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Eli Beate Sæther | Agility, physical training and mental strength

Eli Beate Sæther | Agility, physical training and mental strength

JEANETTE: Today’s guest is one of the world’s best athletes in agility. With her Shetland sheepdog Zelda, she placed third in this year’s European Open, and they have been on the podium at the World Championship two times. Eli Beate Sæther, welcome.

ELI BEATE: Thank you.

JEANETTE: Agility might look very easy when you look at some good athletes doing it, but it’s a lot of hard work behind it.

ELI BEATE: I thought that as well. When I first saw someone do agility, it looks like a dance, kind of, when you are handling your dog through the course. It’s nice when you’re seeing someone that has this good connection with her or his dog. You have to have a good basic to get this good rhythm, to get it to look like this dance. Absolutely much hard work to come there.

I think for someone it’s hard to get this rhythm through their whole career, but if you are always trying to find the small key points, I think you will come there.

JEANETTE:: On the course you are communicating with your dog in different ways, and everything goes so fast, but you use body language. You use your voice. What do you do to tell your dog what to do on the course?

ELI BEATE: I started with agility in 2008, and then I was just 12 years old. So I was very young myself. I had a Cavalier King Charles Spaniel and his name was Todd, and he didn’t want to work. He was just walking through the course. Then I didn’t have this much speed either, so the rhythm was not so good then. But after two years, I got my first Shetland sheepdog, Siraja. She is now 10 years old. With her it was much more speed.

The good thing with Todd was that I had to learn how to take – you have different ways to handle a dog through the course. You have front cross, you have rear cross, you have blind cross, and then you have different techniques you can use on the jump obstacles or the tunnels. With Todd, I really had to learn his crosses in a good way because it was so slow. Slow is smooth and smooth is fast. It was never fast with Todd, but with Siraja I had this good rhythm in my own body, so when she ran faster than Todd, it was easy to me to do the same process with her. The rhythm was much better.

For other people that start their agility career with a fast dog, it can be very hard to learn these crosses in a good way because it’s not so often that you are repeating it on your own without the dog. You will always do it with the dog, and then it’s always too fast, and then you never learn it good enough. But if you have a slow dog, then you’ll learn it very well, and then it’s easier to do it with a fast dog afterwards.

I’m very grateful that I had Todd and I learned it in this good way at the beginning. It was much easier for me to then have Siraja. I was just 14 when I got her, so I was not that good a dog trainer then either, but when I then got Zelda that I have been in the World Championship and European Open with, I learned a lot more myself. We found this good connection and rhythm quite fast.

JEANETTE: How do you build this connection from the dog as a puppy? How do you start with an agility dog, and when do you start training?

ELI BEATE: Zelda is the first dog I really started to work with from a young age. The reason is that Siraja, when she was I think two years old, she got a big injury, a slipped tendon. Her tendon where her ankle is, like her Achilles tendon, was slipping. So then she started to limp. Because of that, she had an operation. First she had one operation on her first leg, and after rehabilitation, in 6 months she had the same injury on the other leg.

The vet I had talked to said to me that that could happen, that when you get it on the first leg, it can come on the second leg also. And that did happen with Siraja. Then I had to go through a new rehabilitation. Like I said, I was quite young, so maybe 15 years old. I was tired of waiting at this time, so I started to search on the internet for different things to do with her because I couldn’t do agility at this time.

Then I found Silvia Trkman. She is a well-known person in the agility society, so I think it was because of that I got her link or her YouTube channel, and I was so inspired. She had a lot of good movies. She was doing a lot of tricks with her dog. I was going to her YouTube channel, and I had seen some of her videos with the dogs that did a lot of stuff. I remember I think some of the first videos I saw was this washing video. She taught the dogs to wash on the table with this towel and taking things out of the washing machine with clothes and so on, and on the kitchen floor and on the kitchen bench and so on.

I love to have it clean in the house myself, so I was like, “oh, this is nice to teach the dog this stuff.” [laughs] So I went to her YouTube channel and started from the beginning. I just scrolled down and saw her first video. Then I worked my way through her whole channel, I remember, while Siraja was still in this rehabilitation period. This was also during the summer holiday.

After that I started to try these things. I started to do a lot of tricks with her because that was a good thing to do when I couldn’t do agility.

After that day, most of her meals we did training. I took her breakfast and I tried to teach her new tricks. I started, of course, with the simplest ones that she also knew, like sit, laying down, standing, and then rolling on the floor, and then also going in circles. I asked her to take this towel in her mouth and roll around with the towel so that she could hide in a towel.

I started with walls, I remember. I wanted her to lift one paw and then both front paws and hind legs up to the wall and so on. So she had to begin on the walls so I could strengthen her front. I also asked her to “sit pretty,” I think it’s called. Sitting pretty on her hind feet when her feet were better, and also to stand on two feet so I could strengthen her back, and a lot of this stuff.

In the beginning she didn’t like it at all. She thought I was a little bit – when I told her to sit, because I often asked her “Can you sit, please?” and then she was like, “Yes, I can, but I don’t want to.” I was like, “Please sit down,” and she was like, “No.” Then she just went away because she didn’t like that we had to train for food. She was like, “Why are you telling me to do stuff? Why are you doing that?”

So we had a little trouble in the beginning, but after a while I was working with it, and then she really understood and she started to like it. So after a while, when I took her breakfast, she was running after me and wanted to train with me in the morning because it was a routine.

It differed if I could do it every morning, but I tried to, and also in the evening. In that way you get a really good connection with the dog because when they are getting food, they are getting it through you, and that’s a very positive association. Of course you’re getting a strong bond with them then.

