In the first in a series of articles about some of our most successful handlers and their dogs, Soraya Porter talks to some of our most high profile handlers about competing at the top of our favourite sport and how hard they have to work, not only to get there, but to stay there. It might surprise you to know that they are not all confident, all knowing. Instead many admit they're still learning, and say they're still quaking in their boots along with the rest of us! What better way to kick off the series than with an interview with Wendy (Fairlamb) Clay whose dog Scout Soraya seriously covets!
Soraya: When and how did you first get into agility?
I started Agility in 1990 when I went to look at the classes because Mike had just started going and came to Obedience every week, going on about how good it was. The classes were held at a kennels in Northamptonshire and run by Milton Keynes DTC. The trainers at that time were Diane Griffin, Jane Gold and Janet Jordan.
Hattie's major problem was that she had to compete at 2'6'' as there were very few Mini (small) classes then. She could jump the height, but I was never happy about her jumping so high on a regular basis. Let's face it. If there was a steak or a smelly dustbin the other side, she would have done it with ease! At that time, there was a national qualifier (Spillers I think), which was set at 2', and Hattie loved those. It wasn't too long before shows started to put on classes for the smaller dogs so once she was jumping an lower height she excelled.
Things have changed so much since I started doing Agility. The best change as far as I am concerned is the use of V-weaves which I prefer, weave bows and channel weaves. It's only my opinion but I just can't understand why anyone would still want to teach weaves on straight poles only.
He has had 28 KC wins this year, has won a Championship class and has been reserve in another with Brad Moyler. He has also qualified for Olympia and Crufts - KC singles and Championship class, Eukanuba Knock Out and Challenge - and won the Small Supadog Agility Dog of the Year. He has been invited to compete at the KC team selection for the European cup and is a member of the UKA World cup team, which is being held in Belgium next year.
My other two dogs have been hi-jacked by Mike!
Tishi's son Nugget is a 5 year old tri-colour WSD Large grade 5. Mike started running Nugg when his own dog was injured and then qualified him for the Novice Olympia final so he has continued to run him to give him a chance to get a good bond for Olympia. They have since won quite a few jumping classes this year.
Wendy: In a word YES. I think they do! Lots of people seem to think that Small dogs should have smaller contact areas as small dogs cannot miss contacts. Hah! They should try watching a Small agility ring. There are just as many missed contacts as there are in Large dog classes! There is no difference training a Small dog to a Large one. To get to the top with a Small dog you still have to train tight turns, send aways, fast contacts, pull throughs etc. etc. and you have to be able to train those things to be as better than the rest of the dogs in your class if you want to be successful.
With this present grading system, I think it will initially be easier to be successful with a Small dog simply because, at the moment, the lower classes have very small entries so dogs have less to compete against. However, once they progress to Grade 3, they have the same hurdles to climb as the Large dogs as the classes get bigger and the competition faster.
I have always thought that many Small dog competitors were fantastic handlers because traditionally the classes were Opens so they were always in queues watching Champ level handlers work the course and, therefore, learning by watching. I do think it is only fair that the Small dogs are, at last, being treated as equals and getting graded classes of their own.
Soraya: What got you really hooked on agility, and who were your biggest influences and mentors?
Wendy: I was hooked from the first lesson.
Lisa Gantly was at MKDTC when I started. She was a great mentor as we ran pairs together, and she helped my training and motivation. She was always there to offer advice with course walking and anything I wanted to learn, always encouraging me to push my dogs and myself to the limit.
I'm not sure about influence or mentor but Mike has been great, too. He never knows where we are going, just gets in the vehicle and drives! We have travelled all over the country including taking an Agility holiday to the Isle of Man. He moans about getting up at 3.30am but then, who doesn't?
Wendy: Since moving to Lincolnshire four years ago, I do most of my training on my own so I really enjoy and appreciate attending training days when I get the chance. I've been on two courses this year, the first was with Den Keeler which was great as he set up tricky exercises which made me think and picked me up on some of the lazy things I do. The other with Lisa Gantly and Carla Whyte, I love training with Lisa because she handles from behind, the same as I do so understands the need to give clear directions and more importantly when to do it! Carla was good at picking up on body language and humoured me when I had a "toys out of the pram" moment because I couldn't do something right.
