Wednesday, August 22, 2012

A Cross to Bear

No. there's nothing unpleasant going on.  That just seemed like a fun title for a post about agility - and crosses (front, rear, blind).

Moira and I have another agility trial this weekend.  It's an AKC trial and we will be running in two classes; Jumpers and Standard.  A Jumpers course is comprised of jumps (duh), tunnels and a set of 6 weave poles.  A Standard course includes the dogwalk, A frame, table and teeter in addition to the tunnels, jumps and weave poles .  At the Novice level judges are required to design courses with two side switches.  What's a side switch?  Well, it's pretty much exactly what it sounds like.  If the dog is running on your left and a side switch occurs, then the dog ends up on your right.  Pretty easy, right?  But how do you accomplish these switches?  With crosses of course!

There are three commonly used crosses in agility; front, rear and blind.  In a front cross, you have to get in front of your dog, and pivot to bring the dog to your other side.  It's one of those things that, once you learn how to do it, muscle memory takes over.  Seriously, if you asked me to demonstrate a front cross just standing there, I couldn't do it.  They are also hell on your knees.  Many handlers try to avoid front crosses as they age because of this.  Generally speaking, a front cross will generate speed in a dog.  They have something to run toward - you!

Rear crosses occur when you send the dog ahead of you to an obstacle and then change sides behind them, to the rear, picking them up on your other side when they've completed the obstacle.  Rear crosses can be difficult because the dog has to be independent enough to get ahead of you AND they have to be able to realize that you are moving behind them and what the means.  It's called 'reading' the cross.  I LOVE rear crosses because I have a dog who reads them very well.  In the picture below, I am performing a rear cross while Moira goes over the double.  You can see me moving laterally behind her but, more importantly, see how her eyes, head and even ears are ever so slightly facing the direction I am moving?  Even her body is slightly angled.  That means she knew when she took off that she would need to turn that way to catch me.  She's reading the cross.  You can probably see that rear crosses are much easier on the human knees too :)  No twisting!

The last type of cross that can be used is a blind cross.  Blind crosses can be very risky because, in essence, the dog performs a rear cross on you!  Blind - because you lose visual contact with your dog.  Early on, I was taught to blind cross tunnels.  The dog enters the tunnel, you race to the other end - across the exit to the tunnel - and keep moving; trusting your dog to come out and be moving with you.  I did that type of cross with Sam all the time because he was a reliable, Velcro dog and wouldn't think of not sticking with me once he came out of the tunnel.  My last agility instructor discouraged blind crosses as too risky for dogs that might not be so reliable, so I learned not to do them.  My current instructor is fine with them, as long as they are done well and in the right places.  So, I'm back to using blind crosses at tunnels and, at least in class, trying them in other places.  We've had some successes and failures.  The last AKC agility trial I went to, there was a woman running American Cocker Spaniels who used blind crosses all over the place.  It was really impressive to see how well her dogs read those crosses and negotiated the courses.  It freed the handler up to take the best line and limit the amount of running she had to do.

Moira needs one more qualifying score to finish her Novice Standard title and 2 qualifying scores to finish her Novice Jumpers title.  I expect I will be using all three kinds of crosses.  Wish us luck!

Friday, August 17, 2012

Stepping Up My Game?

Since moving to Nashville (and having some $$ in the bank account) Moira and I have renewed our commitment to agility training.  For most of the summer, we've taken 2 agility classes a week.  One to fine-tune my handling and another to bring Moira's skills up to scratch.  There have also been a handful of private lessons to help us focus on some specific things.  We've run in more trials in the last 5 months than in the previous 4 years and there are many more planned for the coming months!  Our Q rate still isn't what I would like it to be but Moira and I have definitely formed a much closer partnership and the Q rate is improving with each trial.

So, we've taken the steps to get my and Moira's skills to the level they should be.  Moira is already in awesome condition - she's a self-excercising dog - and she is a natural and very pretty jumper.  That leaves me.....

I've never been a particularly 'sporty' girl.  My parents weren't athletic and there were circumstances that made it difficult for me to participate in intramural sports - even if I had wanted to.  Now I find myself in my early 40s, participating in a sport that demands a certain level of physical prowess.

Now, anyone who has ever attended an agility trial can attest to the fact that almost no one running a dog in agility is a prime physical specimen.  There are lots of knee braces, ankle braces and bad backs at any given trial.  There are also a high percentage of women my age and older who are, shall we say, "prosperous." Interestingly, they almost always are running Border Collies.  I think it is because BCs are great at distance work and that allows these women to participate in this sport. A dog who is really accomplished at distance work can allow the handler to practically stand in the middle of the ring and point to obstacles.  Distance work is something that we all strive to master but few ever do.  Ed Note:  The point I am trying to make is that we are all there being physically active regardless of our infirmities.  And that's a lot more than many Americans are doing!

I'm in good enough shape, and fast enough, that I can run with Moira but it's not pretty.  I overstride and am a very heavy-footed runner.  And then there are the arms waving around or held awkwardly away from my body.  When I finish a run, even a 30 second run, I often wish there was an oxygen tank at the finish line.  The best handlers are the ones you don't see.  Their handling is so deft and their physical presence so subtle that when you watch their runs, all you see is the dog.  When I run, all you see is a skinny white girl who looks like a disjointed scarecrow.

So I'm considering putting myself into training.  I HATE running but I may try to find a running coach who can help me improve my mechanics and form - as well as my condition.  I'm not making any promises but I think I might owe it to Moira.

Sunday, August 12, 2012

Steel Magnolia

Steel Magnolia - A Southern woman who is strong and independent yet very feminine.

Most are familiar with the play and movie, Steel Magnolias.  The term has definitely come into common usage as defined above and I am proud to say that I live with a Steel Magnolia.

Ginny, born in St. Louis, spent her early months living in Wilmington, NC, where she learned to be a steel magnolia from the very best.  I've always referred to Gin as a steel magnolia or an iron paw in a velvet glove.  This has become more readily apparent since Sam's passing.

Like many women who have spent time caring for an elderly and infirm man, Ginny put a lot of her personality in storage.  She took a back seat to Sam's needs during his last years and I'm very grateful for that, if not a bit chagrined to admit that I didn't realize the toll it took on her until after Sam passed.

Since Sam's passing, Ginny has come back into her own.  She's happy and confident again.  She's thrilled when she sees me packing the dog bag for an agility trial and can't wait for the adventure.  A dog who started out more like M'Lynn Eatenton is maturing into Ouiser Boudreaux!  She's sassy and funny and very, very independent!  She's taken to flirting with young, intact male dogs as well as turning her charms onto older men of the human species!  This weekend, without being invited, she introduced herself to an older gentleman who was set up near us at the agility trial.  He sat down and she promptly got up and walked over there to get some affection from him.  He hadn't even glanced at her.

Like any true steel magnolia, Gin still has her strong side.  She doesn't hesitate to let dogs who are being too forward know what she thinks of their inappropriate behavior.  The thing is, she does it in such a lovely, polite fashion that no one takes any offense.  The correction is swift and appropriate.  However, when the devil sits on her shoulder she will have a little fun with the miscreant and stalk him or her; striking terror into their hearts if they have any intelligence at all.

Gin is such a lovely girl.  I sometimes wish more of her personality had rubbed off on Moira.  Maybe the next dog....  In the meantime, I dearly love my Steel Magnolia and am hoping for many, many more years with her.