My dog Harry is a Border Collie / Australian Cattle Dog mix that my wife and I adopted from an animal shelter in 2001 when he was just over a year old. We later came to find out that we were his third home. His first two owners kept him for a very short time before deciding they couldn’t deal with his high energy level and knack for being unruly and getting into trouble. Truthfully, they had a point – after bringing Harry home, we spent the next six months or so being afraid to come home from work and find out what kind of destruction would be waiting for us. Books, bookshelves, furniture, wall paneling, light fixtures, you name it…. if Harry was able to get to it (even if it meant jumping four feet in the air and pulling it down from the wall), it was fair game to be ripped to pieces.
You see, as good looking as border collies are, they’re special dogs that were bred to spend hours at a time herding and protecting sheep on farms in England and Scotland. So they naturally have a lot of energy, and if they can’t do some type of physical activity to burn it all off, they have a tendency to find their own “activities” to do which usually involve destroying things. Cattle dogs are even more intense because they were bred to herd cows in the Australian Outback. So a border collie / cattle dog mix can be pretty hard to handle and it’s not uncommon to see these types of dogs getting turned over to shelters and rescue groups by owners who adopted them without realizing exactly what they were in for.
My story could have very easily ended at this point – we could have decided to bring Harry back to the shelter and replaced him with another dog that was more laid back just like his previous owners did and that would have been that. But we didn’t. Instead, we decided we didn’t want to give up on him, and we signed him up for dog agility classes as a way to help burn off some of his extra energy. We also made the decision that I was going to be the one who would train with him.
For anyone who isn’t familiar with dog agility, it’s basically a sport that involves a person directing a dog through an obstacle course in a race for time and accuracy (the types of obstacles and their layout can vary from course to course, and the goal is to not only get through all of the obstacles correctly and in the correct order, but to also do it faster than the competition).
Agility training did not go smoothly at first. It took months for Harry to get used to the different types of obstacles and learn all of the various commands and how to stay with me while we ran together (and it also took me months to learn what the right commands and hand movements were to really get him to do what I wanted him to, but just like I did with running, Harry and I worked together and tried to make small improvements a little bit at a time.
Eventually we became a great team. Taking classes and practicing together also gave us an opportunity to bond with each other the same way any two human running or workout partners would, and that bond is still there to this day.
It took a few years of training and practicing, but Harry eventually became an agility champion. He’s retired now, but in his prime, he was certified to compete in both NADAC and UKC courses, which essentially made him the canine equivalent of a professional athlete. He also won certificates and ribbons in numerous agility competitions and once he understood that agility was his “job” he settled down a lot and became a great dog at home too. In fact, I honestly don’t think anyone could ever ask for a better dog.
So how does this story fit into a blog about running? Here are a few points that I’d like you to take away:
First, this was a dog that two different owners gave up on in less than a year because when they looked at him, they both just saw an unruly terror of an animal and never gave any thought to what his true potential might be. But he eventually turned out to be a champion athlete.
A lot of us have had to deal with similar situations where non-believers have tried to tell us that our goals are impossible and that we should stop wasting our time on them (interestingly enough, these also tend to be the people who claim to have been behind us from the beginning after we succeed). These people need to be ignored. If you have a goal in mind and you’re willing to work for it, you will eventually succeed as long as you don’t listen to the naysayers and never give up on yourself. In the end, it was Harry’s former owners who missed out on seeing what he was really capable of becoming.
Next, working with Harry was no easy task, especially in the beginning. There were days when the focus (either his or mine, but usually mine) simply wasn’t there at practice and it felt like nothing was going right for us…. or other times we would do our best at competitions only to come up a little bit short of the results we were shooting for…. it would have been easy to quit at any point along the way, but the times when we ran smoothly together and everything gelled for us totally outweighed any of the setbacks and that’s what kept us going.
Almost every runner at every level has experienced setbacks from time to time when we’ve had workouts that didn’t go as planned or when we’ve gotten injured or not done well in a race. Experiencing these setbacks can trick our brains into thinking that it would be easier to give up and find some other way to occupy our time besides running. Harry and I are living proof that this simply isn’t the case. There are always going to be setbacks in anything you do, some of which will be extremely difficult to deal with, but as long as you don’t use them as an excuse to give up, you’ll eventually overcome them and reach your goals. And when you do, your successes are what will define you as opposed to any setbacks you had leading up to them.
When Harry turned 10, we noticed that he was starting to slow down a little bit and his hips were starting to get a little stiff when he would jump so we made the decision to have him retire from Agility. He’s 14 now, so he’s getting up there in years and starting to have a few health problems (although from the way he looks and acts, most people are surprised to hear that he’s as old as he is – which is probably another good point to make here since it shows the benefits of being an athlete and being in such great shape for his entire life). As much as I like to say that I was the one who trained Harry to do agility and helped him transform from a destructive terror into an amazing dog, I think the truth is that I was the one who learned a lot more from him, and every day I’m thankful to have him in my life.