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Where agility dreams come true

Bob Sharpe is well known to his fast growing band of club members and regular readers of The Voice as a man who is not afraid to speak his mind on subjects to do with his beloved Agility. Soraya Porter tracked him down to a training field in deepest, darkest Dereham - bow and arrow country to many of us - where he trains a ‘splinter group' of his Field of Dreams to find out more about his personal agility career.

Q. When and how did you first get involved in dog agility?

I had always had a pet collie since my early 20s but when I was in my 40s I had kidney failure so it restricted my activities with them. I had a transplant in 1999, and I then bought Skip, a blue merle with the sole aim of having company as I travelled the cricket fields of Yorkshire watching my son develop into a much better player than I ever was.

Bob & PaulineMy wife Pauline took Skip to Scunthorpe on a wet and windy night for an eight week agility class where the first exercise set was to jump a line of four on the lead. I am not sure how this was supposed to be accomplished. She managed two. Skip got in front, and clinging for dear life she was dragged under the last two, still holding the lead.

The following session brought more of the same with the reluctant Skip disappearing under the car upon completion of each exercise. My wife was on holiday the following week and, as the money had been paid, the substitute awaited his turn behind a young girl, Hannah Cook and her handsome Josh. I did okay. The competitive instinct, honed on the playing fields of South Yorkshire, stood me in good stead. Apparently Skip worked better for me, and a potential new recruit to the sport was discovered. I doubt though that anyone saw two future Advanced handlers following each other round the course that night.

Q. When did you realize you were hooked on agility?

As I explained, my role at this stage of my life was to chauffer to my son, who was then progressing through the county youth cricket structure, and playing in a semi-professional league around South Yorkshire. As we now lived in North Lincolnshire, the only means of transport was Dad, and we both existed for the Saturday afternoon league, and Sunday representative matches.

I still trained once a week with Skip and enjoyed the bond I had with him. I got a little better and entered my first show in April. The Cricket season was a few weeks away. Skip got a clear in his first run, finishing 30th. I then went to Otley where he won out of Starters and had clear rounds in Team and Pairs, too.

I was not hooked yet. Agility was something girls did, and the visions of cold beer, sunshine and male bonding amid the mining villages still held sway. I could never envisage not watching cricket, but the hook was planted and I found myself leaving Tim with teammates on the Friday, competing Saturday and returning from various parts of the country to collect him from Sheffield late that night.

Later that season I missed a championship decider. Tim took seven wickets and was Man of the Match. Flynn had his first novice win and visions of Crufts overshadowed Lords for the first time. Sometime between then and the start of the next season the addiction took hold and Tim took driving lessons.

Q. Tell us about your early training problems, and early days in the sport

Lack of support was the main obstacle, and looking back I realise how determined we must have been to overcome all the barriers we had to deal with from people who should have been encouraging our ambitions. Scunthorpe allowed members to train once a week. Only by offering to run a training night did I get access to a further session. There was, however, a catch to this concession in that we had to arrive 30 minutes after the session began and use only the equipment available at that time which was not needed by the current  class.

Our first session under these limitations saw four old jumps left for our use. We took three plus my weaves, and practiced 100 metres away. Over the coming months we developed an ingenuity for producing three jump exercises that have served me well to this day.

The only contact equipment available was an aged A-frame which must have been hewn from Robin Hood's Oak as it was so heavy. Somehow we carried it the 100 metres to our distant outpost and back again in the dark. Fortunately, I had just started private lessons with Greg so we had a system to work with and our handling developed from these limited beginnings.

Q. Who were your first great influences in agility.

Jo Rhodes was the first guest trainer I worked with at Scunthorpe and I swore I would never do a front cross - twizzle as it was known as then - because it was effeminate. Looking back I learnt very little as I was clueless, but I struck up a relationship with her then that has lasted to this day. I always value her advice. She calls me the 'old man' and I call her a 'has been' but I think she is a brilliantly innovative handler, and she has helped in lots of little ways over the years.

At Scunthorpe, the only establishment member who offered any help was Lisa Adamson. Knowing her as I do now, I guess the reason for her sole support in the presence of much opposition, was because she saw a lot of her determination in me. She is now a continual reminder of how not to do it, but we still train together and, despite some very vocal differences of opinion recently, she remains, I hope, a good friend.

Greg Derrett at OlympiaQ. Who would you say were your major influences now in the sport.

Apart from Jo's initial contribution and occasional tips, the sole influence has been and still is, Greg Derrett. I unashamedly use and teach his style of handling although he may contend that my execution is anything but his style. I have followed his methods for over five years now, have trained on average twice a month with him and put any success I have had firmly on his shoulders.

