Thursday, November 14, 2013

The Struggle Is Real

I do feel a bit bad, jumping in with another angsty post after so many wonderful things have happened since my last post. (Like Knight qualifying for Nationals and Mia earning her 2nd AX Leg!!!!)  

But alas, dark days always beckon me to write. So here I am. 

Lilly qualified for Nationals. 

This news does not come on the silver platter I had always imagined it would. It's a bittersweet victory. 

Lilly made me fight for every millisecond of her attention this weekend. We ran wide. We were sloppy. Corners were sniffed for potential crumbs and ring crews were visited. We scraped by with a Q in standard each day, each run a blur of me stumbling around trying to keep Lilly's head. Saturday's jumpers resulted in Lilly taking every jump possible and checking in with me just a time or two. 

Sunday's jumpers was painful. I thought maybe my frantic handling in attempts to keep her attention was messing her up, so, even though I couldn't feel her with me on the line, I decided to run her like I trusted her. It was the wrong decision. Lilly left the ring. Lilly, 9 year old Lilly, Qualified for Nationals Lilly, been out trialing for nearly 5 years Lilly, left me.

It's now over 24 hours later and I'm still bitter. It's a vicious cycle that keeps turning around in my mind. I can't believe I trusted her and she wasn't there.... No, no, She's a dog, she did a perfectly normal dog thing, it's cool, I don't care..... Oh my god, I do care! I'm a horrible handler, I cannot believe I'm upset.... Stop being upset. It's wrong. You're fine. I'm fine..... We've been through this before, we'll do it again!...  What doesn't kill us makes us stronger, right? ....But.... I trusted her, and she. wasn't. there.... and on and on and on. 

My agility world is usually a happy place. I hate it when we have bad days... it brings me back to dark days with a horrible sense of biting clarity. Like that trial in August 2005, first trial back after taking the summer off while I was at camp and Lilly broke down in the ring and drooled so much it coated the hair on her chest. Or that trial in October 2011 when my 2 year old dog lost the love of the game ring in front of my eyes. I watched him literally drag his feet around the ring. Or September of this year, my one day trial with Mia.... broken days and broken dogs.

As I chased after Lilly to scoop her up into my arms before she left the exit chute I had this vision of us making it all the way to finals at Nationals. We'd step up on the line, as I look down at her to do her pre-run shake off I'd notice her eyes glazed over as drool drips off her chin. Right when we've made it to where I've always dreamed we'd be... suddenly we're back to square one. 

This is about so much more than Lilly running out of the ring one day. This is about the dog I was running 3 years ago coming back to haunt us. I thought that dog was gone, I thought we slayed that dragon. Yet, 3 years later, here it is again. That's fine. We'll slay it again and move on.


It has now been nearly two weeks since the trial went down. In my original post I spiraled away from my controlled writing style and into a chaotic whirlwind of emotion that I'll spare you from reading. So while I'm not going to publicize the full weight of one of my darker moments I'll give you the gist of it. 

I was angry. I hate to admit it, but there you have it. I was angry because I thought we were better than this. I felt like my dog let me down. I felt cheated. Hell, I was even embarrassed as I left that ring. 

I was holding back tears as I packed up my things. I was angry. I was bitter. I was upset. I wanted to quit. 

Lilly has been my rock this year. I thought I was going to lose her in January, but she came back to the agility world and she owned it. She is my inspiration. We started at the lowest point possible and have made it so very far. She's the dog I brag about to anyone who will listen. "Would you believe me if I told you she ran 1.5 YPS when she first started trialing?"  It was painful for her to not be what I have come to expect her to be.

I thought we had conquered all our demons and we'd made it to the top. But agility isn't a pyramid. You don't get to just master challenges and then sit at the top. Agility is a mountain. Have you ever hiked a mountain? It's not a straight progression of bottom to top. No, no, not at all. There are dips and valleys and false peaks before you get to reach the summit. 

When you're hiking you'll sometimes ask yourself why you're going down hill, you're supposed to be hiking up the mountain! Agility is the same thing. You think you're making great progress upwards, only to find yourself sliding down a steep decline the next second. False peaks are just as painful in the agility world too. Those moments of, "Yes! This is it! We've done it!" only to look up and notice just how much father there is to go. 

So here we are. Many more miles to go than I had imagined. This post has evolved into that weird sort of inspirational post that I didn't want it to become when I first started writing it. But distance gives us clarity, just like I knew it would. 

I'm sharing this because it's unfair to our journey to ignore our mistakes. I don't want to just brush it under the rug and pretend it didn't happen. It did happen and it was painful. I've acknowledged that and now I'm ready to move on. 

It's been nearly two weeks and I'm not bitter anymore. I have a wonderful girlfriend to lean on, and amazing dogs who believe in me despite my flaws. My agility world still feels a little shattered, but now I know that I can pick up the pieces. 

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Finding Solid Ground

I had a brilliant short weave session with the Paps Saturday evening that left me feeling so much better after my disappointment with Mia in the morning. We spent the better part of an hour running around just playing fetch and chased away the bitter aftertaste the morning had left in my mouth.

