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Motherhood and Agility

Moms find children and agility to be a mix of challenge and reward. By Brenna Fender


I ran agility three weekends out of every four until my first child was born in 2003. While waddling through a course walk through while about seven months pregnant, a fellow competitor said, "Well, I guess soon we won't be seeing you out here anymore." Surprised, I asked why. And she said, "Well, you'll be at soccer games and all that." And I thought, "No way."

I knew I could never give up agility. It wouldn't cease being my passion just because I had given birth. And it didn't, but boy did my relationship with agility change! Gone were leisurely practices and entire weekends at trials. While many moms are able to bring their children to trials with them from the get-go, my son cried continuously and was a major challenge for a me as a new mom, so that was out. And my husband worked most weekends, so the opportunities to trial were (and still are) limited. 

I stayed involved with the sport by working in the field and dabbling a bit in the yard. Slowly, I've been able to return to competing on a limited level, with hopes of getting more involved in the near future. But my attitude about the sport has completely changed, and absolutely for the better. I see agility as a fun escape and I now enjoy everything about it. I get a kick out of even the most disastrous runs. It's agility. It's all good.

In honor of Mother's Day, I asked other USDAA moms to share some of their experiences balancing what can be a very consuming sport with what is definitely a 24/7 job. 

Kids at Trials

Deanna and Wes at the South West Regional.
Unlike me, many moms successfully make their children a part of their agility training and trialing experience. Deanna Fairchild, member of the 2015 IFCS World Agility Team USA, brings 18-month-old Wes to practices and trials on a regular basis. She says, "I love having him at trials and practices. It allows me to spend time with him and do the sport I love. One of his first words was, 'OUT!' which he learned at a Gamblers workshop with Jim Basic.... It is so much fun to watch his spontaneous learning and having him with me at shows or practices allows me to do that." Fairchild gets some help from others to make it easier to compete with her son in tow. "I was amazed by and extremely grateful for the many people who offered to help me with his care while at shows so I didn't miss a walk through or a run."

Having a baby, who is largely stationary, at a trial is different than having an active child on site (which Fairchild says she is discovering). Anne Alexander brings her four-year-old daughter, Mia, to about 50% of the trials Alexander attends. She says, "Sometimes [Mia] can find other children to play with at a trial. When she can't, it's difficult. Really though, you're only running for about two minutes over the several hours of a trial. Many of the other exhibitors are happy to have a little person around. Some are actually glad to be able to expose their dogs to tiny people." When Alexander's husband is able
to watch Mia, things are a bit different. "It's a lot easier to focus when I'm not worried what she's doing." Snacks, toys and electronics help keep little ones busy during long trial days, but often it isn't easy!

Kelly Lieberthal and family. Boys in order (left to right): T-Bone, Merek and Case, Dogs in order (left to right): Reggie, Bindi, Bro and FU. Photo courtesy of Becky Culbert
Kelly Lieberthal has three boys ages six and under, and has brought them with her often to trials. She says, "Ever since they were about four weeks old, the boys had no choice but to get dragged to trials with me. All of my boys are crate and clicker trained. All three were strapped into a carrier and have been walking courses since they were a few months old. And nobody knows the ultimate secret that agility has to offer... the surplus of surrogate grandmas and grandpas! But, seriously, I am lucky to have an amazing community of friends at my local trials that have always entertained, fed and strolled my children around while I was busy running multiple dogs. But the older the boys get the less and less they want to go with me, so they opt out for my parent's house on trial weekends." 

Carolyn Canizaro-Orlowsky and Nicholas with Carolyn's first agility canine, Sera, shown here earning their Performance Dog Championship in 2010. Photo courtesy of Carolyn Canizaro-Orlowsky D.V.M.
As children reach the older elementary age and beyond, they actually can be quite helpful at trials. But they are also more opinionated and may not wish to attend an all-day event with mom. Nicholas Orlowsky, the 11-year-old son of long-time competitor Carolyn Canizaro-Orlowsky D.V.M., sometimes stays at home with dad during trials but other times attends as his mom's helper. She says, "Sometimes he is my travel companion, helping me with the dogs, walking and pottying them, helping out at the shows. He has become known to many clubs, including those in the northeast and our home state of Texas, for his volunteerism. I get many compliments on what a nice kid he is, how helpful he is, and also on the rare occasion, a request that he refrain from doing something, like climbing on the arena rails, and other boy like things."

USDAA judge Karen Gloor's daughters, Dani, 12, and Erin, almost 11, attend trials with their mom unless they are with friends. Karen says, "They used to help out a lot, but after a competitor yelled at one of my girls, they opted out of volunteering. Now they hang out with the dogs, play in whatever park we're at or make videos on their iPads."

Most agility moms are aware that some competitors and some dogs are not comfortable with children. Child leashes help little ones stay out of trouble, and keeping noisy play away from the rings and crates works well. Several moms (myself included) have had their well-behaved children used to socialize puppies or help dogs that are fearful of children. 

The Challenges

Karen Gloor and family. Photo courtesy of Jim Gloor.
What are the challenges of doing agility when you have small children, whether they attend trials and training classes or not?

