Rally: New Life for Old Dogs

Copy of Karen and Ryker A frame 6-02 sm

Several competitors near me were commenting on how great Rally was for young dogs just getting starting in competitions.  Laid back, no off lead in Novice and you can be more encouraging than in Obedience.  The competitors were starting young puppies and just waiting for the pups to hit six months of age so they could start working towards titles.  No one was talking about older dogs.  Yes, Rally is a fun activity and a great starting point.  Why do many competitors think only of the up and coming stars?  I think Rally is even better for a different generation of dogs!

July of 2006, I wondered if he would hear me.  The trial was small and indoors.  We had not practiced much but I had the handbook for the signs on my lap.  I carefully watched the other competitors, asked a few questions, and called upon a bit of memory from Agility – turn that head fast and look for the next cone.  However, we would be walking.  There would be no need for speed! What a concept, walking.

We messaged back and forth about our old dogs.  Many of us had Agility or Obedience dogs that were all into double digits. A few others had Flyball and Schutzhund dogs who were retiring or getting set to retire.  Every now and then, we would just reminisce about the younger days, post some pictures get misty…  Their hearts were in it, just not the bodies.  Now what do we do?  It is painful to see the old timers stand by the door as we packed up vehicles for trials with the younger set.

Nationals, Michigan, 2003, wow!  I knew he was not ready for this level of competition.  My old guy was ten, had decided that weave poles were optional.  However, he had a UKC Agility I title; I was trying for at least an AKC NA.  It was Nationals, little sister’s club was hosting…

What is more important for an aging dog, medical care or mental care?  It is a combination of both.  Senior dogs get bored as younger dogs do.  Older dogs just may not have the ability to keep up with the younger guys, the strength to work livestock or hit a sleeve as hard.  They may seem content to sleep by the fire or look out the window at birds.  On the other hand, are they wishing they could be part of the action at some level? Are we forcing them into retirement because we cannot get creative?

We hit the course as we always did.  I figured that we would offer a bit of comic relief if nothing else.  Jumps, A-frame, teeter, and those weaves, everything was done and done clean.  I heard one of my instructors, cheering after our run.  However, I felt the run was slow and just too dazed to realize why she was cheering.  My mentor knew.  It was our first AKC leg and a first place in Standard and a win at a National!  A respectable time over dogs half or less his age.  Then a few months later, I was pregnant with my second child.  We did one more trial that fall before I knew I could not manage; it was a Sheltie Specialty as well.  Another first in Standard and one more leg to go!

Over the years, there have been various human studies about how it is important to keep the brain mentally active in seniors.  It may help ward off dementia and such.  Boredom is the pits and really does kill the brain. I am convinced that boredom causes our dogs to age faster.  Physical and mental activity is vital for overall health.  It is the same with dogs.  We just have to gear our new work to the changing abilities of the dog.  It is our duty to our graying partners.

The littlest one was a few months old and I was trying to get back into Agility.  Our first trial after the baby was a fiasco.  It was UKC and ten minutes from home.  Older dog was so thrilled he lost composure and just ran obstacles as if he was juiced up on Starbucks. What contact zones?  I pulled him.  Younger dog, well, I never expected much of him in the realm of performance.  He just has his own band playing in his head and not one member is on the same sheet of music let alone in the same arena. 

As many of our dogs age, we may tend to quit and allow them to become sedentary.  Is this what they want?  Is this what they need?  No, why should we relegate old dogs to the corner when they can no longer perform at their previous sports?  Old dogs are very capable of learning new things, new routines.  You just have to give them a chance, change training methods if needed, etc.  I have learned over the years that working with older dogs is very rewarding.  They often enjoy the challenge!

The news hit like a brick.  The old guy was in great physical shape, better shape than many dogs half his age.  His muscle tone was super; his eyes clear, movement clean, hearing… eh!  If it were not for the graying face, it would be tough to tell his age.  However, his heart was not willing.  He had developed a murmur.  Vet felt it was about a 2/3.  Stop training, give it a few months, and recheck.  The old guy was about 11 1/2 now.