As the day drew to a close, I felt recharged. I had successfully moved on, I was ready to face the new day.

I had the whole crew with me this past Sunday morning and I was ready to bring it.

Knight had the best opening speed at a trial so far for jumpers! Usually it takes him a few jumps to settle into his full run, not this time! He was kicking and nearly screaming to go as soon as I stepped into the ring.
He's really starting to feel at home out there, he's showing some sass and getting a little bossy. I absolutely love it! 

He listened to me like a very good boy in standard, but I sent him right past a jump we were supposed to take. I could see a flicker of doubt pass over his eyes when he came bounding straight to me, completely ignoring the jump 10 inches away. All I had to do was shift my shoulders to the left a tiny smidge, or I could of given him a vocal cue and he would of taken it without hesitation. I did neither of these things, he did exactly what I asked and he finished that course like a boss. Bad bad Handler, but such a good little man! 

Then my amazing Lilly-girl brought home QQ #5. I don't know exactly when it happened, but all of the sudden I know what dog I'm handling when I step out on the course. You know, that feeling where each time you step out on the course everything just clicks into place. You have this unshakable sense of confidence that your dog will be exactly where you tell her to be. You don't have to worry about them wandering off to say hello to people, she's always right there, exactly where she should be. 

It is so wonderful. I made adjustments to my handling after my stupid mistake with Knight-man and Lilly ate up the course. It's been a long journey to get here, but it has been worth every single second. I'm so proud.

And then came Mia. With my other dogs running so well it was much easier to keep a positive attitude about our runs throughout the day. I allowed myself to be disappointed yesterday, today we were moving on. Our footing was a little shaky, but I have faith that we are on our way to finding some solid ground. 

Mia was my first run of the day. As I knelt down next to the warm up jump to chat with Mia a fellow handler approached me. "I just wanted to let you know that I really loved watching your runs yesterday." I was lost for words, I might of mumbled a "thank you" in response, I'm quite certain my face reflected one of disbelief. She paused for a second, and then elaborated, "It was just so nice to see you keep things fun for her, you kept it positive the whole time. My daughter is having some similar problems with her dog in standard and you set a wonderful example for her." 

That was just the encouragement I needed. As a trainer and a handler, I know I'm doing the right thing with Mia. When she runs she does not make mistakes, my enthusiasm does not waver, and she has consistently gained confidence by the end of our run. Even though I know I'm doing the best I possibly can for her, I still get that nagging feeling in the back of my mind that people are judging me because my dog is slow and stressed. I don't like that feeling. It makes me feel like I'm suddenly worth less in the eyes of my peers. Rationally I know that is a silly thought because who the hell cares what other people think? I am doing what is best for my dog so one day she will be able to shine her brightest. We aren't pretty now, but I know we will be. 

Needless to say, I was so thrilled to hear that someone recognized what I was doing for Mia's problems and took the time to let me know it was awesome. That made my day. Right before our turn in the standard ring another handler whom I have never spoken to before came up and gave me a similar comment. "You are doing such a great job with her! You just keep on going if she makes mistakes and pretend that nothing went wrong. Lots of experienced handlers don't even do that!" 

It was in that moment that I was so grateful for every single bad day I've ever had while trialing. Between Lilly and Knight I had a million tricks up my sleeve to get Mia up and happy. We still NQ'd our standard run, but we had a much stronger start that just kept getting faster and faster as the run went on. I walked out of the ring legitimately proud of all that we had accomplished that weekend. Sure, we still have a long way to go before she's breaking 5 yps again, but she was visibly happier and bouncing back from moments of doubt so much faster than she had been on Saturday morning. 

We're not always the prettiest, but no one can doubt the amount of fun we're having out there. I'm so grateful for every day I get to spend with these spectacular dogs. 

Saturday, September 7, 2013

Pause. Reflect. And Move On.

Sometimes, you are going to have a bad day. A day where your one step forward suddenly feels like a somersault down three flights of stairs.  All the progress you've managed to make suddenly evaporates, and you feel like you're about five  squares behind square one. Today was one of those days.

For the past few trials Mia has been a little off. She's started to stress down instead of up, dragging her feet around the ring, and she worries constantly about the people milling around the ring. I decided that I'd try entering Mia in one day where it's just her so I could give her my full attention.

Our runs were far from spectacular. That's not to say they didn't have their highlights. I've been through enough ring stress problems with Lilly that I can always get my dogs running by the end of the course. So Mia finished strong in a lovely full extension stride that I got to cheer on and heavily reinforce.

But I'm only human. I get frustrated. I KNOW how fantastically she can run at trials and I want that all the time. Why are we back to green dog problems? Why does the presence of the judge, who has always been in the ring while you trial you goofball, suddenly very worrisome to you? Getting Mia to run used to be the easiest thing. She was my drop and go dog, always on full speed ahead. To see your young dog go from consistently hitting 5 yps to walking the first half of the course is heart breaking.

