I remember when Little Star and I we were going to the graduation of our intermediate agility class. We practiced all of our contacts in the yard all week, our yard being more of an agility course than the pet store where classes were held. She was great all week. I was nervous when we left and she was excited, as she was every Sunday morning.
We got there and started to perform all that was asked of us, all of the things we had rehearsed. Then the teacher threw something at us we had never tried. It was a walk up the moveable stairs that they use for getting inventory off the top shelves of the warehouse. That was the final for the graduation and the teacher wanted Star to go up the stairs with me. They were open like fire escape stairs and Star was scared, but she wasn’t too scared with her partner. I knew she would trust me and go up the stairs and I knew I could keep her safe. I used the words she was familiar with from some of the other agility obstacles and she cautiously followed me up the stairs. We stopped for a picture on the top and we went down with no problem and received our diploma.
What we learned that summer in Agility 1 and 2 helped form our foundation of trust and respect that would carry us through many years. I didn’t know then, but building that foundation would be so helpful when she was facing illness and a sudden onset of older age behaviors because of the illness.
Star and I are training partners. We are also agility partners.
While I am not enjoying the subject of why we are talking about this, it is in fact a learning lesson that I can’t not talk about.
Little Star and I started a beautiful relationship in training and agility when she was 10 months old, a few months after she moved in. She was fast and agile and the smartest dog I had ever known. She’s still the smartest dog I’ve ever known, she’s just not the fastest anymore.
I remembered when my 70-pound lab Bo got older and started to slow down, we attempted to help make walking up stairs or getting in car easier. He didn’t want help and the ramps and steps were foreign to him. He was scared of them. He was an athlete, an awesome athlete, smart as a whip. We were close and he was trained, but he competed alone once I provided the stimuli, (any round object would do), so when he needed help he wasn’t conditioned that way and it was difficult.
When Star got sick, I thought, well at least she’ll use a ramp. That was just the beginning. As Star wanders sometimes confused due to her illness she can be brought back into this world with words she knows and has heard her whole life. Sometimes I think her body is reacting with instinct instead of her brain processing it to help her movement. When she’s confused, one quick, “On my right” or “Back-up” is all she needs to get her on the right track again. When she’s tired and I tell her “I got you”, she knows we can continue and I’ve got her back. I don’t know what it says inside her canine mind, but her body reacts with precision and accuracy. When I needed to get her into the car and I put the ramp that she has never seen by the car, one reminder of “Walk It’ and she was in her seat ready to roll. I could never get my lab to walk on a ramp. He saw his first ramp at age 13, and wanted no part of it. Star was up that ramp and sitting pretty in her seat with no hesitation.
On her last day we were going outside and she was confused about where she was going. She started to veer off towards the street and one reminder of “left” and her entire body just turned left and she was on the right path again.
I am reminded of something I heard at Clicker Expo one year, the gist of it was that “not only is the clicker more consistent and accurate as a marker, but it somehow gets into the central nervous system and really causes an imprint to help the behavior stick.” This left turn seems like it came from somewhere deep inside her, not her brain.
Star and I did not continue our professional agility career. We competed for three minutes one 8-hour day during an outside trial in 90 degree weather. We decided it wasn’t for us. We continued to do agility in the backyard, at the local park in the winter and just about everywhere else we could imagine running a course. We continued to do agility in the last six months of her life every day. It turned out to be essential for her comfort and safety as she grew weaker.
It doesn’t have to be agility that you do with your dog, but work on some special behaviors before you need them. Teach your adult dog to walk up ramps and maybe some directional cues. Show them the “new ramp” to get up on the bed before they need it. Work on the behavior before they get sick. Train and condition that words and touch can be reassuring. Even though we train with hands off methods, this is an important exception. Show them you can assist them with some gentle hands on conditioning while they’re healthy and younger. It’s never too late before your dog gets sick or old. When you’ve conditioned them to know you “have their back”, they are grateful. When they need you, they know you are there.
When Star needed us she knew we were there. It was our finest moment.
Even in death we won’t part.