Veteran’s classes are great for senior dogs.  They can get out and compete but at a pace more conducive for them.  Various sports offer veterans classes, and if not, they should! Sit on the sidelines and watch an old dog step proudly into the ring.  There is a pride to them and elegance often not seen in the younger crew.  A dog who loves to work shows, regardless of his age!

The murmur had worsened.  It was now a 4/5 with 6 being the worst.  Agility could kill the old dog.  I had to retire him.  There was no choice really, if I wanted to keep him alive longer.  I could allow him to play and such, but just not the workouts of Agility.  In addition, since #2 was still working on getting his band members to find the same bus to get to the correct arena, I guess I was out of everything.  Oh, well, my kids are first and with my husband traveling more for work, I would not be wasting entry fees if I could not get to a trial.

Many sports for dogs can be physically taxing, especially those requiring a lot of running and jumping.  Even in classes designed for veterans, some activities may prove to be too much.  Now what, not all dogs are conformation dogs and at that, very few shows offer Veterans conformation outside specialties.  In 2005, the American Kennel Club fully recognized Rally. Rally, in my opinion, is the savoir sport for the older dog!

My vet had never heard of Rally.  When I explained it to him, he was interested.  Yes, it may be good for the old dog, at least at the Novice level.  Thus began my journey into Rally along with an old dog who would not go quietly into retirement.

Keeping an old dog in condition may be tricky if the dog’s condition has dropped. With careful work, we can return many older dogs to good enough shape for more leisurely competition.  I found myself with significantly increased vet trips to monitor the heart and joints.  His muscle tone was great and his hearing… eh!  However, he learned to watch me closer and follow more hand signals.  A dog that wants to work needs to be kept happy regardless of his age.  Find something to keep him happy!

I got the AKC rules and signs.  I started reading and brushing up on leash work. At 13 1/2 years old, he stepped into the Rally ring at the Shetland Sheepdog Club of Greater Baltimore’s summer 2006 trial and stepped out with a 3rd place Sheltie.  I was thrilled and the judge impressed when I was asked his age.  What a respectable gentleman he was.

In many respects, I had to go back to square one with training.  Since the old guy could not hear me well, especially at inside shows, I had to retrain him to hand signals.  Mercifully using both voice and hand is allowed in Rally.  It took a bit of time but the old guy was figuring out the new stuff.  His eyes brightened and he was back.  Not all senior dogs who like to work are this lucky.  Do not give up on the senior dog: get different!

The second trial was interesting to say the least.  The old guy and the younger goon were entered.  It had been a long time since I had showed with both Mom and little Sis.  Three years I guessed.  Hmmm, Springfield, MA, Thanksgiving weekend, we would all be at Mom’s house!  ( I am truly sorry for making everyone get up at four am the day after Thanksgiving to drive three hours.  Hey, sleep is overrated!)  At the trial, the old guy was tired and sleeping soundly.  The woman who had crated her dogs next to me joked she would sometimes poke to see if he was still breathing.  I knew he was tired but still, he qualified for his second leg.  The younger guy, well half his band saw something shiny and the other half must have been watching cheerleaders.  Let us just say the judge was kind to himWe just do not discuss his score.  However, he got a leg.

Working with older dogs is good for us too.  How many times do we get into the “cookie cutter” training where we treat all dogs the same?  How many of us forget to slow down and breathe?  Older dogs make us get creative.  We are so fast paced now that stepping back and relaxing is not a bad thing.

It was dang cold that day and the heat was taking forever to come up in the building.  The old dog did not notice it.  He was crashed in his crate, my heavy leather jacket draped over the back to cut the chill from the door to the exercise yard.  He was in congestive heart failure now.  His cough was only being brought on by stressors such as getting up from a deep sleep or getting body slammed while fence running.  I told the people crated about the cough, not to worry, he was not sick.  “I have one at home like that myself” one competitor murmured with wistful smile.  “I bet she’d like Rally, too.”  We entered the ring happily.  It was a good day.  A third place Sheltie at the Shetland Sheepdog Club of Greater Baltimore’s winter trial, his Rally Novice title and I was asked his age.  “He’ll be fourteen in two months.”  “You’d never know it if he was not so gray.”  Near us was an 11 year old Malinois who had also achieved a leg.  We got the medical go ahead to start Rally Advanced. 

