How’s that for a ringing endorsement? 😀
It should be seen as one, though! After our first experience, I swore off the sport for good. Ladybug and I did not have a gentle or pleasant introduction to the wild world of flyball. In fact, the experience was so negative that I wasn’t sure I wanted to even watch in the future.
I was roundly criticized for that post, and I received hate mail calling me ignorant. Some condescendingly told me that yes, it WAS important to give small treats. For reference, the typical treat I give Ladybug for training is 1/3 to 1/2 the size of my pinky nail. Hardly big. And anyway, what I feed my dog is between her vet and me. Sheesh! Others speculated that I must be a quitter at everything in life, and that I clearly had no idea about dogs in general. They suggested issues with my parentage, my upbringing, my general mental health status, and basic intelligence.
I was also condemned for putting people off flyball and chastised because people might read my post and become turned off.
Hm…maybe flyball clubs that treat people inappropriately put people off, and not the people who write blog posts about their experiences?
Here’s where our story takes a plot twist.
A friend heard about our experience and asked to connect me with her friend who has collies and does flyball. (Hi, Deborah!) I didn’t think there was any possibility of considering flyball ever again, but what did I have to lose? I said a grateful thank you and received the introduction…and made a new friend! (Hi, Margy!) Then I was connected with the flyball representative for my geographical area, and she put me in touch with the captains of three flyball clubs close(ish) to me. (Hi, Sam!) One had practice tonight, so Ladybug and I made the trip.
Let me tell you…it was the world’s worst day to visit a flyball club. I’m still shaken from a near-accident yesterday, and a visit to the vet has put the Dreaded Spaying Specter closer than I want to acknowledge. The vet and I discussed various options to manage/minimize Ladybug’s risk of reaction to the anesthetic. She will be on an IV for the procedure, of course, with a full bloodwork panel afterward. She may need to stay in the hospital overnight for close observation and IV treatment.
This shouldn’t be a life-threatening procedure. But, in the worst case scenario where everything goes wrong, it could be.
The thing is, my dad’s final procedure wasn’t supposed to be life-threatening, either. He could have opted against the transplant and taken the chance that his cancer wouldn’t come back for a fifth time. If it did, he had no treatment options. So he chose a transplant in the hopes it would eradicate the cancer once and for all.
Instead, it killed him.
No matter how much progress Ladybug has made (and she’s come immensely far!), she is still at risk. It’s a miracle she’s still alive. The anesthesia should come out of her system without irreparably damaging her kidneys, but there are no guarantees. I can choose not to have her spayed, but she can’t afford to be off her food for a month twice a year. Plus, pregnancy would probably hurt her health more than she could tolerate.
It was in this frame of mind (and, of course, with the fresh memory of our first horrendous experience) that I brought Ladybug to our first recommended club visit. I was exhausted, in pain, anxious, and stressed because I wondered what kind of welcome we would receive. The practice would be outdoors, which was a plus, but it would still be a whole lot of strange people and dogs in an unfamiliar place. Honestly, I wondered why I even bothered. She has agility, scentwork, and maybe puppy yoga. Why was I pushing flyball when we’d probably be told again she’d never manage it?
Boy, was I wrong.
Was she a superstar who flew through the exercises and proved her readiness to compete?
Yeah, right. 😛
But…did anyone grab her, shake her, get in her face, call her aggressive, or say she’d never be able to do flyball?
In fact, the team went very far out of its way to make sure she ended the practice on a high note. She got to run after a tennis ball (puppy ecstasy!) within the safety of a netted area. Even when she managed to jump over a lowered corner and I panicked (fell head-first in my terror she’d run out into the road), multiple people reassured me that it was okay (even though there were dogs training right next to us, and she was rushing to join them). “Don’t panic!” said a cheery team member. “If she runs out, act like it’s no big deal and tell her to come back.” “Mine does laps around the field,” said another.
New British-ism: ZOOMIES. It’s the best word ever to describe, well, border collies. 😛 I think it means when your naughty dog gets the irresistible urge to run, run, run no matter what you say or do. I also think it means that adorably satisfying moment in the park when your dog meets another dog, they like each other, and they run in sheer exhilaration.
In other words, Ladybug. 😀
Ladybug and I were joined by two other newbies, which was lovely (strength in numbers 😛 ). One was practically perfect on box turns (a slanted box that holds a ball for the dog to fetch) (Hi, Kubo!), and I got quite nervous and worried. Ladybug had already barked at one of the team members (who remained calm, but I still worried as a few barks had gotten her expelled from the other flyball club), and there were a fair number of people standing around the chute (a beginner’s version of the box that doesn’t hold a ball). Kubo was perfect on his turns, and the level of corrections for his mum was intimidating. Give the command sooner, step with your leg this way, arm this way, etc.
