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    Staying Agile

    Dog agility is an activity which I would have never guessed that I would enjoy. I mean, it’s a rather specific thing to do with your dog, takes a lot of space, a lot of time, and isn’t really all that applicable to everyday life – either for the human or for the dog. It’s not something I would have sought out had a local dog “life center” not opened up and offered the course just at the time we were competing the work to certify our dog as a therapy dog with Therapy Dog International.

    Since the timing was right, we decided to give it a shot. If we didn’t love it, we could simply stop going and that would be that. We would find another activity to entertain ourselves. But, after a few weeks, I started really enjoying it. In fact, not only did I enjoy it, it was clear that our dog did as well. That was almost 1.5 years ago now and we’ve been doing some form of agility practice most weeks since.

    The thing is, it’s not an inexpensive hobby, so what’s the draw? Why is it worth the time and effort to go do agility each week? Why did I go to agility the same day my newborn son came home from the hospital? I’ve reflected on this, often between runs at the agility center, over the last few months. I think I finally have a few answers.

    Mental escape. When my dog and I are out on the course, there is nothing else on my mind. There can’t be. He is counting on me to guide him and I am focused on him to make sure I’m seeing what he’s doing, how he’s moving, and where he’s going so I can give him the right cues at the right time in the right location. Only by fully being present in that moment can I help him be successful in running the course. In fact, I find that our best runs are when I can stand in the middle of the course with my eyes closed and replay the course in my head. At that moment, it’s the only thing I’m thinking about.

    Problem solving. While it is an escape from other life complexities cluttering my brain, running a good course takes a lot of mental focus. Once my dog had the basics down for the various obstacles, the session is much more about where am I going to be. How do I want to position myself between obstacles? When should I be signaling to my dog? How do I transition smoothly between point A and point B so that we don’t lose any speed? What body language am I going to use to signal the turn direction or a speed change? All of these things and more are a fun opportunity to do a little problem solving. It’s all very low risk and it’s a bit of a time trial against yourself.

    Mentally stimulating. An unexpected result of doing agility is that I get to see just how smart and engaged my dog is. He is very literal – often if I mess up a physical cue but say the correct verbal cue, he takes action on the verbal cue. It is so clear that he’s not simply running around the course to where I’m pointing, but that he is very engaged with me just as I am with him. If I throw a late verbal cue, I can see him adjust his stride, make a tight cut, or quickly collect himself before or after a jump. Sometimes it’s frustrating because he’ll try so hard to make the cut that I get worried about if he’ll land the jump safely or have a proper approach to an A-frame or dog-walk obstacle. Still, seeing how focused he is (and happy while doing so!) reminds me of just how much fun it is for both of us.

    Physically exciting. To be fair, even in longer courses I only have to do a fraction of the running that my dog does. Sure, I do have to do a little jogging, but as we continue to form a bond, and I can cue at greater distances, the amount I run is less and less. My dog, however, enjoys running around at top speed. A straight course that resembles a loop is one of his favorite types because it’s a pure speed game. I think that it is the combination of mental engagement and physical exertion that gives him so much pleasure. Therapy dog training provided a great avenue for mental exercise but isn’t physically demanding. Similarly, play-care or a Flyball course take a lot physically but (I’d argue) is not very mentally engaging. Agility provides the perfect pairing of the two.

    The final thing I’ll say about agility is that I often get asked if we’ll compete. It’s a good question because we’re certainly good enough that we’d do alright, particularly in any sort of amateur trials. The thing is, as I think about all the things above, I’m not sure what we’d gain from it. There is no part of me that wants to train to be some sort of national or regional champion. While a victory could be cool, I don’t see the need to introduce the pressure of competition to something that is currently a source of pure fun and entertainment. It is not the competitive part of this that we’re interested in, rather it is the bond we’re forming as we problem solve the course together.

    So for now we’re going to keep going to our weekly class, running around in a large (although probably too small) arena, where we can have fun just doing our thing. And I’m not sure there’s anything better than that for us.

    This has been a Thought from the Cake Scraps.

    2 responses to “Staying Agile”

    1. Al Schuette says:

      Seems to me like a lot of good observations. Don’t overlook the objective of having fun as it’s sort of the point of life, I think. And I know you aren’t falling into the trap that fun has to be about beating others.

    2. Douglas says:

      Very cool post, Dave! I have shared the video you posted a while back of a successful run with many people and everybody is amazed! Sounds like a really nice physical and mental outlet for both of you to have an activity for which you can both be totally present for. Also, I learned about Flyball from your link — sounds fun to watch! 🙂

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