Our very first dog agility class!

From the beginning, Ladybug loved to jump.

She jumped onto the sofa, the footstool, the chairs, the bed, and the patio table. Her name in those early months might as well have been, “No! Get down! Off! Hey!” (Along with “Stop shredding the Kleenex!” and “Leave the garbage alone!”)

Even though the vet and research said that border collies shouldn’t jump until they are at least twelve months old, she wasn’t listening. Every day, I had to fight to keep her four paws on the ground.

So, I’ve dreamed of bringing Ladybug to agility class. We worked hard at puppy class, and the bitter battle to earn our bronze obedience award resulted in an amazing victory. Most of all, it helped reassure me that I can teach my puppy. Seeing Ladybug’s excitement as she learns new things makes everything worthwhile.

For her. Not me. I’d rather cuddle and stroke her, but she’d rather dash around a field. She loves the muck and filth. I despair at ever getting my clothes clean again. (Moving to England has given me a new appreciation for stain-removal detergents!)

As Ladybug got closer to her first birthday, I asked around for advice on agility. Of course, the option I liked best was the farthest away. Since the class didn’t start for a month, Ladybug and I got to meet the teacher (and her handsome dog, a fellow border collie) for a few private lessons.

Jazmine was wonderful. (Full disclosure: I am not connected with her, I don’t receive compensation for writing this post, and I was not asked to write it. At least, not by Jazmine. Some fellow puppy mama friends did ask for a glimpse into a first agility class, though.) Ladybug and I have been through our fair share of dog classes, and they’ve ranged from terrific to miserable. I’ve learned that a bad class is far worse than no class at all, and a good class sets us up for great training sessions at home. Jazmine never pressured us, never made me feel like an incompetent idiot (as so many teachers and “friends” have) when it came to my dog.

“You know your dog best,” she told me, “so you have to be her advocate.”

And, which surprised me, “I never would have guessed this is your first dog. You’re great at reading her.”


First time puppy mama, mess-of-nerves-and-worry me?

That little nudge, the tidbits of advice, and well-timed encouragement made me approach Ladybug’s training with much more enjoyment, enthusiasm, and confidence.

Because, for me, agility has nothing to do with competition, awards, or going to Crufts someday. If Ladybug showed no interest, I’d be just as happy to take her for sedate daily walks. I want Ladybug to do agility for the same reason women fought for the right to work, to vote, to take out credit cards in our own names, and to own property.

As much as Ladybug loves me (even more when I’ve got fresh salmon skin!), she needs a job. She needs to feel accomplished, have a purpose, and light up all over at learning something new–and learning it well.

The first time I took Ladybug to Jazmine, we worked on a tiny thing. Holding out my hand and having Ladybug touch it with her nose, so she would start focusing on me instead of other dogs and people. She trotted alongside of me for the next few days, bobbing with excitement and pleasure.

I did a good job!

Look at me!

I’m doing exactly what I’m supposed to do!

I hadn’t seen her that happy since before she went into the hospital, and it was worth anything–anything–to see that joy again. We’d lived for so long under the terrible shadow of fear. Would she live to see the next day? Would she die in the night? Would I take her home from the hospital, only to have her die the next day?

Instead of fear, she had joy. And so did I.

She reminded me of me when I finish writing a particularly intense, difficult, and emotional scene. Or when I’ve mastered a new skill. I want her to feel that pride and joy because it makes her happy.

And, at the end of the day, agility classes cost a whole lot less than emergency visits to the vet. She’s teetering between health and illness, and that smart collie brain needs a constructive outlet.

Mens sana in corpore sano.

To help her rebuild a healthy body, we both need healthy minds. No more fear. No more waking up at two o’clock in the morning, terrified she has died in the night. No more outbursts of sobs because she hasn’t eaten in a day and I’m certain she’ll die. We need to focus on life, not death.

So I signed up for class, and I had no idea what to expect.

