It’s good to have you back.

Woman kissing a dog on the nose.
It’s good to be back.

I coach agility handlers on the topic of mental management, and often share quotes to help create perspective in their own lives. One of my favorites is “Everything that happens prepares us for our future.  Even the bad stuff,” because of its powerful forward focus message.

Applied to clients, it makes sense. For myself, it has taken two years to raise the courage to share about the moment that changed my life in unfathomable ways.  I used to write almost daily, and it’s been a struggle to write so much as a grocery list in the last 104 weeks since that Sunday in June 2016.  It’s time to let it tumble out, for closure and to put guilt and shame on notice that their shelf life has expired.  I am getting on with the deliciousness of living.

I can recite the details of the moment matter-of-factly, as casually as giving a weather forecast.  “Blue skies now, but there’s a hell of a storm on the horizon.” The sequence of events rolls out of my mouth almost as easily as the one-two-three footsteps of a front cross do from my feet. I’m desensitized to the information in it.  It must have been someone else, but no, it is my story.  So here goes …..

My 3-year old brilliant sheltie, Cruzer, ran at an agility trial in Tolland, CT that weekend, 4 weeks after winning his spot on the AKC World Team. The trial was our first event after Tryouts, a victory lap of sorts. We landed a double qualifying score and came home to blow off some steam and practice as we often did after a show. In the yard, our four dogs ran and played, and so did we. I looked back over my shoulder to see Cruzer. As he came towards me, another of our shelties jumped and hit him sideways, at full force, at the 12th vertebrae. Cruzer crumpled to the ground. One dog zigged, the other dog zagged. It was as simple as that. As stupid as that. As horrible and frightening as you can’t imagine.

Trauma delivers a swift and mighty blow of failure and fear. Intense guilt and grief ripped open my life and personal strength in that one jump. The iPod in my head got stuck on a track that played only the screams from Cruzer, from Bill, from me, as catastrophe struck. Guilt took hold, for allowing the dogs to run. How stupid am I? How bad of an owner am I? I now teach people to flip the track in their brains, yet mine played just one tune. And now, in times of stress, there’s an auto re-play reminder that I wasn’t good enough to keep my dog safe. I’m learning how to adjust the volume, thankfully.

I am convinced the attending physician did not do enough in those first hours to relieve the spinal cord swelling. It’s not an argument or a fight. It’s my belief. I experience guilt for the decision to go to that emergency center because it was the closest one. I live with guilt for not being smart enough to know something of medical protocol for a dog with a spinal cord injury (it doesn’t get taught in basic canine manners class). I’ve since learned there isn’t much that gets done, by owners or vets. I blame myself for picking him up from the ground to carry him because what if that caused further damage?  I’ll never know the answers.

As the show must go on, actors with names like Fits of Anger, Rage, Crying for No Reason and Irrational Actions surface as the stars, appearing when I least expect them to. I experienced a traumatic event, I understand that, and it throws grenades as it wants.  In dog training, we’d call that Single Event Learning. There is the nightmare that no one is doing enough to fix the problem and people are walking away when I need them most. No one is enough for what my boy needs. Not even me.

I have questioned and judged myself heavily since making the World Team in May 2016. I won a spot because we achieved the highest cumulative score of all teams competing in our height group. A fellow Tryouts competitor shared with me her view that my dog was not suited to be a World Team dog. I had won, and yet, she told me I wasn’t worthy enough. I’m sure that handler was disappointed in her own lackluster performance and kicked her feelings of inadequacy down the curb until they hit someone else, namely, me. Seeds of self-doubt were nourished by her spew. A podcast came out shortly after the Team selection event which included the commentators beliefs about the selection process. People who cared about me told me not to listen to the segment as the content would upset me. I avoided it, and the traumatic commentary that I imagined it contained grew. (Edit 6/12/18:  Now that I’m writing again, I plan to write on this topic in the future, and thank the podcast commentator for reaching out to me personally regarding this post). I was told truthfully that Worlds would be crazy loud and the environment insane, and I’d need to get my dog who had shown environmental sensitivities ready for the madness.

