasn't so sure about taking Marge out in to the Manhattan streets to begin with, so I give their setup a try. I may be the only person in the history of Westminster to take a picture of my dog with a puddle of pee, but here it is.

Oh, you want me to pee here?  No problem.

Off to a good start.

First Run - Jumpers with Weaves

Our first run of the day was Jumpers with Weaves.

When I saw the course on paper, I was a little nervous.  Once I walked it, I thought it was super flowy.

It started out with a jump to a curved tunnel.  Actually, in my case, it started out with a jump to a tunnel-peek-a-boo-tunnel.

Whaaaaat?!  I can't for the life of me fully figure out why she came out of the tunnel.  That's not really a typical Marge move, unless the tunnel is wet.  My only possible explanation is that she caught a glimpse of me moving away from her to get in to position for number three.  A bummer, but the rest of the run was absolutely slammin'.  She did turn the wrong way over one jump, but we recovered, so who cares?  This run felt really good, especially the end after the straight tunnel.

After my run, I went to hang out a bunch of my students who had come to watch the competition and support the club members that were showing.  

Marge was obviously very uncomfortable ringside.

The other mixed breed dog in the class had also NQ'd, leaving the 20" mixed breed spot for finals still either of ours for the taking.  I watched him run and he was a really cute dog.  Not a speed demon, but looked like the slow and steady type.

Second Run - Standard

The pressure was on for this run.  In order to make Finals, you must qualify in either of the first two classes.  I was worried more about the teeter than anything.  Though I had drilled Marge on her teeter several times over the preceding weeks, I know it is always the first thing to go at a trial.

The trial site was also filling up with exhibitors.  The dog walk was very close to the ring gates, and dogs were falling off because they were looking at the crowds next to them.  Kind of scary.

This is what we had to contend with ringside.

Even with the volume of people and volume of sound, I honestly thought that if my dog managed to perform the teeter and the table correctly, that we would qualify and make it to finals.

It was not to be, and that is okay.

When my front cross after the teeter was botched, I should have re-thought my plan for the A-Frame.  When under stress at a trial, my front crosses become sloppy and Marge tends to read my handling less forgivingly.  Rear crosses are generally my go-to.  But, I thought because there were no very close off-course opportunities near the A-Frame, that we'd be okay with a front cross.  

But we got tangled up together and although Marge got on the frame, she bailed on the ascending side. 
It took a little while for us to recover, but we did, and ended the run with a nice set of weave poles and drive to the finish.

Honestly, the first half of this run was probably one of the best agility moments of Marge's career.  My friends told me that people in the stands were commenting on how fast Marge was moving down the line to the tunnel.  My dog is not a speed demon, and compared to a Border Collie, it may not look like she was moving fast at all.  But it just felt so intense.  Like she was running harder than she had ever run before.  And with all of those people around!

The other mixed breed, too, incurred some faults in this class; he stopped halfway through his weaves to scope out the crowd.  So, neither of us advanced to finals.

After Our Runs

We hung out for a little while after our runs.  Though I knew I didn't make finals, I wanted to wait until my class ended and I saw the results just so I could be absolutely, positively, 100% sure.  The 20" Finals class wound up consisting of three Border Collies, a Golden, an Aussie, a Portuguese Water Dog, an AmStaff, a Boxer, a Springer, and a Brittany.  Not a bad variety!

I wandered around with Marge a little more. Some people asked to pet her, which she allowed willingly.  It then started to get really loud and congested, so we headed back towards the crating area, took a couple of pictures, and started to head out.

We took a quick picture with Amy and Layla, our friends from the 24" class, who went to finals and wound up 4th overall in their height class!  Like us, they started out in Novice A about 5 years ago.. so this success is really special for them, I'm sure.

One Sour Note

After we packed up to leave, we decided to just carry our things to our car rather than pull the car up.  We were directed by security personnel in to the wrong elevator and wound up on the floor at AKC's Meet the Breeds next door in Pier 92.  Meet the Breeds was benched, and dogs weren't allowed to leave until 5 PM.  

When they saw Marge on the floor, they told me I was not allowed to leave, mistaking her for a dog participating in that event.  Though I tried to explain we were from the agility show and were directed incorrectly, the security personnel kept repeating that they could not permit me to leave.  So, if I wasn't supposed to leave and wasn't a part of Meet the Breeds, where was I supposed to go? I got pretty heated pretty quick and demanded a manager.  They eventually let us go - the manager was more informed about the agility show than her employees - but we had to ride in a crowded elevator full of spectators.  Marge was not thrilled with it, but she was OK.  Remind me to not make that mistake next year!

Closing Thoughts

Westminster -- the whole lead up, the actual show -- was an event of proportions I would have never been able to fathom when I first got Marge.  

The reality is that Marge is more than likely not going to go to AKC Nationals or AKC Agility Invitationals during her career.  For someone like me, who has a Masters' level dog that doesn't have those events in reach, Westminster is a really awesome alternative.  

