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When my dogs were puppies I purchased an agility starter set for our backyard. It was summertime and I thought it would be an exciting activity for my high-energy pups. Fun was had by all as they learned to jump, run through the tunnel, and work the weave poles. I soon knew that I would look for an agility class once the girls were older.

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Aspen and Malibu enjoying a tug in the tunnel.

A year later Malibu and I began attending weekly classes and I immediately fell in love with the sport.  Initially, Malibu’s reactivity was kept at bay because her food motivation kept her focus on me. But it wasn’t long before Malibu began to make it clear that she did not enjoy playing with other dogs nearby. A few new dogs joined the class which worsened the situation.  Malibu would lunge at most of the dogs that got too close to her. Whenever Malibu went over threshold, the instructor, who I will refer to as Cindy, would ask me to take Malibu off to a corner of the room. While there, I would use attention games to calm Malibu down and regain her focus.

In short time, Malibu’s behavior began to put a damper on our group classes. It was hard to concentrate on the agility tasks while managing Malibu’s reactive outbursts. On top of that, I was embarrassed and wished that my dog behaved like the other dogs in class. I cannot say enough kind words about the other members of the group. Despite Malibu’s issues, I was never made to feel unwelcome.

In fact, I became close friends with another woman in the class. Joanne attended class with her Shetland Sheepdog, Charlie. For some reason, Malibu never reacted towards Charlie. In fact, she was so comfortable with Charlie that they could take walks together and even share an ex-pen.  Joanne was able to empathize with my situation since her other dog had reactive tendencies. Once in awhile Joanne and I would rent the agility facility or field for private practice. When it was just Joanne, myself, and our dogs, it was perfect. Malibu was able to relax and practice the agility skills that would be required if we were to begin competing.

 

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Malibu works the weave poles during a private practice session.

 

Over time Cindy, the instructor, began to lose her patience with Malibu. During one class Malibu stole a treat off of another dog’s target plate so Cindy picked Malibu up, rolled her on her back, and held her there. That really ticked me off because another dog had done the same thing and it either went unnoticed by Cindy or it didn’t warrant a consequence.  After that incident Cindy no longer suggested that I separate Malibu from the group. Instead, Cindy wanted me to correct Malibu the way she had demonstrated, but I was not comfortable doing that to my dog.

Cesar Milan’s show, The Dog Whisperer, was popular during that time so Cindy’s technique was not foreign to me, but I preferred that it not be used on my seven pound dog.  At the time it just seemed mean to do that to a dog. Being naive, I did not understand the emotional and psychological damage that is inflicted upon a dog when they are on the receiving end of an individual who utilizes dominance theory in order to change a behavior.

The final straw broke during an agility workshop at Cindy’s house. It was a hot summer morning and we had decided to take a brief break. We all knew that Cindy had recently gotten a puppy, but I had no idea that she would bring it out while we were there. As soon as I saw the puppy enter the backyard I became nervous. I knew  how Malibu would react if it came near us. There was no time to exit before Cindy began to proudly parade her puppy towards the group. Malibu lunged and growled as soon as the puppy invaded our space and Cindy went off on us in front of everyone. She screamed, “You’re not going to do that to MY dog”. There were a few more words from Cindy as all eyes were on me. I stayed for the rest of the workshop, but my heart wasn’t in it.

Looking back, I wish I had just taken Malibu and left with my head held high. Why did Cindy need to show off her puppy while Malibu was present? Cindy was fully aware of Malibu’s reactivity and should have known better. If she had asked me to take Malibu and leave the backyard for a few minutes while she brought her puppy out to meet everyone I would have been fine with that.

After that experience I knew that I would be ending my relationship with Cindy. Malibu deserved better, and so did I. From the beginning, Malibu was treated differently than the other dogs in our class. She was bullied by Cindy and I allowed it to happen. To this day I feel tremendous guilt when I think about Malibu’s first agility class. I assumed that the instructor had Malibu’s best interest in mind and knew what she was doing. This was my first foray into any type of dog sport, so what did I know? Since then, I have learned that it is my job to be my dogs’ advocate. If something doesn’t seem right I need to speak up, and if deemed necessary,  take my dog and just walk away.

Happy Min-dependence Day

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