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May 29, 2012

The Time of My Life!

The 2012 IFCS World Agility Championship was held May 11-13 in Fort Worth, Texas, hosted by the United States Dog Agility Association. This elite international competition takes place every two years, since 2002, and has been held in Russia, Spain, The Netherlands, Belgium and the UK. This year was the first time it has been held in the USA. Each country who participates may send a team of up to 12 dogs/handlers, with a maximum of 3 in each of the four height divisions (Toy, Mini, Midi & Maxi). Teams from Australia and New Zealand are eligible to compete in this event but the quarantine regulations in their countries make in impractical for their dogs to travel outside of their home countries. In the spirit of sportsmanship, the IFCS allows teams from these two countries to compete by  borrowing dogs from the host country.
In February 2012, USDAA put out a call to the US agility community, asking for “Loaner Dogs” to be volunteered. Now, I have never had “World Team” aspirations, the selection process alone is high-pressure and I am not of that caliber as a handler. However, I have always thought that Dandy possibly had “world team” potential. So I offered Dandy as a possible Loaner Dog for the 26” height class (Maxi), and he was put on a list of candidates that was sent to the Australian Team Manager. Also being offered were dogs belonging to two fellow competitors from the northeast, Jeannie Bonsignore & Melanie Behrens. We hoped that all 3 of our dogs might be chosen so we could make the big road trip to Texas together. We were asked to submit videos of our dogs in competition, and to complete a questionnaire regarding our dogs’ training, temperament, experience, if they enjoyed running with other handlers, and so on. At the end of March, all three of us were notified that our dogs were selected for Team Australia! The planning for the road trip began! Two weeks off from work, first time travelling in an RV, never been west of the Mississippi…and that’s just the beginning of the adventure…
On May 2, we packed up Jeannie’s RV and headed for Texas, arriving there on Friday afternoon, May 4. A few days prior, we had received emails from the Team Coach advising us of the handler that was being preliminarily matched to each of our dogs, so we were looking forward to our first meeting and training session on Saturday May 5. The handler chosen for Dandy was Natalie Kirkwood, a fantastic trainer and handler with over 20 years experience in agility, having started as a teenager. I had “met” Natalie on Facebook shortly after Dandy was selected for the team, so I felt like I already knew her. And upon our first meeting, I felt 100% comfortable with her as Dandy’s handler, and I knew we’d also become fast friends.
Australia sent a full team of 12 handlers, and they arranged practice sessions for every day…Saturday through Tuesday…at a few different local training facilities in the Fort Worth area. Saturday, Sunday & Monday were very hot & humid days, and our dogs from the northeast were not acclimated to heat yet, so we had to keep sessions short. Tuesday gave us a bit of a break in the heat, thankfully. There was a significant learning curve for the Aussie handlers as most of them use a different handling system than our dogs are trained for. They decided it was easier to revise their own handling than to try to change what our dogs already knew. It was not easy, modifying handling while getting to know their loaner dogs, all in the span of 5 days, but they did it with enthusiasm and sportsmanship and smiles! Team Australia really rose to the occasion!
While Dandy was officially running for Team Australia, Tempo also got to join in the fun. He was a Reserve Dog (Maxi) for Team Australia, so he got to do some training with all three of the Maxi dog handlers in the training sessions. He was surprisingly happy to work for *anyone* and didn’t look for me at all! I guess that shows how confident he is and how much he loves the game…although looking for me just once in a while would not have been THAT bad. <g>
Wednesday was the official team practice at the Watt Arena at the Will Rodgers Equestrian facility in Fort Worth. The excitement was really beginning! The “loaner dog” owners had been given beautiful team shirts in Aussie green & gold, sporting our names and our dogs’ names. Each dog was given an official team collar/leash, in green & gold; the collar portion was embroidered with the dog’s name, and the Team Australia logo was printed on the leash portion. We were all dressed for success! Each country had 45 minutes to practice in the actual ring where the competition would be held, giving them all a chance to get accustomed to the footing and equipment. The team practice was a bit frantic but it was good for the dogs to have a chance to show their wild side!