As I left the ring after our second run (mind you, this is after our happy cheer time for running), I was ready to just go home. I kept thinking about how I used to have to put in a real effort to keep up with Mia, now I'm dragging her around. My crazy little show off is now a puddle of stress for a good portion of her time in the ring. As I walked around on the grounds my frustration grew and grew. Maybe she doesn't like this anymore. Maybe she hates trialing.

And then I stopped. I flopped down on the ground, just off the side of the path, and looked at my dog. Mia squiggled her way up into my arms and stretched out her paws as I scratched her back. She was so happy to just be here,with me, on this beautiful September morning. And suddenly, all the frustration from the morning melted away. These new ring problems aren't breaking us down, they're making us stronger.

Today, I'll stop and let myself feel a little disappointed. Mia is not running as well as she did in the spring. And you know what? That is fine. Because four years ago, Lilly ran like this all of the time. How about two years ago? Remember all that slow stuff with Knight? Things like this happen. I worked through it with them, I'll get through it with Mia.

Tomorrow, I'm moving on. With Mia, it doesn't matter where we've been. This is where we are now. And that is okay. It's all about the journey, right?

We are not perfect. Yes, we have hit a rough spot in our running career. Is that going to stop us? Hell no.

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

The Horizon is my Home

   It's tradition for me to spend at least one weekend up in New Hampshire before the summer is over. Growing up, I spent my summers attending an all girls summer camp on Newfound Lake. Since I stopped attending as a camper I always find myself drifting back up there. Last year I took Knight up for a Tori Self seminar, this year I took the girls up for some hiking! 

 I had all of Saturday up in NH, so I took on Mt. Moosilauke. It's roughly a 10 mile round trip with a beautiful view at the summit. Mia and Lilly owned it! I cannot tell you how many comments I got on how small my dogs are... Multiple people asked me if I had to carry them up the mountain at all. Yeah... no. My papillons are bad asses.

 It felt so good to get away from all the kennel stress. To finally be in the mountains again. My biggest concern was which mountain I'd be hiking the next morning, and it felt amazing. Really, how can you not be madly in love with views like this? 

After Moosilauke, I visited my old summer camp. Most of my Skytops, graduating group, joined the council this summer. It's been 3 years since I've really seen them, so I wasn't sure what to expect. After an awkward chat with one of the Junior staff I heard a shout, "Is that Hillary Graff?!" and an explosion of my old camp friends surrounded me. It was like I never left. It was like being home again.

I'd love to capture the weather we had those two days and extend it for a while. Just freeze time so I could run up and down as many mountains as I pleased. Eating my victory lunches on breathtaking summits. 

Sunday was the day I was scheduled to drive back home. I decided to go over to Mt. Cardigan for a short, 2 hour, hike. Another lovely view, and it produced some tired papillons for the drive home. Again, more comments on how small my dogs were. "That's a big mountain for little legs!" was a very common one. I replied with a friendly, "We hiked Moosilauke yesterday and they dragged me up to the summit." Hearing that the "tiny dogs" totally owned a 4,000 footer the day before shuts up most of the day hikers. 

And of course, no hike would be complete without ice cream to celebrate! There's this awesome little ice cream shop that gives a free little scoop to all the dogs that swing by. The girls absolutely loved it!

I was sad to leave my mountains, but so happy that I got the chance to go again this year. I don't know much about how my future will look, but I'll be back in the White Mountains again soon. No doubt about it.

The Trials of June

Wow, I have seriously neglected this blog all summer. Last post was on Papillon Nationals? Yikes.

Since then, I did manage to squeeze in 2 one-day agility trials. Went out to the Bella Vista site for our first AKC trial there. I've always avoided that site because of the rubber mulch, but they just switched over to some VERY NICE turf.  I got some nice times out of all of my guys with no slipping around on the turf. Mia is usually spinning out all over the place, so this was extremely exciting.

At Bella Vista Lil brought home QQ #3. This was after she ate an ENTIRE hotdog that was stolen out of my bag. You just have to love that girl, she really keeps me on my toes. She had a wonderful Jumpers run and followed it up with the most thrilling standard run we've ever had at a trial. It was 80% turns, and we nailed every single one beautifully. She had so much speed going into the table she slid into a 2o2o and promptly yanked her front feet back onto the table. I almost didn't make it through the rest of the course because I was laughing so hard. We don't QQ often, but when we do it's something I never forget. She makes me work for it :)

Mia had a double NQ day, just one missed jump that was 100% my fault. Awesome stuff out there though! She's keeping up a fantastic average YPS that will keep us competitive 8" class we have around here!  Standard was a little slow, which is normal for us right now, but I can see her starting to get more comfortable in there.

Knight-man Q'd in JWW, but knocked the second bar on the double in Standard.  He was such a pushy little man in both of his runs though, I could not of been happier. I left the ring with a fierce ball of energy tugging at his leash with everything he had. He is such a gift, running him is just so easy these days.

