17/07/20

As promised, this week’s Three Dog Blog is going to be a look back at my agility career and how I feel the sport has developed and changed, with the effect that this has had on me as a handler. With this in mind and considering the footage I have available, today's stand-in third dog will be Bess.
Bess (Darleyfalls Pick Me) was one of the original Darleyfalls litter, with her and her siblings really setting the tone for that particular line. She was first and foremost my dad’s dog, but I was lucky enough to be able to run her through my time in juniors, mostly in the Over 12 category. Bess was always one of those dogs that people stopped to watch, you could clearly see how much she loved her work, her speed and her drive meant that when she was on top form, she could be hard to beat. Running her was always a pleasure, though she worked me hard when she wanted to, and our successes were always great. Bess was the dog that brought me closest to winning the Crufts Agility Dog of the Year Final, though we never quite claimed the title.

I have great admiration for the current group of junior handlers, who take the sport so seriously and really dedicate themselves to handling the dogs to the best of their ability, reflected in the fact that the junior team GB squad is now in place and working on developing their careers. When I was a junior, which granted wasn’t all that long ago, mostly we were running our parents’ dogs for a bit of fun, thinking that we were all super cool and more invested in winning than the actual process of training hard and earning each prize. I look back at some of the clips of me running Bess and for one, my handling is appalling, and my lack of regard for Dad’s advice is evident in his back seat handling, from behind the camera.
In terms of handling, a large part of this stems from the fact that agility wasn’t nearly as refined as it is now. When I was heading towards eighteen, the end of my junior career, we were only just starting to properly use ketchkers in courses, when now this is something we teach at a foundation level. The courses themselves look completely different, just the overall spacing and the level of difficulty, makes even a couple of years ago look incredibly dated by the 2020 standard. Still, I was very much a happy go lucky kind of handler, in it to win it but not much else.

I look back at my time running Bess and in retrospect, this was the beginning of my taking agility more seriously, starting off with begging Mum for a collie of my own when I was fifteen. Before this, while I had had some success with Breeze, Gabby, and Trouble (when he was in the mood) most of the training had been done for me, and I struggled with the concept of losing. With Bess, I started to work harder away from competition, wanting to prove to myself and others that she didn’t only win because my Dad had put all the effort in, but because I could handle her well, and outperform the competition, so that when we won junior titles at OJAC, I knew that it was at least partially down to my own merit.

Moving into the Lexia stage of agility, I still cannot claim full credit. I was doing my GCSEs and A-Levels when she was young, so a fair amount of her foundations were instilled by Mum, but I still was doing more than I’d done before, creating a really strong working bond. Even then, it took us a long time to make any real progress. Her aversion to contacts meant that I avoided agility classes like the plague, focusing more on her jumping, where she started to improve, getting her first win at Dogs In Need. Still my handling looks atrocious, nothing like how I run today. Knowing that I couldn’t avoid agility rounds forever, I was pushed to try harder to get her up the grades. Knowing that I had a dog, very much like Bess, with natural talent and a genuine love for the work made training all the easier so that, while it took maybe a year or more to get out of Grade 3, at her first Grade 4 show she won every class and went straight into Grade 5.

By the time I was heading to university, I had begun to teach more and I think this was the driving point behind what reignited my passion for the sport and my personal motivation to work harder. Lexi was winning more, the technique was getting better and agility was moving forwards towards the current climate we see today. I knew I could truly go far with the dog when she won her Grade 5 agility at the Kennel Club International Festival. In a show of that prestige, where classes can have up to 200 dogs, to beat them all, there was no reason that we should be held back any more. After another season, having got to Grade 7, it became a matter of ensuring that that wasn’t the end of her career, and really push to see if she could compete against the top brass. While she obviously doesn’t win all of the time, there are achievements that I’m more proud of, such as her placing 7th in one of the International Tour Heats and her performance at Crufts.

When we finally get to Meg in 2020, the field of agility is completely changed and she has the benefit not only of this refinement, but years of prior experience and understanding how to get the best out of Border Collies. She has not yet broached the world of real KC competition due to current circumstances, but a few practice attempts at course running reveal that she will be better prepared then any of the previous dogs I have run. Getting to train her in new styles and applying the same trends to my training with Lexi is proving how far we have come, with such improvement visible in both of the girls. With Meg, I am continuing to push for speed and accuracy, the poles now back at Intermediate, so she can get used to picking her feet up and keeping them up. I really look forward to the day when I can debut her in the ring, there’s no telling if a dog will be an instant success, because obviously the environment is so different, but I have high hopes that she has a very bright future ahead of her.

Do go and watch the video for this one, I think my students will be particularly shocked to see what my handling was like five years ago and really appreciate how far we have all come.

Next week, we will be back to our regularly scheduled programming, looking again at the training within agility and at home.
Thanks for reading and see you soon!
Sophie