You know that feeling where your heart is racing and your face hurts from smiling?
Czar and I had racked up three obedience/rally o trials and three DQ's, most memorably the trial at Southern earlier this year where the judge scratched us for failing to enter the ring under control. Yep, we were failing before we were even in the ring! I was pretty demoralized, thinking about retiring from obedience until I had a dog who actually enjoyed it, even if that meant getting (gasp!) a different breed.
But our circle of obedience friends talked me into entering the Rally O trial at Berwick. There were four of us entering, three in the morning for Obedience, and two in the afternoon for Rally. My plan was to get there in the later stages of the Obedience trial so we had plenty of time to get habituated to the ground and the neighboring ponies, plenty of time to warm up. When we arrived, our friends were all busy with their obedience trials.
Except one. Poor Flash had spent the afternoon prior at his grandparents' place and done a LOT of pacing due to some separation anxiety. He had a very sore shoulder and was too lame to compete, even though obedience is a very low impact sport. Given that his mum had driven four hours to Melbourne for the trial, a trip which had taken several weeks to arrange, it was an enormous disappointment. In the end, they decided to pack up and start the long drive home early. (Fortunately Flash was fine after a couple of days rest!)
Once the Obedience trial was over, we set up River and Czar's crates near the Rally O Novice ring. To my relief it was quite a way away from the ponies in the next paddock. But would Czar focus on me? Or be distracted by all the other dogs or the comings and goings in the nearby car park?
It felt like ages until the judge called us up for the walk through. In Rally O, every circuit is different, a unique combination of different stations, practicing different skills. Walk throughs are an oportunity for the two-legged folks to practice the circuit and clarify the expectations for each station with the judge before the competition starts. We all went in and started moving through the stations, rehearsing with imaginary dogs (we probably looked ridiculous!).
I thought the course was straightforward, but compact. There was only 4m between each station, and with a largish dog with a long stride and enormous turning circle, I knew I'd have to be careful to avoid knocking over signs. The sequence included a couple of Sits, Downs, short Recalls, a Weave, some turns (90o, 270o and 360o) and a section of Fast Pace. All on a loose lead, the dog completing the tasks based on voice and hand signals.
One of the other ladies asked the judge about the Fast Pace - did the start and end of the faster walking/jogging have to be exactly in line with the start and finish signs? The judge replied that the key thing was a clear change of pace, especially for partners who usually move quite slowly or quickly. Oh dear! That'd be us!
I tried to watch the first few partners go through but I was pretty nervous and jumpy. I watched River and her mum's run - they'd been so perfect at our previous trial, it would have been hard to be better. After their circuit, they stopped and waited to speak to the judge, who gave their score and feedback straight away. It was a clear pass - hooray!!! River had now completed her third Rally pass, which got her the title and she was entitled to have RN after her name.
Finally it was our turn. Czar was very keen to see me, after waiting in the crate since before our walk through. (Even though I'd spent most of that time within a metre of the crate!) Compared to our disaster at Southern, he was a different dog, swinging into heel and looking expectantly up at me. When the judge called us, we entered the ring under control (yay!!!) and moved to the first sign. I focused on following each direction precisely, and tried not to worry about Czar being a little wide. The lead was still loose, but I still didn't feel very "under control".
The Weave (walking left and right through a series of plastic cones and back again) made up the middle of circuit. Every previous dog had had a good sniff as they circled the end cone, and Czar did the same. I resisted the urge to tug the lead, and instead called him on, which worked, but as we moved forward we ended up on a collision course. We crashed into each other and I put my hand up. "Retry please?" I asked the judge.
"Are you sure?" she checked.
I hesitated, completely thrown by the unexpected question. Was she suggesting that I shouldn't retry the weave? Should I continue? I stood and dithered. I looked at Czar. He wasn't watching me. We'd lost all momentum.
"Yes please. We've stopped now, we should retry." I decided.
We walked back to the first cone and I called to Czar to Watch. He looked at me, looked at my fingers and suddenly "switched on". I looked at the judge, who nodded and off we went. Up through the weave, and back again, this time without sniffing. Into the next station, moving briskly and together.
It was a dream run. Czar watched me constantly, looking at me happily, wagging his tail and moving with alacrity to each command. He was having fun! Suddenly I was having fun too!
I forgot to be nervous about the change of pace. We just jogged a few steps and then slowed again.
A last Turn, a Drop and we were finished!
Back outside the ring, the judge asked me if I needed an ambulance.
"You look like your heart is pounding" she explained. It was.
When she handed me my score sheet, my heart leapt and my grin stretched from ear to ear. 93/100! 3 points for the retry at the Weaves and only 4 points for the rest of the course! 3 of those were from the early stations, where I'd felt like we were too loose, only 1 lost after the retry. I felt like my decision to retry was justified - the extra focus we'd gained at that point was worth much more than the 3 points we'd lost.
In Rally, a really good team can get a perfect score, so I wasn't sure whether our 93 would be good enough for a place. At presentations the judge announced a perfect score for 1st place, then a 98 for 2nd. Then she decided to stop my heart completely, announcing that 3rd place had tied between two teams, who were both sitting on 93 points! To decide on the placings, a "count back" had been performed, which in Rally means that times had been compared as well as points.
It turned out that Czar and I had come 4th overall, as the other team with 93 points had been faster. I'm not sure what their exact time was, but I'd love to know. We were a relatively quick team, so I'd be prepared to bet that we were only slightly slower than 3rd place. Possibly, if I hadn't dithered when the judge had asked me about retrying, we'd have made up the difference.
Regardless, it took a long time for my grin to fade. I was so proud of Czar, so impressed at his attitude in the ring, so pleased that we'd finally got a pass, so happy that we'd enjoyed ourselves together.
Now we've only got to do it twice more to get those letters after his name. Not bad for a rescue dog, not bad for a sled dog that loves to pull, not bad for a stubborn arse independent husky who'd bombed out three times before!