E286: Nicole Levesque - "When Handler Health Impacts Dog Training"

Nicole joins me to share her inspiring story and how she's handled health setbacks in her multi-dog, competitive agility household... including how she's preparing for additional months of restricted (human) activity. 


Melissa Breau: This is Melissa Breau, and you're listening to the Fenzi Dog Sports Podcast, brought to you by the Fenzi Dog Sports Academy, an online school dedicated to providing high quality instruction for competitive dog sports, using only the most current and progressive training methods. Today I have Nicole Levesque here with me to talk about staying in the agility game when life throws obstacles your way, and she has quite the story for us.

Hi Nicole. Welcome to the podcast.

Nicole Levesque: Hey Melissa, so glad to be here.

Melissa Breau: Awesome. To kind of start us out a little bit, can you share just a little bit about you, who your dogs are, maybe a little bit about your background and what you do?

Nicole Levesque: Sure. I have been playing at the dog agility game for about 28 years. I've been teaching for about 22 years, which is about half my lifespan. I teach full-time at a facility in Arvada, Colorado called Team Spirit Agility, and I own the spirited dog. I've trained about nine dogs of my own for agility and currently am owned by five. I have Venture who is an 11 year old retired Border Collie superstar. I have Seeker who is a nine-year-old Australian Shepherd. He is also known as "Speaker" because he's an Aussie and he barks a lot. I have Zanshin who is a six-year-old Border Collie. Prana, who is a four-year-old Border Collie, and my youngster is Jing, who is also a Border Collie and about two years old. From a teaching standpoint, my focus has primarily been teaching people how to improve their dog's life experience by explaining to them how to communicate better with their dogs.

My focus is usually really strongly geared towards seeing the agility experience from the dog's point of view, because I feel like that is something that has been overlooked for a really long time. And I work with students on trying to be really clear and positive in their training methods and to own responsibility for what happens in training and on course. So it's kind of the direction that I've gone in throughout this whole agility experience myself.

Melissa Breau: That's super interesting. How did you get started in all of that? How did you get into training and agility and, and all this dog stuff?

Nicole Levesque: Well, I, I ended up with the worst possible rescue dog on the planet. He was a, he was a very energetic Australian Shepherd husky cross. He had been hit by a car and the owners were gonna put him to sleep. And I was a vet tech who fell in love with him at first sight and he was down for the first several months of his life. So he was on restricted activity when he was able to move around again, he was like a wild thing and we didn't have the resources back then that we have now for dealing with that sort of energy level and that sort of personality style.

So I lucked into agility because I, you know, the trainers that I was working with him years ago, it was all about collar corrections and alpha rolling the dogs and things like that. And I, I just knew that that was not right, that it wasn't right for me. It wasn't the best life for the dog. So I stumbled onto this agility class where the instructors were teaching classes out of a book because no one had done it back then.

But you know, when I would walk into a room, he would walk out of the room. Our relationship was so, had just struggled for so long. So I had to find a way to communicate with him that was fun, where he wouldn't really realize that we were training, that we were actually learning how to communicate.

Melissa Breau: First of all, Aussie-Husky mix. I can already imagine. That's a whole lot of, whole lot of dog.

Nicole Levesque: He was, yeah, he was.

Melissa Breau: Yeah. Oh man. And then to kinda have to overcome some of that, those are only the beginning of the story. Right. So you've definitely overcome some other pretty serious personal challenges as a competitor. Do you wanna just share a little bit about that?

Nicole Levesque: Sure. You know, it's funny, most competitors are really great at dealing with injuries and health issues when it comes to our dogs. I know I sure have been, you know, we immediately shift focus to what we have to do to take care of them. But most of us are not as good when it comes to our own health and fitness.

And when injuries and illness derail our competitive or training plans. I know for myself it's been frustrating. I, I've had to deal with trying to stay positive and not get depressed or really feel a lot of negative emotions and, you know, my own process has been kind of, I don't know, I've had these issues on and off for years.

Six years ago I had a back injury that was intermittent. So it was, you know, you just start to feel better and you're back down again. And then I felt like I really was back on the road when I had emergency gallbladder surgery. So that had me out for about three months. And it's recently, this past summer I was diagnosed with stage–currently it's at stage one–breast cancer, so now I'm looking at being out for four to eight months depending on what the pathology shows after surgery. So it's been, it's been, you know, one step forward, one step back for the last several years. Anyway.