That was also what Silvia thought. Her mindset is much that agility and everything else – also obedience and most dog sports are not just tricks. That is a mindset that I use a lot as well. You have to take a big sport or maybe a hard thing to teach a dog, and you have to break it down into small pieces and then start from scratch, and build it piece by piece, and in the end you can do the whole thing together. Small tricks are just a little piece that is good to have in the bottom because it strengthens your connection.

Then I got Zelda. Zelda was born when Siraja had her third operation for slipped tendon. I think this was a nice time to get Zelda because I was so extremely crying, I remember, when she had this last operation, and I was so sad. So it was a huge motivation for me to get a puppy then. And already from Day 1, when she was eight weeks old, I started to take her breakfast.

I took her breakfast and collected it in a little bowl and took it with me, either on the kitchen floor or the living room or something, or maybe in the garden, and I started to train. I remember when she was so young, she was struggling to find the food in my hand, actually, because she was sniffing a lot. She couldn’t really find it because they are not so good at looking at that age. But she found it.

So I started to teach her with a clicker. That was the first thing. I was giving her food and then clicking so she got this association with food and click. That was the beginning. All the way, the food came through me. That was something that she took fast. After she had learned click, I started to teach her different tricks, but very, very easy when she was so young.

I actually saw what she was doing, and if she did something that I think was a good thing – maybe she turned around, maybe she was laying down, maybe she was barking – I was just clicking for it.

JEANETTE: So you were letting dogs come with the ideas. You don’t necessarily tell the dog what to do or guide the dog. You let the dog have ideas itself.

ELI BEATE: Yeah, absolutely. I think that’s an important thing also to get their motivation up, that they can decide themselves as well. It’s like if you had a kid. You are not always telling them what to do or how to play, but you can play with them. I think you are a team when you are a dog and a handler, so it’s important to respect the other team member, and that’s the dog. You have to look at what the dog wants and how the dog wants it, and then you have to work your way around it.

And some dogs don’t want any food at all because they are full, and then it’s a little bit hard to train them, maybe. I have had some of those puppies that are so round when I get them, they have eaten so much at their breeder, and then they aren’t interested in food at all. But after some days they are, of course, hungry, so then you can train with them more easily.

You have to make the rules together. Of course you are the leader, kind of, but you have to respect the dog. These small things give you an extremely good connection, I think, because you get your own language with the dog and you have this feeling for them.

Zelda is the closest one, absolutely. I have a little puppy, 10 months, but I haven’t trained her so much yet, so I don’t have the same strong connection. But we are getting closer and closer, and I can feel it because of this type of training.

Quite early on, I’m starting to think of agility because that’s my sport. Then I’m thinking, okay, what’s agility about? It’s about you have this jump and you have these tunnels and you have the dog walk, A frame, seesaw, and slalom. That’s pretty much it. I’m starting to think, okay, that’s the obstacles. That’s what they have to know.

Then I have to break it down to small pieces. Since jump and tunnel are the most common obstacles, I start with that one. The tunnels are something that they can run through at a really early age, I think, because puppies are running anyway. If they’re running through a tunnel or if they’re running in the woods, it doesn’t matter. Of course you don’t have to press them to run full speed all the time or in sharp turns and so on, but I don’t think it will hurt them to run through the tunnels a little bit.

Then you have jumping. With Zelda, I started to teach her to go around a little stick. This type of stick was quite small. The reason for that is because I want her tight. I thought that to teach her to turn around this stick, to just go around it to the left or to the right, both ways, it was good for two things. One, I could use these tricks further in the jumping and agility, and two, it is good stretching for her back. She’s really getting flexible in her back.

I started with the clicker and shaping, so I just rewarded her for looking at the stick, and then I always rewarded her near the stick. After a time, I was rewarding her a little bit so that she went a little bit around, went a little bit to the left. It didn’t take such a long time before she understood “oh, I have to go around a whole circle.” Then she started to do that. Then I had to teach her the other way, because they often have this favorite side.

In the beginning it really goes slow, but like I said, slow is smooth and smooth is fast. So nowadays when I tell her to do the stick, she really goes fast through either to the right or left. When she did a whole circle and afterwards she did two circles to the same side, then I started to say a verbal cue on it. Then I started to say either “left” or “right,” or if you have anything else you want to say to them, you can use that word. That’s the same word that I use in the agility course today.

When I then introduced her for a jump for the first time, when she was maybe four to six months old, the bar was quite low, of course. It wasn’t high at all. But I was trying these left and right commands for the first time on the jump. She thought it was maybe a little bit big wing because she was used to this small stick, so she was looking at me and saying, “Seriously? Are we going around this big thing now? Why?” So she tried to go through it.

But in the end she understood it was the wing she had to go around. It took me just one training and then she understood it. That was a very nice thing to see, that she was developing her skills in that way, so I was quite satisfied. Because this was the first time I’d tried this on a new dog. I saw that she really understood.

She’s a thinker. Not every dog is a thinker, but Zelda is. I can use my knowledge that I’ve gotten through tricks, and I can use it for agility. I know that not every dog can do that so fast, so you have to be patient with them as well. My youngest dog now uses much more time to understand that what we are doing in the kitchen or in the living room is the same as what is going on on the agility course. I don’t know why. It’s just genetics or just the head and the mindset to the dog. So we always have to do a different thing with different dogs.

These tricks I think are very important to get this strong connection. I think if you are able to break everything you will teach them down into small tricks, then it gets very easy.

