Since the summer, time has seemed to fly by especially fast! We had a pretty good summer! We spent lots of time sitting outside in the sun, going for walks with River, heading to the beach, and working with my boy. Training with River was a big focus of my summer! We had decided to sign up for both of our first dog show which was in August.
We’ve had a membership at a dog gym for a while and have been enjoying learning the dog sport rally obedience. In my opinion, it’s the perfect sport for a service dog team! Rally is all about team work. Basically, it’s sort of like an obstacle course you work through together with your dog. There’s a predetermined course with 12-15 different stations. Each station has a sign telling you what to do; for example: doing a figure 8 through cones, asking your dog to do a down stay while you walk around them, pace changes, etc. I’ll include a video if I can so you can see how it works if you’re new to Rally O! It’s judged based on how you and your dog work together to navigate the different stations as a team. Your dog has to stay in a nice heel position the whole time and, the kicker is, you can’t have treats with you so it really emphasizes the team work and having your dog work for you, not for treats.
Our first show experience was a fantastic one! I went in knowing some people that I’ve met at different times in the dog world, from things like watching dog shows, going to the gym, and doing obedience classes. Everyone was very warm and welcoming to River and I. I also had some great friends come out and support me too! I couldn’t have done it without my community having my back. We were the only team with a handler in a wheelchair (or using a mobility device in general) and, from what I know, we may have been the first ever at that show in the rally ring! Thankfully, the judges were very respectful of my disability and limitations. During the course walk before our classes started, they made sure that all the stations and pylons were spread out far enough that I could get through with ease. Rally courses are usually the opposite of spacious so I really appreciate that!
We competed in three classes, one on the Friday and two on Saturday. Our first time in the ring was beyond special, one of my favourite moments in my life by far. I was quite nervous, not sure how we’d make out. We spent a lot of time practicing in busy places but a dog show is a completely different situation since there is (obviously) tons of dogs there and lots of people! We got there nice and early so River and I had time to get used to our surroundings and warm up to get our nerves out. Our warm up went perfectly and, after walking the course, I was still nervous but felt prepared and ready to go. I went in expecting very little. Winning wasn’t a priority, I just wanted us to go out and have a good time. River completely impressed me by doing SO well, especially for his first time in the ring. He had laser focus, completely focused on me and I on him. I was so focused in fact that I completely drowned out the rest of the room, it was just me, River, and the course to be conquered.
I can truthfully say that, during our first class, River did perfect. The points lost were due to handler error (aka my fault) but, rolling out of the ring, I was overcome with pride! Two of my great friends were there waiting for me at the gate: my dog show mom and the amazing trainer River and I have been working with. They grabbed me in a big group hug and we all started crying; tears of happiness and joy of course! I remember asking my trainer “do you think we passed?”, not really understanding how scoring worked quite yet, and her just chuckling and giving me a big hug, telling me that of course we did! I couldn’t have been more overjoyed. I was the before last person to go so, not long after, they called us all back into the ring for awards. I was beyond happy to collect a 3rd place ribbon out very first time out! The judge came and spoke to me afterwards, giving me some tips for the next day as he was judging another one of my classes and commending me on how well River and I did, especially in the teamwork aspect. He said we had some of the best teamwork he’s ever seen. That made my heart soar. It made me realize that I wasn’t just doing well for a handler with a disability, I was doing well, period. I couldn’t be more thankful for all the support he and the other people at the show gave me, it really boosted my confidence, reassuring me that I’m on the right path with training River.
As day 1 of the show drew to an end, I was still soaring with pride. I don’t think I’ve ever been more proud of myself than I was during this show. One thing that really made such a big difference for me was how supportive and encouraging everyone was, from the judges to people helping out to other handlers & their friends and families. Walking through the crowded show, I spoke to so many kind people. It really made me feel so happy. My first class going so well, the nerves for day 2 dissipated and I was feel confident both in mine and River’s abilities. Though I had a bit of apprehension because we would be doing two classes the second day instead of just one, I was very much looking forward to it. Getting ready the morning, I could feel the adrenaline rising despite being awake much earlier than usual. I was up and rearing to go!