On a day-to-day basis I also rely on Hannah to keep me in check and remind me on a regular basis that 'I am not Greg Derrett' when I attempt some unrealistic fleet footed move. She must have watched over 90% of all my runs, and knows my game intimately, quickly spotting any detrimental changes and not hesitating to remind me of them, often at the most inappropriate times. I must have masochistic tendencies though, as I can remember every one of the five times Greg has praised me in the last five years. I can also recall the three instances when Hannah thought I warranted favourable comment.

Q. Have you ever been tempted to run any other size of dog in agility?

No! You have to run faster with the smaller dogs. All my dogs are pets primarily, and the breed suits me. It's probably my male ego, but I don't feel that I would look right with a poodle and running a Medium collie against the Jack Russells and Patterdales seems unfair, but that is no criticism of those talented handlers that do.

Q. Do you think all three sizes of dog are treated equally?

I assume you mean with regards to opportunity to be competitive? I have very little experience of any other size other than training them, so it is difficult to make a decision. It's down to supply and demand really. If you have relatively few dogs and handlers at this size, then shows are going to struggle to put on suitably graded classes and, if they do, should a win with the only clear round in a class of three really warrant progression?

My views regarding the jealous minority in Medium has been well covered in The Voice. I do feel that anyone with a Medium collie has a distinct advantage over a Staffie owner for example, but as the rules are currently it's fair and how do we change it? Do we exclude small Kelpies, too? They are also quick and win classes.

If some participants were to get their way, we would be having classes just for Spaniels. And if they still could not win they would seek rule changes limiting it to Spaniels within a 30 mile radius of Stoke, reduce the jump height again, exclude the Grade 6 & 7 ones, and still expect the winners to go to Olympia. In all sports there are winners and losers. Why should agility be any different?

Q. Is there anything in particular that you now know, that you wish you had been told when you first started in the sport?

          Greg's phone number.

Q. Have there been any turning points in your career – 'light bulb' moments so to speak?

Not really, it's been a gradual process. I did have problems rear crossing and a session with Jo Rhodes highlighted the advantages of setting your line early and solved a continual problem I was having but that's all.

Q. As well as competing, you judge and teach agility. How do you think these experiences have influenced how you run your dogs ?

I don't judge too often - typically 3-4 times per annum - and I don't think this affects anything. Reminding people of the need to be consistent and to maintain criteria in training means that I have to do the same when competing, and this certainly helps me to focus on the basics more than I perhaps would otherwise in competition.

Q. Can you tell us something about your current dogs please?

I currently run Meg at G7 and Flynn at G6. I am also training Blaze who is 16 months old and expected to begin his career next March/April. The latter two are from the Sherebridge line in Darlington, as is my wife's three year old Moss.

Flynn is very headstrong and driven but realistically he was one dog too early for me as I have not developed his undoubted natural ability as well as I should have done. I did not have the training knowledge then that I have now, and I feel that I have let him down a little. He, however, does not know this and greets each run as enthusiastically as ever and is very competitive in his grade.

Meg was five in June and has taken me to the unimagined heights of G7. She was given to us as a very nervous ten month old girl. She had been bullied by her housemates and almost run over twice trying to escape. She had never played or had 1 -2- 1attention. My wife Pauline spent a lot of special time with her. Once Meg had the confidence, she adapted well to agility, but we never expected her to achieve what she has. Undoubtedly daddy's little girl, my start line set up always includes a kiss to her and she still brings a lump to my throat when I think of her frightened beginnings.

Blaze is the first dog of mine trained using knowledge gained from Susan Garrett seminars so his development will be of particular interest. He has adapted to quite complicated sequencing quicker than any of my dogs as have others of a similar age who have trained with him using these methods. It will be an interesting season next year.

Q. You have recently set up your own training school Field of Dreams. Can you tell us what made you decide to branch out from freelance instructing?

There was no conscious decision. I did a bit of work at club venues when asked but always wanted some land to train myself. A field became available which, at the time, was a little larger than I needed. I sought to supplement our private use with some income from a few people we had trained regularly.

As I debated whether I could afford the outlay, the haunting words from the Kevin Costner film replayed in my brain 'build it and they will come' - so we did and they came. The name of the club comes from the film title Field of Dreams.

I train either privately or in class situations there most days, helped by Hannah and Becky.