Walking into our first agility class was like regressing to our first puppy classes.

“Come back, Ladybug!”

“Stop pulling at the leash! Don’t bark at the other dogs!”

“You’re driving me crazy, puppy!”

Months ago, I tore out my hair at one puppy class after another, wondering if I’d ever get this smart but stubborn puppy to listen to me. Now, however, we have a bronze obedience award under our belts. We’ve been through this once, and we can do it again.

Only, this time, Ladybug already knew the excitement of new achievements. We were shown three exercises: circle right and left around a pole, sit and wait followed by running toward me over two poles, and balancing her two back feet on the A-frame (looks like the top two sides of a triangle) with her front two feet on the ground.

Jazmine had shown us the circling exercises before, so Ladybug knew what to do. Little Miss Busybody was too interested in the other dogs, though. I had to drag her halfway across the field, bribe her with a fistful of chicken to show me baby things like sit and come, and take out her rope tug toy to get her attention. By the time we were finished, Ladybug was nearly always going around the post on command–and without following food! (She got treats afterward, of course.)

The next exercise was Ladybug’s favorite. By far. 😀 It took me quite a while to figure out how to do it, and Jazmine had to show me. She took a bit of chicken in a closed fist, guided Ladybug to climb onto the side of the A-frame (that was the part that confused me, as I was worried about Ladybug falling off), and had me “click” once the paws were positioned correctly.

Ladybug caught on quickly. After a few intense minutes of practice, I offered her the rope tug toy for a mini break. (I don’t like her working too long at a time, as she is still a baby. She was starting to pant, and she’s only been off medications for a day or two.)

She looked at the toy and at me as if to say, “You are JOKING. You’re finally letting me climb onto something, and you think I want that ratty old thing?” (Please note: this is her favorite rope toy in the entire world, she only gets to play with it on special occasions, and she goes into paroxysms of joy when I take it out at home.) She couldn’t quite get the hang of leaving her back feet on the A-frame longer than a second, but she didn’t care. She would have done it all day if I’d let her.

Then, of course, another dog got close and Ladybug wanted to run over, play chase, and, well, act like an eleven-month-old border collie puppy. 😀 I had to drag her from one spot to another until we were far enough away for her to focus on me instead of the other dogs. (A hard thing for me to do, as it was amazing to watch dogs running the agility equipment right in front of me. I’d only seen it on television before.)

Our last exercise was surprisingly difficult, at least at first. Ladybug has been almost perfect at her sit/stay/come since her very first puppy class, so I assumed she’d do just as well today. Turns out the new variables (exciting horse farm, other dogs getting to run and jump the way she’d always dreamed of doing, and poles on the ground) threw her off. And, because I gave her leash to Jazmine, Ladybug got worried at being abandoned. (I was about five paces away. Drama queen! 😛 ) She ran to me, jumped all over, covered me in kisses, and splattered mud and spit onto my glasses. (Gee thanks, puppy.) I had to calm her down with more baby commands, like sit and look at me–and rewarding her for each one.

Then we practiced on our own, and she got the hang of it quickly. For some reason, she felt more secure with me putting the leash on the ground than giving it to Jazmine. (Maybe because she knew she could get away if she wanted to, and she wouldn’t be held against her will? Hmm.) She was desperate for me to give the command, but she held her sit-and-wait. And, of course, she flew at me the second I released her.

In fact, she looked a bit like the dogs at Crufts waiting to begin their agility run. 😀 The same eager, excited, and determined expression. My dog! My happy little dog! (My bratty little dog pulling at the leash to play with the other dogs. 😛 )

(Ladybug is going to make me do agility every day for the rest of her life, whether I want to or not. I’m doomed! Why couldn’t I get a couch potato pup? 😛 )

We came home exhausted but excited at beginning a new journey. My mud-soaked clothes went straight into the washing machine, and Ladybug left streaks of dirt everywhere.

I don’t care.

My puppy is happy, and so am I.

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