Lilly: QQ #3! 
The following weekend we drove way out to Westminster, MD. Last time I trialed down there I slept through my alarm and missed JWW. So I awoke hella early to be sure that I missed nothing. 

I got video this time around for most of our runs! Knight-man QQd, finishing off his MXP and MJP. Lilly Q'd in JWW and was SO CLOSE in Standard, but I didn't call her enough on the turn off the table. Still, really brilliant run! Mia is still slowly gaining confidence in Standard, she got her first AX leg that weekend. Jumpers was a mess for Mia. She was dragging her feet and not animated at all. I tried the first 4 of the course, and then booked it out of there. Our straight line sprint down to the exit got her feet moving and her tail up. No where close to a Q, but I got my little girly running fast and happy. Lovely stretch of four speedy jumps that I got to reinforce. 

I am so proud of these amazing dogs that I get to share my life with.

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Adventurific 2013: Papillon Nationals!

Last year I went down to KY for a week, during which we attended a full day of Marvel Marathoning that led up to the midnight premier of the Avengers. Many walks where taken, many movies attended, agility at a ring rental, and many adventures were had.

This year, straight after ITC, I made my way back down to KY to Selina's farm for another week. This year, it was for the Papillon Club of America's National Specialty.

Agility overlapped with ITC, so I did not get to attend it this year. I promise you, one year I WILL do agility at PCA. It has alluded me at both Nationals I've attended. I came down for the second Regional Specialty, Rally-O, the National, and the third Regional Specialty.

For those not involved in breed, one's National Specialty is kind of a big deal. All the big breeders come together to show off and compare their stock. My goal was to go with my friend, Selina, and have a blast. Placing in a class would be a HUGE plus, but I was not going in with any expectations.

Knight showed so well for me all 3 days. He even placed 3rd in his class at the National Specialty (out of 5)!  We still have some work to do on our table performance, but he gave awesome expression and held together his movement well. He was a total rock star for Rally! His first time ever in the Advanced class, with absolutely no extra training done whatsoever (bad trainer!), he brought home a Q/3rd! He is such an awesome little dude.

I got to show Mia at the National Specialty and the closing Regional. We were in a large Open Bitch class so chances on placing were slim. Mia really blew me away. We have come so far as a team in conformation! She had an excellent table performance and showed expression to the judge. Yes, you read that correctly, MIA SHOWED EXPRESSION IN THE RING!!!!! Her movement is her strongest point, so I took full advantage of the large ring and moved her as much as possible for our down and backs. We must of done something right because the judge pulled us up to 5th position at the national specialty!

The highlight of the week at the show grounds was the closing Regional Specialty. I was showing Mia again in the large Open Bitch class. We got to work on offering "ears" while we waited for everyone to finish their exam on the table. Then, much to my surprise, Mia was pulled up to 3rd place in the Open Bitch Class! Such a huge confidence booster! To celebrate we got a tub of Ben and Jerry's ice cream. It was fabulous.   

The non-show highlights of the week consisted of seeing "Star Trek Into Darkness". That movie was SO good. I will be seeing it in theaters again soon. Then we went to DINOSAUR WORLD! It was just as awesome as it sounds like it would be! My only complaint is that I did not get to climb on nearly enough dinosaurs. 

Lilly, Knight, Mani, and Twister

Saturday, May 25, 2013

Growing: The Instructor Training Course- 2013!

May 15-19th, I had the amazing opportunity to attend Dogs of Course's Instructor Training Course in Accord, NY.

If you boil it all down, the course was divided into 3 parts. Lectures, Student Teaching, and Training your Shelter dog.

Throughout the week you were assigned a Shelter dog with a partner. My dog was a fantastic little Feist, only 5 months old, named Biscuit.

I am so grateful that I was paired with this little dog. "Easy" is the only word I have to describe him. Everything came so easily with him! When it was time to work, he was right there with me. He LOVES to play, so we worked on a verbal "out" cue to release his tug. He mastered that by the end of the week too! His crate manners were perfect, granted he was pretty tired by the end of the day, not a single peep from him all night. He pottied promptly for me outside, and had no complaints about calmly hanging out with me during my downtime. That allowed me to focus on teaching, something I've never actually done in front of a class before.... let alone a class full of trainers!

The night before I went up to NY, I was terrified. Stressed out of my mind kind of terrified. It was hours before my departure voyage when it all hit me. Suddenly, I felt inadequate. What was I thinking?! Signing up for this. Me, a 19 year old wanna-be trainer, with absolutely no classroom teaching experience. I felt like I knew absolutely nothing about dog training, like dumb luck was the only thing bringing me any success in my dog world. These feelings of inadequacy washed over me in waves, plaguing my thoughts. Insomnia embraced me, kept my mind racing so that maybe tomorrow would never come.

Thanks to some gentle urging from my friend, Star, I finally made my way to bed around 1:30 am (after a few batches of failed cookies!). That left me with an hour and a half before I had to wake up and leave for NY. Sandwiched between a wall and a warm Borzoi, I finally drifted off to sleep. In a few short hours, the next great adventure of my life would begin!