What if that handler was right? What if the world agreed with the commentator?  What if mayhem couldn’t become unremarkable for my dog? My deepest fear took hold. What if I wasn’t good enough?

On the day of the accident, Cruzer ran somewhat tentatively, though it was unnoticeable to most. I took a walk with a friend and poured out some of my concerns to her and she responded with amazing empathy, able to do so because of experiences with her own life demons. Perhaps the impact on our performance that day was in response to the noise within the facility or maybe it was due to my heightened perception. The noise in my head swelled to a palpable drum beat and it was a challenge to hear past it. Not good enough. Undeserving. Not fast enough. Fraud. Not strong enough. I’d been looked over many times in my life. Being “World Team,” people would have to notice me, right?

After the accident, the next 6 months were spent rehabbing Cruzer. Despite our best efforts and those of the caregivers on our “team,” things weren’t going as hoped, and functioning of his bladder and bowels didn’t return. He learned to get around on flat surfaces. He couldn’t snuggle with us, he couldn’t chase our other dogs as he loved to do. When the “couldn’ts” outweighed the “coulds,” we let him go. He was as tired as we were. A care provider we’d used responded with swift negativity to our decision. The impact of such a response set back the forward motion we’d made and ripped my gut wide open. Judged again, and found lacking, this time for making the decision to try to heal and let go of the pain.

How this relates to my now, is simple.

I see me. I am not perfect, I’m clearly filled with imperfections, some I embrace (if I think it, I say it) and some (like the 20 imperfect pounds that have enveloped me) could disappear without a tear from me. Listing my flaws is easy, so I focus part of my time on cataloging my attributes. I’m hard working, funny, easily amused, resilient, and I’ve had to come up with the courage to move forward. I am, indeed, fighting to be enough.

People “not” seeing me is their flaw, not mine. And because I am imperfect, I mess up often in how best to release the angst that grabs me. I remind myself regularly that if you’re a 2 out of a 10 on my list, then, that’s the time and energy I can spend on our interactions (or lack, thereof). Time is too precious to spend on the not okay.  It’s okay to be a 1 or a 2 on someone else’s list. It’s their list, they get to decide my value in their life. Only I decide my worth in mine.

Because we love to see our dogs engage with each other, they still play and race together. Do I get a lump in my chest when they rip around at warp speed? Of course. And when I do, I change the picture as quickly as I can to one of joy for seeing them living a life of good times. I choose to not live in fear. I take them on adventures and encourage them to experience things. I “speak dog” a lot better than ever. And the communication I have is pretty darned fine.

We can’t help but see others through our own fear lens. I’m sure that some have felt discomfort as they realize they could be just a pawstep away from being in my shoes. So, they look past, creating a guilt feeling they can absorb into their lives, and re-rising the shame in mine. No one actively wants to think that tragedy can happen to them, no one knows what to say or do, and most people don’t want to be around the imperfect.

Today, I am thankful that I believe people do the best they can, and that very few set out to purposefully hurt someone else. Only the really mean will tell you that you aren’t good enough, the rest of the world is just awkward, or facing issues of their own that they haven’t yet figured an answer for.

This weekend was a personal victory for me. I walked into an agility trial … held in the same building where my dream dog last ran, and competed with my new dog, the dog that helped me rise from what was the despair of losing my life. As I entered the arena I felt the pull of the demons who wanted to grab me and extinguish my new-found soul. Familiar, yet no longer family to my heart.

Since the zig zag of my dogs, my life has changed exponentially. Fifteen months ago, I lost a job that I was very successful at and have not been able to find a new one. Jobs that I was hopeful for have fizzled. The future we planned is gone. A member of my family attempted suicide and has cut ties with us. My husband and I survived a serious car accident. And that is just the clif-notes version. To some, it seems that disaster has taken up residence in my life, and, I’m pretty sure no one wants to trade places. I joke that these things are “just another day” in my life. And, they are. They are things that happen, they are not definitions of who I am. I get that now.