When do you stop working a senior dog?  My feeling is in part the dog will let you know.  As long as the dog is able to move and is working because he wants to and you are not pushing him, keep it up.  Rally is relaxed; at the Novice level, there is nothing that should jar joints.  It is just you, the dog and a leash following a course.  Yes, the “Fast” sections are not as fast for us anymore, but oh well!  My personal feeling is let that old pup work as long as he is able to.  Yes, many dogs will work because we ask them to. If the activity is something they can do safely, let them work as long as they can.  Stagnation in an old dog who loves to work can be a fate worse than…

It was going to be a nice day.  The old guy was in his first Rally Advanced class in Timonium, MD.  As luck would have it, he was feeling his oats that day and jumped from the van and over my arms.  He landed hard.  I was on the fence about scratching him, but since there was no lameness or signs of pain that I could see, I decided to give it a shot.  I am so glad that dogs only have four toes.  We entered the ring and I swear I would have been given the mono-digital salute of displeasure.  He just was not up to it and that was OK.  There was a trial in about a month.  We were entered. He would be fine by then… A few days later, he was running as if nothing had happened.

*******

It was going to be warmer than the weatherman said.  You would think by now I would know not to believe the forecast.  At least we would be done before the worst of the day.   I had seen one of my past instructors working the ring.  The same one who watched my old boy take his Agility class at Nationals four years earlier.  I looked at the dog and felt my eyes mist over.  We entered the ring and followed the signs.  It was not a bad run.  I felt good.  We felt good.  The applause at the end was not pity applause.  Something was missing.  Someone was missing.  It was not the same.

A few minutes later, I checked the scoreboard.  99.  I jokingly asked to have the math double-checked.  99.  Where was the missing decimal point?  Ninety-nine and a third place.  The band was all one the right sheet that day.  Maybe they had a new leader.  “You did Ryker proud, D’Argo.”  The dog, a month and a half away from his seventh birthday looked at me, his muzzle starting to gray a bit.  He likes Rally.  It is fun.  It is something he can do and be able to do for years to come.

I cried on the way home.  Thirteen days earlier, at two am, Ryker had died in my arms at the emergency clinic.  His heart gave out.  We were preparing for photos with the children, him and D’Argo that morning.  A fundraiser we always supported for our local Volunteer Fire Department.  Instead, I have a lovely picture of my children and just D’Argo.  Ryker had done what all old dogs should be able to do: work until the heart gives out.  He was still in excellent condition according to two Veteran’s Class judges at  the Potomac Valley and Greater Baltimore sheltie club March specialties and my vet. He got back into performance thanks to Rally.

Ryker had been my working buddy for 13 ½ years.  We could have done more, but life does not always work the way we want.

D’Argo now comes to classes with me or to client homes to help wth dogs.  He is becoming more than just my “Safety dog.”  He is taking a stronger interest in the Agility equipment in the back yard.  My husband rebuilt the dog walk and “D” has a blast working small courses with the kids.  It still does not feel right having a new working partner.  But it is getting there.  D’Argo will never be Ryker and he never should be.  I have found his niche it seems, in Rally.  The sport gave an old dog new life and now a new challenge for a new team.  Maybe it will lead to more, maybe not.  Only time will tell.

*******

Give those old pups a second life.  Rally is a super way to do it.  It is laid back, fun and really a great chance to give our old timers a sense of being.  Next time you see a dog who is a little long in the tooth, a bit gray around the edges, maybe a tad slower in gait but tail up and waving in the air, clap a bit louder – maybe, he will hear you.

Thank you Ryker, Can Ch, UAGI, Will O’Wisp Final Frontier, CD, RN, CGC, therapy dog

 Rally Nov 24 06 (5)

March 21, 1993 – May 6, 2007

On July 14 2007, just after turning seven, D’Argo became Willo’Wisp Ventura Farscape, RN, CGC.  His final leg was from the Shetland Sheepdog Club of Greater Baltimore Obedience and Rally trial.  It was at this show, a year earlier, that Ryker got his start.  Seated next to us while waiting for ribbons was a sweet little 13 ½ year old Sheltie who also finished her RN and with a perfect score.  Rally: the sport for the senior dog.

PS – D’Argo left me on July 22, 2012

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