It’s been awhile since I last posted. I’ve been trying to come up with a really good topic to post about. Have you guys seen Keith Highley and his little Corgi/Cattle dog mix, Cisco? They are on fire. Keith is a really good friend of mine and we have had many conversations about mental management. Keith is on a wonderful journey with Cisco. His story is inspiring and a perfect way to head into 2015 especially with AKC Nationals around the corner. He agreed to share his story with us.
1. Tell us a little about Cisco and yourself?
When we first met him, Cisco was just this sad little guy languishing in the Humane Society of Utah’s shelter. All we know about his former life is that he is from California. He spent time in a shelter there before being “transferred” to Utah.
When we adopted him, our hope was to find him a good home. He had serious aggression issues, significant muscle atrophy in his rear legs, and would sometimes come up lame.
It’s amazing what patience, physical rehab, and a plan can do for a dog. And love. Lots of love!
- During your training with Cisco what has been your greatest challenge?
Cisco is my first agility dog. He’s off-the-charts high-drive, and I am by no means a good trainer, so we’ve faced many challenges. That said, easily the biggest issue has been our start-line. I let it go in the beginning. BIG MISTAKE. It’s taken me several years to get it to where it is now. And we still have work to do.
- What helped you the most to overcome your challenge?
Practicing sit-stays with LOTS of distractions helped a ton. We’d throw toys, have people yelling and pounding tables, whatever distraction we could come up with. I pulled him a few times – which I hate doing – when he jumped the line. I also went with a “Ready, Set, Go” release. And finally, I came to realize that all the barking at the line is acceptable, even a good thing. Once I began focussing on the only important criteria – leave on “go” – it became less of an issue.
- Are you nervous when you step to the line with Cisco at a local trial? If so, how do you deal with it?
Before each run, no matter where we are, I have a physical warm-up routine with C and a little mental routine for me. Cisco totally NEEDS a routine and maybe I do, too. It helps that we’re entering our fourth year as a team. Over the past two years we’ve run in events where the stakes were pretty high. With all of those runs under our belt – some of them absolute disasters, mind you – I’m not all that nervous at smaller events. The two local trials after we won Grand Prix were maybe the most fun, relaxed ever.
At smaller trials I absolutely LOVE that moment right before I release Cisco. I’m now at a point where I can enjoy people laughing about the back-and-forth we have while I am setting him up. I love that he has to get the last word in as I walk away. He’s such an amazing little athlete and those moments right before a run are the only time I can really enjoy that intensity of his. Of course, I can only enjoy it because we finally have a start-line, but I’ve also worked really hard on calming my nerves. And I can only really take all that in at smaller trials.
With the exception of national qualifiers, I do not care if we Q. That’s freeing, when you think about it; I’m not afraid to fail, so I’m not afraid to try different things or to go all out.
All that said, after seeing some glaring weaknesses in my mental “game” at recent big events, I am going to take a different approach at local trials in 2015. Specifically, I want to try to stay focused and connected with C from start to finish on each and every run. I don’t always do that.
- Congratulations on your win at USDAA Nationals!!!! Tell us what the greatest mental challenge was for you during USDAA Nationals? How did you manage the mental game?
Cisco is pretty unique. As soon as we enter the ring at any trial, he starts barking and pulling. At big events, like Cynosport, it’s far worse than smaller trials. (At our first nationals, in 2012, Cisco jumped several start-lines. Once he left me and took the wrong obstacle right off the bat – we were eliminated before we even started. That first year there were times where I just wanted to cry. So, we really have come a long way.) At Morgan Hill, there were a few runs where just getting his leash off, setting him up, and leading out was incredibly nerve-wracking. Being calm enough to survive those moments and manage the first few obstacles, that was easily my biggest mental challenge. I’m even more proud of C for hanging in there on every single run.
As far as mental management, I didn’t do anything differently than at any other trial; same warm-up routine for C, same mental routine for me. The difference is the pressure was so much greater. He felt it. I felt it. I had to work harder to believe in myself as a handler.
- Describe your winning Grand Prix run to us. What did it feel like before the run? During the run? After the run?
