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Who said you can’t teach an old dog new tricks?

Brenda and Heidi in Starters Cup FinalsIn 1982, Brenda Johnston saw her first Agility competition at Crufts when Agility was in it's infancy and the jumps were all one height which by today’s standards, was high! She talked to a few people to get some information and was directed to Val Pollock (now Phillips) at the ringside who told her that she and her friend Lindsey Parker would be starting an Agility club very soon at Warlingham Rugby Club. Brenda Johnston and her six year old Border Collie Heidi were amongst their first members. We hope you enjoy her trip down Memory Lane.

My dog Heidi was involved in a car accident two years before this when she suffered a dislocated back leg.  She recovered well but didn’t regain full use of her hind leg. At six years old,  Agility was my attempt to encourage her to use her withered back leg which seemed fully operational when in hot pursuit of the local wildlife population!

After a few months of training with Val, Heidi was functioning on all four legs, as hoped, but competition was inconceivable. It was a distant goal and I never believed it could be a possibility.

Brenda & Heidi at CruftsAhh, those were the days
At the beginning of 1986, we were still in Starters. Then we added Mid Downs DTC to our weekly training regime, and within two years - and with help from Tony Veal - we had started competing. We were now travelling all over the UK with my little red Fiat which was kitted out in the back as our accommodation – complete with curtains. We even went to Jersey to compete on two occasions. We won many classes and were in every individual final going including being the Winalot Prime Starters Dog of the Year Runner-up. By the end of 1986 we were Senior. Two years later, just a few weeks short of her 10th birthday, we found ourselves at Olympia where we came 6th overall.

There were many, many other wins and accolades in between. Not bad going for an aged, previously disabled dog!

We retired  from competitions after that, although Heidi would still help me in training the newcomers at Mid Downs for a while afterwards until she passed away at 14 years. As well as instructing, I also judged at a fair few Agility shows.

Life was a rollercoaster ride
After marrying in 1992,
my husband said no more dogs. In 2001 the family moved to North Yorkshire, and four years later unsurprisingly we divorced.

By 2010, I needed to get back to dog training, so I set up K9 Careers Dog Training School. I asked my parents if they had a black & white bitch puppy for sale which I could train for Agility - obviously at family rates as I was fully aware of the prices of dogs now – especially a pedigree one. Yes, they had two in fact, litter brothers, both red, shaded sable. Let me introduce my two Papillon boys - Buzz (Dourhu Red Rooster) and Woody (Dourhu Red Rum.)

They were trained in my new venture in a few things, Obedience, Trick Training and Agility. They even had a go at Flyball with some success. I had attended a couple of Richard Curtis’s Heelwork to Music workshops with them so they had a good grounding of a few things. They were also successfully shown in the breed ring too - no surprise there, given their breeding!

My son Matt by now was fairly grown up and wanted his own dog to train, so we took a crate and visited Donna Cain's Morgans Rescue Centre in Cumbria and found the Sprollie. He had been in the kennels in Ireland for over three months and nobody wanted him. I wondered why, but not for long. He was like a Jack-in-the Box in his pen and constantly barking – nutter! If he got on with my two little boys and all was good, then we will take him. Welcome to Goose (Maverick’s Wingman) Name that film?

Matt wanted to do Flyball and Agility with him, but soon had to give the lead back to me as his studies and university got in the way.

By 2012 I found myself getting weaker, and I couldn't understand why I was struggling to keep training and working as before. By 2014 I was so weak that I was reduced to walking with the aid of a walking stick. I was forever ill. Finding even the simplest tasks difficult, I decided to close the dog training venture and sold all the equipment. By 2016 I had my diagnosis - it was cancer - and my four and a half months of chemotherapy started.

Making a living
I had been working for a manufacturing company in Ilkley for over 11 years and, after my chemo treatment, I had a phased return to full time work. I worked from home on Tuesdays and Thursdays as I was still not physically able to commute for all five days. Last year, there was a drastic change in management and structure and I had to rapidly reassess my future and it seemed the best time to consider only working part-time. Given my circumstances and age, maybe it was time for me to work for myself doing what I enjoyed?

After researching the opportunities available to me in the local area for business training and project work covering accounts, payroll, Excel, system setup and Self Employed guidance, the answer to that was yes. Oh and as a bit of an afterthought, I could set up evening dog training on one or two evenings per week, as I had done before. And that's how I started Business & K9 Solutions in the glorious Yorkshire Dales.

Little did I know that six weeks later I would break my leg which meant that the the business side would be a bit slower in growing than anticipated. However, thanks to Matt who ferried me about in the evenings, I was still able to hold the dog training classes which were going really well. I even have some of the olden days K9 Careers Dog Training School members coming back again, which is fabulous.

They say that 'If you earn money doing something you enjoy, you will never work again.' I can relate to that. I have no regrets at leaving my previous firm as their Systems Accountant after 12 years.

