The games master...
Greg Derrett has been rousing the crowds at the London International Horse Show competition at Olympia since he was 18. Twenty years and scores of smoking runs later, in December 2012, Greg became the only competitor in history to place first in both the Grade 6-7 and Novice competitions at The Kennel Club Olympia Agility Finals. It was his sweetest victory ever. Sally Silverman traces his agility career back to Olympia.
Greg Derrett wasn't yet ten when his mother first took him to watch the horses at Olympia, a prestigious equestrian competition, but it was the horses that caught his attention... it was the dogs.
He saw the agility' and said ‘I want to do that.'
It was the early days of agility, and young Greg was hooked.
Pursuing the dream
In almost no time, Hettie, who was probably a Golden Retriever/Border collie mix, was winning everything in local obedience club competitions. His instructors encouraged young Derrett to pursue the new discipline of agility. He was a 12-year-old kid who could run fast and he was an ideal candidate.
The pair started to rack up the wins and by 1991, at the age of 15, he was named Junior Handler of the Year.
The same year he turned 'pro,' offering agility lessons to pay his way through college.
Developing a training philosophy
That mathematical bent has influenced all of his training ever since.
Borrowing from the mathematical, Greg devised his own equation that is at the heart of all of his foundation work, specifically: cue= behaviour = reward. This is the place where he sees the biggest holes in training, creating the most problems for handlers.
Take tugging, for example. Greg says that he and wife Laura, his partner in training and teaching, put massive amounts of time into tugging. 'The interaction with the handler is the reward, not the toy. If I let go of the toy, my dog will try to put it back in my hand. It's really not magic. It's just putting the time and energy into the activity so that the dog loves it.'
And that's where it starts.
'That is my real goal with young dogs. I want them to think that I am fantastic.
'Once they do, he teaches the sits, hand touches, and downs. 'Many people move on to this before they have the reinforcement established.' It's the beginning of his goal to 'teach brilliance on the ground. That way, by the time the dog gets to the equipment, he has all the skills he needs to win the world cup. The rest is just wood and metal!
He keeps the dogs fit by running them in the paddock for 20 minutes, going for good walks in the countryside and letting them run around wooded areas near his home where they are able to jump trees and bend a lot.
While the students range from novice to international competitors, he too often sees holes in foundation work which all goes back to the foundations, groundwork and basic dog training skills. Shadow handling, circle handling need to be looked at to solve a problem on a world-class course.
for the goal
On the other hand, he sees people who stay at a stage too long in order to perfect something.
Quick-release contacts are an example. The time for quick-release contacts would be at Worlds, 'but I have to win to get there. So I will do the quick-release contacts and then go back to training at trials. I have to make good dog training decisions.
'I went to Olympia feeling as though I was going to win both classes, and that makes a big difference. I do the hard work that puts me in that position.' It means committing to a training strategy for three to four years.'
And it means doing what needs to be done outside of the formal training to prepare the dogs. He recommends taking young dogs to competitions when older dogs are competing, and making sure that they are well socialised. In preparing for Olympia, for example, he wanted Rehab ready. it was her first experience in that kind of setting.
A successful competitor also needs a good support team including a chiropractor and massage therapist for the dogs and a group of people with whom to train.
Those teams—the top 36 from the Novice Level and the Large Competition—run in the morning at Olympia, when spectators are few and the atmosphere is not as charged. It's the winners of that heat, the top 10, that run in the final in the evening. And it is electric. While some of our qualifiers have FCI-type technical challenges, the finals at Olympia are more open and less technical. The organisers want the speed for the crowd. The competition course is set up rapidly, finished in 20 minutes, and the winner enjoys a victory lap to the cheers of a wild crowd. It's manic. It gives you a buzz. It's the closest thing you can get to a football stadium atmosphere. Greg wouldn't swap an Olympia win for any international win.
Bringing it home
For instance, a tunnel has been constructed so that the competitors will make a dramatic entrance into the arena, just like at Olympia. There will be ring decorations. Olympia plays good music, to get the crowd going. That's something he thinks should be done at more of at international events. He even envisions a big light show in the future, and the opportunity for the winner to have a victory lap in the spotlight.
'We also need to look after both the winners and the losers. At Olympia, if you are eliminated, the crowd still cheers.' They have engaged a professional DJ to bring upbeat music to the arena, even when a team is eliminated. 'We want the agility competition to be more important than the crowd atmosphere, but that crowd atmosphere actually helps the competitor.' It's his hope that the WAO will have the same excitement and electricity that Olympia has become known for, attracting huge, enthusiastic crowds; drawing the top international competitors; and inspiring others to dream of walking through the tunnel into the magic of the WAO arena.
Note: To see Greg's winning Olympia runs from 2012, visit http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dnVb9ONy7Ng.
Photos by Ian Watts, Agility Voice and Agilitynet
First published 2 March 2013