I don’t remember thinking about it much before our run but, the night before we ran in Steeplechase finals. Although it was absolutely an honor to make it that far, our run didn’t go so well. Grand Prix represented a chance to maybe salvage a little bit of pride. I wanted so badly to have a clean run.
I had a lot of nervous energy in the hour or so before we ran. I got a little nervous watching some of the dogs before us when every single competitor ran one particular sequence differently than I had walked the course. Every. Single. One.
When you’re on deck, the gate steward explains that he’ll tap you when you can enter the ring. (This is for the cameras and totally makes sense.) Easy, right? Apparently not for me. After the dog ahead of us finished, I started walking out until this big paw grabbed me and I was reminded to wait. Cisco thought it was time and started barking and pulling. We hadn’t even gone in and I’d already made a mistake. And Cisco was telling me all about it.
At the start, I remember trying to get Cisco to settle and realizing how incredibly close we were to the edge of the ring. That was the most surreal moment of the weekend: Cisco arguing with me, me trying to keep my composure and get that small lead-out with all of these people in the tent and at the scoring table, just right there, not ten feet away, watching. It was the most pressure I’ve ever felt.
I can’t say that I think about a lot during any run. On that run I remember some really wide turns through the first part of the course. I also remember handling the A-frame – jump – chute sequence my way (as opposed to how I’d seen so many earlier competitors do it) and that it had worked even better than I’d hoped. Cisco curls toward me out of the chute, always, sometimes cutting into my path. It’s resulted in a few off-courses and in me falling at least once because he ran right into me. So I remember anticipating that and pushing him ahead toward the next jump. I parked myself hard at the end of the teeter; it seemed like it took FOREVER to hit the ground. On the dog walk, he hit solidly in the yellow but I crowded him and he hopped off to the wrong side. I winced at my mistake but once he hit his weave entry, with just two straight-line jumps remaining, happiness just washed over me. We were clean!
In the finish tent I just couldn’t stop loving on C and telling him how well he’d done. During our little warm-down walk I thought over and over and over about how nice it was to run clean. After one of the remaining runs, I heard the announcer saying, ‘the time to beat is 31.20’ but I didn’t know whose time it was and I was too embarrassed to ask. After the last team finished, I still didn’t know what was going on until my friend Gosia Skowron ran over, screaming that we’d won. And she gave me this big hug. And there we were, both crying. I will never forget that moment.
- Congratulations on being named to the USA IFCS World Agility Championships team. What was your immediate reaction when you heard the news?
What an honor! My immediate reaction was one of disbelief.
We are the 1st alternate. I will go to Italy in a supporting role. I want the experience of a being at a Worlds as I’m sure it will motivate me for next year. We are still a young team.
- I love quotes. Do you have a favorite quote?
The Man in the Arena by Teddy Roosevelt.
I like another one, attributed to Albert Einstein. [The definition of] Insanity: doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. It’s meaningful to me because some things tripped us up this year at Cynosport and CCOA. I’ve worked on those issues and we’re a better team now than we were just a few months ago. You can’t expect things to just fix themselves and I’ve seen some handlers with that mindset. Well, actually, I can’t claim to know what people think but when you see people make the same mistake over and over, I have an idea: how about we try to fix that!
- What motivates you in the sport of agility? Why do you compete?
So many things! First it was building a foundation and developing my partnership with C. We had some really tough times in the beginning. Then it was becoming consistent and tightening lines. It’s still all of those things.
Now, to be honest, I am most motivated by the desire to compete internationally and to continue to do well at Cynosport and regional competitions. I LOVE USDAA Regionals.
- Next year, many people will compete in their first USDAA Nationals event. What advice do you have for them?
Go to all of the finals. Soak in the atmosphere. Really watch the top teams attack the courses. If it’s something you aspire to, picture yourself in their shoes. It can happen!
Finally, thank you Keith for sharing your insights with us! Congratulations on your USDAA Nationals win and being named to the USA IFCS World Agility Championships team as an alternate. You guys are a young team and are an inspiration for so many! Keep up the good work. We will be following your journey!