The week went by way too quickly. Pia's teaching and instructing skills were superb while Sue's ability to read dogs was mesmerizing. The lectures were all interesting and engaging. The shelter dog classes were all enlightening, and the student teaching opportunities were SO valuable.

I was so worried that I'd be the newest person in the group, that my age and inexperience would set me apart from everyone else. I was pleasantly surprised to find that that was not the case at all! I was one of many new Assistant Instructors; and everyone was extremely fair about hearing me out and letting my skills speak for themselves instead of automatically lumping me into the "new and ignorant" bucket. I learned just as much from the seasoned trainers and I did from my fellow newbies. Everyone had so much knowledge and personal experience to share!

I gained new insight on the value of training competitive obedience in my own dogs. I was reintroduced to the awesomness that is back chaining for some skills I usually shape. I wiped away a few misconceptions about how much dog owning experience a person has to have to be a great trainer. In fact, I met an amazing trainer who has yet to own a dog of her own! Not only did that give me a deep level of respect for her talent, but it also gave me a whole new level of appreciation for how lenient my own parents have been with my dog habit :)
The student teaching was so much more uplifting than I ever imagined. We were each assigned two times to teach. My first time around I had to teach the trick "shake hands." To say I was nervous would be the understatement of the century. I was literally shaking in my seat. But you know what? I got up there, in front of a room full of trainers, and taught! It was not the epic failure I had feared. As the lesson went on, my confidence grew and grew. The feedback from Pia and the other trainers was fantastic. I left at the end of the day with this little seed of confidence that would only continue to grow and grow through the rest of the week.

I could go on and on about all the people and dogs I met there. Each and every one of them taught me something new, pushed me to try new things (I see obedience and nosework in our future!), and left me feeling so much more confident in my ability to be the trainer I want to be. I had the best roommates, a sweet partner, and an awesome group to work with for presentations. So awesome in fact, that we won this nifty little trophy!

Saying Good-bye was way harder than I expected. I've gone to summer camp for years, so I'm used to heart felt good-byes after seven long weeks. But ITC was only 5 days! I was not expecting to be that exhausted, and certainly did not expect to get so attached to my shelter dog. I'm not going to lie, there were tears involved when I left his kennel for the last time. I'm checking in with the shelter like a crazy person, waiting for that update that says he's found his forever home. I have a whole new level of respect for all of my puppy raiser buddies out there. I only had my dog for a week and saying good-bye was heartbreaking. I cannot even imagine a whole year.

If you ever get the opportunity to sign up and go, I highly recommend it!  I feel so inspired to start going to my local shelter to work with the dogs on a regular basis. I want to expand my talents as a trainer, work with as many dogs as I can on the simple skills that I'd be teaching in pet classes. I also want to hone my skills. Go beyond my comfort zone of agility. I want to learn how to train to the level of perfection that is required in competitive obedience, while keeping the joy in work that I get in agility. I still have SO much to learn, such a thrilling feeling!

So much happened during that week, I'm not sure I can properly express everything I experienced. I learned so much about how to really help out shelter dogs in my area. I met a wonderful array of trainers, many whom I will continue to keep in contact with. I fell in love with my shelter dog, then had to go through the pain of saying good bye. Perhaps most importantly though, I grew so much as a trainer. I left ITC with confidence in abilities I didn't even know I had!

I still have a long journey ahead of me, but I'm moving up. I'm pushing my knowledge, growing in confidence, gaining more and more experience. One step at a time.

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Taking the First Step

"A journey of a thousand miles must begin with a single step." -Lao Tsu

That first step is always the hardest.Why is that? In theory it's easy. Just a single step.

 But when the time comes to take that single step it suddenly feels like a leap over a bottomless pit. Days and weeks, months and years have been poured into this moment, this first single step. This single step could kick off the dreams you've been reaching for! So why the sudden stutter step? Why the sudden lack of drive? Where has your motivation gone? Have you let Doubt creep in and drain it all away?

Doubt is an ugly beast. It sneaks up into your dreams and whispers only the worst possible outcomes. It lulls you sweetly into believe that your dreams have been shot down before you even took aim.

I'm ready to admit it. I've been struggling with the first step. I've been given an awesome opportunity by my mentor, a trainer whose methods I highly admire, to start up an agility foundation class through her facility.  Seriously, how perfect is that?! My dream job, teaching people how to capture that amazing bond you get with your canine companion through agility. All I have to do is put together a syllabus! Simple right?! The first small step!

I have no trouble at all coming up with lists and lists of tricks and skills and games to put in a class. Then comes the breaking it down into weeks part...the stutter step. My aim, so sharp and focused, suddenly starts to waiver.

The "what ifs" come in waves. Washing over me, egging on Doubt's whispers. What if it's all wrong? What if they find it boring? What if the pacing is too slow? Too Fast? Is the class moving in the right direction? Are your goals realistic for the "average joe"?