I was struggling just to visualize Ladybug remaining calm on her leash in the midst of that many people, let alone following me in a complicated dance! I knew she couldn’t do it. I don’t mean pessimistically I didn’t believe in her, but it was too much too soon. I wanted to practice having her run toward me in the netting enclosure because I knew she could do that.
When I was told to get my dog ready, I was extremely worried. Ladybug came with me much better the second time, and she had a polite sniff of a dog or two. I had her favorite toy in the world (because she’s only allowed it rarely) as an enticement, and she was beside herself at getting to play with it.
The problem was that we’ve practiced the 2 on 2 off for agility (back feet on the A frame with front feet on the ground), and it’s hard for her. I may be training her wrong, but she’s not getting it. This was even harder. I was supposed to plant my foot in the middle of the ground in front of the chute (slanted box) and guide Ladybug to go up onto the box, around and over my knee (all four feet on the chute), and then come back down onto the ground. There was a certain number of steps to take, in the right order, with the correct leg in the right position.
I was also worried because Ladybug hasn’t completely outgrown her baby upset at getting things wrong. She does well most of the time, but that’s with me reassuring her. I was so worried about my part of the procedure that I couldn’t give her reassurance. So, that made me worried she’d get upset if she failed. The very worst is when she goes still, hunches over, and gets quiet.
It was too much for her and I knew it, but I didn’t know what to do. I was also scared to death she’d bark and someone would shout at her, insult her (and me), or, even worse, grab and shake her.
(The person who grabbed and shook my dog has a lot to answer for. Not just for the wrong action in the heat of the moment, but for allowing her proxy to publicly chastise me for having an “aggressive” dog and imply that Ladybug would eventually be killed for her aggression. And to end the “friendship” rather than admit she should not have attacked my dog, or at the very least agree never to touch my dog in the future.)
And, of course, this was only my second experience with flyball. The very first flyball person we met took one look at her, terrified her, and sneered at both her and me. We’ve been judged enough, thank you. It was a huge deal to show up at another flyball club, and honestly I would have considered it a victory just to do that. Just to make myself go, just to get her onto the field, and to experience the environment was about all I had hoped for. I did hope we’d get to run a bit to practice recall in the netting, but I wanted extremely tiny baby steps. We’d trusted the first flyball club lock, stock, and barrel…and look where it had gotten us.
Ladybug barked at the man trying to help us, and I panicked. He said it was okay, to let her go at her own pace, and to allow her to bark and approach him. The more she barked, the more scared I got. Not at/of her, but at what the others might do. Before, Ladybug barking at someone was given as justification for terrifying her and telling me that she might be killed for being aggressive. The last flyball person told us her barking meant she was aggressive and could never do flyball. And that I had done a terrible job of training her (not in so many words, but the implication was clear).
Then someone else came up and tried to give suggestions, and Ladybug started barking and lunging again. At this point, I was in tears. I just wanted everyone to leave us alone and wished we’d never given this miserable flyball a second try. She’s doing well in scentwork and agility, so why force this onto her?
That’s when things changed. Once I was able to be clear that I didn’t want her doing something so complicated, the pressure was dropped. And I was told in no uncertain terms, several times:
NO ONE will touch your dog.
She’s YOUR dog. I don’t touch her. No one will touch her. No one will get in her face. I talk to you, not your dog.
It took a few repetitions, but after it was pointed out to me that no one had tried to touch her or get in her face, and no one would…I started to calm down. “She’s not aggressive. She’s not upset. She’s just being a collie, and this is what collies do. She’s confused because she doesn’t know what you want.”
See, I trust my dog.
Other people, not so much.
Once I understood that no one would lay hands on my dog, no matter what, I could begin to trust.
And Ladybug, trusting me, relaxed.
We worked on baby things, like getting her to pick up her toy and hold/tug it. Praising her. Getting her excited for her toy. Getting her to focus on me.
Things that she has done since babyhood–but not on a field full of strange people and strange dogs, in a strange place with strange expectations. Playing with her favorite toy made her happy, and I was happy because she was safe. Or as safe as she could be.
Then we had the best part of the night, playing in the netted enclosure. This was very early practice for running up and down the relay lane, but without obstacles or a ball box. She got quite anxious at first because she wasn’t sure if I’d abandon her, but a few tosses of the tennis ball reassured her. We were there to PLAY BALL, and mummy wasn’t going anywhere! Yippee! We had a few games of chase/fetch/catch, and she got bold enough to run away from me to a team member at the other end.
She got so confident that she leaped over the netting and darted toward some other dogs.
She wasn’t one bit sorry, either! LOL!
I’d been so edgy all day that I raced after her (well, after falling onto the ground first) and held her in my arms as I shook all over. Even though she’s never snarled or bared her teeth at another dog, let alone tried to bite or fight, so many people have accused her of aggression that it’s become one of my worst fears. What if she does bite another dog and has to be killed? I’d die. I’m not being melodramatic. She’s all I’ve got, and she’s the only reason I have to live right now. What if this escape was the one time she bit a dog, and all the threats people have said came true?