I’ve started my own business, training mental fortitude and handling to others. It’s small, yet fulfilling. I teach agility at a facility that gave me an opportunity to share my skills with others, and to learn new ones. My hours are my own, my life is mine, an agility field is my office, and any agita I feel is now acknowledged and re-directed at building a new life. I have a small but mighty circle of 10’s around me, people who see me for me.

What I have learned helps me to stay grounded in the present. I’ve (mostly) given up trying to please others so that they will (perhaps) value me. A lifetime of wanting to matter to others instead of to myself is a hard habit to break, but I am trying.

The puppy that I got makes me smile. There is no expectation on him to be amazing (he is), no comparison to any other dog (he is truly one of a kind). His life and mine are tied together as we explore the world like two kids (except that one of us is closer to 60). Cruzer taught me to believe that I could do things, Happy lets me enjoy doing them.

This weekend, Happy made his agility “debut.” We had not a single clean run, and it might be a while before that happens. My goal is progress, not perfection.  Fun, not fear.  Fix-er not fail-er. My heart laughed and was at peace despite the rustiness of my handling. I felt the familiar feel of freedom and happiness that is the prize for running connected. I was happy to look up and see true friends inside and outside the ring sharing in that moment. Supported by a friend who burst into Pharrell’s “Happy” song throughout the weekend, and so amazingly blessed for the honor and opportunity to walk into a ring at all and run a dog that is mine.

Because of a day when one dog zigged and the other one zagged, my values continue to come into alignment.

A fellow competitor took me aside this weekend and said, “It’s good to have you back.  I’ve missed you.”

Me, too.

Creating a School of Thought for Puppies

“Nothing is more important than this day.” Your puppy does not know how to tell time on the clock, or dates on a calendar.  Your puppy lives in a state of awareness of this moment, in this present, in this now. Your job (and, it’s a joyful one!) is simply this …. picture your puppy’s best life and make it happen. 

B Rosen 300 dpi PCN_0984
My Happiness.

It’s exciting to consider the future of your new puppy and its potential. You’ve imagined a picture for your pup that shows a happy, resilient, playful, obedient dog, equipped with skills to adapt confidently to environmental changes. There are numerous “schools of thought” on how to create such a dog, and, one that is fun for both you and your pup is to reward and encourage thinking. It’s easy to do!

Humans learn quickly and deeply through information and visual pictures. Let’s say your coach wants to win the game. How your coach delivers that message is key. Warning you to “miss the kick and we lose the game” sets a bleak picture and a feeling of disappointment in mind and body. An empowering coach would likely remind you to be your best with a message of “kick a winning goal,” setting a picture of success and fulfillment in your consciousness. The goal is the same, the school of thought impacts which result occurs. In your dog’s school of thought where you are the coach, how you present a “goal for the win” message matters greatly.

Your dog’s brain has about 56 million neurons ready to fire, re-wire and build mental connections through the electrical stimulation events provide. At sixteen weeks of age, your pup’s brain is about 80% developed, and, mentally and socially, dogs are considered to be in a puppy stage until around four years of age. The term “puppy brain” is real and can last much longer than the age at which your dog reaches physical maturity.

As a caring owner, providing “thought-full” learning opportunities appropriate to their mental capabilities, encourages positive connections, problem solving skills and focus. An improved relationship and bond with your dog are often two added values of thinking.

Puzzle and focus toys that dispense treats are super ways to start your dog’s adventure in learning as they work to win the rewards hidden within. Provide different games, toys, textures to challenge your dog’s level of learning and engagement. A diversity of experiences is valuable in the learning process, and in time, your pup is likely to challenge you to come up with even more training activities to keep her/his brain stimulated and engaged! Creating a dog that loves to learn is a super power, and a super goal to have!

