Rescue collies with a job:

Babe's career as a competition agility dog

By Cathy Toft


Reprinted from the Collie Connection, Spring 2003


When I last wrote about Babe (Collie Connection Fall 2000), she was just starting her agility class.  That feat alone seemed like a small miracle; given how shut down Babe was when she first came into rescue and even months later when she arrived at my house, I was pessimistic that Babe could ever function in public as a normal dog.  I’m delighted—no amazed—to report that Babe finished her first season of competition in agility, starting in Novice in April and ending up in Excellent B in September! As we waited on deck to go in the ring at our last trial, standing between Sharon Freilich with Rip in front and Nancy Gyes with Riot and Rachel Sanders with Whist behind us, I thought to myself “is this some kind of dream????

Those two years were a long but exhilarating journey, one that I wanted to share with you in the spirit of this issue’s theme.  Believe me, Babe made me work hard for every single step.  Whenever I foolishly thought that I might take a shortcut or take anything for granted, Babe made sure that I rose to the highest standards of dog training, whether I liked it or not.

Babe’s first agility season was impressive by any standard.  Although we had a bumpy start, I’ve never had a dog progress so quickly through the classes.  Megan, Babe’s more talented and normal pack sister, spent one season each in each class, and the two were competing together at the end of Babe’s first season, in jumpers anyway.  Standard has been more of a challenge, with our two novice standard legs hard fought for. 

I’ll never forget Babe’s first 1st place. The other competitors in Novice jumpers with weaves were eyeing the particularly challenging opening sequence, groaning, “look at that weave pole entry!!!”  I, on the other hand, sat ringside with my head in my hands and my stomach in a knot thinking, “that’s the least of my worries!” with a crazy dog that I probably couldn’t even get to the starting gate.  Running Babe was extremely draining.  It took every ounce of my mental focus and energy to get Babe out at exactly the right time, enough to allow her to warm up and focus on me but not enough to let her notice all the demons in and around the agility field.  I was always on needles and pins all the way to the start line.  I questioned so many times those first couple of months whether I was running Babe for me, or for her.  Yet, each trial morning Babe realized along with the other dogs that getting up in the dark could mean only one thing, and she was the first out into the yard frantic to get into the van, not to be left behind on trial day. 

The opening sequence was a piece of cake for us because for some incomprehensible reason Babe has the most solid weave poles of any dog I’ve ever trained.  That run was such a thrill; it was one of those zone runs once we got started.  She was wild, a bit on edge with nerves, yet connected with me and we ran as a team.  My cues were all on time and we even managed a couple of fancy crosses.  I knew that we Q’d but went to check the scores.  Two people were in front of me and I heard one exclaim, “Babe got 1st place!!” to which all I could say was “What?????”  Later I called my mother after the trial to relate the momentous news:  “Babe got 1st place,” I said.  There was a long silence on the other end of the line followed by “What????”

It wasn’t her last.  I’m staring at her ribbons as I write this:  three first places, and some seconds and thirds.  She ended up tied for 2nd in Excellent A jumpers in 2002 on Beth Elliott’s national collie rankings, beating out Megan who completed her AXJ also this year.  Babe ranked high by that system because she was one of two dogs qualifying in two very large classes last summer.  If she can focus (and that’s happening more and more), she is very steady—not fast but she gets the weave pole entry like a heat seeking missile, admittedly an enormous advantage at the excellent level. 

We went about preparing for this wonderful first season as carefully and intensely as anyone would train for the world team.  First, I trained her on all the equipment and basics away from class (Collie Connection Summer 1999)—being in public was the challenge, not the agility part.  For the most part her classes went well.  She found comfort in the equipment itself, which she knew well and was highly reinforced on at home.  We were both drained by the end of an hour class those first few months and often couldn’t make it that long.  My job was to maintain a connection between the two of us, which required the focus of a neurosurgeon.  Never once could I let Babe hang out on the end of a leash by herself while I gossiped with classmates or daydreamed.  I had to leave her crate door open back in the van, so that if her frayed nerves got too much she knew that she could retreat to safety.  Anything and I mean anything could set off her fears: a door slamming, kids bouncing a ball, a flock of cedar waxwings with their high pitched cries landing in a tree next to our class, a ram in the field across the street hitting the side of the barn during the spring rut (for Pete’s sake!!).  Again, I questioned whether it was fair to ask her to do something that was so stressful, yet at home she went absolutely wild when it came time to train.  She lived for a chance to work on the agility equipment with me.  I had to believe that if we got her to be able to work in public, her life would be that much happier because she’d be able to go places with us, do fun things and be part of the pack.

