Go, When Ready

It’s been thousands of times over the years (and with 5 different dogs) that I’ve heard those three little words from agility trial Timers. “Go, when ready.” As I watched dogs today at a local trial, it struck me that until recently, I didn’t understand the power behind that thought. 

Over a dozen years ago, my instructor bestowed a gift one night after class when she told me I was ready to begin trialing. I had much yet to learn, yet my progress was strong and consistent enough that I’d earned the right to journey through the ring gates and step to the line. SQUEEE!!! Being new, I of course wanted to compete almost from the first day of class and had considered entering a show without her knowledge (how rambunctious!). Catholic school guilt kept me from doing it. My instructor told us whatever we did during our first runs would impact both the dog’s and our experiences for a long time to come.

I value that moment, it’s a treasured one in my agility memory box and it still gives me a smile and a sense of pride, acknowledgement and attainment. I hope for the opportunities to share similar moments with my students. We train as a team, and it makes sense that we consider together when “ready” happens. Ready, that is … not perfect. Ready, in that criteria has been determined, met and sustained sufficiently for success. Ready, in that mindset is secure and there is confidence in capabilities. Ready in that the dog’s needs will be honored and supported.

I can hear the voices of some now saying, “I make my own decisions. Wait for what? It’s my life, I do what I want!”  I’ve done that as well. Perhaps not as dramatically, but nonetheless, I’ve done it. Yup, brought a dog into the ring that could have been a bit more skills solid, because I wanted to compete. Darn that a-frame contact that I allowed my second dog to bounce during his first competition run. My instructors had NOT said we were ready, but I was “smart” by then and knew better than anyone. The next 8 or so years was spent being humbled by the less-than-stellar contacts that my prayers to the agility gods (and plenty of lessons with various people) did not fully resolve. There’s great truth to the adage about first impressions lasting forever. My dog’s first a-frame in competition had plenty of enthusiasm, and left barely an impression by him on the yellow.  I struggled far too long to get it right from that moment forward.

I’m excited to see the AKC World Team Tryouts to select Team USA this weekend. I can still feel the hair on my arms standing up that first time I ventured into the Tryouts arena and breathed the air of electricity that filled every inch of the facility. There’s nothing like it, it was the Holy Grail for this local time gal who had only dreamed of things so big. The dog I brought to that Tryout was 2 years old. Go, when ready.  Hmmmm, it was an amazing experience, and despite bobbles, we came home with a placement ribbon. We’d done ok, finishing 9th overall.  Not a shabby showing for this green team.

Today, I wonder about the status of my “go, when ready” that year.  I’d spent the year before Tryouts (practically from the first day I stepped into the Novice ring with my boy) wearing a suit of red, white and blue armor.  To be perceived as worthy, I determined you had to dress the part, and my agility wardrobe became patriotic year ‘round, not just on Memorial Day or 4th of July. Did my armor make me ready? Nope. If I waited a bit longer to jump into that showcase, it’s a safe bet to say I’d have been able to predict and prevent the unpreparedness that lived within me. I didn’t win a spot on the Team that year, and that is a good thing.  I had gone, but I wasn’t ready. My dog’s skills were solid, very solid, for a dog so young (I had learned the value of training to be prepared). My instructor told me we had the skills to make the Team. I’d heard what I dreamed to hear. Go, you’re ready. Inside me, there was still some settling that had to happen. Mentally, that first time, I faked a bit of bravado and sass. A misstep in one of the rounds cost me an off-course (elimination) score.  I actually breathed a quick sigh of relief and powered through the rest of that run to finish strong.  A clean score would have jettisoned me up the ranks and made a spot on Team a real possibility.  Did my brain know that I should not go because I was not ready?  Probably.  Good brain, it had my back.

Would I have changed that adventure? No, and I thank the instructors who pushed me to reach so far.

I came back the next year and did it then.  A year is a long time when you are waiting for a dream to happen. And then again, it was a blink of an eye as I reflect. It was a year to tighten up my mental game and bring my self-image into balance. 

Today, the dog I run is pure entertainment. And perhaps, we may never represent anything other than us.  There is no armor. There are no approvals and validations except those from my gut. I have students now, and seeing them make their way to their dreams of the Novice ring or international competition is good and fills my heart. Maybe we’ll go to a Tryouts together. That would be fun. Should I go, I am certain I will walk into the arena as ready in every aspect as a champion must be, as ready as I can be.  What will be different this time (if there is a this time) is that I will not be waiting to hear anyone except myself voice the magical “Go, when ready” phrase. It’s been a long life of waiting for permission to go, to do, to be, and to be validated by outside forces. So this time (I think more and more there will be a this time), it’s my finger on the timer’s box.  I wish this for others. To know when it is time to step to the line, whatever line it is … Novice, newbie, or old hat, and to do it when your heart ensures that confidence equals skillset and self-image is solid. 