I also think that people know that they should do more tricks with their dogs, but not everyone is doing it. But when you are, or if you are taking time to do that, I think it will give you a big advantage in the end.

JEANETTE: Your dogs always seem super enthusiastic and they run with full speed. How do you manage to train them to be like this?

ELI BEATE: That’s a good question. Like I told you earlier, Todd was not motivated at all. It’s more like the breed, because it’s a breed that likes to cuddle a lot on the sofa. But after we got Shelties and herding dogs, it’s easier to get them motivated. So that’s one fact that you can think of if you are interested in agility. Maybe buy a breed that fits the sport. But you can of course train motivation with your Cavalier as well as your Sheltie.

I think the most important is teaching them to play and teaching them to have a lot of fun with play or with the toys with you. It depends how easy it is to get the dog to play with the toy. They don’t have to play with the toy to be good in agility, but I think that when you’re teaching a new thing, it’s good to use food, but when you want to train a thing that they already know and you want more speed, then it’s perfect to use a toy because the toy is giving speed, mostly, and the food is giving thinking. When you want the dog to not think so much but just run full speed, then it’s nice to have this toy and throw it away and make them go to this sixth gear, the last gear.

With Zelda it was quite easy to teach her to play when she was young. I think she had it quite naturally. She has this eagerness. With Effie I have some more struggles, the youngest one, 10 months. We are still learning how to play. I have a lot of blue marks on my arms because she prefers my arm and not the toy.

But I’m using a lot of time with the clicker, like food, play, food, play, play, food, food, play. In the beginning I just had her breakfast, and then I had this toy. I was clicking that she just saw the toy, and then that she went to the toy, and then that she took the toy in her mouth. But it took a lot of time because she just wanted the food. She was like, “I want to eat. I don’t want the toy.”

In the end she learned to take the toy in her mouth. The first time she did it was actually when there was no food left. When she saw that the bowl was empty, then she took the toy in her mouth because she knew it was empty. Then I started to have extra food in my pocket so she couldn’t know, and then she got a reward for taking the toy in her mouth. She was surprised that there was more food. Now I can say “take it,” and then she till take it in her mouth. She has learned how to play. Then you have to develop it so that she can run after the toy and take it more in speed and so on.

You always have to look at your dog and see how the dog is taking it. Trying to get this craziness from a young age, I think that’s a good thing. But at the same time, you have to remember that it’s also good that they can think a little bit. Yes, agility is on time, so it’s about being as fast as possible to the finish, but they have to be clear as well. They have to do it without any faults. So then you have this nice balance between speed and thinking. It’s a mystery how to do it right, and there’s nothing right and wrong, I think. You just have to learn what’s right and wrong with your own dog and then find the best toy, the toy that has the biggest reward, and use that.

JEANETTE: Agility is so much more than just obstacles. I know you are doing a lot more when it comes to the physical training. To many people now you’re also an idol when it comes to this part of the sport, with the physical training. Can you tell us a bit more on what you’re doing with yourself and your dogs?

ELI BEATE: When I first started with agility, I was not this big athlete, I have to say. Todd wasn’t so fast, so I didn’t have to run a lot with him. But it was first when I moved out and started at the veterinary university in Oslo that I really started to train more myself. I think the biggest reason for that was because Zelda was in 2016 qualified for the National Team of Norway for the first time. That was a big motivation for me to start to train even more myself.

Since I didn’t have any sport in the school, I didn’t know really what to do, and I didn’t read so much about it either because all reading had to go to the veterinary medicine. I never read so much about how I should train myself. But I started to run, and I started very early with intervals. That was very efficient, actually.

Today I’m doing two things, mostly, when it comes to my own training: running short intervals – I think that’s important – and the strength training. The short intervals, you get this. You have to run fast, which you have to do on the agility course as well, and then you have this very heavy strength training which gets you more explosive. You can think that you have to stimulate the nerves in the muscles. If you are lifting five heavy repetitions, then you have to mobilize and stimulate a lot of nerve cells at the same time to get your muscles to get that weight up.

The same thing with the agility. When you have to run as fast as you can from Obstacle 1 to Obstacle 4, you have to stimulate a lot of nerve cells at the same time. When it’s a competition period, I train more easily. Then it’s more like fast repetition, but easy weights. It’s very nice to rest at the same time you are out and competing because then you have more energy to actually give everything at the competition.

JEANETTE: Many people watch agility and they see people running on the course for like 30-40 seconds, and they might think that this isn’t so hard. But it is. Why is it?

ELI BEATE: Yeah, why is it hard to run? [laughs] It’s hard in a different way, I think. I think everyone can agree that running 60 meters in school was hard. It’s the same on the agility course. The agility course is, for the dog, often 200 meters. For us, it’s a little bit shorter. It should be a little bit shorter because we have to take some shortcuts to be where we should be. But let’s say 150 meters then, we are running.

But we are not just running straight forward. We are taking a lot of turns, so we have this weight shifting, and in addition to that, we have to talk with the dog. So you have to look at the dog, you have to run with the dog or in front of the dog or beside the dog, and you have to talk with the dog. If you are comparing an agility handler with a sprinter, you have more tasks. An agility handler is using their head much more than a sprinter.

I’m not a sprinter, so I can’t say for sure, but I guess the sprinter has one goal, and it’s to run straight forward and be first over the goal line, while an agility handler has to think about the motion and where to take your feet or your hands or what you say, and the timing s important, and you have to be fast enough but not too fast.

JEANETTE: And you also have to pay attention all the time, because your dog is not always doing what you expect the dog to do. So you have to be prepared for some surprises on the way.