It’s normal for a dog to show signs of frustration in the form of whining, barking, or offering behaviors that have nothing to do with the play at hand during “thinking training.” Stay calm, this is the moment at which thinking is happening! Your urge may be to jump in and do the task for your dog to alleviate its frustration. Try to focus your efforts to provide support through encouragement and perhaps a re-start of the game. When the game is done, your dog will likely be thirsty and tired from the brain workout!

In your training, work to build in daily doses of “thinking” training to support the goals you envisioned when you got your pup. Engaging their brains can speed up learning processes and cementing of concepts in meaningful ways. You’re likely to find a by-product of a “thinking” dog is that less time is required by you to train behaviors. Bonus!

A mental reminder to yourself before you engage with your dog can be helpful to keeping on task. It might go something like this: “I empower my dog to think and learn. I encourage my dog to engage with thought-full toys, puzzles and opportunities, because doing this increases my dog’s ability to problem solve, remain calm and steady in new or crisis situations, and offer more behaviors that I like.”

This blog/article appeared in the March 2018 J & J Dog Supplies magazine.  Thank you to J & J for this opportunity! 



Trust Your Dog

In life’s learnings, trusting others is not the easiest of decisions to make (we can all chat with our therapists later about this one 😉). And yet, we’ve all been told (Ordered? Encouraged?) countless times by people in the agility community and may have said it ourselves to someone else on occasion, to “trust your dog.” As if trusting the dog is the magic elixir of success.

The sound of that three-syllable phrase trips my gut and a tiny fear-filled voice in my head asks “why?”  I’m going out on a limb here and say that I bet you know the feeling.  There’s a flutter of your heat beat kicking it up a notch, you flash to what can go wrong if you relinquish control of the situation, and you question yourself ….. what if I haven’t trained a send well enough, what if I don’t get there in time?  What if, what if, what if ……  courtesy of three little words ….. Trust your dog.  By the way, have you ever wanted to buy a product from a salesperson who uttered, “Trust me” in their pitch? I didn’t think so.

The interesting thing about trust is that as soon as someone tells you to enact it, you push it away. Doubt, seeing an open door, tries to push it wide enough to weaken your belief in yourself.   

Trust is a decision.  Much like fear, joy and gratefulness, we can choose trust, or choose to give up. Trust can be good. Very good. Trust builds leaders and leadership, it sets the tone for success, for progress for achievement and attainment. And because all of life is balanced, the flip side of trust requires abdication of control, disposal of responsibility for the outcome of actions. There’s risk of failure and miscommunication. 

I don’t believe people really mean it when they say to trust the dog. Here’s why. To trust my dog means that I would have to stop believing in me, and I’ve worked too hard to do that. I’d have to believe that I’m incapable of leadership, unable to make decisions, of handling well and perhaps that I am untalented, slow, and uncoordinated. As I read those statements, none of them sound like me. I am capable of leading, I am capable of making decisions, I am talented and because I’ve practiced, I am coordinated and prepared. To hand over the outcome of a run or training to my dog (who is lovely yet can’t read numbers, hasn’t walked the course, and has the reasoning level of a toddler (proven by scientific studies) is just not going to happen. And, it’s unfair to both of us.

I trust (see? I really DO trust!) that my friends in agility want the best for me, and when they remind me to trust my dog, I hear in their voices a clear reminder ……

BECAUSE I have trained, BECAUSE I have reasoned, BECAUSE I have put the time and effort into being the very best supporter and leader that I can be for my dog, I can TRUST MYSELF to handle and act with excellence, confidence and strength.  

I like to play agility. I don’t like to play with my decisions, especially ones rooted in something that I’ve worked hard to achieve, that can be so easily cracked and so very hard to repair if broken.  So, I keep it simple.    

I choose me. I choose to TRUST MYSELF.   

