Monday, May 8, 2017

Bravo's big adventure...

I've been taking Bravo to Wag It for lessons since he was a fluffy 8 week old baby dog.  We started out with basic puppy classes, where he and the other pups tussled and tumbled and learned rudimentary manners.  Then we progressed to slightly more advanced lessons, and from there to beginning agility classes and Wag It Games.  The Games classes are tons of fun.  A far cry from my first introduction to obedience in the 70's, where we'd put choke collars on our dogs and jerk them around to force them to behave.  Games classes were invented by Sumac Grant-Johnson to be fun and create a working partnership between handler and dog. The two footed half of the team has to learn the correct methods to communicate to the four footed half how to jump through hoops, traverse through tunnels, walk over balance beams, roll a tube with their nose, heel along happily side by side while going through a variety of patterns.  It is amazing to watch the dogs think and comprehend and it really does create a special relationship as you work and learn together.  A few months ago I overheard Sumac talking about teaching a weekend long games class right here in Maine and I asked her if she thought it was something Bravo and I could do. She said we could but the class was full. A few weeks later someone had to drop out and we were offered the spot.  I signed right up!  It was only after paying for the weekend that I realized the class was a four hour drive from home, right near the Canadian border.

When Chris and I first got married he always seemed a little nervous when I was behind the wheel of the car. I'm a perfectly good and safe driver, but I began to abdicate driving chores to him.  It's been a while since I've embarked on a trip of any distance by myself.  But off Bravo and I went last Friday after work, in a heavy rain.
He's always been a good car dog, but he'd never been on a trip this long.  He was a bit restless at first, then curled up in a ball beside me and slept soundly all the way to Presque Isle.  Once there I checked into the hotel, took Bravo for a little walk to make sure he was empty, and then introduced him his new surroundings.  The hotel was very dog friendly, even offering this next to the bowl of mints for human visitors.

After a careful examination of our room, Bravo played ball with me for a bit, then settled in. There was a troupe of clowns staying on the same hall.  They had their doors open and were visiting about, making lots of happy noises. Bravo wanted to bark each time he heard a door slam, or a person laugh or traipse past our door. I had to convince him that this was a bad idea.  Tired from the long drive in the rain, I fell asleep.  He did, too, in positioning himself flat against the door, a barrier between those strange sounds and his resting human.  He stayed there all night.

The next day I joined 12 or so other dog/handler teams in a large room.  We all set crates up and chose chairs distributed around the outer walls, facing into a center ring.  Bravo was excited to see everyone, and wanted to be introduced to both people and pets.  But this was a working weekend, with no puppy romps on the schedule. Two of his play pals were there, and it was hard for him to understand that they could not cavort.  At first he was a little pouty.  If I could put a cartoon bubble over his head it would say, "You said we were gonna have FUN!"
But things got more interesting soon enough. We were out in the center ring learning new ways to move together in an exercise called "shadow skills."  This is challenging for me because I am neither graceful nor coordinated, and hard for him because he is a bouncy puppy with a lot on his mind, but we both learned some things and will practice our skills at home.  All day we were up and about, assisted by the able instructors. The dogs ate lots and lots of treats as they practiced new behaviors, and the humans shared some laughs as we tried to navigate the skills we were learning. After lunch the instructors set up a course as it would appear in a Wag It Games trial, and each of us had a chance to practice our technique.  Bravo was very interested in smelling the carpet, and only moderately interested in paying attention to me, be he was no worse than the other dogs there, and we muddled along nicely.  He was very tired at the end of the day, and discovered the comfort of his own full sized bed in the hotel room. The clowns had gone, the room was quiet, and he slept soundly like a seasoned hotel guest through the night.

Sunday morning he was whiny and restless.  I drove him to a beautiful state park nearby and let him run a bit.  He raced up a trail, ran in "zoomie" circles around me, and then saw three ducks on a lake. He charged to greet them and before he realized the consequences to his actions he was in water up to his ears, paddling after the retreating fowl. His face registered surprise and he headed for shore, slightly abashed.  More running and playing, and then we headed back for day #2 of instruction.

This day was more to his liking.  There were hoops set in patterns to maneuver, tunnels to zoom through, balance beams to walk.  We practiced walking backward on the beam, with moderate success.  All the dogs were interested in the bright equipment placed around the room, tails were wagging! One fun game was a row of cardboard "bricks" set up like giant dominoes.  Bravo learned to push a large tube with his nose, smacking it into the first brick and setting off a chain reaction of tumbling toys. I swear I saw him laugh. I wish I had pictures to share, but my hands were full and you'll have to make due with word images.

Later in the day we did some scent work games.  10 little, empty containers are set up in two rows.  The handler puts some treats in one container and gives it to the judge. The judge places the container in one of the rows and the dog has to find the container with the treat, and give a clear signal that this is the one he or she was looking for. Some dogs pick the container in question up, some lie down when they find it. Bravo smacks it firmly with his right front paw, then snaps his handsome head up to meet my gaze. "THIS ONE!" he says.

  Another version of the game is called, "Quarry Quest." Instead of a treat in a container, there is raw sheep wool.  The other containers have some fluffy poly fiber fill in them.  The dog must find the one with the wool. Bravo did well with that game, too.  Sumac explained that when dogs do scent work they use a special part of their brain that they do not exercise all the time, and it makes the dogs tired. It's a good way to entertain and work out a dog on a rainy day, playing scent games at home.  After lunch the staff again set the ring up as they would for a trial, and the dogs were able to compete.  I almost left before this happened, anticipating the long ride home. But Sumac said she loved to end the weekend with this because the dogs find it so enjoyable, "Like kids at recess!"  I didn't want to deprive Bravo of a fun event, so stayed.  I was glad we did.

The first trial was sniffing the two rows of containers with a treat as described above. Bravo found the correct one in something like 20 seconds, and clearly marked it.  He won a 4th place ribbon and some cookies for his efforts.  Next the ring was set up with colorful fabric tents and several empty vessels were hidden about, with one tent containing the tub with the treat.  To my amazement Bravo sniffed out the right one 5 seconds!  For this he won first place in our class, another ribbon, and of course, more cookies.

We packed the truck with our belongings and the pretty ribbons.  Knowing what to expect this time, and weary from his day, Bravo settled with a sigh, his nose on my thigh, and home we headed. The scanning radio picked up stations where the announcers spoke French, and for many a mile route 95 was empty of traffic except for us, in our little red truck, zooming south.  Deer grazed along the roadside, and frequent signs warned of moose crossing.  The swampy scenery made it easy to image them there, but we didn't see any.

My mother used to say, "It's nice to go away, but it's good to get home."  I signed deeply when I saw warm light glowing from our windows, and Bravo woke and sat up smartly, tail waving against the seat.  We were warmly welcomed and glad to be back on familiar turf.  It was an excellent adventure.

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