ELI BEATE: Yeah. They’re often doing something unexpected. You really have to look at them all the time, and that’s why I said that eye contact is very important, because then you know if they are understanding what you’re saying to them. It depends on the kind of dog you have. If you have a new beginner, they are very likely to do something very strange. But if you have a dog that has competed for several years and started to be experienced, then you can trust them more, of course.

But if I don’t pay attention to Zelda, we are disqualified like that [snaps]. You have to pay attention all the time. That’s what happened in the European Open on the team finals. I took a blind cross and I didn’t have eye contact with her for 0.4 seconds. I didn’t see her, and in that time she was in front of me and jumped the jump.

JEANETTE: When she wasn’t supposed to?

ELI BEATE: Yeah, it was the wrong way. So attention is important, no matter if they are new beginners or if they are routine dogs.

JEANETTE: When it comes to training, you don’t only train yourself; you also do a lot of physical training with your dogs. Can you tell us a bit more of what you are doing to keep them fit?

ELI BEATE: It’s different things that I do, but agility training with obstacles is maybe one time a week. Maybe two times. It depends if it’s competition or not, but not more than three times a week.

JEANETTE: When you’re training with obstacles, do you train full courses, or do you use smaller sequences?

ELI BEATE: Yeah, smaller sequences. It’s not so often that I’m training full courses because I think that’s maybe a little bit too much to always train the whole course all the time. If your goal is to train courses, then you have to train courses if that’s a specific goal for you.

But if you are still teaching the dog things because it is younger or there are things they’re struggling with, I’m always taking sequences. If they’re struggling with the slalom, then I’m taking a sequence with the slalom. But if the struggle is to get through a whole course, then you do have to train the whole course to train the dog to do a whole course without barking or being disqualified in some way. Or you have to find the specific sequence that is hard for them. With Zelda I train whole courses before big championships, but a good time before.

JEANETTE: Not last minute.

ELI BEATE: No, not the last weekends before, or weeks, but maybe two months before, I can train whole courses with her just to know that she is always good, that the timing is good between us. But when it’s getting closer and closer, I am training smaller and smaller and smaller sequences with her. I think that’s a nice thing so her body can relax more.

That’s the agility training. But when it comes to other types of training, I’m using different equipment. You have this weight vest for the dogs that I’ve used a little bit with Zelda. You can also use weight cuffs and also this chain.

JEANETTE: Yeah, to pull a chain.

ELI BEATE: Yeah. That’s what I’ve tried. I’m not doing everything so often, but what I use most on Zelda I think is the weight cups and the weight vest. That’s because I’m living in the city right now, in Oslo, and it’s much harder ground, so it’s easiest for her to have it on her body or on her feet because of the sound. It will of course strengthen her, and I feel that you know yourself when you are going with this weight vest, you feel much easier afterwards, so it’s the same thing with her.

But I’m not so into it. I’m using it mostly when she’s not competing. You have to remember that she’s like 5 kilos, so if I put 100 grams on each side of the weight vest, then that’s quite much to her. 1 kilo is like 20% of her body weight, so that’s very much. I really have to think so I don’t train her too hard.

In addition to that, I am also going to these different football courses with artificial grass or maybe with grass – it depends on the weather – and I can throw balls with her. After we have warmed up, of course. A lot of people throw the ball just once, they go out to the garden or out to the park, but we walk to this football course, and in that way she is warmer when I’m throwing it. Then she can run more, and then it’s more specific for what she’s doing, the agility.

I know it’s a different meaning about the ball because when they are stopping in front of the ball, it can be very hard for their shoulders. It depends on the craziness of the dog. I have some dogs in the family that are really crazy on the ball, and they’re throwing themselves after the ball and can’t stop, and then they’re sliding along the grass. It can be really heavy for their shoulders. That’s not so good. So you have to see the dog. But Zelda is more like “okay, now I’m close by the ball, then I can slow down and take it to my mom.”

JEANETTE: So she’s adjusting a bit better.

ELI BEATE: Yeah, I think she is much better because she thinks a little bit more. She’s very good at not getting injured, so I can use the ball more often with her. But I always have to look at the dogs that I have with me, because often I have two or maybe three. Sometimes you can use all three at the same time after the same ball or two different balls or whatever. But we also had this accident that the dogs were running into each other, and that can be really bad. You have to be careful. Maybe not throw the ball at all.

I know my chiropractor is not a fan of this ball throwing. She hates it, I think, because you get these locks in their backs all the time. So she’s like “No, no, no.” So you have to look at your dog and see how good they are taking that kind of thing.

JEANETTE: That’s the importance of strength training as well, I guess, because when you’re training strength with your dog, the body can take a bit more.

ELI BEATE: Yeah, I totally forgot the things that I’m doing the most. What I’m talking about until now, the weight vest and the weight cuffs, I’m not doing that often. But what I really do often is the strength training of the dogs, and balance and coordination. But that’s another trick, and I really like it.

I bought a lot of equipment for the dogs in the house. I have different balance equipment, like this Pilates ball, and you have this ball that looks like an egg and a peanut, and you have this smaller, rounded shape that’s more flat. Most of it is for humans, so you can buy it in any sports shop. Just find things that move. Then you can tell the dogs to go on it and maybe sit on it, lie on it, spin around either to the right or the left.

The trick that I’m teaching them when they’re quite young, just on the ground, on the carpet, I’m taking the same tricks and telling them to do it on the Pilates ball or anything else that is moving. So I take something that they know very well, something that they’re comfortable with, a trick, and I’m asking them to do it on something that moves. In that way it’s something they are very comfortable with and something new.

