For the love of Agility...
Updated: Sep 3, 2020
Agility came into my life 5 years ago and I have never looked back. It came shortly after a small and fluffy ball of teeth and energy also made an appearance in mine and my wife's life: our Working Cocker Spaniel puppy; Brecon.
It was clear from the first few days that this little girl was going to need some extra training and input - when people ask what the difference is between most breeds and a 'Working Cocker' I think sleep, sanity and shoes would sum it up nicely. I can hear many Working Cocker owners also shouting 'socks' right now, and about that you would also be correct! If you own any type of gundog then you'll get what I mean.
My wife and I started to think about what extra enrichment activities we could do with our new puppy. We started with a Kennel Club puppy training class, which taught us a lot about ourselves as owners. However, long term we wanted a goal to focus on. Gundog training and 'working' her seemed like an obvious route, but living in Bristol and both having never set foot on a shoot put us off. We had friends who did obedience training and others who trained their dogs with scent work... all a bit sedate for us. We wanted something high pace and, most importantly, something we could share. An evening on Google and it was decided that once the pup was old enough we would start agility with her.
Fast forward several months and we were stood in a training arena; sausages in hand and with a rather excitable young Brecon eager to work. Our trainer, Stephen, was also rather excitable, and my wife and I looked at each other with a glance that said, 'we don't want to turn into agility people'! Well, how wrong we were - it was great fun and from Stephen's reaction the dog was rather good at this. I won't repeat his expletives but it was clear that Brecon had some talent and that we had a lot to learn if we were going to harness her ability.
Agility gave us a special bond to our young dog. We 'worked' together. We structured our training sessions around fun activities for both her and us. Most importantly though, we discovered that of all the things we had tried in the first year of her life we had finally found the thing that made her tired!
Over the coming winter I questioned, on numerous occasions, why I was stood in the rain and wind whilst my dog ignored my instructions on agility courses. Despite the weather and the feeling that we were not making enough progress we stuck at it and come the spring we were being encouraged to enter 'fun shows'. These went well and we picked up a few rosettes. Things were on the up.
Inspired by early success we continued to work hard at training and started to take things more seriously - you know you've crossed a line when you're not a runner but you go out and buy running shoes just for agility! As the summer approached we were pushed by our club to enter UKA agility competitions. Success followed and we not only picked up rosettes but at a major event in the August Brecon and I managed to qualify for the end of year UKA Grand Finals.
The UKA Grand Finals are the culmination of hundreds of qualifying events that result in an end of year national competition weekend. I was, needless to say, pretty proud of my little dog. I shared the experience with a few other club members - it had been a good year for our club. My friend Emma also ran in the same final with her dog, Pierre (pictured). Pierre pulled a muscle in the last run of the day and as a result missed out on the podium. Brecon put in a strong performance and came third overall. Amazing!
My lasting memory of that day will be stepping out the arena and receiving a phone call from our original club trainer, Stephen. If I thought he was excitable the first time I met him it had nothing on how he was now acting! As I hung up the phone and started to drive home I thought to myself, 'have I now become one of those agility people?'. The answer was that it had happened a long time before that moment and I was proud of where our girl had taken us in such a short space of time.
Over the coming years Brecon has gone from strength to strength. The times she has faltered have been due to my errors rather than her lack of trying. She always runs as hard as she can and tries her best to understand my flustered communications.
We have since got a second dog - another Working Cocker Spaniel, called Croyde. He is a very different but equally loving and wonderful dog. My wife trains and runs Croyde and I train and run Brecon. She has now developed that same special bond with Croyde. It has been brilliant to watch it develop over the last few years. Her patience with both Croyde and me is one of the things I admire most about her.
I am hideously competitive and it is easy to get distracted and focus on what the next goal is or to dwell on your failures - but when a course has been run and the last jump completed there is always my little Brecon dog staring up at me, looking delighted with herself and bursting with excitement.
And that's what it is all about. The relationship with the dog. That special bond and understanding. It makes daily walks more pleasurable and enjoyable because we understand each other. During the Coronavirus enforced break from agility I realised that it wasn't the agility competitions that I loved but the relationship that I have with my dog as a result of the hundreds of hours of cold, wet, and often miserable training sessions.
Why do I love agility? It's because of my dog.