Melissa Breau: That's so hard. I mean, first of all, I'm so sorry to hear about diagnosis and I can only imagine how hard all of that has been. How has it kind of impacted your dog sports stuff, your competitive goals, your training, kind of that, that world for you?

Nicole Levesque: Yeah, it's, it's been, I'm still in the process, so I kind of feel like I'm figuring it out a bit as I go along and it is a little hard to talk about, so hopefully I could talk about this without getting super emotional.

But you know, I have five dogs and four of them are still competing. And so it's been, it's, it's been kind of a shift for me throughout all of these injuries. My 10 year old Seeker, you know, we are winding down in his career right now and his whole career has been ups and downs with missed events due to my issues.

You know, he's an Aussie so he has been like "hank the tank" and just physically fantastic through his whole career. But yeah, it's been a little frustrating with him because of all of the missed opportunities. But you know, at 10 years old he's still able to compete because I haven't had the opportunity to compete him and overwork him. Definitely, you know, his skillset is super strong because so many times I've had to kind of take a step back and start over due to my injuries and illnesses, my six-year-old Zanin, I think his career has been probably affected the most. He is a really sensitive dog and he has really, it's almost been a positive impact in a lot of ways because my inability to really push forward in a competitive way has really helped build his confidence and my focus on training skills with him has built his confidence quite a bit.

So, you know, I'm always trying to find the positives in this stuff, in these issues. So with him, I would say, you know, the challenges, he hasn't had as much ring time as most dogs his age. He's not really had very many big events in his career, but he has a love of the game that my lack of pressure on him has really helped solidify.

So if I had to turn around as a positive for him, that's where I would go with that. You know, my four-year-old we're pretty slow to get outta the start gate with her because of my past issues, especially with the gallbladder and now heading into the, the breast cancer, she's been the wonderful teacher with me learning how to modify my goals and focus on doing what I feel I can accomplish.

Because I had been putting about a year and a half into training my running dog walk with her, and now I'm looking at the potential and that's one of the issues with some health issues that people face. I don't know what the next eight months are gonna hold for me. So I had to kind of let, I had to learn to let go of my desire to get that running dog walk and say, with my physical limitations, what can I do? What can I be successful at and what can I feel good about with the training? And so I had to stop thinking, cuz a big part for me was just feeling like, ugh, I can't move well enough to see the criteria and mark it correctly. So there was a huge mental challenge in not feeling like a failure for giving up, but I had to really focus on what my strengths are right now in this present moment as a trainer and as a competitor. So even if I can't move, I can reinforce a two on two off with her. So with her and my youngest one Jing, I've decided to let go of my obsessive need to train that running dog walk and shift focus to what I can feel good about in the present moment.

Because if you're not feeling good about what you're training, it's not gonna be a positive experience for you and it's certainly not gonna be positive for the dog. So that I think has been one of the biggest shifts for me as a trainer or as a competitor in this whole process, is that I really have to shift on what my strengths can be and not get so overloaded with what I feel my weaknesses are gonna be through all this.

Melissa Breau: Yeah, I'm sure folks probably have said to you, you know, why don't you just focus on your own healing, like take the time you need. What's kind of led you to continue to focus and come back to like training with your dogs kind of throughout all of this?

Nicole Levesque: It–you know–that's a really interesting question because yeah, I have heard a lot about that.

You know, the rational brain says, seriously, why would I worry about these things when I am dealing with cancer or knee replacement or any one of the issues that this aging cost, this aging population of agility competitors can tend to be? I think for me it's a matter of 100% self-preservation because it's very easy to fall into your issues and to have that be every focus that you have.

And so being able to step outside yourself and focus on something else, like the fact that I have five amazing dogs that can show me joy and can give me goals that are obtainable when I feel like I have so little control in my life right now, I can only imagine what that, you know, feels like. But I can certainly see how having something that you feel like you can set goals that you can accomplish and work towards would be helpful from a mental standpoint.

Melissa Breau: But I'm sure it still all has impacted, you know, your mental game and your perspectives around training and teaching and competing. Can you share a little about that?