And then there was training the TEETER.  Thanks to Babe, I now know that one must train the teeter from the very first, before the dog walk, before even starting on any agility equipment with the tippy board.  It was hard for me to imagine a dog as fearful as Babe actually going on something like the teeter, having it give way, and banging to the ground. Sure enough, the teeter was our greatest challenge.  As many of you may have found out the hard way, once a dog takes a teeter thinking it’s a dog walk, there goes the dog walk for months.  Babe certainly generalized after a bad experience on the teeter that all contact equipment was not to be trusted.  So what did I have to do but buy all the @#$#& contact equipment myself and leave it up in the back yard for months (killing all the grass, what lawn???). 

Part of the problem with the teeter phobia was that I foolishly tried to guide Babe by the collar over a low teeter.  This is a dog that must not be touched, ever.  After learning that the hard way, I knew that teaching Babe the weaves with the “dance” method (most popular at the time) was OUT.  So I taught Babe with a combination of the clicker method (to get the entry) and the channel method, bring the two methods together rapidly in training.  Much later I retaught Babe some of the agility basics like cavalettis and tippy board.  Those things still help no matter when they are introduced, but ahh, if I’d only known what I know now….

Next came getting Babe to matches.  I realize how incredibly lucky we are in California to have many matches nearby and I took advantage of every one.  When I first started taking Babe to new places, my worst fear was whether Babe would stay with me once she was off leash.  Classes were held in fenced in areas, as were some of the matches.   One day I got my answer.  We went to a match next to a road with heavy traffic and there was nothing but a big parking lot between the agility ring and that road.  I’d secured Babe in an ex-pen reinforced with clamps and went off to run Megan.  This was a sanctioned match so we were quite serious.  I was in the middle of our run, in that zone of concentration, when I suddenly realized that someone was shouting, “BABE’S LOOSE!!!!”  I looked up to see a sable-and-white coyote-like figure slinking around the agility ring, coming to the sound of my voice as I called out to Megan on the course.  She’d heard me from her ex-pen and was frantic to join us.  She’d found us two rings over from our setup, luckily in the opposite direction as the road.  OK, she wasn’t trying to run away, but still catching her wasn’t easy.  I called her into the ring, and although she was grateful for the comfort of the agility equipment on all sides, she would not come to me or allow herself to be caught.  On an inspiration, I sent her into a tunnel, which she took with enthusiasm, and met her on the other side.  Without having a leash handy, I had to lift her up like a baby and carry her, like the good old days.  Nonetheless, all’s well that ends well, and I was much more confident of Babe wanting to stay with me as she would be required to do as an agility dog.

 I knew that Babe was ready to compete after the fandango incident.  We were at a match on the day of the town parade.  Little did I know that the match site was next to the parade’s staging area.  Glittering, adorned floats and their bored performers had to hang out right next to the agility rings for some time.  The noise and commotion were distracting to say the least, until the Mardi Gras reggae float happened by.  In addition to a live, loud band, the float was accompanied by dancers wearing huge fans and colossal feathers.  Spying the agility match, the band suddenly broke out in a high volume rendition of “Who let the dogs out?”  This was right as Babe was being called to the start line.  I saw no reason for either of us to achieve martyrdom, so I asked if we could be moved back a couple of dogs.  When the offensive float got past us by some distance, I took Babe to the start line and she did an entirely respectable job of running the course at full jump height.

 At our first trial, I was tense.  Competition has an edge on it anyway, and in addition to all of the other challenges of having Babe out in public, I had to time our entry into the ring.  She needed to be warmed up but still focused; for every minute outside of her crate, there was a possibility that she’d discover some demon or other.  She did not take well to hanging out in the crush of dogs under the canopy next to the gate.  I ended up taking a large plastic container of some incredibly sumptuous food with me, with a secure top so that I could leave it and not annoy the other handlers when we entered the ring, and fed her a continuous stream of tidbits.  On the way to her first run, Babe was remarkably confident.  We managed to get to the start line, take off the leash and have Babe stay in the ring.  It was jumpers and the first obstacle was a double.  Babe was shaky and took it down.  Next run was standard, on the other side of the grounds.  At this point, Babe wasn’t sure if she wanted to go there at all, stopping dead in her tracks several times on the way.  Oh great, I thought.  To make matters even more entertaining, there was a stiff wind and a homemade teeter in that ring.  A significant number of novice dogs crashed and burned on that teeter, which faced into the wind and did not pivot smoothly, and Babe was one of them. 

