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Team Agility: One Handler's Struggle to Understand the Meaning of "Teamwork" in Dog Agility

Updated on April 23, 2013
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Kristin is a dog agility instructor and competitor with 20 years in the sport.

A dog's view of "team" and a human's view of "team" can be vastly different.
A dog's view of "team" and a human's view of "team" can be vastly different. | Source

This video shows both the ups and downs on the road to success in the exciting sport of dog agility.

You Are a Team

“You and your dog are a team. Run as a team.”

I’ve heard it over and over. Aslan and I are an agility team. We’re supposed to run like an agility team. Feel like a team. But the fact is, I’ve never felt equal to Aslan. Yes, we both run together, and we’ve had success. But a team?

Aslan is a fast little 12.5 inch, nine pound Sheltie. He’s mister personality, and his personality shines on the agility course. He loves agility. He throws his little body around the course with great abandon and joy. Because of his love of the sport, people love to watch him. And his speed and talent have been intimidating…at least to me.

I’ve always felt an unequal partner in our team. When we would go in the ring, I had the distinct feeling that it was the Aslan show, and that my part in the whole thing didn’t really count. Yes, I showed him, clumsily, where to go, but I was definitely not up to his quality. I knew if he had the ability to choose, he’d choose to run with other more talented handlers.

In short, I was bringing my dog down.

It’s depressing to be on the short end of a partnership – to know that no matter how hard you train, your physical obstacles would always keep you from being the handler your dog deserves. I'm not alone in this, I know. Whether in agility, other dog sports or dog training in general, one of the most popular sayings is, "Great dog. Shame about the handler." One of the first things an intuitive, new agility handler learns is that the mistakes are almost always the handler's, not the dog's.

Aslan and his owner celebrating after an agility run.
Aslan and his owner celebrating after an agility run. | Source

To learn more about the exciting sport of dog agility, click this article "What is Dog Agility? Agility Information for Newbies."

I can’t run fast. I’m no athlete, yet my dog is. I was bringing my dog down.

Aslan and I entered a three day show this last weekend. I wasn’t feeling very good a day before the show, and by the last day of the show, I was more than exhausted. I knew I had the choice of leaving for home and not running Aslan on that last day, or letting someone else handle him. I went to the show hoping to get the best handler in my area to agree to run Aslan in Masters for me, and knowing my physical limitations, the handler agreed.

Aslan has run for this handler before in practice, and they both clicked. The handler has a fast 12 inch dog as well, and Aslan has loved to run with him.

Even through my exhaustion, I was excited for Aslan. Here was my dog’s opportunity to really shine with an experienced, great handler. Finally, my Sheltie would be freed from his lesser partner and able to run using all his talents.

The first run was jumpers, and it went very well. Because of my physical limitations, I have trained Aslan to be comfortable working pretty far out from me. At one point in the course, Aslan took a wrong course because the handler went a little farther into the pocket between jumps than I would have. Still, all in all, a beautiful run.

It was hard sitting there on the sidelines watching my beautiful Sheltie run with someone else. I wanted to be out there having fun with my dog. But, this was best. This was Aslan’s chance to run with an equal. I was excited to watch them go in the Standard class.

From the beginning of the Standard run, it was obvious to even me that Aslan was wondering why I wasn’t on the course with him. Usually very focused on anyone who has treats or is willing to run him in agility, Aslan was at the start line looking for me instead of at his handler. Then the run began. The handler did his best, but Aslan was uncharatristically unfocused. He missed jumps. He missed an obstacle discrimination. He even went up to the judge and barked at her after she had raised her hand marking a mistake, bringing laughter from the crowd.

Aslan "herding" stuffed sheep he won for first place finishes at a recent agility trial.
Aslan "herding" stuffed sheep he won for first place finishes at a recent agility trial. | Source

And that’s when it hit me. Aslan missed me. He didn’t care that the person he was running with was more talented than I was. He missed me. He missed the way I handle him. He flat missed my presence.

Over the months and months of training, Aslan and I have formed to each other. My style has become his style. He understands my nuances, and I understand his. I know when he will be sucked in by a tunnel, and he knows what a slight turn of my shoulders means. I know by the look in his eyes when to call him back to attention, and he knows by the pitch in my voice when I really want static contact.

I knew then that I wasn’t bringing my dog down. Indeed, out of everyone in the world, I am best suited to run Aslan. No one knows him like me, and he doesn’t know anyone else like me. Yes, it probably wouldn’t take long for a talented handler like the man who ran Aslan last weekend to develop a better handling relationship with him than I have, but the fact is, unless I have more physical difficulties, that won’t happen.

And Aslan, like all dogs, showed he doesn't care about success. He cares about love, loyalty and the "team" that we are. What is important to him is, in the end, far more meaningful than a blue ribbon or title. What is important to him is a simple moment in time playing agility with his best friend, and I'm so blessed to be that best friend.

Aslan and I are stuck with each other. I’d say that’s lucky for both of us.

Because, see, we’re a team.

A Tongue-in-Cheek Video of Aslan's Rock Star Life

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