Then they can strengthen different muscles because when you have to balance in a sitting position, you use different muscles, and if you are standing on this balance thing, then you can activate a lot of muscles in different ways. Also to teach them to spin around and they have to move a lot, and that’s very good balance training and coordination training.

Also, when they are really comfortable on this equipment, you can tell them to sit pretty. Maybe you have to help them in the beginning. I always start by holding the Pilates ball in between my legs or with my hands. It’s easiest with my legs because then I can reward with the hands and help them to show different signs. You can tell them to sit pretty, and maybe you have to help them to the sitting position, or they are maybe offering it themselves. I think that’s quite advanced for the dogs because it’s balance and it’s on just the hind legs, so they’re really using their core muscles. I think that’s very nice.

You just have to use your imagination because when I started with strength training myself, I did a lot of squats, and then I figured out, hmm, how can Zelda do a squat? I started with sitting pretty, and then I told her to stand on her back feet. Then I told her to sit pretty again, and then up on her back feet. So she was going up and down, up and down, but always on her back feet. Maybe I have to support her a little bit with her front feet, like holding her paws over my shoulders, but that’s fair because she is really activating her gluteus muscles in the back.

I think that’s a nice exercise. But you have a lot of good exercises. That’s the hind feet, like with squats and so on, but you also have the front part of the body that’s also important to strengthen. Then you just have to think quite the opposite. When you want to strengthen their hind feet, then they have to sit and stand and so on, and have their upper body high and their lower body low. But if you want to strengthen their upper body, you can just do the opposite.

It was then I started to teach them to back up. Just backing up in the beginning on the ground, and then backing up on the carpet, for instance, and then backing up on a pillow. Then I took the pillow and took it to the couch so that it was standing more and more, and then they had to back more straight upwards. In the end they were able to back up on the couch.

When they are comfortable with that, then they can back up on the wall. It should be a wall that is not so slippery. But all their weight is on the front. You can think about the A frame is maybe the highest obstacle we have in agility, and when they’re going up, they have to use a lot of their hind feet, but when they’re going down again, they have to use their front part of the body to slow down and not get injured.

Also, the slalom. They are doing really big abduction with their front feet, and it’s really, really hard for their shoulder ligaments. Medial shoulder instability (MSI) is a very common injury in agility dogs, especially the large ones. But I have also had it on my own Sheltie, and that’s often because of the slalom. If they don’t have enough muscles in their shoulders, then the ligaments can be ruptured and then they start to limp on the front feet.

So it’s important for me to both think about the hind part of their body and also the front part of their body, and in the end you also have to think about the core. The core you can activate in many different ways, I think, but then you can have their front part and back part at the same height with maybe stretching at one side and the other side. Like my chiropractor said to me, walking in high grass or walking in high snow very slowly, because when you’re doing things slow, you really have to activate your inner core muscles. So that’s a good thing.

I know the theory, but it’s not to say that I’m doing all of this, but I’m trying to do a lot of it. Therefore, I often actually take the leash on the dogs even though I can have them free, so they have to go a little bit slower because when they’re going slower, I know that they’re using more of their core. We have this trouble with two of our dogs. They have these big biceps and the front part is so strong, and their gluteus and hamstring and so on are so big and so powerful, but when you touch the back, it’s like you can feel the bones everywhere.

Then I’m thinking they haven’t trained the core enough. That’s very typical for a dog that is running and running and running and running. Once you take the leash off, they run in the woods. Yeah, that’s nice they are sprinting a lot, but they are just getting muscles in the front or in the back. But the back is so skinny.

JEANETTE: So it’s a weak point.

ELI BEATE: Yeah, I think it’s a very weak point, actually. It’s important to be aware of how your dog is shaped. When you’re cuddling with them in the evening or at night when you’re watching TV or whatever, just feel a little bit. Touch their muscles in the front and touch them in their hind legs. Is it a lot or is it not so much? Feel on the back how much of the bone you can feel.

I think for an athlete, like an agility dog, yes, you should feel the bones on them because if they have so much fat that you can’t feel the bones, they are too heavy for this sport, because it’s quite heavy for a heavy dog to run. When you look at a sprinter like Usain Bolt, it’s a lot of muscles. It should be the same with an agility dog. But at the same time, when you’re looking at a football player, they’re much smaller and not so muscular. Agility is running, yes, but it’s also this weight shifting back and forth and up and down, with the obstacles. That’s more like a football player.

JEANETTE: Something in between?

ELI BEATE: Yeah. I think maybes something in between. To find your weak spots on your own dog and work with them I think is important. You can do it very easily with these tricks and different strength trainings.

Zelda has a very good core because she is not this crazy dog that is running wild when I take her leash off. She’s just walking beside me, maybe a little bit in front of me. But she doesn’t run this fast. So she has a good core. The youngest one doesn’t have any core at all. One reason is because she is young, but I think the main reason is because when I take her leash off, she just runs wild and then she runs back and she runs forward. She never goes easily and slowly.

In the winter, I’ll go with her with the leash on so she really has to lift her foot in the snow, for instance. I think that’s a good exercise for such a dog because then you are working with the core more.

JEANETTE: If you’re doing like you said, checking your dog every day, then it’s also easier to notice if something is wrong because I guess often it starts with a small change, but it could turn out quite bad if time goes by and something happens.

