Back in 2007, I entered my first show with ‘Leo’ my Border collie. After leaving the house at 5:30am and traveling almost 200 miles, I entered the ring full of a mixture of nerves and excitement and performed our high energy freestyle routine… and on leaving the ring the steward remarked “great routine…. but what was the music?” I knew then that we had a problem!
I continued to work him over the next year and managed to win out of starters, but after working him in Novice for the first time and receiving the highest score, but due to the four mark deduction for barking, finishing in last place, I made the decision to try to solve the barking issue in order to progress in the sport.
The following year, I travelled around the shows as normal, but did training rounds in the ring with him. Initially, I only asked him to do what I knew he could do without barking. To begin with, he would bark as soon as the music came on, so I asked the DJ to turn the music on as we walked into the ring calmly, and then rewarded him. Gradually, I began moving around in the ring, and then asking him to perform heelwork. If at any point he made a noise, I stopped working him and insisted that he remained still. As Leo is such a highly driven dog and is so keen to work, only allowing him to continue working when he was quiet helped him to learn that he must not bark while working.
Eventually, Leo could perform heelwork without barking, still the odd whine, but not barking, however he still found freestyle moves too exciting and would often bark when performing them, so I decided to stop doing freestyle with him and just concentrate on heelwork to music. This was a difficult decision as a loved doing freestyle and he has a large repertoire of tricks, but it was definitely a good decision as once I started to focus on his heelwork, he became much quieter and also, his heelwork improved drastically as he wasn’t constantly anticipating performing an exciting freestyle routine.
After 15 months of training rounds, I plucked up the courage to try to compete. I put together a simple Heelwork routine and entered the ring without a toy in my pocket for the first time in what felt like ages, and with the plan to stop as soon as he barked. He worked through the routine with no more than the odd whimper. I was absolutely delighted with him. We were placed 5th and when I looked at the score sheet, there were NO DEDUCTIONS for noise! Over the next few shows I continued to compete, picking up two second places, a third and a win, taking us to intermediate. However, these results had brought out my competitive side again, and I had been so determined to work his routine that I was not always consistent and as a result, the noise began to creep in again. It was not actually barking, more whining, but it was definitely too much noise when I had worked so hard to keep him quiet.
Over the winter, I returned to basics and to stopping him for any noise. During these ‘stops’ I noticed him actually trying to calm himself down, performing calming signals and visibly trying to relax. This was a major breakthrough as one of the hardest things I have found is trying to help him to understand that it is the noise is wrong, and not the move, as the majority of the time when he is whining, he is working really well as he whines when he is trying hard, so the fact that he calmed himself indicated to me that he understood that in order for me to work him, he must be calm and quiet.
We began the 2011 season with a brand new routine. I planned to train it at the first show, however Leo appeared calm so I tried to compete. He worked very well and was SILENT! And he came SECOND! I was so pleased with him. At the next two shows, he WON both of the intermediate heelwork classes, taking us to the dizzy heights of advanced! However, yet again, this run of competitions had brought back a return of the noise. I really have found that if I allow it just for one show, then it creeps back in again very quickly. This resulted in the next few shows being training rounds where I rewarded him for nice quiet work. One of these shows was a training show, meaning that we got four goes in the ring and could reward with food, which keeps him calmer than a toy.
By August, I felt ready to compete again. I travelled up to Blackpool for our first competition in the Advanced class. He worked quietly right until near the end of the routine, but I chose to continue working him. He came 4th and this meant that he had qualified for the Crufts semi finals in January. I never thought that I would achieve this with him so I was very proud of my boy.
With the confidence of having a qualifier behind me, I went to another show at the end of August. It was a large class and so was split into two parts. I was in the second part so sat and watched the first before going to get changed and warm Leo up. I entered the ring with him when it was our turn. He worked beautifully, was very attentive and held his positions well however the dreaded noise began to creep in half way through the routine. I almost stopped him, turning the round into a training round however, I realised that I was actually enjoying myself, and more importantly so was he so decided to carry on regardless, after all, I do this sport as a hobby which me and my dog enjoy together. When the results were being announced and third and second place were given out, presumed we had missed out on the placings on this occasions, and so when my name was called out for first place, I could not believe it. I was so happy and couldn’t stop smiling all day! Most of all, it really reminded me why I love this sport, I had thoroughly enjoyed dancing with my boy in the ring.
At the following show, I worked him again, however, he was quite noisy and so I was disappointed in myself that I continued to work him and did not stop as I planned. When the results were announced, I was amazed to find out that I had won the class. While I was very pleased, it was over-shadowed by the fact that I felt that I had let myself down by not sticking to my plan.
Next stop for us would be the Crufts semi finals in January. I have never prepared for this type of competition before, so I was daunted. In training, it was a fine line between concentrating solely on the noise at the expense of working on his accuracy, and allowing him to make noise. In the end I opted for a mix between the two; I decided before each run through whether I was working on noise or accuracy. When working on accuracy, I worked him with food in my hand, not to motivate him but to keep him calm so that his noise was not excessive. On the day, as it was a big occasion, nerves were running high. Leo is very tuned into me and when I am very nervous his noise is often worse. As I entered the ring, I was so nervous I was actually shaking. I felt that Leo worked really well for me, I could not have asked for anymore from him, however, as I expected, he was noisy so I presumed this would keep him out of the top ten, which we needed to be in to qualify for Crufts. However, even with deductions for noise, we managed to qualify for Crufts! I was pretty shocked as I wasn’t expecting it, but I am very excited! I have no idea how Leo will react to the big arena, but after all of this hard work I am determined to enjoy every minute of it.
This whole journey has been a huge learning curve for me, and while we have come a long way, I know that we still have work to do. The biggest lesson I have learnt is the importance of consistency when training and in the ring. In theory, it sounds easy; stop when he makes a noise, however in reality it is very difficult to be disciplined enough to stop part way through a competition when Leo is working his heart out for you, and you and are both enjoying dancing together, just because he made a noise, however I have learnt over the past few years that the only way to progress and to maintain good results is to be consistent and stick to criteria so that the dog has a clear understanding of what is expected of them. This presents a challenge when training as I like to focus on one specific criteria at a time and so if I am working on the noise, this means I may have to sacrifice accuracy or motivation, and when working on aspects of his performance other than noise, I cannot allow him to vocalise as this is counter-productive. I have found that if I have food in my hand and keep sequences short, he is quiet, and so I can work on short sections in this way, and then put the sections back together, and save full run-throughs for working on noise.
Through-out this journey, I have received a lot of help, advice and encouragement from fellow competitors- I’m sure I would not have been able to keep going without everyone’s support and I really appreciate it. In particular, I would like to thank Gina Pink and Kath Hardman, who have both given a lot of their time to help me and Leo and to offer their expertise, and I am very, very grateful to you both.
By Nicci Hindson, England