Sweet Dreams, Sweet Ginger Snap, Part 2
By Katherine Dattoma
We were ready ! Early that agility trial morning, with the car packed full of family and dogs, we headed into sunrise and a day full of promise. After years of strategizing master level gambler and snooker courses with Oreo, I should have no problem navigating a Novice level course. Why then, did my nerves tingle and my stomach clench as I set Ginger up before the first obstacle? Much to my surprise and elation, Ginger qualified in her first few classes – and then disaster struck. A fast moving non rubberized teeter had her sliding to the bottom of the contact, where she froze before getting struck in the bum with the rebound. Ginger never fogot a fear or an injury! Agility trials were immediately transformed into terrifying events, and teeters could no longer be negotiated past the tipping point. In subsequent trials, Ginger exhibited a host of reactions. She barked at the judges and bar setters, leaped off the table when a bar setter got up to fluff the chute, fled from the sun glinting through a panel jump slats, fell off the contact equipment if the judge crowded her, lost concentration in the weaves when a bird flew overhead, refused any obstacle that looked scarily “different”, stopped to eat dirt, lost a face off with a horse and her fright levels rose off the meter when a well shaded canopy chair “turned” into a human. Flapping flags, a truck in the ring being loaded with agility equipment, glimpses of movement in the distance through open doors were all potential Ginger eating monsters. My big red girl was still afraid of the world.
There is an agility subset of stressed dog/handler teams, struggling to complete each course they run, trial after trial, with little improvement. Either I would become a permanent member of this group, or have to quit, unless I found a way to change Ginger’s attitude about agility trials. Clearly, I needed to come up with a new tactic that went beyond dogged persistence, or else I would have to give up all thoughts of making Ginger into that partner I needed to continue competing in agility. Much as he loved agility, Oreo’s career was winding down and I knew his time in the ring was going to come to an end. Making the decision to continue agility with Ginger, I shifted my goals from earning titles and ribbons to simply getting Ginger to enjoy competition.
My strategy to eliminate all stress for myself, and limit it for Ginger was simple. Avoid qualifying! While others were carefully planning their courses during walk thrus’s, I was planning just as carefully with a different purpose. My routes became simple U shapes, avoiding the judge, bar setters and the dreaded teeter . My goal was to complete a small number of favorite, easy obstacles successfully, without giving Ginger time or the opportunity to lose focus. I was relaxed, and for Ginger, the short time in the ring was amply compensated for by the huge jackpot of treats that awaited her. When possible, I introduced Ginger to the judge, walked her around the ring so she would know where to expect the bar setters to be sitting, asked the photographer to step back for her runs, and developed pre run routines that allowed Ginger to filter out distractions by getting up close “in my face”.
She occasionally began to show eagerness to enter the ring, even barking a bit with excitement. It was time to add a few more obstacles, until we were completing entire jumper courses- and qualifying! However, a full standard course continued to elude us due to the inclusion of the teeter. Ginger’s initial teeter training had been a slow and methodical process, beginning with rewarding her for being in the vicinity of the banging sound while other dogs performed on the equipment. A very gradual increase in height and movement had kept Ginger comfortable and confident on the teeter until that first fateful trial. How could I get Ginger back on the teeter when it had proven, after all that early work, to be an object of fear? It moved, it made noise, was unpredictable and every teeter felt just a little different. I knew that a retraining effort would only succeed if I could change how she felt about the obstacle. Somehow, I would have to make it an object of desire- something Ginger wanted far more than she feared.
My thoughts turned back to the tumbling tower of tin cans, that clanking representation of psychological persuasion, and Ginger’s strong desire to join in the fun. Oreo would again be my ally. He loved running over the teeter numerous times, and all the extra treats and frisbee play included. Ginger was initially only allowed to watch. Eventually she was offered one try, and if she chose to bail, training stopped for her while Oreo had another turn. Like a kid, she didn’t want to be left out. At some point, Ginger began to bark and beg to get on the teeter- denial increased the desire! We traveled, learning to enjoy teeters of various surfaces, materials, weights and in different settings.
I was afraid. I still feared a refusal in the trial setting. How would it be possible to retrain after retraining? Ginger finally took the matter into her own paws. The now desirable teeter lured her into an “off course” as I tried once again to run her past it. I had been half a year since our first misfortunate trial, and Ginger earned her first qualifying score in a standard class. Ginger repaid my patience by becoming a very reliable agility partner, qualifying at a prodigious rate. She was still cautious in public, but her consistency was amazing. She never missed a contact or took down a bar, and all off courses were a result of my addled middle aged brain misfiring. Refusals resulting from her trademark startled reaction that we called “skitzing” were becoming rare. Finally, I could shift my own focus towards training myself to become a better handler.
The seasons changed, Ginger’s agility career blossomed, and I faced the painful necessity of retiring Oreo at the youthful age of almost 9. Setting a goal for Ginger no longer seemed impossible and I dared to reach for a big one. Oreo had earned his full share of agility honors, but for many reasons, the AKC Master Agility Championship had eluded us. I had enviously fingered the huge, beautiful MACH ribbons supplied by the Nutmeg Border Collie club at their inaugural trial, and dreamed a dream of possibilities for Ginger. In December, two weeks past Ginger’s fourth birthday, we headed to the last trial we had scheduled trial for the year, prior to an agility time off necessitated by my upcoming knee surgery. In her last run, of the last day of the trial, Ginger soared over the final jump as a champion. We brought home that beautiful big ribbon!
Reflecting back on my travels and travails with Ginger, from a terrified pup to becoming MACH Sweet Ginger Snap, I realize that a relatively small portion of training time was actually devoted to agility. The majority of my focus was on convincing Ginger that the world is a safe, fun place. The bonus was that in some mystical way, I believe that Ginger came to me so that not only could I save a discarded pup’s life, but that she could teach my family and myself lessons about how to find misplaced joy. The many heartaches and tough times my family has experienced these few years past, cannot retain the same power if we avail ourselves of our dog’s special gifts of reveling in the moment. When I picture my Ginger flying like a bird off my brother’s Virginia lake house dock, caught in a snapshot moment of pure pleasure, I know that she has opened a window giving me a little peek into heaven here on earth. Ginger has so much more to teach me, certainly a great deal about patience, but primarily that goals have little value if we can’t make the process of achieving them joyful. Humbled by the love and trust that enabled Ginger to overcome whatever trauma that had trapped her in a debilitating emotional condition, I have been made just a little more human by a mere dog. Striding into the new year on the strength of Ginger’s long legs, I allowed the delight of our agility journey to make my newest dreams sweet.