Just Beardies Agility Camp
(Nothing But Beardies, Nothing But Fun)

This article appeared in the Beardie Bulletin in May 2006.

Gas to drive from Michigan to Florida, $140; Food and Lodging in Crystal River, $430; Attending the Just Beardies Agility Camp with Jo Sermon, Priceless! Camp Weed and the Cerveny Conference Center is located in Crystal River, Florida; nestled a natural setting that included owls, bats, vultures, lizards, and from March 5th through March 9th, it was also the home to approximately 20 Beardies! Chase and I were there along with the following agility enthusiasts and their Beardies: Ruth Bryden and Glayva, Sheila Franklin and Bracey, Jeremy and Heather Haag along with Elton, Monty and Abbey, Terry Johnson with Indy and Streaker, Laurie Lo and Spunk, Sandy McDonald with Kip, Casey Miner with Baby Diesel and Heart, Elaine O’Carroll with Rory and Connor, Nancy Reich with Cather and Rune, Jenny Scheytt and Zoe, Donna Swan and Annie, and Joanne Williamson with Belle, Beau and Flash.

We were all there to attend the first All Beardie Agility Camp with Jo Sermon. Jo is from the UK and has been competing in agility since the late 1980’s. After teaching at various clubs and schools, she eventually began traveling to give seminars and to teach at agility camps. In addition, Jo hosts a virtual agility school, which you can visit at http://www.agility-training.co.uk/. But the most important thing about Jo is that she knows and loves Bearded Collies. This is a quote from Jo, “Each and every time I get a new puppy, lots and lots of people ask me why on EARTH didn't you get a Border Collie? You're a good handler; you'd win with a Border Collie! The answer is simple; I like Beardies. I like their attitude to life, their independence, the fact that they are more than capable of amusing themselves all day and have no actual need for my company. To get a Beardie to want to work for you is a challenge all by itself, the agility in comparison is relatively easy! I like their sense of humor; I love their joy in life. My mornings out walking in the woods are made special just watching their enthusiasm, running for the fun of running, ever alert for a likely rabbit or squirrel to hunt. That's why I have dogs and that's why I have Beardies in particular. There are many breeds of dog that I like and admire, but only one that I want to live with. The hair and the mud (!) are a price that I'm happy to pay.”

Assisting Jo was Val Rutledge, who operates Training Ventures. Training Ventures is the administrative support for several agility, obedience and Schutzhund dog training camps. These camps are staffed by recognized experts in their respective sports and are always a worthwhile experience for participants. Val has been involved in obedience, agility, and Schutzhund dog sports for many years. Of late, she has brought her physiology and anatomy background as a registered nurse to bear on the study of therapeutic massage for animals. For more information on Training Ventures visit www.dogndive.com.

Now that you know everybody, you can join us at camp. Our memorable week began on Sunday with a dinner and camp orientation. Jo was feeling a bit under the weather, and was unable to join us that evening. To break the ice after dinner, Val asked each of us to stand up, introduce ourselves, and tell a funny story about our dog(s). Since we all owned Beardies, there was no shortage of amusing anecdotes. Thanks to our adventures at Camp Weed, several of us will have a few more stories to add to our repertoire of Beardie tales, especially Sheila. No time to dawdle, since our days began very early. We had our choice of attending one of two morning sessions before breakfast: Controlled Walking and Recalls with Jo, or Introduction to Tracking with Val. Chase is well behaved on lead, so I decided to learn what tracking was all about. For the next two mornings, Val taught us about ground scents, body scents, scent pads, trailing, and the importance of record keeping. We learned how to lay and extend a track for our Beardie to follow. According to Val, all dogs are capable of tracking; it’s a natural instinct in the wild. Precision of your dog’s tracking will depend on how well you develop this instinct. All the Beardies in this group did extremely well. We enjoyed the gorgeous sunrise and the peace and quiet of the morning. Did I mention there is no barking in tracking? It wasn’t so quiet in the other group, or so I was told. Jenny and Ruth were kind enough to provide me with the details of the morning sessions with Jo.

The first day, Jo let all the dogs get acquainted on lead, and then everyone worked on self control with food rewards. The ultimate goal was to place food on your dog’s paw and make him wait for a release before he takes it. On the second morning, most of the dogs were off leash. Sits and stays were done with distractions, and I ask you, what is more distracting to a Beardie than a bunch of other Beardies?

The next morning all the dogs were allowed to play together and the owners worked on calling them out of the pack. Not an easy task, since by now many of the dogs had gotten to know each other and felt more comfortable with their new furry friends.

The third session focused on restrained recalls. These Beardies were all working on self control. As Jenny said to me, “We worked on things not only necessary for a successful agility dog, but good dog behavior in general.” Ruth noted, “I have learned the hard way just how important self control is in agility. What starts with no stay at the start line, progresses to missed contacts and spectacular see-saw fly offs!”

By now, we are all ready to do some agility training. Jo focuses on fun, positive training, and record keeping. Did I mention record keeping? She thought it would be fun to start our first agility session with a gambling game. The game was an exercise in planning, rewarding, and paying attention to details; while making training fun for you and your dog. We were given a course map with fifteen obstacles, and had to indicate when/where/how we would reward our dogs. If you precisely carried out your plan you earned points. If you didn’t follow your plan of action, you lost points. The person with the most points won. The actual aim was to make us more aware of our dogs, and thereby making us more efficient trainers, I think we all agreed this was a very thought provoking exercise. In the evening, after dinner, Val gave a lecture on canine massage, and a practical demonstration using her Border Collie, Tess. Following her lead, we all had a chance to practice on our dogs. Picture if you will, a roomful of relaxed Beardies. Some were lying on the floor and others were lying on tables, all enjoying a calming massage. I can’t remember a bunch of Beardies ever being that quiet!