Nicole Levesque: Yeah, you know, there's, there's a huge life lesson in all of that for us, isn't there? I've had to learn a lot about rolling with the punches and historically my personality type has not been one that's really good at letting go of things, so I'm becoming an expert. So that's, I feel like it's so common with dog trainers.

Melissa Breau: Exactly. Exactly.

Nicole Levesque: And so, you know, this fall was really tough because I had planned to go to the West Coast open and I had been working all summer on working with my dog skills on that. And so letting go of that was really hard.

The morning of the first run, I would've stepped to the line for I was on an exam table having an ultrasound and biopsies done. So it is, it was kind of a life moment where you're like, okay, I need to be able to let go of this stuff. You know, I love the game of agility and I always am working on earning a living, teaching it. And so that can be hard too because, you know, you're, you have to be okay with missing the events that you really wanted to focus on. And we all try to be goal oriented. And so having to adapt and let go of those goals or change those goals has been a life lesson, you know, and as an instructor, one often feels like all eyes are on you. And so I competed at a big UKI event this weekend, and I had to, I had to be in the moment and be enjoying the experience with my dog. So I only entered regular classes, like I didn't enter any of the big international classes,
which I really loved to run, but I had to take into account the fact that my mental game would probably not be as strong as it normally is. You know, I was around people I hadn't seen in a while, so it was very emotional in people wanting to wish me well and people that had just found out and all of that. So I had to gear my trial towards what I could manage emotionally, which was to be in the moment, "don't worry if people are judging you," because I hadn't trained my dogs in probably a month and a half post-diagnosis. And so I ended up with so many positives from my dogs, you know, being able to focus on the little skills that I'd been working on with all of them and ended up making it a really great event.

And I do feel that at some point going forward, this will help my overall gameplay while I try and focus on my heeling. I'm also trying to focus on the benefits that I'm getting from having to go through this. You know, as an instructor we're always feeling like all eyes are on you when you're out running the course. And I've had to shift my focus from being this shining example of skillset to be a shining example of working through adversity and focusing on the positivity which our dogs show us in every run, no matter how bad it is. You know, my students come to me, know what I have to offer, and they love the fact that they learn early on about putting the dog's needs ahead of their own and about how to focus on the mental game, which is I think in the last 10 years, something that we've really built as an agility community. So it's been kind of wonderful to be able to, to share that with my students and help them learn from that.

Melissa Breau: I mean, we started off kind of talking about, you know, your relationship with that first dog and to kind of bring it back to that, you know, how do you feel like all of this and having to kind of work through all of this stuff has impacted your relationship with your current dogs?

Nicole Levesque: Yeah. Oh, that's a great question. I've always had a really strong relationship with my dogs. They have carried me through so many life challenges and I learned early on that that was the biggest benefit to doing all these dog sports. My appreciation for every moment spent with them has really helped me build relationships that are just developed through trust and connection. We focus a lot on training skills and not just running courses over and over again.

And it's really helped create strong, independent personalities. In all of my dogs, you know, they're bright, they're energetic in all walks of their life. So even when a run falls apart completely, we enjoy every minute spent out there. You know, I'm responsible for pretty much every issue that comes up anyway, but you know, when I'm feeling strong enough to run every, I appreciate every course there is no such thing as failure. I'm out there and I'm physically able to run and that is such a blessing.

Melissa Breau: How do you, you know, when things are a little hit or missed for you right now, like how do you make sure that you're getting the most out of things when you can get out there, when you can train, you know, when you're feeling up to it, how do you kinda make sure you're taking a full advantage of that?

Nicole Levesque: Well, like I said, I'm still in the process, so these are all my goals and maybe not, maybe not what I've done so far, although I haven't done this a bit with some of the previous issues. But, you know, I always have been really good at keeping a list of skills that I need to work on handy. So I have a list of things that came up for me even just this past weekend at the event. So if I keep–I always tell my students it's the back page list. So in the back of your training journal, I have my students keep track of things that have come up that they need to go back and make sure they train. So if you have been to a couple trials and your dogs refuse to tire every time, it's not gonna get any better unless you hit that back page and work on the skills. So I have a pretty good list of things that I want to work on.

