It’s More Than ‘Just a Number’ …

My Border Collie Rowley is now somewhere past the 12-year mark and he is aging out of agility, and this is hard for me to accept.

Not like I can change anything about it, mind you, but it will take some getting used to.

I adopted Rowley from a Border Collie rescue group in January 2010 when he was probably 10 months old.  Maybe a few months older, but 10 months seemed like a good guess.  Rowley had shown up in the intake pen of a shelter in Hancock County, in western Illinois, in October 2009; there wasn’t any record of his surrender, so he might have been just dumped there.  He was a young dog, a puppy of about 6 or 7 months, it was estimated.  When his stray hold was up, the rescue group pulled him, got him on a transport and he went to a foster home, which saved his life – you know the saying about rescuing and fostering saving lives?  It’s true.  Every day.

I had been approved as an adopter by the rescue group a few months earlier, and I was considering adopting a Border Collie for the first time ever.  My Sheltie who was my current agility dog was nearing retirement:  at age 9, she had arthritis in one elbow that limited her mobility in the sport and caused her noticeable discomfort.  I wanted to keep on in a dog sport I very much enjoy, and I thought a BC would be a good dog with which to do that.  So I went to meet Rowley at his foster home in mid-January 2010, and I liked him immediately.  I had only owned Shelties, and a senior rescue Finnish Lapphund, up to that point, and a young BC was, well, something else!  Not that Rowley was crazy or hyper-active; he wasn’t.  From day one, he has been a dog who settles very well in the house, and who matches his energy level to the activity of the day.  The day after I brought him home, I took him to the training center where I had been taking agility classes for the last four years, so he could meet the instructor.  We both thought he would suit, and he started class the following week.

After a couple of years of weekly classes there, I added a weekly class at another training facility for him, so that he could see different equipment and be comfortable in more than one environment.  What a change it was to run Rowley after running Shelties in agility – it really was like going from driving a Mini Cooper to driving a Maserati!  I loved my Shelties, and certainly they were very biddable, but in Rowley, I found a dog who was intelligent, energetic, athletic, and would work as much as I asked him to.  It was a revelation!

When I started in the sport of dog agility, in the early 1990s, it was rather different than it was now.  The art of handling was not yet developed, and it was pretty typical to run the course alongside your dog, directing it over each obstacle – kind of a ‘station to station’ way of doing the course.  Today, a friend tells me she has five different words to tell her dog what KIND of turn to make on the course; back then there wasn’t even an ‘around’ command, I don’t think.  The sport was in its infancy.  By the time I brought Rowley to class, it was more advanced, but my approach was still pretty basic.  I’m too linear to be comfortable with spatial visualization stuff, but Rowley learned quickly, and learned what I meant with my hand signals and verbal cues.  He learned to do what felt right to him, so he made me look like a better handler than I was.  He still does that.    

In his young years, we did some work on sheep, and I am pretty sure that his work of choice would have been that; but I couldn’t afford the time or the money to continue with it, so agility became his work, and he accepted that.  For eleven years now, he has done agility regularly, probably 50 weeks out of 52.  I once calculated that just in agility classes, he ran 300 courses a year.  We trialed a bit when he was younger, but the great majority of his agility time has come in classes.  And we have been blessed – I can’t think of it any other way – with his durability and good health.  His diet has always been excellent, and from the day I adopted him he has seen a chiropractor for dogs on a regular basis, which certainly helped him handle the physical demands of the sport.  I didn’t do the conditioning exercises that are now so prevalent, but he has always had a lot of off-leash exercise in open areas, and I think that helped him keep fit, too.

Have you ever watched a slow-motion video of a dog running an agility course?  You ought to – go to YouTube and find one and watch it.  It’s incredible, what their bodies do in the 40-60 seconds they are running.  Truly incredible.  When I consider that my dog has done that 300 times per year for more than eleven years, I’m staggered.

Last year Rowley started showing indications that his vision is becoming impaired.  His vet says that his depth perception is not very good anymore; this seems to be a normal consequence of the aging process.  He has trouble finding the entrance to a tunnel, now, particularly if the tunnel is a dark color and the contrast is not very sharp.  Twice in the past 10 months he has put a foot wrong, betrayed by his vision, when he was on the ascent of the dog-walk.  Neither time did he injure himself, but after the second occurrence (last week), I realized he should not do the dog-walk again.  He could too easily get hurt.  I’ve already lowered his jump height in the last couple of years, from the 20” he had to jump in competition to 16” and then to 12”.  Agility isn’t about jump height, and his shoulders don’t need that pounding.  But even with those adjustments, he occasionally slips on the artificial turf, and I realize that I’m running an old dog.

Don’t misunderstand me:  he’s not old in the sense that I expect him to not be around next year; but he most assuredly IS old in agility years.  My last agility Sheltie barely made it to 9 years of age on the course, and Rowley, a larger dog, is already well past that.  He’s old the way that I, at 65, am old:  yes, we certainly have vital years ahead of us, but neither of us can do things that we could do when we were half our current ages.  It’s foolish to pretend otherwise.  So when people say ‘oh, he’s not old!’ as I mention his aging out of agility, I am annoyed and I want to say to them ‘yes, he IS, and don’t deny him the respect that comes with that status!  He’s earned the right to be referred to as ‘old’ in agility terms; it’s not a way of disparaging him!’

It makes me sad, though.  As I said, I can’t do a damn thing about it – and no, I’m not going to see if canine testosterone supplements are the solution – but I have that ‘end of an era’ feeling and those are always bittersweet.  I have a young BC who will probably be a stellar agility dog, and already in classes he’s a lot of fun; but what I had with Rowley is something I won’t have again, and that’s the realization of possibilities I hadn’t dreamed of.  With Mylo, my youngster, I have a very good idea what he can do and how to get him there; with Rowley, I had no idea what he could do, until he showed me what we could do.  And even if we’re doing only a little bit of that now, we’ll keep on doing it for as long as he wants to be there, on the course, turning my garbled directions into the beautiful execution of a course.  Best boo-dog ever, and congratulations on being an old agility dog, you excel at that too!

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