An interview with Claudine Illg
Tell me a little bit about yourself and your dog.
Augie is a five year old Australian Shepherd and I adopted him from a shelter; I’m actually his third mom. He’s the reason that I got started with any kind of dog sports.
If you know anything about Australian Shepherds, you’ll think this is really funny…I wanted a dog that was just going to be a nice calm kind of companion but didn’t shed very much, a female. I wanted a small dog. So, he’s like everything that is opposite of what I thought I wanted, but he is my whole reason for being. I say that he saved my life and honestly it’s true.
I was in a bad place, and he needed a lot from me, so he’s the first dog that I have ever competed in anything with. He’s the first dog I’ve trained to this extent. I love it so much that in July I graduated from the Karen Pryor Academy Dog Trainer Professional Program. (Hooray!!!)
That’s amazing! It’s funny how often we get the dog we need, not the dog we thought we wanted…
So true! And it turned out that one of his sets of immunizations at the shelter was done incorrectly so when I brought him to the vet they said he was going to have to go through the series again. The vet told me not to even bring him in the front yard until the vaccines were done; I didn’t know anything, I just wanted this little puppy to be safe. So here I was with this incredibly energetic puppy that I couldn’t take anywhere (and of course now I know differently). Every time I would sit down so I could eat or do anything, he was like “Let’s do something!”, and I thought, “Oh my God I made a mistake. What was I thinking?!”. I started reading online and I started trick training with him, watching every video I could find. And I found out that this dog is so smart!
It all started with tricks…he earned all the Do More With Your Dog titles and all the AKC Trick Dog titles before his immunizations were done. Then when he could finally get out safely, we started taking classes.
We started out in puppy class and that was kind of a nightmare; I knew that I’d been asked to do some things that I was really uncomfortable with.
The trainer ended up telling me that this was the wrong dog for me, that I would never get him to do what I wanted him to because I needed to be harder with him, and that he was a herding dog, not a good dog for me. So that just made me dig in even more!
I did my own research and found another trainer. Augie passed his CGC and then his therapy testing at 10 months and started therapy visits. Those were only twice a month and so we wanted something else. The trainer suggested Rally-FrEe. I was really skeptical because it didn’t look active enough. I was thinking I need to burn energy, that’s the whole purpose. But we fell in love with it! That was the first thing we actually started to compete in.
He got his Rally-FrEe Novice title and we’d moved into the advanced class; three of the people that were taking class with us also did Musical Freestyle. I stayed after class one night because they were going to video their routines and I was like, “Oh my God, this is it, this is what we have to do!” because it looked so beautiful and so creative.
And it was miserable for me. It was so hard. It was the hardest thing because with Rally-FrEe there’s some structure, you walk around the course, but somehow with Freestyle I wasn’t getting it. I wasn’t back-chaining, I wasn’t doing a good job with reinforcement history, and he just wasn’t interested. I was asking him to do a lot of things that I thought he could do because he can do all these tricks. I’m watching Crufts like, “Yeah, we can do that!” But I was putting things together in a way that was really difficult for him to do weight shifts and and direction changes. I didn’t know and I didn’t understand why he couldn’t do these things that should be easy for him.
The music would come on and he would just sit and look at me. I was getting so anxious, which would make him more anxious. I was honestly to the point where I was thinking, “Okay, we’re never going to do this again.” I had entered one competition for Musical Freestyle and could not get a video I was proud of, that I felt good about.
It just so happened that angel Julie fell from the sky. I was going to a workshop with Shari Heino and Julie was going to be there. So I got a private lesson with Julie and about 10 minutes in I just started bawling, “I don’t want to hurt my dog, I just want him to be happy” and Julie, who is so compassionate and so sensitive and such a marvelous teacher, said “Show me. Show me what’s happening.” Then she said, “Okay here’s what’s going on. You know you’re asking him to do things that are difficult, like it’s really hard to go from this to this” and she explained to me what to look for, the weight shifts, what to think about. I needed that! I needed that insight. I wasn’t thinking about how it was put together and this changed the whole world for us.
Can you tell us more about what you’ve seen happen for Augie with all of this experience? What do you see in him when you train with him?
I didn’t really know how true this was but when we started competing and working in a more focused, strategic way our bond just has grown so much. And the communication! I had somebody say to me just the other day, “It looks like he’s he looks like he speaks English, he understands you!”. That developed over time and I give so much credit to the sports and the methodology, and of course KPA is a wonderful program too.
What do you find the most challenging about RFE sports?
What I would want to teach someone a lot earlier than I learned is: it’s not just about the signs, heeling is such an important part of it. How you get from one station to the next. We had a a stumbling block the first time we entered a Rally-FrEe competition because moving from one station to another became a lot more important. And Augie didn’t do it in a certain way and I hadn’t trained that with him. Heeling is something that’s probably the thing that we spend the most time on because I feel like, you don’t teach it once and it’s there forever, you really have to work on it.
With Musical Freestyle, I think it would have been really helpful to understand the relationship between Rally-FrEe and Musical Freestyle. That you can use those Rally-FrEe behaviors as transitions in your Musical Freestyle routines. Knowing that makes things so much easier to figure things out.
What advice would you give to people new to RFE or who are struggling to start?
I think especially for people that are working on their own, just take the plunge and enter something! Finish something and enter it even if you feel like it’s not the best. Don’t get stuck. When you get the feedback from the judges it is so validating and it is so encouraging to know, “I’m doing all of these things right and then we’ll work on this one thing.”
What a truly wonderful adventure, thank you for sharing. I’m so glad Augie found you!
I’m glad we found each other. He gives me purpose. He makes me smile and he makes me laugh, every day.
Check out one of Claudine and Augie’s recent routines!