I love training with Toni Dawkins because Minx and Scout work very alike so she helps with tightening Scouts turns.
The biggest influence in Scouts early contact training was Jo Rhodes. I knew I wanted to teach him to target the contacts and had taught him on the flat but didn't know how to join it up with the contacts. Jo explained how to go about it and the rest as they say is history.
The person who I train with most often is Brad Moyler who is very calm and makes me realise sometimes I ask Scout for too much without giving him enough information.
Soraya: When did you realise you were getting quite serious about competitions?
Wendy: My Dad is very competitive so I've always played sports to win, so as soon as I did my first lesson I knew I wanted to go to shows and do as well as I could and hopefully win.
Soraya: Is there anything that you know now, that you wish you'd known when you first started to get more involved in agility?
Wendy: Using targets on the contacts and for send aways.
Making sure to warm yourself and your dog up properly with exercise and massage.
Soraya: Do you suffer from competition nerves, and if you do, how do you cope with them?
With Tishi, I do turns on the spot in both directions and a quick massage to keep her warm and let her watch the other dogs running as it puts her in the zone. With Scout, I also do a few turns but not many as he locks onto my hands and gets too wound up. I do some hand targets to get him to tune into me and a couple of target touches. He gets a pre-run massage, too. All my dogs work for titbits and toys, and I reward them with food when they finish their runs. If it's an Agility round, they always have to go into the contact target position to get the food. It's my way of rewarding the behaviour they gave me whilst they were in the ring.
Soraya: Do you prepare yourself and your dog differently if it's a competition final?
Wendy: I go through the same routine as if it's a normal run but have to try even harder not to throw up!
Soraya: Do you have a top training tip?
Wendy: Be consistent.
Soraya: What advice would you give to someone who is just starting out in the competitive circuit, who would love to eventually get to Crufts, Olympia or any of the major Finals?
Wendy: Again, be consistent and make it fun. Listen to everything you are told. You don't have to do what everyone tells you, but their advice may be good and, if you don't listen, you may miss out. Above all, remember your dog is your pet. Win or loose you get to take the best dog home - a bit twee I know but it's true.
Be realistic, you may want to win Olympia, but your dog may not have the same aims in life. Ask my Portuguese Podengo if he'd rather win or sleep. No, don't bother. Anyone who's met Moca will know the answer. I believe anything is worth trying for but don't - not at all costs - try to be the best Grade 1 in a Combined 1-3 class and see where that leads you.
I'm as guilty as the next person of thinking my dog should have known better or accusing them of just ignoring me, but experience has taught me that dogs are not machines. They only do what we cue them to do, so look at yourself before you blame the dog!
Soraya: Do you set yourself goals, and if you do, can you tell us any you have set for the 2008 Season?
Wendy: Yes, I do and I encourage everyone who I train to do it as well, even if it's jumping four jumps in a row. It's important to see how well you are progressing. I'm still on this year's goals at the moment, the obvious one being don't throw up at Olympia, to enjoy the experience and do my best.
I guess next year will be similar to this years.
Representing my country will be the most amazing thing I will ever do so the World Cup will be a huge goal for next year. I'm so proud of Scout for qualifying and just hope I don't let Greg and the rest of the team down. I will try my hardest, and that's the best you can do.
Soraya: What is your favourite thing about Agility and why?
Wendy: There are lots of things I love about Agility but above all, I think it's the dogs and people. I'm not a naturally confident person and tend to be stand offish at times until I get to know someone, but I love meeting up with people from all over the country who come together to do something fun and responsible with their pets. This includes all the people who come to me for training.
Teaching Agility is my favourite thing. It gives me a real buzz. Unfortunately someone recently tried to destroy my passion for teaching, but I am lucky enough to have some fantastic friends to whom I am eternally grateful - you know who you are. Without them, I would have given it all up. I am so glad I didn't as its amazing to watch a partnership grow and learn. Seeing the smile on my pupils faces when they get something right is like winning the lottery for me.
Thanks to Soraya for asking me to do this interview.
Currently she trains at Colchester Dog Agility Club and 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, itís a miracle that Ernie has taken part in as many Finals as he has.