The 'First' Couple of British Agility

Certainly there can be no dispute as to who the 'first' couple of agility were in 2002. Alan and Jayne Bray won or placed in just about every big event there's been in 2002 and their Upanover Tigers were in the top 10 clubs in the Agility Eye Premier Club tables.

Just how did they get there and how to do it? They talk candidly to Lisa Gantly about their dogs, their past experiences and their goals for the future.

 Q.    How did the agility bug hit you?

Alan:    It was by accident! I've had Border Collies since I was just six months old. I actually cut my first teeth on Tim, my first collie, but didnít find agility until I was doing obedience with the Nottingham Obedience Club late in 1990. NOC happened to share the same venue as the Nottingham Agility Club and thatís where I found agility!

Jayne:   I had always wanted to have a go since my older sister had her German Shepherds competing years ago, but couldnít because I had young children. So when they were older, I decided to get myself a dog and go for it. Once the bug hit, it really hit hard

Alan:     For the first five years I was still playing serious standard league football and cricket so didnít do too much agility but then I retired from playing contact sports and concentrated on agility. Age gets to us all, eh? Especially now that I am nearly approaching 40! Stop laughing - and donít believe everything Terry Felstead says!

The Bray Family Album

  Q.   When did you first start competing in agility and with what breed of dog?

Jayne:   I think it was about 1992 when I first started with Amber, my Standard Poodle who unfortunately died suddenly of liver shunt when she was 2 Ĺ years old. I had by then got my daughter Hayley a Miniature Poodle called Portia and the rest, they say, is history

Alan:    I started in 1991 with my GSD and I also ran a Doberman as well at the time. I quickly realised that I would need a Border Collie if I wanted to seriously compete or indeed if I wanted to keep my left arm intact as the Dobie used it as a bone as we crossed the finished line. You could always tell it was me who had just run, as I would be the one still running into the sunset attached by the arm to my mad Dobie!

  Q.    When and where did you win out of Starters?  Alan, do you remember this far back?

Alan:    Yes, thanks for that! Everyone remembers when he or she won out, donít they. Itís like your first... no,  better not go there!

I won out at Otley with my first agility Border Collie, Lace with 130 in the class in June 1993 by nearly eight seconds . It was her sixth show, and she went on to become an Advanced dog and qualify all the major finals before she was stolen, still in her prime. Lace was the daughter of Fran Grahamís dog Batavias Cap, my all time favourite agility dog. This win was really down to the training I was lucky enough to receive from Dave Hurst at Nottingham as well as all the Hinckley lot including Fran, Gwen Roberts, Yvonne Croxford and Mary Ray.

Jayne:   I have to say that I cannot remember for sure. but it was after the Easter Egg'stravaganza show in 1997 and before Supadogs in May as Portia went on to win 12 classes during the Supadogs week so if it wasnít before then it sure was after it. Remember Mini classes were all open in those days with no Novice/Starter splits like there are now.

  Q.    How much exercise does you and your dogs have each day.  Is this tapered to specific times of the year?

Alan:    Me, not enough I have never been so unfit! Heaven knows how the older handlers like Tel Insull ever get through! However, because I work in an office I always make sure I take the stairs, - and run them - instead of the lift and walk across town to meetings instead of taking the underground, whenever possible. Other than that, it is training twice a week plus then shows or training at the weekends. No change to this over the year at all.

As for the dogs they know that at home they should rest so they do! They have a lovely all weather friendly slab and shingled garden - no grass or mud - to play in plus locked kennel and run. They donít go on a daily walk, as they donít need it in addition to the training. My dogs train a little bit each on both training nights. (Donít get fitness confused with quality skills learning training.)

Jayne now takes Raeven obedience training on a weekday evening as well so if I am back from work in time I will also tag along and give them all a laugh with Tiggyís legendary waits, not! In addition they sometimes have a short run on the playing fields behind us when it isnít so muddy! I canít have Tiggy getting muddy now can I?