Though I am a little disappointed that we didn't make finals -- it was so clearly within reach -- I am still absolutely thrilled with how the day went.  It's kind of hard to explain, but there were so many little moments that just all added up to make it a great experience.  

Things like the little boys on my paper route who used to be afraid of Marge commenting about her  making the front page.  Things like my Rally students coming to the show and wearing sweatshirts that said "Go Tang! Go Marge!" to honor my and my instructor's dogs.  Things like random people asking me in the line for the bathroom how my dog did today or random people coming up and asking to pet her.  Cheering on my fellow competitors while Marge dozed off ringside. Or how about Marge banging a teeter in front of several hundred people?  I mean, if that was the only agility obstacle she did, it still would have been a massively successful day.

How did this all happen?  Where did it come from?  Somewhere along the way, this is who Marge became.  This is who we became together.  And that -- and the impact that have hopefully been able to have on the people around us -- is the real story.

And that basically concludes Westminster 2015 for Marge and me.  If we are physically, mentally, and financially able, I'd really love another stab at it next year.  For now, I will be proud of what we have accomplished together.  Because we have accomplished an awful lot.

Saturday, January 31, 2015


I wasn't sure what to call this post, so since as of this hour we are less than two weeks away from the big show, "Two" seemed like a good fit.

Today, Marge went to her last agility trial before our visit to Manhattan - a UKI agility trial in Colmar, PA.  My original plans for this weekend involved a large AKC trial at a very familiar location, but I was unfortunately closed out.  The only trial left in our relative area was this one, and boy, am I glad I went!  Wonderful, spacious facility and flowy, motivating courses to run.

I entered three classes with Marge.

1. Agility (Standard): Marge went right in and knocked this course dead.. with the bars at 16 inches.  Only after we ran the course quickly and cleanly did I realize that the ring crew had forgot to raise the bars to 20" for Marge.  The judge let me run again, and thankfully, we ran clean again.

This whole thing was HUGE.  The pressure of going in to the ring twice within about ten minutes, running cleanly both times on a course that had contact obstacles, which are admittedly our weakness, was a nice test for both of us.  I probably would have crumbled had it been an AKC trial.

Marge performed her teeter decently twice, and her A-Frame and Dog Walk contacts perfectly.  Her weaves were slower in her second run, which of course is cause for enormous amounts of overanalyzing.  Honestly, I would have been fine packing up and going home after this class, seeing how well she performed.

2. Speedstakes (Steeplechase, for you USDAA folks): Super fast, straightforward course.  Went in and knocked this one out, too.  Got a front cross in, which is always a plus at trials.

3. Jumping:  This course wasn't as challenging as the last Jumping course Marge ran at UKI, but it was certainly still a high level course.  I took some risks in this one, including running up the line outside of the second tunnel to set up an easier weave entrance.  Did two front crosses, too.

Her weaves were again slow, which concerns me.  I felt her all over and I do not feel any soreness.   It's hard to tell, as she sometimes just has those runs where her speed gets pokey and it has nothing to do with injury. I have had her massaged within the past week and nothing came up. Four runs at one trial is the most she has ever done.  She may have just been tired.

Look at all of her loot from the day!  It is a rarity to Marge and I to walk away with 6 ribbons from one day of showing.

Though she had just run four times and was very clearly done for the day, she had an awesome on-leash play session with a young border collie for a solid five minutes just before we left for the day.   It was one of those times when Marge decides (and vocalizes through whining) that she absolutely needs to be friends with a dog halfway across the room who she has never met before.  Not sure what has gotten into this dog - three qualifying scores on the same day, and then playing with a puppy?  Regardless, I was glad to see that she still had some energy to spare when the agility was over with.

Up next?  Some light (and I mean very light) practice tomorrow, particularly on the teeter and table.  I will not be jumping or weaving her tomorrow - I just need to get her on those two pieces of equipment one more time.  I'm going to take it easy for the rest of the week.   We've been walking about an hour every day (a combination of off-leash and on-leash time), but I may scale that back a little bit for this week, too. We'll probably train Sunday and Monday of next weekend, and that'll be it.

There are more exciting things going on, some related to Westminster and some not, but those will have to wait for another day.  For now, I'm following Marge's lead and heading to bed!

Monday, January 12, 2015

Day 2389

I am the worst when it comes to aging.  I don't like change and I certainly don't like to think about anybody getting ... older.

Little grey hairs have crept up on Marge's chin.  First you could only see them up close and in person, but now, they are prominent.  She doesn't have much of a grey muzzle, nor does she have grey eyebrows.  Just a little grey goatee.

When it's gradual and over time, it's hard to notice a big difference from one day to the next.  But seeing a picture of Marge in say, 2008 or 2009 compared to now, and it is apparent that a definite aging process has taken place.  I did just that tonight and was kind of shocked at how Marge's puppylike appearance has morphed in to that of a mature adult dog without me really even stopping to take a pause.