On Roadtrips and Shepherd’s Pie

Shepherd's Pie at O'Possum's Pub in Murfreesboro, TN

It has been a long time since I have played this agility game I love. Not so long as an eon or an eternity, but, fifteen months (so far) without a dog beside me that loves the geometry and poetry of the lines and the motions to master them as much as me, is long enough already. I miss Shepherd’s Pie, too.  Meat, veggie, potatoes, cheese and gravy.  Seriously, a concoction of delicious (my choice, I know there are others with other views!).

Pick a path. Take a roadtrip.
On the road with Jamie and Stephen (and Cruzer), deciding the path to reach our destination. Away we go!

The day will come again, each day is one day nearer, I tell myself.  Be patient.  Be aware in today’s choices, it is tasty, all in itself. My Happiness (for that is what he is) will not be old enough to legally give this sport a go for another year at least.  So, I wait.  And, enjoy.

To pass the time, I’ve begun revisiting photos from the roadtrips and adventures of my experience.  (I did not look at them for this short term eon, it hurt too much, but I find now, it’s okay).  There are plenty of photos of ribbons and reminders of success, but those have begun to feel like they belong to someone else, not to the me that I am (becoming?) today.

I’m not the handler that can tell you about a course I ran 5 years ago, about the turns and the challenges and my handling. Once I run a course, it falls out of my head. On to the next one. I admire athletes that can describe a run from a decade ago in its entirety.  I cannot. A jump or two, perhaps, or a finish line, but, that is all.

I can, however, tell you about the courses that I visualize for my future. I can tell you about the colors of the jumps in the internalized TV screen in my head, of the footing and of the feeling of the flow and the flawless timing of my imagined runs. Of the exhilaration as I swagger to the startline, or, blast past the finish. Runs of the past served their purpose, I learned from them, and they live in my subconscious, where they have settled in as the foundation to support me today without me knowing it. I do not need to call them out in my “now.” They were. Today I AM, and tomorrow, they will help me be.

Vici, Fin, and Me
8 years as friends, and we’d never met, until a roadtrip brought each of us (Vici, Fin, and me) from our respective coasts to Cynosports. Fin made Finals. I don’t remember that part (I’m certain it was spectacular), but, I do remember elation felt for meeting this amazing woman and burying my head in Fin’s fur as I shed a tear of Joy for that moment.

I am using this time to remind myself of the “why” of my game. Ribbons and accolades are wonderful and serve as roadtrip markers.  They validate my desire and confirm my belief in myself. They give me reason to value the effort. They are “rewards,” with little real meaning to anyone but me.

In the photo album of my life, it’s the travels (near and far, day to day and of duration) that stand out. And, the people I meet. And, of course, the Shepherd’s Pie.

So, I remind myself:  Always look for a place with homemade Shepherds Pie on the menu to share with friends (or, sushi, if that’s your fav.  Maybe a vegan burger or two, go green).  Stop the car often, because I might find the doppelganger of Mayberry’s Aunt Bea offering coffee in a fast food chain, and wouldn’t that be a delicious take out? But, most of all, get out and enjoy the roads my feet are on today. The ones behind me brought me to this moment, in order for me to continue to move forward.

And, if I do, I will find unexpected Joy to make me Happy. And, the best Shepherd’s Pie I could ever imagine. Though, it will be tough to beat the ones that I’ve had already.  (Have I mentioned I like Shepherd’s Pie???)

Nothing is worth more than this day.

Nothing is worth more than this day.

“Nothing is worth more than this day.” ~Goethe

“When hearts and minds meet, unimagined success is assured.” ~ Cruzer Patterson

There will never be another moment exactly like this one.  I hope that you make the most of it.  Drink in the joy, smile at the hope, live for the now.  There are so many moments of our lives that we can’t plan for, or direct.  There is however, one thing we can do anytime and with no limits, and that is to be aware.  The Agility Mindset is a journey that begins by helping to determine where you are, and the roads of possibilities that can take you on adventures a plenty.  I’d like to help you connect with yourself and your furry canine companion on this adventure, and maybe, to inspire you to be your best agility athlete ever.  You can make it happen if you believe.  I did.  Follow me, and let’s be always awesome!