My adopted sheltie Mika, who has been a member of my family since 2013, competed in the Westminster Kennel Club Masters Agility Championship on February 11th 2017. She ran clean in both standard and jumpers classes. She didn't place, but we were still very happy with our performance as a team. This is the biggest accomplishment yet for me as an agility competitor, but more importantly it is a huge accomplishment for Mika.
When she came to live withe me, she had been in foster for a short time, and before that her history is mostly unknown. She came to me with some behaviors that needed modification. She chased cares, and was very reactive to other dogs. The car chasing was quickly fixed with some counter-conditioning, and now she doesn't react to cars that pass on our busy road, but may bark at a bicycle from time to time. The dog reactivity, however, took some work to modify.
When I first got Mika, I couldn't take her into a pet dog manners class without having to leave the room multiple times as she went over threshold. She would bark, lunge, spin, and vocalize at the end of the leash. Some of you may be experiencing these behaviors with your own dogs, and they are actually rather common. I adopted Mika as an agility prospect, and at the time, I remember thinking I would never be able to take her to an agility class, let alone compete with her. Being in a room with dogs was too much for her. Tolerating a dog running an agility course would have sent her through the roof!
I pressed on over many months. We worked on basic behaviors and were gradually able to be in basic obedience classes without having to leave as often. I spent my free time working on counter-conditioning around other dogs, including dogs in agility classes and dogs at trials. I would sit in the corner of agility class and do the work of counter-conditioning her reactive behaviors. I also came to trials and parked far off in the parking lot so I could work with her behaviors in a trial environment outside the building. Meanwhile I taught her agility foundations on my own.
Our first milestone was when she had enough skill to try running a course in class. This was around April or May of 2014. Some jaws dropped in that room! I was very happy that we could actually run a course with other dogs in the room, even though we were still working hard on ringside behaviors. Our next milestone was her first trial. She ran clean in one of the three runs, but more importantly, no issues in the ring! Once we got comfortable competing at the center where we train, I had to consider our next goal.
In September of 2015 we entered our first off-site trial, away from the center where we train and compete on a regular basis. It was in a pressurized athletic dome, on turf, with two rings. So double the number of runs in a day meant more dogs around. There were also other activities going on in the athletic bubble, and we had never run on turf before. She ran clean and handled the distractions perfectly!
From there, we were able to try another off site location, and work on getting the titles she needed to enter Westminster - the most distracting site of all! I was unsure of how she would handle the large crowd, noise and commotion at Westminster, but she did wonderfully. For those of you out there with reactive dogs, or dealing with other behavior problems, it is possible to improve on these behaviors. It is a long road, and not easy, but through consistent, persistent training and team work building, you can see improvement!