Marge is 7.  She will be 8 in June.

All of you passers-by who keep mistaking her for a puppy.. keep doing it.  My sanity depends on it.

Two thousand, three hundred and eighty nine days. It's just so amazing to think that she has been with me for this long.  It is a bittersweet feeling, especially on a night like tonight where I am pretty much just sappy out of nowhere. This dog pretty much does everything with me. She has wiggled her way into my social life, my family life, my hobbies. (The exception to that, of course, is Marge accompanying me to the shooting range, since that is neither safe nor Marge's idea of a good time and will therefore never happen!) Seriously, though, the things that Marge used to get left behind for are now a part of her routine.

Remember when Marge had to be crated when guests came over?  She survived a party last month in which 6 people -- 5 of which were GUYS -- came over to visit.  A growl here or there, but nothing that anyone couldn't live with.  And she got to eat any bits of the 4' hero that intentionally or unintentionally fell her way.  A win-win.

Remember when Marge wouldn't go near horses?  She didn't walk or run in to the barn yesterday, but instead wiggled up to Te.  Whole butt wagging.  She whined like a baby when I led him down the driveway in to his pasture yesterday.  She loves the barn.  She loves horse poop and horse grain and horse treats, and although she won't go near just any horse, she has struck up a relationship with one, at least, who has made her feel comfortable. There's a sure fire way to know that Quarter Horses are the best horses.. my dog has befriended one.

Remember when Marge wasn't trustworthy offleash and I had to use that long 20' red line?  Haven't taken it out in ages.  We don't get there as often as we should, but she generally has full reign of the beach, nowadays.  And the field?  The field that was a save haven for her during her fearful days is now a place where she goes to sniff every goal post that she can get to.

Remember when things would occasionally erupt in to chaos, when my dad and my dog weren't at all on the same wavelength?  Those days are pretty much gone.  And in the uncommon occurrence that they resurface, I have somewhere now that I can run to and get the hell out of dodge.

It has been such an amazing ride, one that has taken me places I never imagined I'd go.  I don't mean performance events, either.  If Marge never got another performance title again, it wouldn't matter.  That stuff pales in comparison to the bond we've created outside of that environment, out in the real world.

Thank you for everything, my little MD.  I know there is more in store for us.  You have shown me that the sky is truly the limit.

Saturday, January 3, 2015

International Flair

As part of our prep for Westminster, I took Marge to a UKI Agility trial today in Bloomsbury, NJ.

UK Agility International was founded as the United States' version of UK Agility.  As such, it contains international-style handling challenges at the upper levels.

I have been doing quite a bit of out-of-my-comfort-zone handling at agility class (which basically means straying away from rear crosses and doing everything else), but I very seldom put those skills to use in AKC trials.  I totally admit to playing it safe for the sake of Q's and, more specifically, QQ's.  I want a MACH, and if I get a MACH with meat-and-potatoes type handling and never do anything fancy, I am totally okay with that.

So, in trying UKI, it removes the "run to Q" element.  I am not working on any titles in that venue at this point, and with numbers pointed in all kinds of crazy directions (backsides and wraps everywhere!), it sets the stage well to add in some fancy handling. And by fancy, really all I mean is doing anything but a rear cross.

If you look back at my list of things to work on that I posted last time, UKI had most of those challenges.. including a weave entrance to which Marge (and my body language, probably) said "HAHA, NOPE".   She took the 3/5 jump and 4 tunnel before coming back to weave.

As such, we did not Q in this run, but a couple of important things happened:

  • I front crossed without making it in to something more than it needs to be (which is often the case)
  • I used a Ketschker "ass pass" turn for the first time ever in a trial - TWICE!
  • I learned that I need to work my dog's weave entrances better
We did qualify earlier in the day in the Speedstakes class, which is a straightforward, fun, fast course.  Those were the only two classes I entered.  I wanted to keep it short and fun.

From a behavioral perspective, Marge did very well at this trial.  When we first arrived, she had a mini meltdown because she had no idea where she was.  It probably didn't resemble an agility trial at all to her, since the ring was not visible from the crating/waiting area.  Heaters were fired up, too, and it took her a bit to get used to the noise.  Once it clicked that we were at an agility trial and not the 8th circle of hell, she settled in almost instantly.

After the trial, I headed to the barn to ride.  As I alluded to, Marge is becoming a little bit of a barn dog - at least as much as a Staten Island dog can be a barn dog.  No pics from this time around, but here's a pic of Marge hanging out with Te last time she came along with me.  She likes the horses, but maintains some distance. She likes their grain a lot more.

I'll probably do one more UKI trial sometime this month.  I'd like to go to an AKC show before Westminster, but I'm not sure it's going to happen.  I'm happy with our prep so far!

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