Why Dog Agility Is Similar To Playing Music

Sanchez jumping triple.jpg

It wasn’t long after I started agility training that I became aware of the similarities between giving a music performance and running an agility course. Since I’ve been playing the piano for nearly 40 years and performing most of those years, I fortunately already learned how to handle stage nerves. So was I ever surprised that the night before my first agility trial, I was so nervous that I only slept 3 hours. With a two and a half hour drive ahead of me in the wee hours of the morning, the short amount of sleep didn’t help my anxiety. But, it luckily didn’t affect our performance, as we managed to take two first places and qualify on 3 out of 4 runs that weekend in my first novice AKC agility trial.

I have begun to equate agility with being in a chamber music duo – let’s say violin and piano. My dog is the string player, I’m the pianist. Most of the attention is on him, but my part is vital to our performance. And here’s where agility is most parallel to being a musical performer – it’s all about timing and trust. In agility it boils down to my timing and direction being clear, so that my dog can trust me, and my trusting that I know what my dog can and can’t do. As any agility trainer knows, when the dog makes a mistake, it’s almost always due to a handling error, not the dog’s.

During the non-qualifying run of my first agility trial, I learned a very valuable life lesson. I listened to my instructor instead of following my intuition on what I new my dog couldn’t do. I have the best instructor in the world, but still I can’t expect anybody to know my dog as well as I do and trusting that I know his strengths and weaknesses has become a very valuable skill in agility. The same is true in a duo music partnership. After awhile, you just know exactly what your partner can and can’t do. Years ago, I was horrified when the violinist in my piano trio showed up hours late for an out of town dress rehearsal. She barely made it even in time for the concert. What I didn’t know at the time was that once she walked on stage and put the violin under her chin, no matter what she went through emotionally or physically to get there, she sounded like and became an angel during a performance. (I wish I could say the same for my dog!)

When Sanchez earned his novice and open titles and advanced into running excellent courses, I started having a hard time memorizing the jumpers courses. With all due respect, if you knew nothing about agility and watched an advanced jumpers course for the first time (filled with only jumps, tunnels and weave poles), you would wonder how anybody could possibly remember the course. After two times in trials of getting lost on jumpers courses, I decided to change my tactic and memorize the agility course the way I’d memorize a piece of music. Previously, I had been trying to memorize the course the way everyone else seemed to be doing it – walking from obstacle 1 to obstacle 20 over and over and over. But, no matter how much I repeated that, it wasn’t working and my nerves were escalating as I would fear getting lost on a course. So, I thought about music. I never have been able to learn or memorize a piece of music by playing it over and over from beginning to end. Probably the only musicians who can do that are people with photographic memories. In reflecting how I learn music, in brief summary, I sight-read the piece through from beginning to end only once. If I do this more than once, I can easily start to end up with bad habits that it will only take more time to correct. Then I learn it in sections, usually decided by the form of the piece, starting to try out and decide on all fingering. And I repeat those sections several times, before going on. Then I combine two smaller sections, etc, until I can play through the entire piece once. When it’s ready, I play the entire piece through in entirety (usually under tempo, with gradual increases in tempo). So I started transferring that to agility courses. I’d walk through the entire course once (like sight-reading a complete piece of music) to get an understanding of the layout. Next would be deciding on placement of my crosses and repetition of walking about 6 or 7 obstacles, depending on the course. Then I continue with the next 6 or 7 obstacles and repeat the above. Then I combine those first two sets before making decisions on the last section. Then there is putting it all together with repetition, always making sure I gradually go from walking it to running it.

Almost always, my 90 minute agility class is one of my favorite parts of my week. It’s a time to forget about all of my other responsibilities, become a partner with my dog, and work on improving my agility skills, not to mention enjoying my classmates. The feeling I get is very similar to the feeling of working on a piece of music I love. It’s very easy for me to get lost in the sounds of a 9 foot Steinway and forget about the rest of life for a period of time.

In summary, here are my comparisons of agility and music:
Fingering = Deciding on front crosses, rear crosses, threttles, serpentines, etc.
Keeping the bars up = playing all the correct notes
Placement of crosses = Playing the correct rhythms
Walking a course = Playing music under tempo
Running a course = Playing music at full tempo
Running a course with your dog = The performance, with your chamber music partner.