Training a terror
Orla came to Hearing Dogs for the Deaf as a stray from Ireland. She made it to week 18 in their training programme but had to be pulled - very reluctantly - as she had an active interest in some wildlife and this would, therefore, make her difficult for a deaf person to control. She was headed for the Agilitynet Rescue page but was snapped up by Penny Cockerill before her entry was posted. Orla was still a terrier! She would run away and always return... eventually.
I went to Stuart Carter for advice. Off we went to a farm full of wild kittens, llamas, cranes, pigs and piglets, barking dogs and chickens. The open-sided barn was most definitely not secure. For the first session Orla was on lead the whole time and we covered the basics. He thought he had the answer! 'It's the most common problem I deal with – the recall,' he boasted.
The key was to make her work for every treat and piece of food. I started retraining Orla in the kitchen by hand feeding her all her food, using it as a reward when she obeyed a command. I broke the kibble into the smallest possible pieces. I was, therefore, setting her up to 'win' every time. After a few days, I moved to the garden, then to the park, gradually building in distractions and using higher value rewards to compensate for them.
I followed his advice to the letter and, after a few weeks, we were back at the crazy farm for another session. I suspect Stuart’s confidence is based on training collies, not terriers. Not thinking he would let her off the lead, I didn’t inspect the sides of the barn for escape routes – big mistake! Right away we were working her between us over one jump, 2 jumps, 3 jumps, in and out of the tunnel with one of us at each end. Then, still off lead but holding on for grim death, I set her up on a table to go down the contact trainer. I released her collar. She was gone! Straight through a tiny gap which she must have spotted earlier and grabbed the nearest unsuspecting chicken by the thigh (the best bit). Stuart separated them and I brought Orla back into the barn, incriminating feathers sticking to her lips and muzzle. It was all theory for the rest of the session and Stuart thought the chicken might have to go in the pot!
So I set off home rather disheartened. Should I give up? What about training and competing, which Stuart had advised against while we were working on the recall? Wye Valley Small/Medium show was coming up - small classes but run in big fields, surrounded by the river Wye. I was encouraged by a couple of episodes in the park when Orla wriggled out of her head collar but came back to me anyway. Were we actually making progress, if chickens were not part of the equation?
I decided to risk it!
I started off with a Brace – ran Orla with my other dog Maggie (Staffie X) - one after the other. Orla apparently totally focused on me, didn’t take her eyes off my face, according to my friends. Orla went clear but Maggie had five faults. Then the Circular Jumping – clear for Orla getting her a rosette but again five faults for Maggie. Then I ran Maggie in the team with my three friends and their dogs. She bogged off to the burger tent - another five faults and a lot of time wasted. This was following the pattern of previous shows with Maggie sometimes switched on and sometimes off. I was, however, thrilled with Orla's attention, absolutely 100%.
Then we were into the serious rounds of the day. In the Grade 2 Jumping, Maggie wandered off but wasn’t faulted so was actually clear with a 6th place (very small class). Orla did very well, still very focused on me but found 12 weaves too much and got faulted for popping out at about number eight.
Last run of the day and I was pretty much on my knees. After a banana and an ice cream I was ready to go for the big one – the Graded Agility. This was a chance to win out of Grade 2 by winning the class. I tried to focus but I know what happens when I let the pressure get to me. It all goes horribly wrong! Only six weaves but an awkward start with jump, rigid tunnel, right turn straight into the soft tunnel, then straight into the weaves.
Orla ran first. I noticed as I lined her up at the start that she was watching a large flock of birds landing in the next field – not a good sign. Sure enough, as she emerged from the tunnel there in her sightline was this b****y flock of birds. She ran towards them, luckily not running past any equipment as she would have been faulted for that. She stopped. She looked. I called. Nail biting time! After what seemed like forever, she turned and ran to me. I guided her into the soft tunnel, through the weaves, over the see-saw, the dog walk and the A-frame. No faults. Finally over the last few jumps she went, back into the tunnel from the other end and then I called her to me over the last jump – clear! Her first ever clear agility round. I was absolutely ecstatic.
Then I had to go back into the queue to run Maggie, knowing all the time that there wasn't a chance of a place with Orla. Off we went, and it was as if she knew! Tunnel, soft tunnel, whipped through the weaves, see saw, dog walk contact, jump, A-frame contact. Ahead lay a jump which she had to take before turning left over another jump and heading for the relative safety of home.
By this time the show was packing up. There were only a few dogs left to run. I went into the score tent to check Orla’s time for my KC warrant book – and her slip with its large 'C' for clear was on the top of the pile. Lying in first place! And that's where we finished. She had won me out of Grade 2!
Off I went with my little stars and a lovely, handmade trophy and huge red rosette. I let the sat nav take me home through the most amazing Cotswold scenery - a fine end to the day. To cap it off, as I hit the M40, a Red Kite circled lazily over head. Perfection!
Maggie was expected to take agility a bit easier at the age of nine but since Orla has been on the scene she is more focused than ever!
Penny works in local government but says this career is now getting in the way of agility so she hopes to ease into retirement in the near future.