On Thursday, there was a local qualifier for USDAA Grand Prix and Steeplechase. Dandy ran both of these classes with Natalie, their very first time in a competition together, with me being far away in the stands. I had really hoped that Dandy would be confident enough at this point to be able to work with Nat without me anywhere in sight. I did not want to be a distraction, and wanted to let this be about the two of them. I was relieved to watch their first run as a true team, with Dandy giving Nat his full attention. They qualified in both Grand Prix and Steeplechase, finishing 5th in Steeplechase Finals, while Nat continued to practice new handling skills with Dandy.
I ran Tempo myself in Thursday’s classes, although I felt very unprepared. I had not worked with him at all since we arrived in Texas, and I had gotten into “spectator mode”…I was not exactly ‘in the zone’. We had one refusal in Grand Prix and one bar down in Steeplechase, so we did not qualify in either. Afterwards, he was run in both classes FEO as was permitted for handlers running “borrowed” dogs. Tony Redwood ran him in Grand Prix and although they E’d, Tempo had a grand time. Natalie ran him in Steeplechase, 1 bar down, but he again had a blast.
The Opening Ceremonies were held later that day, introducing all the countries who came to compete: Australia, Belgium, Canada, Hungary, Japan, Mexico, New Zealand, Puerto Rico and the USA.
I could write an entire book on this whole journey. But in brief, what transpired over the 3 day event was nothing short of amazing. Nat & Dandy ran like they had been running together for years. They did not quite make it to the podium but were hot on the heels of all the big winners. Out of 9 WAC classes, they E’d in just one class, Biathlon Jumping. In Team Triathlon, they were 2nd in Jumping, 4th in Agility (Standard) and clean in Relay. In Individual All Around classes, they were 6th in Snooker, 9th in Gamblers, 4th in Agility (Std) and 5th in Jumping, where the top 5 dogs were within 0.3 seconds of each other (Dandy & Nat were just 0.13 seconds from a Bronze medal in Jumpers.) Their final result in the Individual All Around was 4th place….less than 1.5 points from a Bronze medal. They competed against very strong teams in the Maxi division from the USA, Canada and Hungary, teams who have been training & competing with their own dogs for years. Medal or not, Natalie did her country proud, and brought Dandy to a whole new place, proving that he truly is “world team” quality. I could not have been any prouder.
On the final day of competition, our handlers presented each “loaner dog” owner with a green and gold Team Australia training bag, embroidered with dog’s name and filled with little gifts from Australia. And a Thank You card that made me cry…but that was nothing unusual, I never cried so many tears of pride and joy in my entire life! But there were also tears of sadness, in saying Good Bye to our wonderful new friends from Down Under. We will be forever friends, and I will never forget this incredible experience. I am eternally grateful to Natalie Kirkwood for bringing Dandy to new heights, exposing his true potential…and for inspiring me to push myself a a handler…to trust my dog and trust my training, to run with more ambition instead of always running “just to get through the course”, and to allow him to really shine.
We left Fort Worth on Sunday night, and managed to get back home late Tuesday night. All three of us were so proud of our dogs, happy with our experience and new friendships, yet a bit sad to say goodbye and to realize it was over. Yes, the event is now in the past, but it will always be a huge part of my life, and the wonderful memories will be with us forever.
Dandy, Elf & Zeke for Team Australia
And it can never be said too much…Dandy amazed me way beyond my expectations. I am truly blessed to have him as well as Tempo in my life. Thank you, Token & Meg, for these precious gifts. And Token, I know you were in Texas with us, you are always with me.
All of Dandy’s runs are uploaded to my youtube channel, here is the link to the playlist of all nine WAC classes:
Playlist for WAC videos of Dandy & Natalie Kirkwood
But to sum it all up, Nat and I both made compilation videos…I will never get tired of watching them.
Natalie’s video of her WAC journey with Dandy
My video of Dandy’s WAC Experience
Tempo's WAC Adventure
Photo of Natalie Kirkwood & Dandy by Heather Gahres
WAC photos day 2 279540438_387425104632553_227786267263105_1079968_1202657885_n
Natalie Kirkwood & Dandy


Damian Noud said...

Beautifully written article, Linda. I enjoyed reading it and it brought back lots of good memories. Best wishes to you and your super puppies.

natkirkwood said...

It truly was a fantastic experience. Dandy's ability to more than cope, but shine as we amped it up was a fantastic credit to his training and temperament. Thank you for going to all that effort so some girl from downunder could have an awesome time playing agility with your boys. It truly was one of the best times of my life too.

Donalee said...

What a wonderful journey.
I am so happy for both you and Natalie for having had this opportunity to experience such a memorable event...and all because of one amazing dog!