So, you know, some of them would be things like impulse control skills. I mean, if your contacts or your start lines are falling apart, you can do any kind of station training while you're really not able to move all that much. You can focus on your releases focusing on building value for the positions, like being on a cot or in two on two off, or for on, or whatever you've decided your criteria or the, the skill that you're focusing on can be, you can work on some of your handling skills if you have the ability to use the lower body and you're a little restricted in the upper body. So this is one of the things that I'll be focusing on because I'll be very limited with my upper body, but I can work on where my feet are pointing. I can work on my footwork in my living room. I can do all sorts of skills that way. Most of us know that fun skills are tricks, can be trained and are a great way to build connection and communication skills with your dog. You can do fitness exercises with your dog. So I'm gonna focus on working on that.

As long as we don't get an early Colorado snow, I'm hoping I can work on some jump grids. One jump work. I'm gonna be working on focusing on building a stronger repertoire of verbal skills for my dogs. I've been primarily focusing a lot on my physical cues for the dogs, but as we get a little bit older or we start to have physical limitations, being able to supplement your training or your handling with verbal skills is a great idea for anyone who's had any sort of physical issues. You can work on focus skills. So I have my young dog, Jing has, she has a little bit of confidence with sudden changes in the environment. So I can work on that in different areas in the neighborhood.

You know, the biggest thing I think for me is I'm gonna have this list of skills, but also understand that if I'm really not into training at all, I'm just gonna focus on relationship building with my dogs and spending time with them.

Melissa Breau: You've obviously been through a lot and I know you, you've hit on a couple times that you're still going through it, you're still kind of figuring some of this out, but do you have any tips for others who maybe are struggling with their own health challenges or even life challenges that maybe are putting a damper somehow on their training and their competing schedule?

Nicole Levesque: Yeah, you know, I think the biggest thing to keep in mind, like I just said, is if if you're not up to doing the training, then don't do it cuz it won't be enjoyable for anyone involved. I think for me too is that whole fear of missing out. So I have to remember that all of my previous training is not gonna fall apart completely in eight months. And it is hard to watch runs that people do on Facebook seminar runs that they've posted and course maps of the fun things they've done.

That's been really challenging for me even up until now. I already feel like I'm falling way behind, which is not realistic, it's not really happening, but it's an emotional response to the feeling that you're not gonna be able to do what you love to do. You know, it took several weeks after my original diagnosis to feel like doing any sort of training with my dogs at all and I had to be okay with that.

So I tried to shift my focus to the things that I could do, what I felt up to doing, which was, you know, I spent a bunch of time out in the mountains hiking and focusing on improving my mental state and helping maybe alleviate some of that stress and emotion that my dogs were having to experience. Even just living with me through this thing, you know, and focusing on trying to keep track of the positive things I've been able to accomplish through this whole situation. Finding support through the process I feel is super important and I've had a lot of support from a lot of people, but you know, if you don't really have an idea of what you need to work on and you're dealing with these sorts of issues, talk with your instructor on what you need to work on or, you know, I'm gonna get caught up on some online courses that I've been putting off because I've just been too busy. I've got some people that I've scheduled some online private lessons with. So once I'm post-surgery, I'm still not physically a hundred percent, but I can do some things. I'm gonna work with some private lessons and some private conditioning for the dogs and spend some time even working through my past videos and maybe get a sense of weaknesses that I'm not aware of.

They're not like in your face, but when you start to look at a couple of videos, you can see common faults that you've had or common issues that have come up for you and maybe you can address your training going forward with a different focus and actually find some improvement that way.

Melissa Breau: It definitely sounds like you've been through a lot, but how you really have kind of, even just in what you've shared here, managed to kind of look on the positive and pull out some good pieces, even from some tough stuff, you know, how do you keep yourself motivated? How do you keep yourself in that good head space?

Nicole Levesque: Well, it depends on the moment.

Melissa Breau: Fair, very fair.

Nicole Levesque: You know, I sound really well together today, but you know, I have my moments. I had a couple, couple moments at the trial yesterday to be totally honest with you, where I just had to walk out of the building. You know, you have to give yourself the space that you need and you have to try and be kind to yourself and recognize that you're dealing with a lot.

Melissa Breau: Yeah.

Nicole Levesque: And, and whether it's cancer or, or a knee injury or a back issue, whatever, you know, our population, at least the people who started agility when I did, you know, we're aging. And so a lot of us are dealing with a lot of these issues. I've been shocked because I have shared what I'm going through publicly and I am blown away with how many people in our community have experienced this.

