On 25th January, Nala and I travelled to Stoneliegh for the British Crufts semi finals. At just 2 and a half, she was the youngest competitor, so I was determined to make the day a positive experience for her and not to worry whether or not we qualify, as she is still so young and has her whole life ahead of her. However, I was delighted when she qualified for the Freestyle final, in third place! After lots of celebrations and posing with our rosette, we headed home and training began.
As Crufts drew closer, I knew that, although I felt like I should keep running through our routine, it was important that I didn’t allow Nala to get bored with the routine, or to start to anticipate what was next and rush to get to her ‘favourite’ bits. Equally, I knew that as a young and inexperienced dog that is quite sensitive by nature, she needed to be absolutely confident with everything that I was asking her to do. Training had to strike a balance between the two. I broke the routine down into smaller parts and tried to ensure that she couldn’t not get it wrong. That way she only practiced the ‘right’ way, and I gave her lots of high intensity rewards to increase confidence and motivation. I proofed each individual move to check that she fully understood it and would perform accurately in any place, with distractions, and even if she approached it from a slightly different angle or position. On the week of Crufts, I did no training at all with her in the hope that she would be fresh for her big day.
On the morning of Crufts we had an early start so that we could arrive at the NEC in plenty of time. As Nala had never been to Crufts before, and can be quite nervous of strange environments, I wanted to ensure that she had plenty of time to get used to the venue before it became too crowded and ample time to practice in the main arena. I took her favourite toy with me to the main arena to practice. I let her have a good look around and then had a big game of tuggy with her before setting up her props and running through some of her favourite bits of the routine. I continued my strategy from the last few weeks of breaking things down so that she does not have the opportunity to get things wrong, so that she felt confident and got lots of positive feedback and rewards. Then it was back to the benches for a rest, and time for me to get changed into my costume. We were working 8th, and would need to be in the collecting ring ten minutes before the start of the competition, meaning that she would be waiting for around an hour before her turn, so I was careful to ensure she had as much chance to rest as possible.
As the start of the competition grew closer, I started to get more nervous. We had never performed in such a big arena and I had no idea how she would react. When we moved into the holding area to wait our turn, tensions where running high, but I knew that I must not allow Nala to realise what a big event it was, or that I was scared. I needed to be calm so that she could be relaxed and focused. I found a quiet corner for her to settle in and encouraged her to lie down and I stood by her, calmly feeding her for remaining still, so that I was interacting with her, but she wouldn’t tire herself out, and we watched the other competitors on a screen. When it was our turn, she had to wait with the steward while I placed my props in the ring. She could hear the crowd cheering, and as we walked into the arena, she glanced around at the stands, but once she realised it was just me and her out in the ring, she relaxed and watched me again. I settled her into her start position, gave her a kiss for luck, and took up my own start pose. Once she had completed the first section of the routine, I relaxed a little as she was working well. Unfortunately at one point, the camera on a long pole dropped very quickly which spooked her, causing her to bark, but she recovered very quickly and slipped straight back into the routine. I was so proud of her as just a year ago if something had scared her, there is no way I could have continued with her. From then on, I decided just to enjoy our time together in the Crufts Arena.
Nala danced her socks of and the crowd clapped, cheered and ‘aaaah’d’ in all the right places, and before I knew it, the routine had ended and we ran out of the ring for a big game of tug and lots and lots of sausages! At this point, I was so proud of my little girl that I really didn’t mind what are score was or where we came, but I was delighted to realise we finished in 4th place, with a very respectable 25.15 points.
We collected our rosette and did a lap of honour with all of the other competitors while the crowd clapped. I think Nala thought that they were all there just for her as she ran around barking and lapping up all of the attention. After cuddles with some of her friends that were in the audience, she was very pleased to climb into her crate and go to sleep, while I walked around the shops spoiling her with lots of new toys.
I thoroughly enjoyed the day, and I am so proud of Nala and the way that she coped, not only in the big ring, but with the atmosphere of Crufts in general. I would like to thank everyone for there support, every single card, present, good luck wish and ‘congratulations’ is appreciated and I have been completely over-whelmed by the support that we have received – it means the world to me.