Luckily on day 2, I again had a great support system there, lots of friends turned out in support which was amazing. Of course my family but also my dog show mom, one of my best friends and her family, and some people who are very special to me. It meant so much to have them all there cheering me on! Again, the day looked similar to the first; we got there, checked in at the desk to get our number and course map, then went to warm up outside until River and I were feeling ready and let all our jitters out. Our warm-up was brief but productive, just what he need to re-acclimate to this new busy environment. After that, I hung out with my friends, multitasking at chatting with them, studying my course, watching what was going on in the obedience ring, and throwing in some more warm up exercises here and there to keep River attentive and ready.
The second day was a much bigger day than the first, rather than just 1, there was 2 classes we’d be competing in. The first match was with the same judge as the previous day. Right away that made me feel more comfortable as I knew how accommodating and encouraging he was to River and I. When I went to get my course map, I was pleased to see it was a straightforward course with signs we felt most comfortable with. This class was our biggest one so far, quite a few people had entered. River and I were the before last team to go and it was great. Again, I got that performance tunnel vision where all I saw and focused on was my dog and the task at hand. That course went even better than the day before, receiving our highest score of the weekend, 98/100, placing us second in the group. During the awards, I chatted with a fellow handler who ended up taking first with her standard poodle. We joked about standard poodles taking over the rally ring! The sense of camaraderie was really amazing. I knew a couple people in the group and we all cheered each other on, all of us proud of our puppies, no matter what colour ribbon we received.
The last class of the weekend was the most eventful. This one, I was feel ready for until a few minutes before going into the ring when I got super nervous. Why? Because, just as we were waiting at the in-gate for our turn (we went first this time eek!), in the next ring over, a conformation class was starting and it was time for the terriers, a group that encompasses the Bedlington terrier, one of them happening to be River’s best friend and playmate, Hush. Even before getting in the ring, I had a harder time getting his focus than normal, he was just entranced by watching a handful of Hush clones trot gracefully around the ring. If he could’ve ran over and went to play, he probably would’ve; I can’t understate the love between River and Hush. Anywho, this did end up affecting us in the ring. River’s focus was spotty which showed me an area where he needs more work before our next show! One thing with Rally is you can’t have treats or toys or anything of that sort to help you out in the ring; it’s just you and your dog. Despite him not being in an optimal work mode, we managed to qualify anyways, getting us another 2nd place ribbon as well as his last leg towards his Rally Novice title, officially finishing his first rally title at our very first show. The judge for this last match was amazing too an so understanding of my limitations and encouraging us in our dog show journey. Even though she didn’t see River at his best, she told us to keep going and keep inspiring people, that we are the future of the sport and that meant a lot.
After day 1, I didn’t think I could be any prouder but my heart was beyond glowing. All I wanted to do was snuggle my baby and give him all the love for working so hard for me; he is such an amazing boy! Rolling out of the ring after awards, my dog show mama was waiting there for me and we just hugged and cried and hugged and cried, her and I both knowing the mountains I’ve climbed and everything I’ve overcome to get to that moment. The tears wouldn’t stop flowing (happy tears of course!). After this moment so full of love, we collected ourselves so I could head down to the photo booth and get mine and River’s photo taken with our ribbons to commemorate our very first show. The joy and pride was palpable, you could feel it in the air. The show photographer was awesome and helped us get a great photo of me and River, letting us pick it out afterwards and then emailing in to me in a jiffy! A perfect way to end and remember our special weekend, my favourite weekend.
After all this, the adrenaline started to come down and the reality of my defective connective tissue started to really shine through, I was so tired and sore but so full of joy, so we headed home instead of sticking around and watching. I was pooped but I was proud and no pain or symptoms could take away the positive emotions that overcame me. Rally obedience and doing this dog show for me wasn’t about the ribbons and prizes, it wasn’t about getting the perfect scores or the titles, it never was. What is was about was me and River, getting in the ring, working together, connecting with and meeting so many amazing people, and having fun, discovering a new passion I could’ve never imagine having; that’s what was important. I couldn’t have predicted the amazing outcome we had, taking home two 2nd places ribbons, a 3rd place ribbon, and 3 qualifying legs earning River his RN (Rally Novice) title but this was just icing on top of the cake. The most important things we took home was new friendships, amazing memories, and a newfound confidence and pride in myself and River as team. We can’t wait to get back into the ring next summer!