Jayne:  Contrary to what Alan believes with regard to the exercise front, I take them out regularly on my days off as I only work part time now, and they are fun in the local fields. They are then hosed down before he gets home from work so he canít see his beloved Miss Tigg muddy. I take my exercise when I am walking and training as my job is mainly on a computer so exercise is non-existent at work.

 Alan:    What?

  Q.    Have you had any agility nightmares? And your agility highs?

Alan:    As nightmares go, on a serious note obviously having all my dogs stolen at a show is everyoneís worst nightmare.

On competing letís talk about Olympia finals, shall we! Four times in the Evening Final and four cockĖups - and all by me! The dogs were brilliant! I can forgive my dogs anything but not myself!

Jayne:   One nightmare that will haunt me forever was Crufts 1999 when Portia was at obstacle 17, faster than the dog that was winning and then decided she needed a POO. Yes, every handlers nightmare! I picked her up! I dropped her! I didnít know quite what to do, and I can remember looking up trying to find a familiar face in the crowd for some support . All I could see was Yvette Pettican, laughing her head off. Now thatís what I call a nightmare!

Alan:     As regards highs we have been very, very fortunate so there has been quite a few of them with my dogs, all of whom have won various things for me. It's so hard to pick out one particular high. Oh dear that sounds really big headed. doesnít it? Greg, will never let me live that one down!.

Jayne:     Alan has already said we have been fortunate enough to have had a lot of highs, so I would say there are three big ones for me.

  1. Portia being the only dog ever to win Crufts twice.

  2. Portia winning the first ever English Champion Certificate, and then being the first ever Pedigree Mini Agility Champion in this country

  3. Portia winning Olympia 2002

  Q.   Do you have an agility mentor Ė human or canine?

Alan:    Not really, we obviously talk to each other. Well Jayne talks and I listen, but if anyone itís Mary Ray who we both turn to as I donít think there isnít anything about dogs that Mary doesnít know! And I desperately want Chris Bolton who bred Tiggy to be proud of her!

Doggie-wise, Cap was my all time favourite agility dog. He had real class! However, if things have gone wrong for us we go back to the drawing board and work on the basics. We do some nice straight-forward exercises and regain our confidence.

Jayne:   I think for me two dogs stick in my mind as being all time greats. The first is Catch Me If You Can owned by Sarah Jane Davis. This pairing were sweeping the board when I first started competing and I think it would be fair to say they have probably won most of the finals that they took part in. It was a pleasure for me to watch them in the ring.

Then there is Kelbie (Moravia Red October), owned by Jo Rhodes. Again this partnership has been very successful and a pleasure to see in the ring,  I look forward to watching them in 2003.

  Q.          Do you do any special training for the major finals?

Alan:   No, not really. We train all the equipment, exercises and routines right through the year anyway and treat finals as if they were like any other show. Otherwise you are giving out totally different signals to the dog! If we know really tight or really big courses are on the agenda, then we do train accordingly but with the same methods and routines but thatís no different preparation to normal shows anyway.

Make sure Jayne tells you about Portia the Poodleís diamond collar for finals!

Jayne:   I do more preparation than Alan for my finals. Firstly I have to book an appointment for Portia to have her hair and nails done. This is done by the Aprika Hair salon, situated in Luton. Then I have to go to my hairdressers as well to make sure I donít clash with the diamonds Portia always wears to her finals.

Alan:     I have to go to have my long flowing locks cut as well otherwise my hair gets in me eyes when I run!

Jayne:   I never overtrain Portia for finals as I believe she only needs to be kept fit. She knows how to do each piece of the kit, so I do not need to keep doing it over and over again.

But if it was Raeven... then I would train the courses that I think we may get so that on the day we give ourselves every possible chance.

  Q.     What are your goals for this year or 2004?

Jayne:   The only goal I have set myself and Raeven is for us to become a partnership out on an agility course. She has been a very difficult dog to work, not just because of her incredible speed but the fact that she has never given me any indication that I was needed and so our partnership was never formed. This I have hopefully turned around by doing some obedience, as suggested by Mary Ray, I have been going for two months now and the results are unbelievable> At last Raeven wants to be with ME, not just the agility equipment. So my goal must be Olympia, of course.