ELI BEATE: Yeah, you should be aware of your dog. Especially in this agility sport because it’s so heavy for their bodies. They have to be fit if they can do it maximally. Like I said, agility is a team sport. We are two team members. What’s hard with agility is that the second team member is a dog. They can’t speak with us. They can’t tell us if they have any pain anywhere. And since they are carnivores, they want to hide it as best they can because that’s just their instinct. If they have any pain, they try to hide it the best they can, and we don’t necessarily see it even though you are with them every day.

I actually think it’s harder to see it when you’re around them every single day because if it’s a small change that changes only a little bit every day, you don’t notice it. But if maybe your friend saw the dog one day and then they see the dog one month later when this change has happened, your friend maybe can say, “Whoa, what happened? Why is he or she so sad?”

JEANETTE: Moving differently could also be something.

ELI BEATE: Yeah, moving differently, absolutely. Or maybe bigger, they’re getting more fat. It’s hard for us to see that as well, I think, if you’re not using the weights. You should be aware. The hardest spot to see is their mental being.

I remember Zelda had hurt her tooth one time, so she had this infection in her tooth. The beginning was just that she didn’t play so much inside, and then it was less and less and less playing inside. But I didn’t notice it so well. Then she was getting a little bit more angry or pissed off if another dog came to her. After a long while, she started to refuse to eat. It took a long time from when the infection started until I understood that she had some trouble with one of her teeth. I didn’t for sure know, so I had to go to the vet, and yes, it was an infection. She had to take it away and she had to go on antibiotics. After that she was like a whole new dog.

So it can be small things that make a big difference. You have to think about yourself and issues that you can have yourself. If you have a bad tooth yourself, you really get grumpy and angry and you don’t want to eat. It’s actually the same.

But you have to handle a dog like you are handling your children until they can speak, so the time from newborn till they are learning the language. That’s like the dogs all the time. I think the difference is that you can leave the dog alone at home. You can’t do that with children. But other than that, it’s the same way to communicate. You have to guess and you have to shake it off and you have to be prepared that it can be something even though they are not telling you.

With children, I feel that we are really looking and we are maybe going to the doctor even though it’s not necessary, but with dogs – it’s of course different between people, but we maybe should go to the vet more often, I think. When you feel something is wrong, just check it out.

JEANETTE: You have to train to see these signs really well, both on your own dogs but on others as well, because you are going to become a veterinarian. When did you decide, and what do you want to work with?

ELI BEATE: I’m starting my last year at the veterinary university in Oslo this autumn. Then I’m done with the six-year education there. I think this was a childhood dream when I was a little girl. My grandfather was a vet, but he died when I was just one year old. But I have always loved animals, so I decided quite early – I think it was before I got Todd. When we got Todd and we got our first family dog – because that was the first dog in the family – I was more motivated. When I started agility, I was even more motivated.

I remember early on I thought it’s so nice to be a veterinarian and have agility as a hobby, because the veterinary education can give me benefits to the agility. So when I was starting at secondary school, I was from Day 1 focused on good grades because I wanted to go to veterinary school. That was the big goal. I had this long-term goal now to be a veterinarian. When I started in secondary school, I knew what to do the next 12 years because I knew that this was 3 years in secondary school, 3 years in high school, and then 6 years at the veterinary university.

Now I’m in the end of this dream, and I feel a little bit like I don’t know for sure what to do, so I’m a little bit stressed about that. But I have to finish this last year first, and then we will see. Because agility gave me a lot more opportunities than I could ever dream about. I can see that several people out in the world are living for agility. That’s a nice thing. I am also having some seminars myself, but that’s mostly to have the ability to travel for these different competitions. So what I earn from agility is also going to agility.

But I can see that you can really live off it, and that would be interesting. But I feel I will involve the veterinary education more than just between agility instructing. I also think that if you are doing these agility seminars all the time, you can be a little bit tired of it in the end. I think it’s important to have different things.

Exactly what is hard, but I guess for sure it will involve small animals. I also like big animals and horses, so it’s hard to say exactly what, but I’d like to be good at something specific, to be a specialist in something. I think that would fit me well. The veterinarians you meet at the daily office have to know a little bit about everything. They are like generalists. But when you are an orthopedic, then you can be more specific on doing that operation and so on. Maybe something like that.

It’s also interesting with training and being a dog trainer, but then you have to be – I think it’s a bigger risk, and you have to be more motivated yourself and do everything yourself. Then it’s maybe easier to work for someone in an animal hospital. We’ll see.

JEANETTE: When it comes to agility, what are your goals? You’ve been on the podium at the World Championships twice, but you have not been on the top on the final day. Is that your next goal?

ELI BEATE: This is a hard question. We have been to the World Championships three times. The first and second year it went really good. Last year it went really bad. I think last year was maybe the year I was thinking about it would be nice to stand on the top.

JEANETTE: So things went wrong because of that. You got the wrong mindset.

ELI BEATE: Yeah. That’s another thing that’s important in agility. Like I said earlier, the agility sport is not just running straight forward and not thinking. You are using your mind all the time, but not just on the course. Also before you’re doing the course and during the course and also afterwards. It’s all these impressions from the people that are looking at you and all this stuff, especially in the big championships.

So the mental training has been a very important part of my training as well. It was before the championships in 2016. I was training a lot, and like I said, I was training a lot of intervals, and it was too much. I was quite skinny at that time, actually, and that was not a good thing at all. My mom was so worried about it, and my colleagues in the class were also a little bit worried about it.

