Vodka is now almost 12 months old and she's now a dog that I thoroughly enjoy and look forward to going out walking with. That wasn't always the case to start with!
As I type, Vodka has curled up next to my desk in front of the heater - as she dries off from being washed clean of mud with the hose, occasionally she and I glance at each other and catch the other's eye. I swear we smile at each other in those moments :)
This morning I'm reflecting on how the biggest dog training successes are often not achieved and witnessed by a roaring crowd or awarded enormous rosettes and sparkling silverware - that sometimes, they happen on a mild winter's day, at the top of hill with only another great dog as witness.
My beautiful big girl has become better and better with new experiences and looking to me for guidance on how to navigate difficult circumstances she finds herself in. As she proved quite by chance when she came face to face with a rather big, brown, shaggy cow in the bushes during her walk earlier.
To her credit she didn't set off an alarm of barking fury, but as I'd seen her indicate something that obviously worried her - I called her back to me. Win number one - she didn't hesitate to return to share her concerns for our safety about continuing along this particular path ;)
I praised her profusely for her decision with a half of a sausage left from someone's tea last night - I had planned to break it up into smaller pieces, but choices like that need serious reinforcement!
On lead we continued together past the alarming animal, who in fairness, was very busy with it's own important business of munching grass and seemed most unconcerned at our approach. She held it together, maintaining a quiet, if a rather brisk speed past this gentle giant and a couple of others of its herd for good measure. Win number two - her faith in me has grown immeasurably, I am both grateful and humbled by it.
Once off lead again and headed uphill to the van, we began approaching a gentleman with another collie dog and one of Vodka's most coveted toys - a ball thrower complete with tennis ball! As he had stopped still, Vodka staring intensely at this interesting tableau - I asked him if he'd prefer it I called her back. He agreed and therefore I called her to me.
Initially she quickly came half of the way towards me, before returning her gaze to the mesmerising ball thrower. With a second "Hey - young lady!" from me, she made it three-quarters of the way before lying down in traditional collie dog fashion. In deference to her effort and the impressive distance that she had made from something very important to her, I finished the final quarter towards her and quietly clipped her back on the lead.
As we made it up the remainder of the hill and I granted her permission to run free again after a polite 'Sit' for please - I looked about for someone to celebrate the massive achievement I had just experienced in the relationship I now have with my youngest dog.
Ella, my darling 10 year old girl was right there, treasured stick in mouth - always happy to catch my eye and share a special moment with me. My golden girl, my Mary Poppins "practically perfect in every way" dog. The beautiful creature who walked quietly off-lead past those cows back there, and who hadn't noticed the ball thrower or another dog because she was too busy walking with her mum.
Two such very different dogs - in looks, temperament and for now, ability - but both completely intrinsic threads in the fabric of my life.
So together we celebrated my third win of the morning, with silly chatter and inconsequential discussion about the impressive quality of her stick. Which naturally attracted Vodka so she had a bit more fuss and attention then too :)
As a recovering perfectionist, it might sound odd that I'm celebrating what might appear to be quite trivial moments in my everyday life with my dogs.
But the path I have chosen to walk with my dogs is that of mutual trust and understanding. I have committed to them that I will train with communication, connection and relationship in mind at all times. They understand and forgive me when I make mistakes as I so often do - it seems only fair that I do the same for them.
So that means that when I see progress in the direction that I want us to head in together, then I will stop and celebrate with them so that they understand how important it is to me. Because believe me - the little wins make up the big ones.
Once upon a time, all I wanted was another Ella-bella - another Mary Poppins of a dog. But now I realise, what I wanted back then was more relationships like the one I have with her - more spiritual connections like ours, more of the feelings that she invokes when we spend time together.
Theodore Roosevelt is famously credited with the quote "Comparison is the thief of joy" - this is true in so many walks of life, but perhaps particularly so in dog sports. And this can be comparison with our previous agility dogs such as I sometimes trip up on, or comparing our achievements with other dog and handler teams.
However I know that there is as much joy to be found in observing the small wins, as there is in honouring the bigger ones. And those wins will look different from partnership to partnership. I hope that through sharing my triumphs and tribulations with my long-legged Vodka, it will inspire you to notice your wins and enjoy many a happy celebration of your own.
Today I am grateful for the journey I have been on, and continue along with Vodka. As predicted, as soon as I saw her I knew an adventure was going to happen :)