by John Thorogood
Suzie (Saskadan Suzan Heywood, CD, ADX, LCC) was born in March 1994, and was our family's first dog. I ended up taking responsibility for training her, with the initial objective of simply having a dog that wouldn't get itself killed (we live on a busy road). Despite people saying "oh, it's a boxer ..." Suzie was a bit of a star at 'puppy pre-school' and in the early classes of the local obedience club (Redlands) - then she became a teenager. Suzie and I became even more famous - she would regularly 'break' and race off around the oval, visiting (and disrupting) every class on her way - she'd get that wild eyed look that said "now I'm having fun". On one occasion the club OIC told me just to get in my car and drive out of sight, Suzie would be waiting for me, ashamed of herself when I came back in 10 minutes. Eight minutes later the OIC came jogging down the road "Come and catch your bloody dog will ya, she hasn't even noticed you've gone' and she's raising hell".
Whilst a 'technically' trained dog, Suzie wasn't close to obedient. Her appalling behaviour (and my appalling handling) went on for months. We just languished in 'top class' - fully 'trained', but a mile from being able to compete - you see by now it had become a challenge - this dog was going to be obedient - I just literally didn't know how.
Our lives changed one evening as I was about to drive home from training and one of the instructors that had never taken Suzie and I asked when we were going to trial. I responded we weren't close, to which she replied "well then, be here at 3pm on Friday and I'll help you get that last little bit". This lady, owner of a brilliant blue heeler, had absolutely no idea what she was getting herself into. Twelve months later, after working together for a couple of hours every Friday afternoon, we really were getting close ! It took a great deal of hard work and perseverance to reverse all that 'bad training' that I had allowed in Suzie's first 12 mths. A critical part of this was a re assertion of my dominance: Suzie was a fiery little bitch, and it took a degree of physical response to convince her I was boss. On three occasions over a period of about a month, she took off (usually on a recall) - and I got really, really mad. I'd have someone else catch her, stride over, take her by the scruff of her neck and knock her off her feet. I'd jab my finger in her ribs and growl at her "you wicked doggie; you hound from hell ...." If she as much as breathed I'd jab her again and growl. Eventually she'd show clear submission and I'd let her up again. This was a watershed period in our relationship: training really improved from here on!
(AgilityBoxer.Com note: This is not as bad as it sounds ~ we witnessed John and Suzie having a "conflict" on more than one occassion, and they both seemed to enjoy it. Suzie was an extremely hard character Boxer)
In August 1996 we attempted a sweepstakes - and just scraped in. Five trials latter and we had our CD (by November, 1996). No starry scores, but solid performances. Her off-lead heeling was barely passable, but in groups, and by now ironically in recalls, she was rock solid (our last trial was visited by a thunder storm - she was the only dog that held the drop stay). We could participate in the 'Boxer All Stars" (the Qld Boxer Club's display team) with head held high. I sent my mentor a case of wine! Without her guidance and encouragement Suzie would still be a rat bag confined to the backyard.
Over this period, Suzie had also been a regular participant in lure coursing (ok so i wasn't out for an easy life - lure coursing teaches the dog just the opposite of obedience), and easily attained her 'Lure Coursing Champion' title. But by now I was longing to give agility a go.
When Suzie was just 18mths we started training, and at around 24 mths attempted our first trial. Whilst she was technically competent (the story of our lives), I was worried (with good reason) that she'd just go beresk and disappear from the ring. But just to throw me completely, she went into some sort of stunned torpor. "Who are all those people and why are they watching me?" she seemed to say - she just froze. I think we got only a couple of faults, but a time of about 4 minutes (course time less than 1 minute). We let a year pass, by now Suzie had her CD and I felt confident she'd be more or less under control: we tried again. This time the first obstacle was the 'table': she just looked at it. Eventually, I lifted her onto the table. Bill Patterson, the judge looked at me and said "I don't ever want to see you lift that dog onto the table again". I can't remember how we went, but it wasn't great. We went back to basics. I started feeding her at home on a 'table' - she now had no problem jumping up !
