There Is No "GSP" In Team (But There Should Be)
Updated: Jan 7, 2019
We’ve all been there: laying in bed, staring at the ceiling with sleepless red-rimmed eyes, listening to a pint sized puppy reach octaves not yet recorded. If you’re anything like me, you lay there questioning every decision you’ve ever made, and even the ones you’ve yet to make, and are willing to make a deal with the devil just to make the little demon in the crate beside you to stop making noise.
Would I ever get through this?
This question had been a theme in my life to that point. I got my first German Shorthaired Pointer, Olive, when I was in a dark place. I had just gotten out of a particularly painful relationship, struggling with a hostile work environment in a job that was a poor fit for me, and living in a shoebox apartment in a city that was extremely new to me. I was hours away from my family, and without any immediate support system. To put it kindly, my life was a mess.
‘I’ve had family dogs before!’
‘I’ve trained horses!’
‘I want a running buddy!’
I had missed a few critical thinking points in justifying bringing Olive home:
My family dog was a miracle golden child who could do no wrong.
Horses are not giant dogs. While the psychology and training concepts can be similar enough, it is an entirely different ballgame.
And perhaps most importantly: The only time I will ever run fast enough to actually tire out Olive is if something is chasing me.
She never stopped moving. Never. I would have said she was on speed if I hadn’t been controlling her food myself.
If she wasn’t tumbling around my living room with a tennis ball almost as large as she was, she was finding new ways to avoid capture under the bed, getting into the recycling bin twelve times her size, or gallivanting around the apartment with a pair of dirty undies she claimed for herself. She had a lot to say, was fiercely independent, and while quick to concept, she did everything at her own speed - fast.
Every waking moment outside of work was spent imagining newer and more creative ways to tire her out both mentally and physically. She accompanied me to the farm and waited for me as I rode horses, helped me with barn chores, and tore around the pastures. We took trips to hike and swim and explore our state parks and trails, and I brought her with me to every dog friendly environment I could. She was my shotgun rider, steadfast companion, and reason I stayed active.
But she was also a behavioral nightmare. Every moment spent in stillness was filled with persistent whining and keening to be doing something. As a creature of constant motion, the art of doing nothing did not come naturally to her. Even if she had chased the ball until she had collapsed in exhaustion not twenty minutes before, she would be up and ready for round two (or three, or five, or seventeen).
Would I ever get through this?
Not knowing much about dog sport, but knowing that I needed to do SOMETHING with her, I signed Olive up for an agility class. One day a week, we tortured our instructor and classmates with our victory laps, overzealous jumping, excited whining, and constant laughter. We were fast. We were having fun. And we were an absolute agility disaster. Despite all of this, it brought us together as a team, gave Olive an outlet, and got me really thinking about how to break down exercises in clearer ways.
My free time was quickly filled with poring over YouTube videos and training articles. I religiously stalked the social media pages of trainers I admired. I learned the value of marker words, toy rewards, and drive channeling. My focus gradually turned toward precision obedience, and I found myself working on eye contact and building a focused heel in my kitchen after work. Step by step, exercise by exercise, Olive and I learned how to operate as a team. Things continued to change in my life. In two years, I changed jobs three times. I woke up before dawn to work with Olive, went to work, and returned after dark to work and play with her some more.
While I loved the working relationship we developed through agility, I craved the precision and excitement of bite sports. On a whim, I reached out to an acquaintance of mine and arranged to meet with an IPO (Internationale Prüfungs-Ordnung) helper. For those not familiar with the sport, IPO was originally designed as an evaluation for the German Shepherd Dog in three areas: tracking, obedience, and protection. While off breeds are not uncommon in the sport, it is dominated primarily by German Shepherds and Belgian Malinois. And for good reason. Being successful and powerful in all three phases requires not only appropriate drives, but also requires a confident dog willing to pursue a ‘bad guy’ (helper), bite him (on a jute sleeve), and not let go unless commanded.
Prey drive. Defense drive. Hard grips.
Sounds like your average bird dog, right?
Nothing about the sport came naturally to her, but it didn’t change her willingness to try and her exuberance within every session. To say that she entered every session with confidence begetting a dog twice her size is the understatement of the year. We had a new set of training challenges ahead of us: learning to tug being the biggest one. For the dog that adored fetch, the game of tug was an acquired taste and absolutely a learned behavior. The thrill of tugging with another person was another thing we spent months working on. So many pieces that came naturally to other dogs we had to systematically string together into a cohesive routine.
Would we ever get through this?
Olive and I trialed for our BH, the introductory level title in IPO, sharing only her German origin with the other competitors that day. She stood apart from the German Shepherds competing, and only in a way that made me proud to be her handler. The months of building drive, honing focus, tweaking head position, obsessing over stride cadence, and building relationship came to a head, and Olive shined.
My driven, scattered, wonderful German Shorthaired Pointer is the perfect fit for me a trainer with equally scattered interests. In the four years I’ve had her, Olive has dabbled in trick training, dock diving, competition obedience, Rally, and explosives detection. The joy I have found in training with her inspired me to take a leap of faith and begin training professionally. She is my demonstration dog extraordinaire, distraction dog, and the dog I pull out when I’m eager to tackle training a new behavior.
These days we continue to stay pretty busy. Olive still seldom stops moving of her own accord, but her energy is now directed, and those calm moments are full of richness and contentment.
I could never get through this without her.