What has changed?
But I am back now. And what an almighty change there's been from the 'good old days' some 30 odd years ago! The Agility landscape changed and the training techniques have progressed so I really have my work cut out to catch up.

Some of the things I've noticed include:-

  • Heights of obstacles - Jumps, A-Frame and Dog Walk have all been lowered.

  • More sizes of dogs catered for and there is even a Lower height as an option. It all adds to the confusion. I am definitely feeling my age!

  • Paint and sand is old school

  • What happed to the Scribe? They are now called Scrimes? Something to do with scribbling and times perhaps?

  • Equipment has changed from wooden equipment of various dubious designs to what I originally thought is lighter aluminium type, but no, there is a load of rubber put on top of it to make it just as heavy as I discovered recently. Mind you it’s a great step forward for the dogs as this must surely give them a better grip on things – something I am hanging onto just at the moment.

  • A few pieces of equipment have gone missing including the Wall, Well and Collapsible Tunnel. Interestingly, nothing new has replaced them.

  • The course style has changed somewhat to incorporate challenging turns and the handling is so, so different in style and application now - far less shouting from the handlers, as better handling cues are more evident. Dogs are not deaf and never were, even back then!

  • Distances have been lengthened. Is this a ploy by the younger folk to wear us oldies out? Now the courses run faster with blind handling and fancy terms.

  • So many countries involved. Better get my passport renewed, Think big, then bigger still!

Looking ahead
I am really looking forward and seeing all my old friends. I hear some of the people I remember are still actively involved today. Way back then, you spent your weekends on the road meeting up regularly with the same friendly faces to support and encourage each other on through the trials and tribulations of 'if only this or if only that.' I do hope that this will still be prevalent with today's competitors as, to me, this is what made the community spirit. It's so easy to forget the importance of those around you. We are all in this for the fun and challenge of working as a team with our dog.

I recently met up with Alison and Bryan Grimes after 30 years of being out of Agility - I thank them for their best efforts to give me a crash course on the modern day workings of Agility! What a lot of homework I have to do ready for next year's competitions. I am hoping to find the oxygen tank at the finish line as we compete in the Veteran classes. If I fail at getting round the course in the allotted time or can't breath at the finish line next year, it will all have been worth it to be a team player again with my happy, smiling dogs with their wagging tails. They owe me nothing over these past long and trying times.

I started Business & K9 Solutions with two activities - Obedience and K9 Fun Club - to gauge the interest. Four months later - leg now working again - I am offering five activities held on three evenings: Puppy/Obedience, Tricks, K9 Fun Club, Hoopers and Agility. My 1-2-1 sessions with owners who have some dog challenges are also picking up pace. I am planning on going to Agility & Hoopers training/instructor days so that I can further hone my practical application of the theory studies I have immersed myself in lately.

The K9 Fun Club is a combination of challenges for the dog and for the handler and is - and always will be - for the fun element as some handlers don't want the pressure of competing. It uses the garden-type equipment although some of this has now been sold off and replaced with the Agility items to save on storage space for both. Having said that, all the K9 Fun Club handlers have now defected to the Agility class and are very enthusiastic in getting it right for next years shows! No pressure on me there then! The initial training sessions with the new dogs/handlers are going really well and the behavioural shaping is working brilliantly, too. 

Given my leg and restricted working ability, money was always going to be a concern. The new aluminium equipment was out of my financial reach, so I have sourced the next best thing - excellent quality new and second-hand, mostly from First Contact.

So many rules and regulations - so different
Yes, how things have changed since the 1980s. Back then we did it for fun on a weekend to kill the time and for the social. The agility, the pubs, the BBQs, the rounders matches and the evening's entertainment during the two and three day shows were great. Like so many things, I can safely say the 'good old days were 'the best' with the proviso that today is the 'good old days' which we will be longing for in years to come.

About the author...
Brenda Johnston was born in Perth and she lived in Scotland until she was 17 years old. The youngest of three daughters, her parents were very successful Papillon breeders and excelled in the show ring, having produced many champions both in the UK and abroad.

By the time she was eight, Brenda was already handling the Paps in the show ring and training the youngsters. At 14 years, she had won numerous awards in Junior Handling in the Breed showring (Papillons, GSD & BC) and won out of Beginners in Obedience with her Papillon Lucy (Dourhu Dezilu). Her Border Collie, Heidi Har of Jabbaj was her 14th birthday present and as a team they competed throughout the UK & Jersey, initially in Obedience tests but laterally in Agility.

In 2001, she moved with her family to the outskirts of the famous market town of Settle (North Yorkshire) where she still lives.  She is self-employed and the force behind Business & K9 Solutions which deals primarily in dog training - with a competition team name of BAKS (North Yorkshire). It's new members are currently in training to be able to complete next year in Hoopers and Agility shows.

First published 10th August 2019 


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