In agility, one of the biggest things Barley and I have to work on is staying connected. Between turns, we're physically connected by her leash, but we stay busy keeping our mental/emotional connection to each other. We play touch games. We play variations on it's your choice. We work on the 1-hour down game. I rarely get to watch a classmate's full turn because if I disconnect with her to do so, she'll bark to make sure I reconnect with her (although sometimes she'll stay in a down and let me watch as long as I give her the occasional treat to reinforce the down).
The real challenge, though, is keeping our connection once her leash comes off. Barley notices everything: where every dog is, where any dropped treats are, if there's a new mark on a wall, if there's a chair in a new place, if there's a strange sound coming from the AC or the building next door. When we're physically connected, she knows she's in training mode, so she might observe, but she's pretty reliable at following commands. When the leash comes off, those distractions are much harder for her to avoid. We play heeling games on the way to the first jump. On our first few turns, I reward every few obstacles to keep her coming back to me. Any time we've done something difficult, especially if we've missed if a few times, I reward (I'm still waiting for someone to run out and give me a sip of a margarita as my reward when those things happen).
|This will forever be one of my favorite pictures of us.|
I've mentioned before that sometimes we have a substitute agility instructor if our trainer is visiting her grandbaby or if she's sick. The sub is our trainer's trainer and as I'm sure I've said before, I always feel like I'm walking into a pre-algebra class and am handed a calculus exam on those days. She's tough. She's good and we learn a lot, but she's tough--and not very effusive with her praise. She also has her dogs in a pen somewhere on the floor. New dogs and new people increase the odds of Barley being a bit nutty, so things she normally doesn't do become normal when we have a sub. Usually, those sessions go a bit like this: we walk up for our turn, Barley gets the zoomies, the trainer says, "I've seen you enough times now to know this dog shouldn't still be doing this." As with all teachers, our trainer and our sub both have different methods of dealing with issues, so it's a little reminiscent of me asking my engineer dad for algebra help and him suggesting a way of solving the problem that is completely different from how my teacher wanted us to show our work.
We've had the sub the last two weeks in a row and while last week was better than usual, I still got several corrections. This week, I tried really hard incorporate her ideas into our turns--and it paid off. The sub told us that we had a great night. And we did. Barley stayed with me all night, we did some complicated sequences, and I didn't forget where I was going on the course once. When we left class, we were feeling really good.
Then we got to the park for our post-agility walk. Barley was still great and we were still very in sync, but we encountered so many dog walkers who weren't connected to their dogs at all--and that makes me batty.
First, about .25 miles down the trail, we encountered a woman standing in the middle of the trail, texting, while her dog on a retractable leash stared at us. I'll give the little dog credit. It didn't bark or lunge, but it very clearly saw us long before she did. I tried to make our presence known by saying more loudly than usual, "What's that, Pup?" and moving the leash to make her tags jangle a little more, but the woman was oblivious. Finally, we stopped and sat and waited. Several minutes passed before we were noticed and the woman moved off the trail to finish her conversation.
Then about .75 miles in we passed a woman with a small dog that we see almost every week. Every week, I put Barley on my right side and move all the way off the trail so it's clear I don't want the dogs to interact. Every week, I avoid making eye contact with the woman while I continue to say, "What's that? Good girl. What's that?" while dishing out the treats. Every week, the woman lets the dog strain at the end of its retractable leash.
At the end of our walk, there was a man with another small dog on another retractable leash. To get back to the car, we had to cross a bridge--there is no other way back to the car from that part of the trail. Of course, the man was watching the river (which was insanely high after our recent rains) and the dog was watching the river on the opposite side of the bridge, so we couldn't get by. Eventually, he pulled the dog over to his side of the bridge and Barley and I hurried by.
|Passing time until the bridge is cleared.|
This week, all of the disconnected dogs happened to be small dogs on retractable leashes, but we see it just as often with large dogs and dogs on regular leashes. I understand that sometimes you have to take a phone call, sometimes you find something cool to look at, sometimes your dog just needs a break because it's mentally draining to not get to sniff around and be a dog. But in a crowded park with lots of people walking dogs on relatively narrow trails, it's not the time or place to disconnect from your dog. And being physically connected with your leash does not mean that you are connected to your dog. So please, dear dog owners in my area, help keep your dog, my dog, and all of the humans in the park safe by being aware of your dog and your surroundings; let's keep walking fun for everyone.