The next day we learned about the importance of communication in agility. We broke up into two groups, advance students and novice students. Each of us handled our dogs over a series of three jumps, while our run was video taped. Then each group had their video session critiqued by Jo. I have to say, there is nothing like watching all your mistakes in glorious Technicolor©. (It’s even more painful to watch in slow motion). The truth is, I found this to be a valuable teaching method. While we studied the tapes, you could hear handlers giving verbal commands, but their bodies were “saying” something else. And as Jo taught us, dogs cue into our body language and movement long before paying attention our voice (verbal commands). Jo watched each team, handler and Beardie, and suggested ways that we could have improved how we handled the sequence. Apparently, many of us “talk” way too much with our arms and hands. We asked lots of questions, swapped stories, and took copious notes. Over the course of three days, I think each person was able to have a little one-on-one with Jo to discuss individual issues.

Jo is a positive trainer, and her training is based on the simple premise that behavior that is rewarded will increase. She uses a clicker while she trains, and teaches the dog self control. Baby Diesel was the volunteer for a clicker training session. Jo was demonstrating how to shape behaviors in a very young puppy. For the record, Baby D, affirmed Jo’s statement about the intelligence of breed, and it was enough to convert me to clicker training. We also had sessions on how to properly execute a front and rear cross; and those of us with problematic contacts, had a chance to work directly with Jo. That evening, we were treated to some after dinner entertainment. We did a bit of role playing to teach us just how frustrating learning can be for our dogs, when we don’t give them proper signals, clear directions, or substantial rewards for desired behavior.

Jo has a wonderful sense of humor, a must have for every Beardie owner, and managed to make even the most routine exercises fun. All the lessons were sprinkled with amusing stories about her Beardies, Jester, Boogie and little Koda. The tales of her agility adventures in the UK were very entertaining, and it was delightful to listen to her English accent. But of course, Jo kept telling us that we were the ones with the accents! On the last day, we had a knock out competition so the dogs could burn off some pent up energy. This also gave the handlers a chance to practice what we just learned. The competition involved a series of jumps set in a large circle, with two tunnels in the middle. Two teams competed at the same time, with each handler and dog starting at a tunnel, performing the series of jumps and ending with the tunnel. Winner moved on to the next round, hence the name “knock out”. Lots of speed, lots of barking, and lots of flying fur! What a great way to end the day.

When it was time to go, we all helped load the agility equipment into Val’s trailer, wishing the days hadn’t gone by so fast. Val surprised us with a wine and cheese social before dinner on our last evening at camp. We lingered long after dinner, a bunch of new found friends sharing Beardie stories and dreading packing up our stuff for the trip home. Besides the dogs, crates, tents, and dirty laundry, we all took home some wonderful memories of the Just Beardie Agility Camp at Camp Weed.

A few of my fellow campers were gracious enough to share their memorable moments and thoughts on their Just Beardie Agility experience.

Ruth Bryden, “I learned a lot from the video sessions on how ineffectual my body language and timing was as a cue for jumping. Glayva does not seem to understand that bars are meant to stay up. Jo demonstrated a jumping exercise that enables the dog to be rewarded each time the bar is untouched, rather than my usual approach of a negative for dropped bar. The camaraderie was great. The wild flowers and birds were beautiful. It was the perfect place for Beardies to play and learn.”

Sheila Franklin, “I would say that one of the most important things (actually two) that I learned were to really be aware of HOW and WHEN we use rewards and also…much as I hate to admit it…the importance of record keeping...that kind of thing goes against every creative and spontaneous bone in my body (and there are plenty of those) but I do now see the importance of it. To hang out with all Beardie agility diehards for several days was incredibly memorable.”

Heather Haag, “I think the best thing I learned was how environmentally aware Beardies are and how that they don’t typically generalize. I think the best quote of the morning session was from Jo self control and recalls must be trained for the entire life of the dog…these are highly intelligent beautiful Bearded Collies…and let’s face it, you choose the breed and training self control is continual.”

Laurie Lo, “I feel like I have more insight into Beardies and training. For me, the most important session at camp was the gambling game. It pointed out how important it is to develop criteria, to reward, and to follow up with the reward when the criteria is met.”

Sandy McDonald, “A memorable moment? I suppose in the end I was so impressed by the loving spirit of every single Beardie there, always willing to work, forgiving our handler errors, and making us realize how lucky we are to have them and three days in sunny, warm northern Florida doing something about which we are all so passionate.”

Elaine O’Carroll, “Camp was a good reminder to work on self control issues and redo basic training on a regular basis. No matter what behavior you get at home or at your training site, you have to take the show on the road to get anywhere near those behaviors in new environments.”

Chase, “The car ride was boring, but camp was great! I ate a lot of treats when we were tracking. Jo was nice. Elton and I went for a walk. The games were fun, and Beardies rock.”

Val arranged to have a photographer, Gary Campbell, owner of MVP Pix, on site. Gary took candid photos during one of our agility sessions, and then did individual pictures at the owner’s request. Gary then artfully arranges all the pictures into a one of a kind collage, like the one complementing this article. We all agreed the collage captured the true essence (fun) of the Beardie experience at Camp Weed. You can see more of Gary’s photos at www.mvppix.net; scroll down the page and click on Camp Weed.

Copyright © 2007 by Maryann Szalka. All Rights Reserved. Contact Maryann for reprint permission.