The people who’ve told me for the past year what crap I am at raising my dog have a lot to answer for.
What actually happened?
Everyone told me not to worry, they helped me get her back into the netted area, and a couple of people helped in case she jumped out again. We had a few more runs with the tennis ball, and she jumped and barked for joy on our way out.
In a two-hour practice with quite a few dogs, we received an amazing amount of help, instruction, and attention. I suspect this isn’t the norm (if it is, wow!), but it was a lovely introduction. The other flyballers (hm, are flyballers the people or the dogs? Both?) were kind, compassionate, and patient.
Most of all, the promises I was given came true.
No one touched my dog unless she and/or I gave permission. No one shouted at her, insulted her, kicked her out, or judged her. She was a very young collie doing what very young collies do, and we could take all the time we needed until she was ready.
“My dog took three years!” said one team member, when I asked how long we’d have to get used to everything.
“You never have to compete if you don’t want to,” assured another. “If your dog gets so good at it that you want to have a try, great. If not, that’s okay, too.”
“The first competition is with netting, in separate lanes, with starters,” said someone else. I’m not exactly sure what that means, but it sounds like there’s a flyball equivalent of training wheels for the first competitions. 😀
A club that is willing to invest time and resources in an anxious, scared dog (and puppy mama) who may never help them win at a competition…
A club that never says, “We could use a collie” as if her worth is based on stereotyped assumptions of her ability…
A club that patiently lets her bark and immediately changes its training tactics when it’s too much for both of us (without reproof or criticism)…
Well, that’s a club that I want to join.
We are going to visit a couple of other clubs that Sam recommended, as the biggest drawback about this one is distance. I’m quite excited to see more than one club and learn how different clubs operate. I’m guessing that with any other type of organization, each group is a bit different with a different culture. This one seems like a great fit, but we have a few more to try.
If we’re extraordinarily lucky, we’ll have the difficult choice of which one fits best.
But if neither of the other clubs work out, we’re still okay. I could see us going to this club weekly and loving it. If I go next week and say, “I want to let her sniff the chute and put her paws on it despite the distractions of people around her…without any of the complicated stepping stuff yet,” I suspect that we will be allowed to do just that. I think I’d like to try some free shaping with her on the chute as she does get more confident when I allow her to make a lot of mistakes without correction, and then I reward her the second she does something right (I didn’t see anyone use a clicker…I wonder why?). She’s much quicker to keep trying when we do that method, rather than me trying to get her to do something really specific.
If I had more experience and I knew exactly what my body needed to do to guide her exactly the right way, I think the method we were shown last night would have worked. It worked for Kubo. (Teacher’s pet. 😛 ) But given how hard we have to work on focus and calming down despite distractions, I think being able to reward her for anything and everything even close to box turns will help. She loves being praised, almost even more than treats and toys. If we can set up the box turn in absolutely teeny-tiny micro steps and make sure she succeeds immediately (no matter how small), she will love it. She loves getting anything right, and she loves learning something new. (She is soooo my dog, lol!)
She loves “touch,” our command for putting her front paws on something. I’m sure we could get her to do “touch” with the chute, and then maybe slowly shape her to touch on the left side (I think she’s a right-handed turner, as she always turns to the right when she sleeps. She turns much better to the right when she spins for agility, too). I’m not sure how you get from that to climbing up on the chute, but I’m sure the team will have lots of good ideas.
Once I can communicate just how slowly I want to go (super slowly!), I think it’s going to be great. Scentwork was set up with micro-steps, and she ended the class begging for more. She nailed everything almost right away, got confident, and loved every minute. Even if agility is a bit harder, she loves it. Watching her go from being scared at the tunnel to shooting through it (in just a few tries!) was amazing.
A lot about flyball will be out of my control, such as whether we will have transportation. But if all the stars align and we are able to continue, I’ve got a good feeling about this.
We no longer hate flyball.
And I’m quite excited to see where this leads.
Thank you, sweet and kind angels, who gave us this moment. Thank you for showing me that there are strangers who will look at a scared, nervous puppy and her mama, and help rather than judge. Be kind rather than criticize. Teach and encourage, rather than sneer and dismiss.
Because at the end of the day, this is for my dog. I will do anything to see the look on her face while running after the tennis ball last night.
Surrounded by people she didn’t know, dogs she hadn’t gotten to sniff/play with, and unfamiliar sights, sounds, and smells.
I LOVE THIS!
Whatever it takes, that look is worth it.
I want Ladybug to be a happy, fulfilled little dog. More than anything in the world, that’s what I want.
And it looks like we’re going to make some new friends along the way.