 That accident sent us back into months of retraining all of the contact equipment.  Night after night, we’d do one of the contacts before dinner.  I bought an adjustable teeter, a baby dog walk and a real A-frame.  Then we took the contacts on the road, often not successfully.  Back we went to our yard.    Hours and hours of work.  I had a single-minded goal of having the contact equipment so strongly reinforced that Babe would think she’d gone to heaven in the presence of one of them.  Then we tried it at a trial.  My goal for our standard runs that weekend was for Babe to do one contact.  I wasn’t greedy, just one! Please!  Babe, however, took the A-frame, then the teeter, then the dog walk—all three contacts before we got to the table.  I was so excited and so taken aback that I remember literally shaking at the table, unable to catch my breath.  The judge probably thought it was my first trial ever.  After doing all of the contacts I realized that we could actually qualify in that run, but I had no backup plan.  What was the course, anyway?  I can’t remember exactly what happened after the table; I think we had some wrong courses and Babe took down another bar.   The next run I was more prepared, and Babe earned her first standard leg, and then another, before she spooked again and refused to do contacts in public for the rest of the season.

Meanwhile, in jumpers, we quickly made our way to Open, although Babe was still edgy at trials.  Either she was too distracted when she got in the ring and did wide loops looking for demons, or she was too focused on taking whatever was right in front of her.  That zeroing in on the next obstacle served us well in Novice but led to a lot of wrong courses in Open.  Because Babe isn’t that fast, I got to practice those front crosses, throwing them in to counter trap after trap.

Eventually Babe settled down at trials and became almost indistinguishable from a normal dog.  After a busy trial season, trials became somewhat routine, or if anything special events.  We went through another phase during which Babe performed like a pro at trials but shut down in class.  Now, what was that all about?  I had to ponder what I did at class that was different.  Eventually I realized that at trials she spent most of her time in the safety of her crate, so I took a portable crate with us to class and let her hang out in there between exercises.   After a winter of practice, Babe is once again doing contacts with abandon, even in contact-tunnel discriminations.  I can’t wait to see if we can make it to Open this season. [As this goes to press, Babe just suffered a major injury, cause unknown, and has her front leg in a splint.  Sigh, the best laid plans now must wait for whatever our future holds.]

Looking back on Babe’s long journey (the Collie Connection articles on her are archived at rescue/babestor.htm), I’m struck by how well she turned out, against the greatest of odds.  Along the way, Babe taught me several important lessons (Collie Connection Fall 2000).  One important lesson was that the training method that I used with her, purely operant with only positive reinforcement and extinction, is an impressively effective method of training.  Despite her extreme fearfulness and lack of socialization, she is as well trained as my other dogs trained with “positive” but traditional methods that included “corrections”.  Obviously, if such methods can turn Babe into a well trained, apparently normal dog, imagine how well they can work on a real normal dog.  Another lesson was that if I could train this dog as carefully and as meticulously as I had to train Babe to make any progress, why, then I should be able to train all of my dogs that way.  Finally, I learned that building a strong foundation for any sport, or any training goal, is the quickest and most efficient route to success.  And conversely, cutting corners during the foundation training is penny wise, pound foolish.  Particularly in agility, people are anxious to get their dogs out there on the equipment, learning and fixing as the team progresses. I discovered that methodical and careful training is an investment with a huge payoff.  Not only did I reach my agility goals as quickly with Babe as I did with Megan, but I ended up with a more trusting relationship because I was more consistent and clearer in what I asked of Babe in our training and competition than I was with my other dogs.  I’m putting all of these lessons to work now with my new puppy Rocky.

 The final lesson is that adopting a rescue dog can be enriching, enlightening and an experience of a lifetime.  You save a life and the dog gives back in double measure.  Clearly, even the most abused rescue dog has great potential as a pet and as a working dog.

Babe and me in agility class

Photo by S. Anderson

Other trial photos by S. & R. Berrend

Babe Top|Rescue Top|Site Map