PaulineI still travel quite extensively as I feel it's important to reach as many people as possible if you are to develop your business, so at the moment I have a happy balance between the two and a superb back up from my wife Pauline when I stretch myself a little thinly.

Q. Can you tell us about any goals that you have set yourself. Are these more long term or immediate?

I try to set achievable and measurable goals so most are short term but stretch little beyond. I try my best to achieve the best partnership I can from each dog I run. I would love to get to Olympia, though I doubt I will ever get a better chance than this year when I failed in the Semi. Crufts holds no attraction. Meg was brilliant on the carpet last year, but I hate the dog unfriendliness of the place and 'jobs worth' security staff.

The Dream Team
Hannah
Hannah

Becky
Becky

My main goals now are to help my pupils achieve their goals. At the moment four people whom I train, or train with have qualified for the two events. I get as much pleasure out of their successes as any of my own.

Q. Do you suffer from competition nerves? And if so, how do you cope with them?

I think anyone who is serious about doing well in any discipline has nerves of some form - it's part of any competitive sport - but as for the stomach churning type, the only time I feel anything remotely like this is in a Team situation or particularly in Pairs classes. I played cricket at a good level and experience of many years competition there must have helped. You are either good enough or not. What is the worst thing that can happen? You get hit for four or you drop a pole. No one dies.

If it's a weakness exposed, go away and come back better prepared. If you are beaten by a better man keep doing what you are doing, it will be your turn next. My view is that I have prepared to succeed, so much is under your own control and there should be no surprises, but this is a sport and anything can happen. With Team and Pairs, I take it personally if I let the others down and this does produce a different feeling on the line. Fortunately I have always run with sympathetic partners and adopt the same attitude to them.

Q. Do you have a particular routine you follow when competing?

I always give my dogs time on the exercise area before their first run, firstly to release some of the excess energy, then practice a few waits just to exert some control. I will then release a few times, replicating the start they will face in the 1st class. I always try to make this one count as it sets the tone for the day but otherwise, I don't do anything special.

Bob & Hannah - WInners of the Lasers PairsQ. Do you prepare yourself differently if it's a competition final?

I have not been good enough to reach any of the majors but with the important runs, I will spend more time watching how the course runs, then concentrate on visualising my round. I always carry Meg to the line, give her a kiss and tell her to go clear. Sometimes she listens, but this routine seems to dispel any nerves I have. Other than that I think I am just a little quieter and more focused than on the everyday runs.

Q. People watching an experienced handler often comment on how easy they make it look. Would you say you were still learning and do you have any major issues you are working on at the moment?

If you stop learning, you stop improving and when that happens forget being competitive. My knees limit me to the amount of time I can train but I try to work at full speed once a week with Hannah, where we will concentrate on a specific weakness that we have highlighted, or new moves we want to try.

At the moment, I am trying to get my timing right with Meg as she is so unforgiving of anything less than perfection. Apart from that, it's just repeating the basics, particularly reinforcing contact criteria which has slipped slightly of late. With Blaze, I am trying a new technique to speed up the contacts which seems to be working and, as I write, this have had him weave on upright poles for the first time today, so only the see saw left for him.

Thanks very much Bob for submitting so gracefully to your grilling for Agilitynet. We wish all the best for the future - both with Field of Dreams and in competition. For more information, visit Bob's web site www.fieldofdreamsdogtraining.co.uk

Soraya & ErnieAbout the interviewer...
Soraya Porter lives in the smallest town in England - Manningtree, sharing her house with three Siamese cats and her dog Ernest (Hartsfern In Earnest) who also can be heard answering to the names of Ernie, Ern, Monster, Beast and Fish Face! Ernie runs at Grade 7, and has had many appearances at Crufts, where he is in great demand to pose for photographs with Japanese tourists!

Currently she trains with Bob Sharpe and at Valley Farm Agility Club, as well as doing some freelance teaching, the odd judging appointment, designing simple agility websites, and hand spinning dog fibre. Given such ingrained insanity, it’s a miracle that Ernie has taken part in as many Finals as he has.

Feedback....

From Carol Jackson...
Just read the above interview on your website, thought I’d drop you a line to say how much I enjoyed it, particularly as I found it by chance. I’ve recently started training (puppy class) with my cocker bitch at Bob and Pauline's club, Field of Dreams Dog Training – it’s brilliant.  I was actually looking for their website as I believe it was being updated. I also get to read your magazine on occasions, as my agility mad friend – Veronica Wilson – lets me borrow her copy. Interesting reading and a different point of view for someone whose weekend reading is Dog World! (22/10/08)

Published September 2008