And so I think one of the things that's helped me a lot is connecting with other people who have been through this or her who are going through this and, you know, I was Facebook messaging with a woman who I've known through Facebook. She's in Australia and she's probably about three or four weeks behind me through this whole process. And so, you know, look for support in places you wouldn't normally see it and find people to connect with who are going through it or who have been through it because that support is really, it's been for me, invaluable. You know, it's hard to keep your spirits up when you feel like you're missing out of so many things. So I just try to focus on the day-to-day and not obsess about what I can't do and just really focus on what I can do.

You know, I'm doing a lot of journaling through the process, not only with my personal process, but keeping track of what I need to assign my students to do. So getting involved in what they need to do while I'm out has been a good diversion for me and a way to feel more proactive in the process and just really trying to focus on gratitude for what I do have.

And that's, that's the key. And it's not always easy, believe me, but it, it helps. It really does help.

Melissa Breau: To kind of round out our chat with, you know, kind of one last question, and this is a question I usually ask at the end of a podcast. If we were to kind of drill everything down that we've talked about into like a key piece of information you want other handlers to understand or a key kind of takeaway for folks as they've listened to this, what would that be?

Nicole Levesque: You know, feelings of empowerment are essential in any healing process. I think the biggest issue for me has been the disempowerment. And it was so ironic the day after my diagnosis, I woke up and I had no power in the house, so I couldn't connect with anybody. I had no diversions at all, and I had to stay in the the moment and that was just, it really helped highlight for me how disempowering any of these health issues can be. So really trying to focus on ways that you can feel empowered to help you build confidence for when you are ready to run again, I think is key. I, another thing that's been really helpful for me is remembering why I got into dog sports in the first place. And that hands down was the love of my dogs.

So I really try to focus on them as my companion and my support and not as my teammates through this, right? Because everything that I am is about building a strong team with my dogs and to shift that focus a little bit to just companionship and support through the process has been really, really helpful. So in the next few months between my surgery and whatever treatments that I have to have, I'm just really gonna try and focus on that and then try to just enjoy my process with them however I can. I think one thing that I just really wanna highlight too is that, you know, if you have a friend, which we're all gonna have these friends, one in seven women have been diagnosed with breast cancer. So in our community, which is so largely female, it's a big deal. And so if you know someone who has had the diagnosis, reach out and reach out often, but you know, tell them you're there, you're supporting them. Offer to help. You don't have to ask specific questions because if they are in the moment of training their dogs, competing their dogs or being in that space, let them have that space without bringing the cancer back into it. Just let them enjoy a break from the situation and if they need to talk about it, listen and just be there.

Melissa Breau: Yeah. The first piece of that, you're talking about the importance of kind of empowering yourself. I mean, we're so good when it's our dogs, right? When they're the ones struggling with something about remembering to break things down and build their confidence back up. I just think it's really, and it hits home that we need to remember to do that for ourselves sometimes too.

Nicole Levesque: It Is really hard and we're always, so many dog people are so good at supporting others in their process and it's sometimes hard to ask for help. I'm terrible at asking for help. I am bad. And so I've had to cultivate that skillset a little better. So I'm working on it.

Melissa Breau: Yeah. Yeah. Well thank you so much for coming on the podcast, Nicole, and being so honest and so open about all of this. I think it'll help a lot folks.

Nicole Levesque: Well, thank you. Thanks for having me. You know, I'm trying to find the peace for my own process in helping other people deal with the process for me. That's how, how I empower myself through this.

Melissa Breau: Yeah. Yeah. And thank you to all of our listeners for tuning in. If you haven't already, subscribe to our podcast in iTunes or the podcast app of your choice for our next episode automatically downloaded to your phone as soon as it becomes available. Today's show is brought to you by the Fenzi Dog Sports Academy.

Special thanks to Denise Fenzi for supporting this podcast. Music provided royalty free by bensound.com. The track featured here is called Buddy. Audio Editing provided by Chris Lang. Thanks again for tuning in and happy training.


Today's show is brought to you by the Fenzi Dog Sports Academy. Special thanks to Denise Fenzi for supporting this podcast. Music provided royalty-free by BenSound.com; the track featured here is called "Buddy." Audio editing provided by Chris Lang.

Thanks again for tuning in -- and happy training! 

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