I just have this picture in my mind for how I want people to be able to train. This mindset that I want to imprint on my students so they have that priceless ability to see beautiful, wonderful, and fantastic things even in the "ugliest" of NQs. I have this ideal of confident speedy dogs that when you see them run, you know, without the slightest sliver of a doubt, that they are having the times of their lives. I want to lead them down that path, but I don't know where to start.

I've never taught before in my life, it sounds so simple, but there are so many parts to the puzzle! So many details that the class Instructor stitches together effortlessly. I lack that elegance right now. After a day's work of staring at the paper, I've pieced together my first draft of a class syllabus, who knows many things I'll need to tweak before it's all said and done.

I'll be taking Dogs of Course's Instructor Training Course next week. Hoping that will help give me that extra boost of self confidence I need. I've e-mailed my syllabus to my mentor. I'm taking a step back from all my doubt. I'm taking aim, keeping my arms steady, and if I follow through I know my arrow will reach its mark.

"We cannot do everything at once, but we can do something at once." -Calvin Coolidge

So here goes nothing. I'm done bumbling around, trying to do everything at one. I'm setting goals and taking the first step. Get ready for a wild ride.

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

May The 4th Be With You

Knight, Winner's Dog for 2 points

Pretty Boy

Going up!
Crazy girly
This past weekend we hit the show ring on Friday and Saturday, then switched gears over to agility on Sunday.

Friday was the Toy Specialty at Mercer County Park. This show is a special one, exactly 3 years ago Knight and I stepped into the show ring for the very first time. Since that day my relationship with conformation has consisted of a long string of ups and downs, but it sure felt like a whole lot of downs.

We've been at the lowest rungs of the conformation ladder. My whole demeanor was clouded with self doubt, I had lost the class before I even stepped into the ring. I was letting it beat me, letting myself feel disappointed.  Things are different now. I've changed my attitude about the show ring, I've armed myself with knowledge, and I'm letting myself be PROUD of the beautiful teammates I get to show off. We're on a roller coaster that only goes up!

On Friday Knight showed beautifully for me! He was all attitude, he owned the ring. He's really starting to let his personality shine through when we're out there. He ended up taking 3rd out of 3 in the Open Dogs class, but I'm proud none the less!

Mia won her Open bitch class (out of 2), but did nothing in the Winners ring. It's still very exciting to feel things coming together with her. We still need to work on getting some more expression from her in ring, but she's comfortable on the table for me now and we're moving together nicely!

With Saturday came more "pretty dog" stuff. It also happen to be Star Wars Day, May the Forth be with you. The Force was strong with us! Knight went into the ring first for Open dogs and won his class (out of 3). I'm so so soooo proud of how well he moved! He kept his front together beautifully, his coat was dragging elegantly over the top of the grass. I'm a little biased, but I think he looked smashing!

Knight went back in for Winner's Dog against the winner from the puppy class. The judge pointed at me and said, "Right over here Miss Blazeless." I'm sure I grinned stupidly as I walked over to pick up our Winner's ribbon. Knight picked up two more points for his AKC Champion title!

When I walked over to get our picture taken the judge commented about how Knight was the first Blazeless papillon she has ever seen. That was another boost of pride for me. She's never seen one without a blaze before and she still put him up?! So awesome! Welcome to the dark side judge :)

Mia took second in her class for Open bitches (out of 2), we still have some work to do on our movement in grass. She was great on the table, but we had some Leaning Tower of Misa action going on during our down and back. Baby steps, progress is indeed being made!

I was already flying high on our conformation victory when we rolled up to our AKC Agility trial on Sunday. I started the day with Lilly's Master Standard run. Beautiful run, Lilly is giving me some fantastic stuff out there. I Nq'd us on the 3rd to last jump though. If I had been more proactive I could of saved her from back jumping the jump we were supposed to wrap. I'll keep that in mind next time around! Besides the handler not doing her job (bad Hillary!), the rest of the run was brilliant!

Lilly snatched up 19 more points with her Q in Master JWW. It was a really straight forward, fast course and she just ate it up! Beautiful rear cross on the flat on our way out, when I pushed for speed she happily pushed right back! It's been 4 years in the making, but we're finally finding our rhythm.

Poor Knight-man face planted on his way out of the chute in standard, but we laughed it off and brought home another QQ! His jump wraps are a work of art. He's such a special boy :) For those counting, this QQ was #7 out of 20 for his PACH. We now only need 3 more Qs and 123 more points until he is officially qualified for the 2014 PNAC!!!!! I am beyond thrilled. This is the event I've dreamed about attending ever since I first watched it on TV back in 2001. It's been a wild ride, but Knight and I are now in a groove. He is so happy at 4" and always covers my ass when I fumble with my handling. I love this little dude!

Mia also brought home both Qs! Finally finished off her OA title, so peace out Open Standard! So happy we won't be having any more conflicts there! I really need to work on rear crosses with her. Right now if I say "switch" she IMMEDIATELY shoots off in front of me for the rear cross. Which was perfect for jumpers, but not so much in our standard run. So some more things to smooth out in Standard before we start slaying course times in Masters.

