In the spring of this year, I made the decision to stop running agility with Phoenix so we could focus on his obedience work. Trying to excel in the upper levels of two demanding sports was not going well. Our training time was constantly in conflict and seemingly governed by whatever trial was coming that weekend. This wasn't a recipe for success in either arena.
Eight months later, I feel I made the right decision. As long as Phoenix was having a delightful time on an agility course (regardless of whether it was the course the judge designed and I attempted to handle or one of his own creation), I could happily ignore the engagement and effort problems that arose when agility obstacles were not present and we were faced with a much less self-rewarding performance venue.
Through the summer and fall, I’ve gone to several agility trials to watch friends run or to work and support the clubs I belong to. The question is always the same: Why aren’t you running? This is followed by a secondary question, usually spoken with a combination of concern and disbelief: But you’ll come back, right?
I don’t know. Honestly. I don’t.
I haven’t undergone a zealot’s transformation and I don’t hate agility, but stepping outside the sport for the better part of a year has allowed me to see some things I did not see before.
The primary reason I backed off training and running agility is that I want to earn an OTCh. with Phoenix worse than I want to earn a MACH. Anyone who has embarked on a journey for either knows this is not a quest for the faint of heart or something you’re likely to achieve without absolute dedication.
The secondary reason I backed off is that I don’t want to break my dog.
Without a doubt, Phoenix loved agility. He loves anything he can do at high speed with reckless abandon. In spite of being trained and handled by a middle-aged woman who admittedly does not like to push the envelope, he happily compensates for my cautionary tendencies. As a trainer, I have worked hard to master timely cues, set realistic lines on a course and give him safe approaches to all obstacles - all in the name of keeping him from getting hurt.
Phoenix will turn 7 at the end of this month. He’s been running agility since he was 2. In those 5 years, fueled by the adrenaline high that comes from running at trials, he has leaped off the top off A-frames, flown off sides of dog walks and launched himself from teeters. He has gone through muscle-wrenching contortions to accommodate courses with complex twists and turns. He has crashed through jumps and face-planted on turns. He has hit weave entries with so much speed I swear I could hear his ribs crack. The dog who runs with controlled elegance in the back yard becomes a crazed speed addict when put on the start line at a trial. He apparently has no pain threshold and the word "caution" is not in his vocabulary. He is the most physically and environmentally sound dog I’ve ever owned, a natural athlete with a love of the game and no fear. Some trainers might consider him the ideal agility dog. For me, running him was becoming a nightmare.
I was seriously afraid he was going to break himself.
My two previous agility dogs never ran fast enough to get hurt. They took courses at a canter and didn’t slip, crash or do fly-offs. In a sport where handlers work to shave fractions of seconds off course times, this casual approach was not looked upon as a desirable quality.
I thought getting a dog who ran balls to the wall would be a wonderful thing. It wasn’t.
Maybe my ears are just more open to it now, but there is quiet litany that hums under the surface conversation at every agility trial. Listen closely and you can hear it: my dog is limping, my dog is lame and the vet doesn’t know why, my dog pulled (insert muscle group here), my dog has a soft tissue injury, my dog needs a month of crate rest, my dog has to be leash walked for six weeks, my dog tore his ACL, my dog needs surgery, my dog needs six months of rehab, the vet doesn’t know what is wrong with my dog, I’m taking my dog to (insert name of veterinary college or rehab facility here) for an evaluation, my dog is retired from running agility.
You can’t swaddle your dog in bubble wrap to insulate him from every potentially injurious situation, no matter what games you play. Phoenix could (and has) hurt himself chasing a cat. He ended up with a neat line of stitches across his ribs a few years back when he smashed himself into a piece of farm machinery. Case in point. That had nothing to do with any training venue. But I’d like to think I can control the odds to some extent and that means not giving him repeated opportunities to fly off dog walks and crash through spread jumps every weekend.
Agility is marketed as a sport for everyone and their dog, yet looking at the spectrum of dogs who are running, there are undoubtedly some that should not be on the course due to structural or conditioning issues. The impact of repeated jumping and negotiating contact pieces at speed is not doing their bodies any favors, and this repeated stress may or may not eventually catch up with them in the form of injury.
Yet other dogs are truly natural athletes who perform weekend after weekend without showing any ill effects. I often wonder if their love for the game simply overcomes minor degrees of pain until an injury becomes debilitating. Then there are middle-of-the-road dogs who appear fine for years, then suddenly come up with a lameness that defies diagnosis. Maybe it’s an agility injury. Maybe it’s not.
I’m not saying agility is dangerous and I’m not saying every dog who runs agility is going to get hurt. I’m just calling it like I see it in respect to my own dog.
When Phoenix is 10 or older, I’d like to still be showing him - maybe in veterans classes, maybe tracking or doing nosework or exploring some venue we haven’t tried yet. Most of all, I’d like him to be fit and strong and not plagued by chronic pain from an injury that perhaps I could have prevented.
It’s a choice every handler has to make, based on their priorities and goals for their dog.
Can I guarantee that by not running him in agility he will avoid all injuries? Of course not. Will I return to agility at some point? I don’t know. It’s a fun sport and I’d like to think I could get a grip on my wonderfully insane dog to allow him to participate in a safe manner. I’m not sure how realistic that is. For the immediate future, our focus remains on obedience.