For the first time I really felt it in my mind, because when I was training so much – and you are ripped on your body – the mind is turning around, and I didn’t think that I was able to do anything. I remember that this was when I was doing the tryouts in 2016, and we got a spot for the World Championship. But after that weekend, I was like going on the wall. I was really at the bottom. I was capable to do the tryouts, but after that there was nothing left of me.

I was always thinking, “I will not be there in time, I don’t think I will do this right.” I had so little self-confidence. My family was quite worried about it, and my brother was taking it seriously, so he started to teach me about mental training. In that way, I really needed it at that time because of my body and the physical struggles I had. That was the reason why I did so well that year, actually.

In the Nordic Championship we were in the lead until the finals. That was when the Nordic was in Norway. But in the finals, I was doing a little bit of miss. I remember my brother said “it’s better to do the disqualification in Nordic than in the AWC,” he was saying to me. That was a big motivation. But I was never thinking that I would be last in the World Championship. But I was just listening and smiling at him when he said it. I was not crying for the loss of the Nordic gold – but I can’t call it a loss because I never had the gold, but I didn’t win it, at least. But that was okay.

So then we got this first championship in Zaragoza in Spain just because I had the right mindset. I was able to do it very good, actually. We won second and were on the podium after the first run. Then we were not last in the final, but we were second last. I hadn’t even dared to dream about being in that good position in the World Championship. I think that was also maybe much of the reason why we were there.

There’s many ways to see it, because I’ve also read and heard that many people think of themselves as a winner and then they win. I am not maybe thinking of myself as a winner in that kind of way, because I feel that you are taking it a little bit for granted then. So you should always be in the moment. Not in the future and not in the past, but you have to be in the moment all the time.

JEANETTE: But how do you do that when you’re standing on the last day of the World Championships? Everybody’s looking at you, you know that you’re second, and if you do this clear and good, you can be the winner. How do you manage to not go that way?

ELI BEATE: Like I said, I have to be in the moment. That’s maybe the most important. At that time you don’t have any time to learn something new, so you just have to think about what you are going to do now and think about your tasks and what’s important now. Doing the tasks, and then the next task and then the next task. If you’re doing everything correctly, then you should be clear and good to the goal.

JEANETTE: When you’re standing on the start line, do you notice people around you? Or are you in your own zone with your dog?

ELI BEATE: I definitely notice people around me, but I notice people and I don’t notice specific people. I just notice that there are a lot of people screaming and so on, and some voices I can recognize. But it’s nothing that I’m thinking so much about.

Very special for the Norwegians, World Championship because we had these supporters, and they are good supporters. They cheer a lot. That was positive and negative, I think, because it’s very positive to get their support, but it may be negative if you are very nervous or if they’re screaming so high when you’re doing the course that the dog doesn’t listen or the dog doesn’t hear what you’re saying because it’s so noisy.

The German supporters cheer a lot before and they cheer extremely afterwards, especially if it’s a clean run, but during the agility, they don’t say anything. They’re so quiet. The reason why I know is because Tobias Wüst, who is one of the world’s best in agility, competed after me in this World Championship in both 2016 and 2017. When I was going through the course, there was cheering all the time. But when he was going through the course, it was so quiet. That’s so magic when it’s quiet.

But yeah, tradition is tradition. There’s nothing I can do anything with. It’s like the weather. I can’t decide if it’s good weather or bad weather; I just have to take what I get and handle it. So I handle the supporters and I ignore it, actually. [laughs] I’m always on the briefing, like you have to learn which obstacles and the numbers and which side and how to handle and all that, but I’m also briefing that this is a sport where the supporters can cheer a little bit louder. Then I have to say the command a little bit higher. So I’m briefing these details as well.

I remember in Zaragoza in 2016, I was briefing in the finals to take this flick after the dog walk. I was briefing and realizing that Zelda was doing this perfect hit on the contact, and then I did the flick. I was seeing that a lot of times. When I was on the briefing, I remember I saw her hit the contact, and then I was briefing that okay, now it will be noisy. Because this is good. This is really good. When I was saying my “away” command, which was flicking, then I knew I had to raise my voice. So I was briefing that. I was saying that command higher than everything before, because I knew it would be exploding.

And I was right. It exploded – but not only the Norwegian supporters, actually. The whole hall was exploding, because I think I was one of the few that ran on that side of the dog walk, so it was quite special. And I was the second last, so it’s always very exciting when the last 10 dogs are going. It’s quite a good show. Everyone was cheering when Zelda had this perfect hit. When she also did the flick, it was like, whoa, this is so great.

It was exactly what I had imagined, so I was like, “good, good, good, it’s what I thought.” It’s magic when you see something and that happens, and then you’re prepared for it. Then you can handle it in a really good way.

JEANETTE: With a crowd, it can also be a bad thing because sometimes if something goes wrong, the crowd may be silent, and you’ll notice.

ELI BEATE: Yeah, that’s also a tricky part. I have had some failures on that. It was in the Sheltie World Championship. I remember Zelda was on the dog walk, and I was not so well prepared then. I was not so focused on this championship because it was not so important for me. It was afterwards I realized that, oh my God, I was not focused enough.

What happened was the crowd was cheering when she hit the contact, but the thing was that some were cheering and some were like “whoa!” and some were like “yay!” It was different reactions from different people.

JEANETTE: So you started to doubt a bit?

ELI BEATE: Yeah. I was not sure if she was jumping or if she was hitting the contact because of the response of the crowd. That was a quite difficult situation for me because what happened then, I was in the moment all the time until I heard the crowd. I was just running straight forward, so I didn’t see what actually happened, so I couldn’t know if she had ben on the contact or not.

JEANETTE: Then you started thinking.

