The Novice Perspective

by Polly Mumma

This month, we have another in our series of interviews with elite handlers. This month, we are chatting with Linda. Harper. Linda’s Shih Tzu, Niki (MACH Harper’s Naughty Niki) is the first Shih Tzu to complete an AKC MACH title. I found Linda's thoughts very positive and encouraging. I hope you do too.

Polly: Welcome Linda. Thank you for agreeing to chat with us. It would be helpful if we could begin with a short overview. Can you please give us an idea of how long you've been competing and some of your accomplishments?

Linda: I've been competing in agility for 3 years with Niki. We did obedience for the first time last year. After just 3 months of training, she obtained her CD title (companion dog).

Polly: That's really great! how did you get involved in dog training and what motivated you to want to reach the top levels of the sport?

Linda: I became involved in agility just by chance. I happened to go with a friend who was interested in agility. I never dreamed of doing agility, remembering the courses seemed an impossibility, and running a dog—Nope! Not possible. When I began with my Shih Tzu, Niki, achieving the level we have in agility seemed inconceivable. Agility has become a wonderful hobby, but what makes it great is the competitors. I have learned so much from all of them and they all have been so supportive.

Polly: Have you had experiences that were less than successful? How did you deal with that, and what motivated you to continue in the sport of dogs?

Linda: I’ll say I've had some less successful experiences. At times running a Shih Tzu is like running a cat. She would zoom around the ring, not participating with me, but doing her own course. It can be a very humbling experience. She would regularly visit the judge or stay on top of the A frame, trying to get a better look at the judge. I had to learn to laugh at both Niki and myself. And always remember there is always tomorrow. It kept me motivated in the sport just knowing we will have another chance on another day.

Polly: What was your Novice experience like? (In all dog sports)

Linda: My novice experience was exciting and disappointing. I'm a very nervous competitor. An experienced handler told me that the dog can sense your feelings through the lead! So I have learned to take a deep breath before I enter the ring. I found as a beginning handler asking help from more experienced handlers was always helpful. An experienced handler watching would observe mistakes that could make a difference in running a dog. Things like the turn of my shoulders, or the position of my hand. I learned to appreciate agility by watching the more advanced competitors handle their disappointments and accomplishments- Remembering to always appreciate when Niki and I finished a course to feel good about what we have done.

Polly: How have dog sports changed in the years that you've been involved? What do you think was the biggest change, and why? What do you think has been the biggest improvement, and why?

Linda: I think the sport of agility has changed. The, courses have become harder and the times are shorter. I think the sport has grown so fast that the organizations are always trying to keep ahead of the competitors' abilities. The biggest improvement I've seen is in the ability of the handlers. They are becoming more and more polished and sophisticated.

Polly: How do you think Novice handlers can be encouraged to make it to their first trial, and then remain active in dog training sports?

Linda: The Novice handler should remember this is an exciting and fun sport. It is YOU and YOUR dog working together as a team! It is easy to become discouraged as a novice handler. When everything seems to go wrong, running a non-traditional dog can be trying, but everyone should remember not all dogs (like people) learn or achieve at the same rate. Once my dog understood what I wanted and the game we were playing she would do her best. Always remember there is tomorrow. Agility can become very addicting when everything falls into place for you and your dog, and you have the run of a lifetime-It happens with constant practice and never giving up!!

Polly: What do you think is the primary mistake that you consistently see Novice handlers make?

Linda: I think one of the mistakes we as handlers make is taking our eyes off our dogs. I've had Niki running way off course because I wasn't keeping my eyes on her, and she was over the wrong jump before I knew it. I was too busy looking at the next obstacle and not letting her finish the one she was taking.

Polly: What do you know now that you wish you had known before you set foot inside the ring the very first time?

Linda: One of the things I wish I would have known before I went inside a ring for the first time is don't react when the dog does something incorrect on the course. Your reaction can cause the dog to only remember the negative response, which will enforce the wrong reaction from your dog. Always tell the dog when they are doing it correctly. That is better than over-reacting when they do something wrong. You and your dog will both feel better coming off the course.

Polly: What is the one piece of advice you would like to give Novice handlers?

Linda: The advice I would give a novice handler is always praise and encourage your dog. Remember this is supposed to be fun for both of you! I have found running a Shih Tzu trying at times, but also very rewarding. Niki knows when we do well on the course and we have had some wonderful times in agility. We have met some wonderful competitors. These competitors have encouraged and supported us even when Niki zoomed, or I forgot the course (which happens). It isn't only the sport of agility that is exciting but meeting all the new people and watching each of these people develop into agility addicts like Niki and me.

Thank you, Linda, for your insight and perspective on getting started and on running a non-traditional agility dog. I think many novice competitors will agree that this has been very encouraging. I want to encourage everyone, if you, or someone you know, are an elite handler in any of the dog sports, and you would like to share your insight and experience with beginners, please contact me. That's how things look this month from the Novice Perspective.