Alan:    I try to not set objectives such as win Olympia etc. as I think this can over pressure both you and your dogs. There is so much that can happen to upset this as you are not dealing with a ball, car or set of golf clubs here. This is a living breathing creature with feelings, good days bad days and everything in between. You can never get cocky at this sport or as sure as eggs is eggs, a dog can bring you crashing down to earth.

If anything, I guess my goal is to continue to enjoy the sport and get the most out of it that the training and input from us all deserve.

  Q.    Do you ever get nervous when competing nowadays?

Jayne:    Sure. I think we all get nervous, donít we ?

Alan:   You are either not human or called Lesley Olden if you donít feel nerves!

You must be able to control them. (Thatís the nerves, not Lesley, as that is impossible!)  Otherwise not only will your nerves get to you, they will also get to your dog!

Fortunately, I have played in other sports at a decent level in finals etc. and faced all that before which has helped me to understand and deal with nerves at that time. Plus my job also puts me in potentially nerve racking situations such as television interviews so you have to deal with that. After all, this is only running a dog, isnít it?

Jayne:    I try and convert my nerves into adrenalin. I suspect that most people would agree thereís nothing like the adrenalin rush we get on a start line and for me. it's that feeling that takes me round the course. I know that when I am feeling good that Portia will react to it and it also gives her that buzz.

Alan:   Jayne forgot to mention that she needs a toilet less than 20 yards away from the start line and I have to queue for her whilst she goes again... and again.

  Q.     If you had a rewind button, is there anything that you would have done differently in your agility career?

Alan:    Yes. I would not have been so trusting to make it possible for all my five dogs to be stolen as they were from a show. Thanks to the efforts of our club members, we subsequently recovered Tiggy. Nothing I do or say will ever bring the others back though but I have only myself to blame. I just pray they were not mistreated, but this does haunt me.

Jayne:   No, I donít think so, I have been very lucky in the dogs that I have and the friends that I have made, even found myself a husband. Well, he found me actually!

  Q.     Which is the best dog you've competed with and why?

Alan:   I have been very lucky to have had four quality Border Collies and a Miniature Poodle, all achieving results at the highest level. I wouldnít have thought anything could have beaten my Lace for that prize in my heart or indeed Jadie the Poodle for sheer quality and quantity of wins as she won 50 classes including finals just in 1998 alone, but it has to be Tiggy.

Tiggy is just an awesome dog having won just about everything in sight for us against other class dogs and with such grace and power as well. Itís the manner in which she works that impresses me as she seems so effortless whilst I just hold onto the tail on the way around!

I know I am very, very lucky to have been able to handle her although I do feel she is starting to slow down a bit now. After all, she is six in February 2003. Therefore, we wonít be doing as much next year as we donít want to burn her out but let her go on and enjoy competing for as long as possible.

Anyway weíve got three granddaughters between us to train as well!

Jayne:   My choice has to be Portia, doesnít it ! She has got to be one of the most prolific Mini winners of all time. This little dog has just kept on and on, delivering win after win. She has in excess of a staggering 250 trophies to her credit. She has won every major final there is to win,

This year see the end of Portiaís serious competitive life as she is going to be a mum some time in the near future, and I am going to enjoy her company out of the ring. She has always competed for her own enjoyment. She could never be made to do anything she didnít want to do.

I feel very sad that we have come to the end of our partnership in the ring, but take comfort in the fact that three of her sons are out there doing what they do best. I shall take great delight in watching DíArcy this year. It will be his first full year, and I am really excited for Sharon Brewster.

 Q.    Do you see agility changing much over the next five years?

Alan:    As regards equipment, standards and rules, I hope not. Itís as good and generally as safe as it can be so why do we want to keep changing it?

