MACH Strata: The Journey September 16, 2013
It’s been a busy month for all of us here at Spring Forth and I apologize for taking such an extended absence from blogging! I’ll jump right in with some good news.
Strata finished his Master Agility Championship (MACH) on Sunday, August 25th at the Tri-State Shetland Sheepdog Club agility trial in Hamden, CT. We have no fancy portraits yet – this iPad photo of a proud sheltie with his ribbon must suffice!
Here are his runs from that exciting day…
(Isn’t his MACH victory lap a riot? He is just thrilled that the judge wanted to say hi to him. That’s Strata for you – temperament of a Labrador…)
Since finishing his MACH, Strata has also qualified for AKC Agility Nationals which will take place in Pennsylvania next year, and needs just one more Jumpers With Weaves Q to qualify for AKC World Team Tryouts.
I have spent a lot of time recently preparing my “baby dogs”, Finch and Spark, for their agility careers. We still don’t know if Finch will ever be able to compete, but I bravely (or stupidly, depending on how you look at it) mailed Spark’s entries for his first couple of agility trials – just in JWW and Time 2 Beat; he’s definitely not ready for Standard yet – not enough dogwalk training. I did this when Strata was young, too. Knowing I have a trial coming up (and therefore entry fees on the line) prompts me to train on a more regular basis. I have no problem scratching if the day comes and my dog isn’t ready. Just having that “deadline” looming gets me motivated.
Back to Strata, since this post should be all about him, right? As I said, I used the same “method” of early entry to motivate myself to “put up or shut up” with him, too. Strata had his Open JWW title before he started running in Standard. That is because teaching Strata the dogwalk was one of the hardest things I have ever taught any dog to do – I’m talking more challenging than some of my aggression and separation anxiety cases.
Strata is afraid of heights. When he was a puppy, he would always be very scared on the grooming table. This is not uncommon. Lots of pups make the association that table = grooming and act accordingly. This went beyond that. It took me weeks to get him to move on the grooming table, let alone eat anything. If you put him on the table he would freeze.
We worked through that issue and honestly, I didn’t think it would be much of a problem until we started elevating the dogwalk in training. Once we hit 2′, Strata would refuse the dogwalk: he would run up the first plank, turn around, and run back down it. We worked through that, and then he began running up the first plank, creeping slowly and carefully across the second plank, and rushing down the third plank into contact position.
This wasn’t a problem with the A-frame. Think about it – as soon as the dog realizes he’s up high on the A-frame, he gets to run back down it. Phew! No worries. The teeter didn’t seem to bother him, either, though to this day we do a lot of refresher work on being brave and going all the way to the end of the board so it tips faster.
Fortunately, I did a couple of private lessons with Amanda Shyne and she showed me some games to play to get Strata more comfortable on the dogwalk. (Some of them are outlined in her book about stopped contacts, for anyone experiencing the same problem.) Building his core strength also improved his confidence on the narrow plank. But man, was it a slow process. If you watch this video of Strata earning his Open Standard title, you’ll see him trot across the middle plank. I remember being particularly pleased because he looked happy on a foreign dogwalk for the first time in competition!
Once we got the dogwalk issue out-of-the-way, we spent our time perfecting our timing and my handling. Strata is my first truly competitive dog and we have learned so much together. He is a great dog to take to seminars – quiet in his crate, ready to work at a moment’s notice, and eager to give me 250% whether it’s the first repetition or the tenth. Our goal shifted to getting maximum speed out of him. He would always run for me, but with varying levels of intensity.
Last year an x-ray showed that Strata was born with an extra vertebrae in his lower back. Because of this, some of his discs are compressed and two vertebrae have fused together. We always knew the little dude had an achy back but didn’t know the cause. There is not a lot of research on this; anecdotally, a Borzoi breeder has noted that dogs with extra vertebrae gallop much slower than their “normal” counterparts. When I read that, suddenly things started to make a lot more sense. All along, Strata had been giving me 100% effort. Little did I know, his 100% effort is the equivalent of a “normal” dog’s 70% effort. Now that I have Spark to “compare” him to, it’s obvious how much slower Strata is – when they both chase after the same ball, Spark can easily beat Strata to it. This was true even when Spark was still an adolescent.
It just goes to show you that you never know what hidden obstacles others have to overcome to succeed. And I am so glad that I never took out my frustration on him for “not being fast enough.” I firmly believe that our dogs are always giving us 100% effort; if we perceive they are giving us less, it’s a training problem or a physical problem – both of which certainly are not the dog’s fault. Part of our journey together has involved learning a lot about conditioning and strength-training exercises to keep Strata in tip-top shape to compensate for this problem.
I think that the diagnosis was actually a big turning point for us. Now I knew the answer did not lie in “make him run faster,” it was “run the most efficient line.” Ground speed is not ever going to be Strata’s strong suit. He has to run the tightest line possible – no extra strides! I changed my handling strategy accordingly.
This year has been a big one for us, not just because of the MACH but also because we attended AKC Nationals and World Team Tryouts together. What incredible experiences! And there is no dog on the planet I’d rather be traveling with. He travels by plane like he’s a globetrotter, makes a great snuggler in the hotel, and runs consistently wherever we go.
Can you tell that I am madly in love with this dog? Not a day goes by that I don’t count my blessings, thankful that I have Strata in my life. This MACH is just the beginning for the two of us. I can tell that there is much more to come.