Brain Game Pain

A Blue Hound Beagles Blog
(also a Dog Agility Blog Event. Sort of.)

dogblogLast week the Dog Agility event went off as scheduled…without me. Life Chaos came to something of a head last week (if one of many), and I regretfully not only didn’t manage the deadline, I didn’t even get started.

But this past weekend, I attended an agility trial that reminded me just how much the mental game matters.

As in, when your mental game is blown away, it changes everything about how you handle the events of a trial. Sure, the mental game can also be applied to our handling choices and our focus on the course. I don’t think there’s any question that my (varying) ability to hold an certain intensity of focus through an entire course affects the outcome of the run. And that my focus has to be the proper one–not thinking about the Q, but connected with my dog every step, spatially aware for every step, and working out ahead of our progress so I’m proactive, not reactive, when it comes to guiding my dogs.

But an agility trial is about more than just getting around the course. It’s about how you experience the days, how you feel about your runs, how you position yourself for success.

Most of the time I can use positive thinking, the time with friends and dogs, and realistic expectations to create a trial experience that makes me want to come back and do it again the following week. Sometimes life throws me chaos, and I watch well-practiced tools fail…and realize just how important they are.

But this past trial came on the heels of a particularly difficult time. Stress, emotion, grief, exhaustion…all part of the recent routine. Add in a last-minute snowstorm, an event venue not built (apparently) to overcome the cold that came with it, and the mental set-up was nearly complete. But still, Rena Beagle qualified in Excellent Jumpers, and Dart ran really well on the same course. He didn’t Q but his mistake was my mistake; I was very happy with his attention, his effort, and his speed.

(Another nod to the mental game. I approached a certain change of direction with the plan of “wait and see how we’re positioned,” and ended up in a good place for neither option.)

After this, add in bad news phone call during the first morning of the trial. Really bad news.

Then add in the clandestine presence of a bitch in heat, crated in a small, enclosed room with the boy Beagles as the trial day turned excruciatingly long and delayed, partly due to weather, partly just because it happened that way. (The bitch in heat thing is a topic of some controversy. Let’s just leave that alone for now. It’s my blog, so I get to say that.)

So when Rena ran in Exc Standard, she Q’d…but Connery, my ready steady boy, got halfway through the weaves and forgot what he was doing. And Dart cruised past obstacles without even seeing them.

And I was devastated. Not because I expect to succeed every single time, but because for me, the most important thing of all is that connection between me and my dogs, and it had quite abruptly gone missing.

And because I had no mental game left. I think, in light of the past weekend, that I’ve decided the lack of mental game is much, much more evident than the quiet ongoing presence of one. After the trial came an extended visit to follow up on the bad news–my dad, faltering after a month in ICU and a major surgery. If I’d had any mental game at this point, it would have succumbed.

By the time the next morning rolled around, I knew something had to be done about the BiH situation. Not a happy thing for anyone, disruptive all around. After a period of time in the original spot, we ended up in a pleasant new crating area, but a place that the kids had never been before. This matters to them and it matters to me; consistency is one of the ways I handle my neurological sensory issues. Chaos on top of chaos.

After that, Rena didn’t Q in jumpers…just distracted by it all. Dart didn’t even try. Dart’s brain was on another planet. Dart got summarily taken from the course in the Walk of Shame, a strategy that works particularly well with him. And me? I found a quiet corner and cried for three quarters of an hour, mature adult that I am.

No, really. I did. I thought hard about quitting agility. I thought hard about quitting dog sports altogether. I thought about walking away from the trial, and I came close to doing it. Fortunately (?) for me, I was too vain to come out of my corner to publicly hiccup this decision to the other people it would affect–and by the time I dried my eyes and threw away used tissue, it was time to eat something and memorize the next course. My glamorous life.

Rena did not qualify; she was sightseeing. Dart made it through all of two obstacles before taking the Walk of Shame.

And yet…I was not devastated. I had cried all those the tears that have lurked for the month or so of Dad’s illness, and I had started thinking of all times that running with the kids made me feel as if I was flying.

My mental game had shifted. And then ConneryBeagle, bless his awesome heart, ran a beautiful standard course to Q, bawhing happily all the way.

This is a ridiculously happy dog (same face, an earlier trial)

This is a ridiculously happy dog (same face, an earlier trial)


In the end, that day was, if anything, longer than the first–I stayed to run the Open classes with my buddy Chase Cardigan (one completed title, one almost-Q). Then went off to the hospital for a visit, where I could clearly see improvement in my dad’s strength. Also, a smile!

It would be nice to say that Sunday was all success and smiles. It wasn’t. But my mental game stayed where it belonged, so I looked at all the positives in Rena’s not-qualifying first run, and carried Dart off from a course that started out much, much improved from the day before but…oops, there went his brain again, and out came the Walk of Shame, but I was mostly happy to see how connected he’d been until that moment.

Connery repeated his awesomeness, and I was more happy; in two days he earned half his remaining points to MACH 3 (he’s currently running only in standard classes, not jumpers). Then came the jumpers classes, in which Rena ran well and finished her title, and Dart ran just gorgeously for another tiny step closer to MACH, and Chase Cardigan attempted Exc Jumpers for the first time and ran most beautifully of all…

…And I was reminded of what it feels like to fly with dogs.

SDOC.dogwalk.dart I’m not sure, on Friday, that my floundering mental game would have allowed me to enjoy that feeling.

And while I’m really not sure that I could have done anything to adjust my brain pain on Friday (believe me, I was trying!), I do think it’s a wake-up call of sorts about how much the mental game matters. Maybe the next time this sort of thing happens–a confluence of chaos and difficulty–I can keep in mind that being human means being affected, and without that full mental game, I need to change something–most probably, my expectations. Sometimes expectations are everything, and I guess that’s another sort of mental game when all is said and done.