I cannot believe that dogs can actually get faster on the existing courses so I donít think it is possible for the sport to get faster as there must be a physical limit to just how fast obstacles can be successfully and safely negotiated.

Perhaps we could do something to help control the sheer number of entries to shows or at least some specific shows. I feel we are in danger of outgrowing certain traditional club venues now.

Jayne:   I agree. The size of shows and entries is going up with major qualifier shows having to be held at major national locations with all the right facilities on hand. The standard of competition is getting better and better all the time. Have you watched some of the starter classes lately? We wouldnít have dreamt of attempting some of the things they are doing now!

Alan:    There will probably be more involvement from abroad, but I donít see this on a major scale on a show-by-show basis unless we, of course, alter our rules to suit them. On the other hand, the competitions that Dave Ray and Chris Parks have started could really take hold and increase involvement from an international representation viewpoint.

Other things I see happening might be some financial help for judges who give up a whole day to judge instead of competing themselves. Though only a gesture, it might soften the blow of not competing themselves as such especially when you look at the contract that is entered into between judge and in effect the Kennel Club which seems to be wholly one sided against the poor old individual judging and wouldnít stand up in a court anyway but then it doesnít have to does it?

   Q.    What improvements/changes would you like to see to the present system?

Alan:    Let me see. First of all recognition for the top dogs/handlers in the country in regards to, for example, when Championship classes are run at shows and when the awards are presented, minis as well!

Jayne:  I actually agree with Alan with regard to the championship classes. We pay a lot more money for these, and the trophies should reflect the win. I have personally won both the classes and then won the championship and all I was presented was a small eggcup. I then won the championship at another club and was presented with a beautiful crystal rose bowl and the individual heats for this class also has crystal bowls. Yet both clubs charged the same.

Alan:    Secondly, Crufts should recognise how big and important agility is to their show and get rid of the carpet and put in a suitable size ring and surface for agility to be shown to its best advantage.

I would like to see better co-ordination of events in order to woo the TV companies to cover specific agility finals etc, thus increasing sponsorship and sponsors. More prize money could be offered and commercial involvement should be encouraged. That's a bit controversial, I know, but it could be controlled by the Agility Council or whatever we call it.

Furthermore, I think that the major agility finals should be held for Agility audiences at suitable events where they will be appreciated rather than squeezed into other public events which would be better venues for exhibition shows to demonstrate what agility is all. Leave the serious stuff to the agility public. 

Finally I would like to see more Advanced handlers taking judging appointments for Elementary and Starter classes and, of course, recognition that mini courses should be different in certain characteristics to maxi dog size courses. You have got to run minis to appreciate this!

Jayne:  I agree that Mini dogs are treated differently to the Standard dogs. If the show is getting too big, why then should it always be the Mini dogs that are dropped?

Alan:    I had better not say anything!

  Q.    Apart from Crufts & Olympia, which do you consider to be the best show in Great Britain?

Alan:    First of all, despite winning the Senior Singles Agility and KnockĖout Double at Crufts with Tiggy and winning the Eukanuba Knock-Out final and Pairs Final there with Jadie my Miniature Poodle, I donít see Crufts as one of the best shows because of that blooming carpet. Crufts is more about damage limitation, and the sooner Agility is taken more seriously by the Kennel Club and we have a proper surface to run on then the better. That said I still want to win there!

Lisa: This was written before the announcement of the change of surface at Crufts. Let's all hope it works!

Jayne:  As Alan said you canít better Crufts or Olympia.

Alan:    There are some fantastically run shows around that absolutely amaze me. How do they cope with the sheer volume of entries and rings?

As for my best show, it has to be the Burridge Show within the Southsea Show in Portsmouth. I just love it what with the seaside, the ships especially the Royal Navy, relaxed atmosphere, top competition and lots of chips. Yes, this is a superb show expertly run by Lynne Jung and the team. To see Lesley Olden in her pinny serving tea is a sight to behold so. What more could a man wish for?