ELI BEATE: I started to doubt, and then I was not in the moment. I was in the past, because I’m thinking “What happened? Did she hit, did she not hit?” My body was in the moment, of course. I was trying to handle her in the course. But my mindset and my head were in the past. So I got a little bit crushed there. What happened then, just three or four obstacles later, was that we were disqualified because she came on the wrong side of an obstacle. I’m not surprised at all, because I really deserved that when I was not in the moment.

After that day, I got to learn the hard way that you have to trust yourself and you have to always, especially in these finals, you have to go like it’s a clean run, no matter what. Or if you get a bar down or if you get a jumping contact or something that’s wrong, you just have to go to the goal as fast as you can.

JEANETTE: No matter what.

ELI BEATE: Yeah. In the European Open this year, we got this long line before the finish, and the seesaw was one of the last obstacles. I think it was the fourth last, maybe. I knew that I just had to trust her on the seesaw and then run everything I could to the finish. We had been struggling a little bit with the seesaw. I lost the Norwegian Championship gold on exactly that fail. Again, I can’t say that I lost it because I never had it, but we didn’t get the gold medal there either. Zelda is very excited in this competition, so I have to hold her on the seesaw. But then I didn’t have time to hold her, so I just had to trust that she could do the work herself.

I was saying “seesaw” to her, and she went on the seesaw and I started running. I hear the crowd. Someone was “oh”-ing and someone was “yay”-ing, and I had no idea what happened. I had no idea. I guess that she maybe got a fault because they were responding, but I had no idea, so I just went everything I had to the finish. I was not satisfied because I knew she had a bad seesaw.

I have actually a picture of that because in these big championships, everyone is taking pictures. I can see a picture of me when I’m on the finish. I’m holding Zelda, and I’m so mad. I’m so not happy at that picture. That’s because I’m looking for the judge, and I’m trying to think, did she get the seesaw wrong? So I was looking to the seesaw, and I was not happy.

Then I went off the course, and I was treating Zelda a lot, of course, and I was very happy with the run when I didn’t think about the seesaw. Of course she got a lot of rewards. But I was just a little bit disappointed because I thought it was the same thing that happened in the Norwegian Championship, so I’ve been through this before. Now I just have to go through it one more time.

Then my mom came a few seconds later and I was like, “Did she get the seesaw wrong? Yes or no?” I was just asking her. I didn’t have any hope. She was like, “No, she was clean.” I was like, “What? Oh my God.” Then I had a lot of luck, I think. My mom said, “Yes, it was not a good seesaw. I’ve seen many seesaws that were much better than that one, but at the same time, he was judging in that way at every equipage. So it was not you and Zelda that had this bad seesaw. It was several dogs. Don’t you worry about that. You were clean in the final.” That was a very good feeling.

It was a big difference between this year, when I got this crowding thing around me versus in Germany at the Sheltie World Championship when I was not handling it.

JEANETTE: At these big competitions, it’s easy to maybe think “if I run clean, if I play safe, I can get through and maybe I will win.” But playing safe doesn’t necessarily take you to the top. Do you manage to go all-in every time?

ELI BEATE: When you look at how the sport has developed the last years, you can’t win by going safe, I think. Then you have to have a really fast dog if that’s your plan. It’s like slalom. You’re going for two rounds, and the person who gets down the hill fastest the first round starts in the end on the second round. In slalom they never play safe, I think, because the Top 10 can be in the same second. It’s like hundredths and tenths of a second that differs between the first and the second.

So no, I don’t think playing it safe will be easy at all. With Zelda, I can try to play it safe, but when I’m doing that, I’m never thinking “now I will play it safe.” But sometimes when I’m handling, my subconscious mind is thinking “do it safe.” When that happens, it’s not so good, very often. So I always try to give it my all.

I think some dogs you can play it safe, but with most dogs I think it’s hard, because if you’re playing it safe, then you are doing something else than you usually do. If you’re training to give it all, then you have to give it all in the fight. You can’t just do a different kind of thing when you’re in the competition. I don’t think the dog will understand what is happening. Like I said, the dog can’t understand what we’re saying, so we can’t communicate with the dog the same as we can do with a person.

In sand volleyball maybe, then you are two people playing together. If you have this strategy, then you agree on the strategy. But if one of the people changes it without saying it to the other one and is thinking “now we have to play it safe,” but the other person doesn’t get that message, then it will be a misunderstanding between those two, and then they will most probably lose the game.

I think that’s the same thing with you and dog. If I suddenly change my strategy through the course because I want to play it safe but Zelda doesn’t know that that will happen, because she thinks it’s a usual training or a usual agility competition, then she will most probably misunderstand me at several spots, and then we might be disqualified. It might go clean, but it’s a bigger risk, I think.

JEANETTE: If you had to do another sport with your dog than agility, what would it be?

ELI BEATE: I have these herding dogs, but I think obedience is quite interesting. It’s a little bit boring, and I think it would be hard for the dog to do these sequences or do all this stuff without any treats. So I don’t like that too much, but maybe rally obedience is a more fun part. I think I would do something that I can work with them, like tricks, because I think that’s so fun.

But I also like to be active with the dogs, so I could for sure try triathlons and so on. I don’t think Shelties are the best breed to have in a triathlon because they might help you the first kilometers, but after that I guess you have to help them further. [laughs] But it would be interesting. But then you have to really just compete for fun and not think that you have any chances of winning against the faster and stronger and bigger dogs.

JEANETTE: Thank you so much for sharing all your experience.

ELI BEATE: You’re welcome.

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