I am so extremely proud of Mia in jumpers! She finished off her AXJ with another beautiful run that would of placed 3rd in the master's class. I even really pulled hard on her in the weaves, left her hanging while I did lateral distance, and she stuck with them like a pro! What a rock star! Now she'll be joining Knight and Lilly in the quest for points and Master Qs for Nationals!

Fantastic weekend spent with Fantastic dogs. Life is good.

Saturday, April 20, 2013

Finding Footholds

I have started finding footholds out of this dark pit I've considered conformation. I'm getting more confident in my motions, more confident in my grooming, and I'm allowing myself to be proud of my dogs. I'm fully aware of their faults, but I'm not letting them cloud my thoughts with doubt.

I made huge progress on my attitude with the conformation ring this weekend. I stopped treating it as a chore, and started treating it like a sport. Like agility. We did our warm up tricks before we went in, and strutted in with a, "Are you ready bud?!"

Knight won his Open class over one other dog on Friday and I was thrilled. He's been the reserve king most of the time, this is the first time he's won his Open dog class. He ended up taking Winners Dog over two puppies for his very first point!

Mia was the only class bitch on Friday, so she took Winners Bitch for no points. Sarah lent me a hand for the B.O.B. ring. I fumbled around a bit in B.O.B. and mumbled a "Sorry, I'm still new at this."  to the judge. She stopped for a second. "You're new at this?"  I nodded my head in agreement. "You have excellent dogs for someone just getting started."

I was thrilled! Looking at most breeders'  "starter dogs"  I always felt like I had a pretty good starting point. This is the first time a judge has told me that my dogs are nice. It was a fantastic feeling.

On Sunday I put my first point on Mia as she went WB over the other open bitch. Points on both the dogs?! Best weekend of AKC conformation so far.

I had the support of the Unique Standard Poodle team all weekend. Such an amazing group of people. They took time to cheer me on and congratulate our wins.

May kicks off our big conformation season. Let's see if we can get a few more points on Miss Mi!

Conformation really isn't so bad after all. I'm out there, spending a day with two dogs that I love. I get to show them off and get to educate the public on just how awesome these little dogs are!

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Double Qs and Blues Times Two

Achievement Unlocked!!! Knight-man has all his Double Qs for the 2014 AKC Agility Nationals now!!!!

We're just over half way on points and Master Qs now, so still some work to do, but one requirement has been checked off the list!

All in a day's work

QQ #3
QQ #4

This past weekend we had a two day AKC Agility trial. Saturday morning was like a dream. Excellent/Master JWW 4-8"  was the first class of the morning. I'm usually a nut case for the first run of the day so I did not have any expectations in mind. Lilly was the 3rd dog in the ring and...... WOW. She just took my breath away. She broke 5 YPS for the first time at a trial in a FLAWLESS jumpers run. 

10 dogs later I was back in the ring with Mia. I was brimming with confidence after a flawless run with Lilly and Mia just ate it up. She not only ran it beautifully, she ran it a full second faster than Lilly for her first AXJ leg. Two for two first thing in the morning? I was on cloud nine. 

Knight's run was up next. I had just had two of the best runs of my life so I was ready to bring it. The Little Dude did not disappoint! I'm so proud of how far this little guy has come. Just last year I was dragging this dog around the trial ring. Now he's starting to give me lots of extension, he's tugging before runs, and he's wildly looking for the next obstacle when we finish our runs. Such a Rock Star.

I had a few people track me down throughout the day to congratulate us on our beautiful jumpers runs. They have no idea just how much their kind words of appreciation meant to me. Them being able to tell just how much fun the dogs and I are having out there means I'm doing my job right :) Here I was, with a crew of dogs that all had days where people doubted our ability to succeed, running full speed with confident, happy, and speedy partners. Life is good. 

The rest of the weekend followed in a similar suit. Knight-man was quite the knight in shining armor this weekend, pulling in 4/4 Qs and 4/4 1st placements.  While the Qs and Placements are fantastic, I was really blown away by his attitude. Every Single Run was approached with a strong desire to GO PLAY! He was TUGGING!!!! At a trial guys! He hasn't done this since whatever got into him back in October of 2011 when all his trial stress problems started. He wanted to play, he was pushing for speed, he was extending his stride!!!! I'm so so SO happy with him. It's easy for him to get overshadowed by the girls raw speed at trials, so I feel that it's important for me to stress just how proud I am of him and his accomplishments.

Lilly did not Q the most, but oh boy did she bring some competition!! I'm just trying to treat every single run as a gift. Q or no Q, I'm putting in 110% effort and she's putting in just as much to meet me there. This girly rocks. BEAUTIFUL RCs all weekend :)

Mia's Jumpers both days were to die for. She got a little nervous at one point in our Sunday Run, the judge moved and freaked her out for a second. But she kept her YPS over 5 both days! This is a dog that's just over 9" tall. Our timing is really starting to come together in Jumpers! In standard we still have some work to do, I rushed ahead on her teeter Saturday and caused her to jump off. Sunday I took extra caution- slowest teeter ever, but we did it! 