Jayne:  I have to agree with Alan here too and say Burridge, though not because of Lesley in her pinny but because it is a relatively small show and everyone enjoys themselves. The atmosphere is so relaxed, and it is a pleasure to hear Clare Murrayís dulcet tones calling us all in by name when the time has come for you to get your dog. Where else would that happen?

In 2001 Alan was late to run the Chum qualifier and Clare went into the campsite and frog-marched him back into the ring, holding onto his ear like a naughty boy. That gave the crowd a laugh anyway!

Alan:   Actually, I quite enjoyed it!

  Q.    What are the essentials needed by an aspiring agility handler?

Alan:    Let's see.

  1. Patience!

  2. Donít be afraid to go wrong!

  3. Relax a bit this is only agility, not life or death!

  4. Watch the Advanced classes and see what is happening. You can pick up some good handling hints that took us years to find.

  5. Donít over burden your own dog. We all go through a learning curve, so give the dog a chance to learn with you.

  6. Keep calm!

Jayne My list would include:

  1. Understand your own as well as your dogs capabilities,

  2. Never blame the dog for your handling. If it goes wrong try again and keep trying until the dog understands what is required of them.

  3. Donít keep going to different training days and trying ALL methods within a few weeks. You'll totally confuse your dog. It will never know what to expect from you.

  4. Above all, love your dog whatever he/she achieves. You never know how long you may have them.

Alan: What about loving your husband then eh and forgiving him all those breakages and accidents that have happened?

  Q.     And the vital ingredients required by a top dog?

Alan:     Beyond brainpower and the right build, I'd say the ability to learn quickly about equipment, routines, conditions under foot and, above all else, to decipher our dreadful handling skills!

Oh, not forgetting speed and desire to want to do it, although this is something that requires confidence and the understanding from us as handlers. At speed, things can easily and quickly go wrong so donít be so quick to criticise them. Otherwise they learn to go slower and, therefore, more accurately so you donít have a reason to tell them off!

Jayne:   An on/off button. Raeven, for instance, has been permanently on since I bought her home and she never does anything below 100 mph. The drive to want to work.

Alan goes for lightweight bitches, but Buzz has proved that with bad weather conditions he can dig deep and still keep poles up so the bigger more powerful dogs do come through on such occasions, also he has the ability to turn incredibly tight and covers the ground, good big course dog. Understanding each piece of equipment, the ability to tackle it at speed safely... which is something Raeven has still yet to learn.

  Q.    After so much success, do you still feel a keen sense of anticipation on the start line?

Jayne:   Of  course, without that I have mucked up many a class, I need that adrenaline I was talking about earlier, Portia needs it, she needs to know that this is great fun whatever happens by the time we have completed the course.

Now Raeven is different. She needs calm. I have to chill and do some obedience with her otherwise when sheís on the course she goes over the top frequently. We are still working on that!

AlanAbsolutely, I owe that much to my dogs and the day I stop feeling that fierce will to win and do well is the day that I pack it all up, get me pipe and slippers out and retire to the fireside! Now where did that Poodle hide my slippers?

Jayne:   Is that it, do we win a prize or something? Can we open the box rather than take the money? Whoops that gives the game away somewhat doesnít it?

AlanWhat about a clear round rosette then?

About the interviewer...
Lisa Gantly started her agility career some 14 years ago at Milton Keynes DTC with 'just one dog' called Henry, a retriever cross.

During this time she has qualified for nearly every major final including the Pedigree Chum finals at Olympia. Her agility highs so far have been Olympia and winning the Pedigree Chum Senior Classic with Bex.  Her lows included her injury plagued 2001 in which she slipped a disc in her neck. Just as she recovered from that she turned her ankle over and made a right mash of all my ligaments and tendons. Then to top it all she had to take time out in 2002 to have a baby Ė although the results of that were quite good!

At present Lisa is competing with two Advanced dogs and one Novice dog who is knocking at Seniorís door!

She has taught agility, judged and competed the length and breadth of Britain and hopes to retire in 2035 (ish)!


© Copyright Agilitynet