For the moment, I’d just rather think about flying.




Brain Game Pain — 8 Comments

  1. I’m guessing that Q means qualify, but Mach?

    Anyway, what delightful vids–it is so clear that these dogs are having fun. I also firmly believe, because I’ve seen, how dogs do pick up moods and mental states from their humans. I saw the evidence of that yet again a couple months ago.

    I hope your dad will be okay–it is so hard to see the elders get frail.

    • Phyl–yes! Dad has just been moved to the residence, and I can now take the dogs to see him. He likes Rena especially. The boys are so focused on me that they say a perfunctory hello to others, but Rena is a cuddlebunny.

      There’s definitely a fitness element to the way I do agility. Others work their dogs from a distance, but mine run better this way and I enjoy it. (That’s not even counting the “pack gear, haul gear, set up gear” effect–the crates, shade shelters, water, chairs…) Then we do this in insane weather and look at one another and say, “What are we thinking…” Except then we do it again! ;>

  2. It’s hard to measure how mood might have been affecting the dogs. They’re also conditioned by the agility trial gestalt–the packing, the routines once we’re there, etc. (In fact, Dart knows when one is coming and wears his Thundershirt the night before so the rest of us can get some sleep. He’s like a kid at Christmas.) I’ve often found I can fake it with them by sticking to their routines, but I’m sure it has an effect when too many things are out of balance at once.

    The MACH is “Master Agility Champion” and is the Big Fat Hairy Deal of agility titles. It takes 20 double Qs (qualifying in jumpers and standard on the same day, one chance at each) and 750 speed points. When Connery got his first MACH, he was the 20th Beagle ever to do so.

    The past two years Connery has mostly been on rehab for stifle stuff caused by a steroid inhaler–long story, but he’s got vaccine-induced immune issues–and is now running only standard to accumulate points. He stands at 31/of 20 QQs and 721 points, and if he stays strong, we’ll make it to MACH 3–he can do that in two Qs, depending on how stringently the judge wheels the course. Then he’ll shift down to a less demanding class where he’ll run 12″ instead of 16″ jumps. (He only barely measured up into 16″ in the first place, so this has been a long-term plan.)

    Dart only recently reached the masters level to start hunting his first MACH, and Rena just qualified into masters JWW (jumpers with weaves) this trial.

    PS When Connery comes out of the tunnel in the second run and makes the sharp turn to the dogwalk, that particular chop BAWH! is a scold for me. He’s run enough courses to have a sense of “this is what I am generally asked to do” and he didn’t think much of that turn. “I’m doing it, but that was NOT RIGHT!”

    • That bwah did sound like a scold!

      That’s interesting stuff. So the dogs are reading signals off the human, then? To me it just looks like the human is running alongside. What body cues am I missing?

  3. All of them. ;>

    Foot direction, hand position, shoulder tilt, gaze, pre-cues for direction change, choice of position for front and rear crosses and timing that sets up the correct path, especially when it comes to discriminations (which are littered through these courses–you’re not seeing them because you’re watching what the dogs are doing and not what they’re NOT doing. But pause the video at any given time and look at the course, especially in standard. Pretend you’re a dog going over a jump…how many choices are in front of you? If the dog is entering the jump at a slightly different angle, what choices then? To be made at high speed?)

    The dogs are also trained to various performance criteria (the teeter and contact obstacle safety zone vs speed) and familiarity. They have to know how to slice a jump, what various set-up angles mean, how to read pre-cues…and on and on and on!

    AKC judges hear from reps if their courses get too many Qs. I see ~30% qualifiers…can’t find any good stats, though. The courses shown here had a lot of wonderful flow, and their challenges were more subtle at first glance (but definitely there–in the final JWW course, it was about getting where you needed to be to guide the dog). I’ve run courses where only a couple dogs Q in a whole class. I suppose it would be edifying to put up some “didn’t Q” videos sometime! But if you look at the last video, the second dog (Dart) at about the 1:05 mark, I call his name and clap–that was a strong change of angle at speed and I didn’t prepare him for it well enough. He landed straight instead of pre-angled and if he hadn’t responded quickly enough, at that speed, he would have simply caromed around the following jump. Of such details are Qs lost…

    The tricky thing is, different dogs need different handling and cue strengths. (But never while the dog is in the air over a jump, unless you want to bring the bar down.) Timing, timing, timing…

    My style isn’t really dramatic, and the dogs aren’t terribly dramatic (different breeds train and run differently). Belle Cardigan was #2 Lifetime Preferred Corgi at the time of her PACH (like a MACH only one jump height lower) but I was here in NM for a couple of years before most people even realized I ran her. She went into the ring, got the job done, and off we went. To a large extent, it’s only when things go wrong that the view is truly entertaining. 8)

    • That is fascinating, thanks. I would love to see vids where they animals didn’t make it, but only if they are having fun anyway. Yeah, I only picked up a couple of the cues, but then I’ve been going to Judy’s horse camp for several years, and I still don’t really understand the horses, except that I do watch their ears. I can read my own dogs fine, but I suppose they are reflecting back to me our mutual habits grown over the years. Watching things like these agility courses amazes me–oh, and watching the Pets Rule show at Sea World, where my daughter works, is a kick, because you don’t see the humans cueing at all. (But she says the handlers are right behind the little doors, calling or holding out treats. She goes over and watches them training, on breaks.)

      Edited to add: making the vid into a big window shows a LOT more of hand and head movement on the human’s part.