The most commonly mentioned challenge is scheduling. The older children get, the more activities they are involved in. Soccer games do, in fact, often conflict with agility. My Saturdays are generally devoted to youth sports. When I enter trials, it's most often only on Sundays.

Karen Gloor has similar difficulties. She says, "As my children have grown older, their weekend schedules have gotten much busier. One of my girls is a dancer and has dance every Saturday whereas my other daughter plays club softball and has either a practice or a tournament every weekend. This limits where I can be since I cannot be in two or three places at the same time! I am lucky that the dance and softball families are extremely supportive and do help me out, but it is a constant juggling act." 
Scheduling is not the only challenge. Finding the right balance of activities is also a factor. Cassi Isachsen, mom of three-year-old Nathaniel and four-month-old Lincoln says, "It's hard finding the balance between the sport I love and family time. Agility is an all-day event for trials and I often feel torn that I'm not spending it with my boys, but I need some time to do the things I really enjoy as well. Also, being a trial secretary, I try and do most of the paperwork when they are napping or in bed at night, but the week before the trial I have to spend lots of time getting everything ready, so that makes it tricky trying to keep them happy and entertained and getting all the paperwork printed and ready."

Lieberthal agrees that balance is key. She says, "It will always be a challenge to have balance. The first thing about having children is that it is never about you anymore and they will always be and should be your first priority. The older the boys get, the more the hectic their schedules will get with school and sports and it is a realization that they will come first and agility will come second. But I function well with a lot going on and only take that as a minor challenge to make everyone's schedules work!"

Traveling to trials is also a bigger challenge when you add children into the mix. Fairchild says, "The biggest challenge I have experienced so far is traveling for a show far from home. It is hard to travel across the country or around the globe for a competition with both a four-legged [kid] and an 18-month-old two-legged kid. When I went to Italy with Jude, my husband stayed home with Wes. When I travel within the US I can feel like I'm not missing anything by using Facetime but in Italy the internet connection was so bad that I could only do a voice call. That was hard."

The Benefits

Wait! Children can have positive affects on an agility career? In some ways, yes! Fairchild says, "[Having a child] has had a positive impact because I don't obsess on training and trialing as much now. I'm much more relaxed [and] focused in my training and trialing which actually has me appreciate the sport even more.  Since I work full-time in high tech and now have baby duties on top of that, I don't have as much time to spend training my dogs in the mornings or evenings which means I have to make the 15 minutes I get here and there really count! Also, my dogs are getting more time off as Wes gets older and we start to split our time between training/trialing and doing toddler related activities." 

Other moms agree that their post-child agility attitude has made improvements in their enjoyment of and performance in agility. Like Fairchild, Isachsen has found that she has gained increased focus: "Having to cut back has allowed me to focus on what is really important to me while still enjoying the hobby I love. I try to set goals and work on achieving those." And Alexander says, "I think becoming a parent has made me a more relaxed trainer. That's been both good and bad. I now have a very soft dog so if I was too intense he probably wouldn't enjoy it very much." 

Carolyn Canizaro-Orlowsky notes that the personal growth and understanding that tends to accompany parenthood has been a benefit to her agility training. "Raising a child and understanding all the guidance they need to grow and the patience required has helped me understand the same thing with my dogs, who mature in a matter of months, really, compared to humans. The dogs get so big so fast, it's hard to remember they are still young in heart and mind and need continued patience and guidance," she says.

Karen Gloor has had similar experiences. She says, "If anything, I am much more patient. I also let things roll off my back much more than I used to. Becoming a parent makes you realize that there are far more important things in life than dog agility. While I love the sport and it will always be a part of my life, it simply isn't my whole life, which puts everything into perspective." 

Future Agility Stars

Alexander's Mia in a bored moment at an agility trial. Photo courtesy of Makco Photos.
Although my own children have no interest in doing agility themselves, some agility moms find that their children are following in their footsteps. Canizaro-Orlowsky says, "Nick is a registered Junior Handler and titled a friend's dog (Shawn Cossart's Jake). My two dogs at the time were not suited to run with him, one was older and wouldn't take commands from him, and the other was too crazy. He will run my competition dog from time to time in a lesser class in performance for fun. They actually do quite well together. We have a new puppy that I hope he will run; he doesn't have the time to train her with his busy middle school schedule and sports, though." 

Alexander's Mia has already tried the sport at her young age. "Mia tried to run Tiva [Alexander's Australian Shepherd] in a fundraiser and she did very well. Unfortunately, Tiva kept running out of the ring looking for me. If Mia is interested, I'll consider getting her her own dog to train when she gets older," says Alexander. 

Fairchild's tiny toddler may become a junior handler... when he's old enough to run! "He has already shown interest in training our puppy so I hope that's a good sign that he will want to compete one day," she says.

Motherhood and Agility Can Mix

Although it's hard to juggle motherhood and agility, many competitors are doing it well. And they've even found that motherhood has upped their agility game in some ways. Now, I can't necessarily recommend that instead of trying the latest handling move or newest seminar you have a baby instead, but you might want to consider it! Happy Mother's Day!

Brenna Fender is the editor for USDAA's newsletter, the Overview, and USDAA's news page (among other things). She can be reached at bfender@usdaa.com.

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