Go, when ready.  You’ll feel good.

Why I Teach

Today, I stood witness to an individual who has struggled with startlines as she came to understand that a shift in her mindset would make immediate improvements to her dogs’ impulse control. Happiness grabbed hold of my heart as another handler made the decision to alter her behavior from running alongside her dog to showing it the path to take as a strong and decisive leader. She was rewarded with a beautiful, fast and accurate dogwalk. When a handler approached me after the session to express gratitude for the spark of joy that appeared in her dog’s eyes as she worked to point her feet correctly and give it clear information …. well, her smile is one that I will long remember.

I giggled as handlers supportively called out to each other about what they liked and wanted to see their peers repeat and then as they called out to hold each other accountable when they believed someone had given less than their potential. What a gift these people gave to each other as they engaged, gathered round to watch onr other work, asked questions, proffered hypotheses and listened to the cues and information their canine partners provided along the way.

True teaching comes from listening, I believe. If we just quiet ourselves long enough to be present, we will hear what we need to do.

We hooted and hollered and moved around a lot today.  By no one’s assessment were we quiet, especially not me.  There’s no missing my voice in any situation (not even when I was 8 and making my first holy confession …. and confessed so loudly that those kneeling at the alter heard the details of the simple sins I imparted to the padre).

Yet, through today’s noise, I sensed handler after handler focusing only their dog, working to find a balance of relationship that could grow theirs (and their dogs) confidence and clarity.  I saw listening, true listening to the body language of human and canine. As multiple dogs worked together in the arena, each team grew so engaged that the other teams had no impact on them.  Mind blowing.  That is the connection that I hope each team brings to the ring when they compete. So much present, so much mindful, so much mindset … that the outside environment falls away as teams run as one.  And yes, frustration. No learning happens without a moment or two or three of angst. Listen to it, and learn. Find that pattern of crazy and craft a new view of capable from the agita.

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So, this is why I teach. Yes, for the sound of cheers that a seminar full of participants spontaneously make in appreciation for the perseverance of others. Yes, for the belief that lights up within a handler as they acknowledge that though they may not be perfect …. YET …. they can find the footsteps to help get them to that place, and that for now, trying is what counts. Yes, for their acceptance that I don’t have all the answers and am not afraid to say so (but will suggest some way for them to find out what they need). And yes, for the crazy happy I feel as I make a fast exit to catch a ferry or flight or freeway ride back to my own pack.

It’s a pretty good way … no, a magical way … to spend a day, a life, a listen.

P.S. I also teach because it’s what I do when I’m not handling my own dogs.  And in a shameless plug for my own business, let me just say this clearly:  Hire me.  I’m really good at this people training mindset believe in yourself change your brain change your game let your dog know you have its back work that I do.  Really.  Happy Training!

Time Flies

In 2018, I completed my first full year of owning a small business, The Agility Mindset and I seek to help people recognize their personal potential. I returned to trialing after 2.5 years away from the sport that I love. I continue teaching at The Agility Facility and developing in this sport. Billy and I survived a serious car crash and now I drive a Volvo (haha, it’s very used, and we still have a lot to pay off on it, but I like the idea of saying that I drive a “luxury” vehicle).  I taught in Florida and Massachusetts and Rhode Island because people trusted in me and my capabilities. I have clients that live near and far, a home over my head and an agility field that is my “office.” I lived in fear for many decades and now have clarity that I am enough. I no longer experience the daily pressure and anxiety to be someone other than me, which is what working in the corporate world forced upon me. I reconnected with grammar school and high school friends. I learned I can cook, and no one is going to die because of my efforts. People entered and left my life by their choice, and I understand that’s okay. They have their own journeys. Much happiness to them as they explore. I have a small yet mighty circle of people that have become family. I have “real” family who, though small in numbers, are held tight in my heart. I began writing again, small pieces for now, and I’m looking forward to seeing them come to life on the pages of magazines in this coming year. At the end of 2018, I look back and see how the world has conspired to bring me to this place of blessing. Hello, 2019. Time flies, and so must I.

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. 

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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! 

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