Sunday, June 25, 2017

Archie and The Purgatory of Open

Open is what AKC calls the intermediate agility level. As a friend remarked to me, Open courses aren't really designed, they are what is left over after you take away an obstacle or two from the Excellent/Masters class. Sadly, this is very true.

Open classes in this part of the US are usually quite small, often no more than 12 or 15 dogs from all height classes combined. Archie was the only dog in his height class for most of the weekend.

Some dogs zoom through Open, advancing in just a trial or two to Excellent. After all, to successfully complete Open courses, a dog has to already have Excellent-level performance skills. But because you don't have to many skills at all to get there, other dogs spend quite a bit of time at the Open level. Open has a bit of a reputation for accumulating dogs who just aren't going to do well in agility. On Friday, the judge welcomed us to the "purgatory of Open"--and she wasn't really joking. There are many reasons that a dog may need to stay in Open for a while: dogs may be physically structured such that agility will never be a good fit for them, some dogs just don't like the game and their handlers haven't figured that out yet, handlers and dogs may not yet have the skills they need to succeed, and so forth.

Given how well Archie performs in class, I assumed his time in Open would be brief. But we've now been in Open for four trials and only had four Qs out of a total of 14 runs at this level; this weekend we were 0 for 6.

I was feeling quite frustrated yesterday. But I realized today that I was missing something very important. It wasn't really the heat, although that may have been a factor. Archie simply isn't ready to advance to Excellent yet. His head is not yet in the game.

Ironically, I started the weekend worrying about something completely different. This was our first time at this particular venue. It is an open, dirt-floored horse arena. The fencing is even less complete than at most other places, and the arena itself doesn't even have walls all the way around. There were places where there was nothing more than horse railings separating the dogs from the enormous and exciting world outside. Horse railings with the lowermost bar almost 18" from the ground, hardly a barrier at all to a dog the size of Archie. He already demonstrated that he could get through the usual plastic fencing. I was sure he'd take one look at that horse railing and dive under it and be gone.

Yes, I have a young terrier who I don't trust off-leash. Judge away. I'm sure some of my agility-savvy readers are thinking, then why are you doing agility with him? Well, I don't like to stereotype breeds but...I'm going to revert to a stereotype: terriers are really difficult dogs to manage off-leash. The thought of unhooking my dog from a leash is terrifying. It's like Pandora's box--I have no idea what might happen, although all that I imagine is pretty horrible.

The irony is this: Archie never even glanced at the horse railing. I don't think he even noticed they were there. What he did notice was the hot dogs that a competitor left on a dolly outside the ring. He could barely function inside the ring, pulled magnetically toward those hot dogs after every obstacle. I gave up fighting him halfway through that run and carried him out of the ring. Today, he noticed that someone had eaten takeaway pizza and had left the box outside the ring on the ground. I literally forced him to complete that run. He had so many refusals and other errors while trying to figure out if he could leave the ring to get to the pizza box that we lost the Q quite early on. Our standard run earlier today was so bad that at one point the judge said "I don't know what errors I am supposed to call now!" (Archie had just gotten on the teeter, immediately turned around and did a perfect two-on-two-off contact on the entrance to the teeter, thus failing to execute the teeter and calling the "four-paw rule" into play. It was a clusterfuck.)

So I learned some hard lessons this weekend. The good news is that my pup will come back to me when I call. The bad news is that he will run off if he smells even a molecule of something delicious that he thinks he might be able to get to. Agility itself is not yet enough of a reward that he will choose that first.

I told Archie that I will be ready when he is ready. And I have some plans to help him along. He will be running agility with an increasing number of distractions (think plastic containers with food that he can't get to). He won't get high-value treats on course anymore--those will only come after he is leashed and we return together to his crate. I love my fabulous puppy very much, and am frustrated that he is so young and naughty. But I am glad that I was able to take a step back and recognize that we need some more training.

As a friend remarked this afternoon, when he's on, he's brilliant. Yes, but his moments of brilliance are not yet course-length in duration. We'll get there. I'm sure of it.

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