Suzie was almost three when we entered our next agility competition. I was really enjoying her now, she was increasingly stable and although I never really noticed it, others would frequently comment "she never stops watching you". We qualified; and again in the next with a place. It took a further three trials to get that last qualifier in 'novice' and a 1st place. We felt good, but open seemed daunting. There was that seesaw, and there were some bloody good dogs in 'open'.
Suzie learnt the seesaw in the first training session. It ended up taking eight trials to get the three qualifiers - but again we felt good. I was beginning to realise that Suzie had what it took; that her handler (me) needed to improve (we blew one trail where I forgot the course, another where I tripped over her and so on); and that even the best dogs don't always qualify.
In agility the judge has a far greater influence on who qualifies - it's not just a matter of reaching a standard of performance like obedience. For each trial the judge sets a new course and calculates a 'standard course time'. You have to make that time, and a get a clean round to qualify. If the judge calculates badly (it's an art rather than a science), the time may be too low for even the best and most experienced competitors.
The transition to 'masters' was less traumatic. Most 'open' dogs had also made it through to 'masters', and there was no new equipment (just more for me to have to remember in sequence). To my surprise and the consternation of some other competitors we qualified in our first 'masters' trial. Able to compete in both 'masters' and 'open' it was rare now that we went home without a place and a qualifying certificate. Sometimes we got two. Over about six trials we gained three qualifiers in 'masters' and one first place, and looked set to complete the required seven legs within the year. Suzie was oh so responsive to my commands and oh so competitive. At the starting line she'd sit quivering with anticipation. Her only faults were to be slow to 'drop' once on the table (as is mandatory in 'open' and sometimes required in 'masters'), and to occasionally 'sightsee' from the top of the 'A' frame. I think the former was a vestige of her early defiance; whilst in hindsight, the latter was probably a result of poor 'contacts' training on my part - she was actually hesitant to come down in case she 'got it wrong'.
But then she started to slow down. She'd walk a few paces between obstacles. I just though she was unfit: these days we did very little training. After a couple of months, we were competing at a double header at Redcliffe, and she was obviously in distress during the first event. I withdrew her from the second, knowing now that something was badly wrong. Her will was there, but her body (although she looked fine) was not following. In the next couple of days she developed a cough, so I took her to our vet, who had given her a thorough medical only a couple of months before. His diagnosis was that her cough was the result of fluid on the lungs - due to a heart problem. My heart sank. His prognosis was that she may get no worse; but it was very unlikely that she would recover. She should rest and not exercise vigorously. well I tried to tell her what the vet had said - but she just wanted to carry on as normal. Over the next two months we had various tests done at the UQ vet clinic under Dr Rick Atwell. The diagnosis and prognosis deteriorated: she had not only an inoperable deformity in one valve resulting in the inefficient circulation of blood from the lungs, but also heart muscle degeneration. Now she was on five drugs three times a day. On occasion she'd be quite spritely, and I'd think maybe she could .... . But then she'd have days were she'd just collapse by my desk at work and sleep the day away. She was deteriorating and requiring ever increasing doses of diuretics and the other drugs to ease the fluid building up in her lungs, and the expansion of her heart. Then came the night when she couldn't lie down to sleep - she needed to stand to breath, her lungs were so restricted. We knew the time had come to say goodbye. My only regret was that I didn't let her set the pace. She wanted to keep competing: I should have let her and damn the vets!.
Suzie taught me many things, including a few things about obedience and agility. Her wild, rebellious spirit was her essence, and I'm sure the reason for her success in the trial ring. Suzie was the first Queensland boxer to compete at 'masters' level; to qualify in 'masters' and to gain a first place in 'masters'. It was very satisfying to realise that the obedience club that had once shunned her, now took great pride in her achievements and exemplary (well almost) behaviour. Her success has laid the foundation for young Shelley - a beautiful pup from the same blood line (only very nice people ever called Suzie beautiful!). Whilst Shelley won't be able to benefit from training with Suzie, I often tell the little one about her, and in spirit it's always the three of us out there working to 'finish' that ADM title.
John Thorogood and Family
Note: John and Shelly have gone on to earn thier CD, CDX, AD
and JD titles, with more to come.