We have a lot of work to do to get our timing right in Standard, but she's having a blast out there. That's all that matters right now :) She's having fun, I'm having fun, the rest will come with time. 

I'm so grateful for every day I get to spend with these dogs. My dad has been SO supportive of my goals for Nationals this year. I can really see it in our grasp :)

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Seeing Double

Another fantastic day of trailing. I was blown away by the confidence and speed I saw in all three paps on Sunday. Not just the paps though, I've started to feel so much more confident in my abilities as a handler too. There's less baby sitting and more running. Progress is being made!

I've always heard handlers say, "You never know when your last run with your dog will be; So run each run like it could be your last." But it never really sunk in until recently. Having to rush Lilly to the emergency clinic last month really snapped everything into perspective for me. I've always tried to make sure my dogs never know I've made a handling mistake at a trial, the primary goal each run was just to have fun. Now I'm chasing that down with new enthusiasm. Every time I stepped onto the start line with Lilly or Knight (still working on this mentality with Mia) I was prepared to make this the best run ever. We weren't just going to have fun, we were going to have a BLAST. Q or no Q, we'd run our hearts out. I'd cheer and laugh with a huge genuine smile on my face while my dogs raced next to me in the perfect picture of bliss. At the end of the run we ran out of there like we just won the National Championship, cheering, playing, and dancing around like fools. Best. Runs. Ever.

Lilly-girl's brags get to come first. She took to my more confident handling with a fiery passion and RAN with it. Just the confidence boost I needed to know I'm moving in the right direction. 4 years later, I'm finally starting to feel like I know what dog I'm walking into the ring with. She's feeling SO much better post-surgery. She's playing with me during our warm ups at trials, something she's never done before. She beat the YPS personal records she set last week with a whopping 4.95 YPS in JWW (big deal for a dog that could barely make course time two years ago). Her standard run was one of the best ones we've ever had. She was spot on to my every cue. Listened to all her turns and rear crosses, beautiful running contacts. Nothing but Pride for this dog :) She brought home another 49 points and a Double Q for 2014 Nationals.

I felt so connected in both of our runs. We've finally reached that point that I've been pushing towards. I know that she's having a blast, and I trust her to run with me. I, Hillary Graff, TRUST my papzilla to run with me! Some days, I was convinced this day would never come. Watch out world, The Papzilla is back in the agility world and she's ready to kick some serious ass in the 8" P class!

Next up is the Knight-man. WOW. My little dude just keeps getting better and better! He's coming back round to the happy speedy boy I see in our training sessions. Fantastic run in Jumpers. His weaves were to die for. By the end of the run his ears were back is "zoomie" position and he was clearly having the time of his life.

In standard, we had the best NQ ever. Sir Knight-man got pushy with me! Instead of waiting for me to release him off the table, he took off running at the sound of the judge's "go." This is not something he has ever done before, so my millisecond of standing still in shock caused a refusal for the next obstical. I've never been so thrilled to have such naughty behavior. This means Knight was chomping at the bit to get back to playing agility. Such a rock star! I can honestly say that I no longer feel like I'm dragging him around the course anymore. Before, he was doing it simply because he loved me and I asked. Now he's doing it because he loves running agility :)

Mia! Ooh Mia. I finally pull my act together with the other dogs just to fall apart on you! So sorry girly! She was my first jumpers run of the day so my handling was a little rocky and my stress levels were through the roof. I was watching her weaves like a hawk so my shoulders were directing her to the wrong end of the tunnel... things got sloppy for the next 3 jumps till I pulled my act together again. Ended on a nice note and had a party.

I'm proud to say, Mia has finished her Novice Standard title!!!! After a refusal on the first jump and nearly stepping on her while directing her to the first tunnel things picked up and went beautifully. Absolutely fantastic ending to a Novice title. Beautiful ending with a strong feeling of connection. She deserves extra cookies for putting up with me during our first run haha.

So to recap:
Lilly QQ
Knight JWW Q, Std NQ
Mia JWW NQ, Std Q and NA title

I'm madly in love with these dogs. They're the best.

Saturday, March 9, 2013

Cheer Team

Lilly "settles" while we wait for Riot's turn

Riot! Getting ready to go for his 3rd CD leg

Knight and Mia

The Whole Gang
Today we got to visit my good friend Jessica (who runs Focused K9) and her GSD boy, Riot, as they hopped back into the Obedience Ring for their 3rd CD leg.

He was so awesome all day. Riot only NQ'd after another dog flopped over onto his feet during his long stay. Seems like an odd call to me, but I'm an agility person, what do I know about the ways of obedience judging?  That being said, they really did look great out there!

It was absolutely beautiful outside, so we took the dogs for nice walk in the park after. Saturday well spent :)