The other day, I read a great article by Susan Garrett, and it inspired me to comment on something I’ve been mulling over in my head for a while. I occasionally meet pet dog owners who scuff at people who want to succeed in dog sports. They themselves do it “just for fun,” and they strongly believe that this is the way to go. Tom is one of them – he compares serious competitors in sports like agility or obedience to parents who push their kids, and assumes that dog sports people tend to see their dogs as performance machines rather than family members. A happy dog would rather get to do dog sports “for fun,” but not with the goal of achieving greatness.
I disagree. As Susan Garrett aptly puts it:
Champions in any field [take] what other people find boring or uncomfortable and turn that into a game that they will love to play every day.
And that holds true for people and dogs. If your dog is not having the best time of his life in the ring, he’ll check out. He won’t work. Or if he does, well, you certainly won’t win. When it comes to the teams who win world championships, both human and dog love what they’re doing, and they’re having a blast every time they enter the ring. If either dog or human don’t embrace every second of the time they’re working together, things will fall apart in a competition environment (where you can’t have tangible reinforcers on you to bribe an unwilling dog), and even if they teach their dog that “disobedience is not an option,” their performance will be mediorcre at best.
Truly successful dog sports competitors know how to have fun with their dog. They turn training and competing into a game and into their dog’s favorite activity. And they are much better at reading their dogs than the average pet dog owner: doing things with their dogs is their passion and their calling, not “just a hobby”. And they spend time, money and effort on getting to know their dogs as well as possible, on educating themselves on scientifically and ethically sound training methods. They bond extremely closely.
I’m not one of these people. I like dog sports, but I’ve never competed. I would like to, at some point – but only after finding a venue I’m comfortable with, and once I feel that Phoebe and I are ready for it.
However, I’d say that when working with my dogs, I definitely feel like I’m doing it not “just for fun”. For me, focus, engagement and fun come first. Once I have these factors, I go for precision and excellence. I don’t necessarily need to be at a dog sports club to work on these things – I like persuing these goals in front of busy supermarkets, at the dog park, at IKEA and at the hardware store. These challenges might be different than the ones that you face when working up to perfect ring performances, but to me, they’re equally intriguing. Can I get Phoebe to be in the game near a playground? Surrounded by people pushing shopping carts and honking cars? Can I get her to focus on me, be in the zone with me, to a degree that neither of us hears or sees what’s going on around us? Can you spend time at a busy place, look into your dog’s eyes, and enter a space where only the two of you exist, and you communicate as well as if you were reading each other’s minds? Can you whisper your cues rather than shout them, and then explode forward into an energetic game of tug? Well – can you? That’s what I’m going for, no matter where I am. There are places where Phoebe and I are pretty good at this, and others where we struggle. There are days when Phoebe tells me she can’t concentrate – and that’s okay. She gets to say “No” whenever she doesn’t feel well, just like me. Training together will always be a privilege for both of us – never an obligation.
And then there are the people who do dog sports “just for fun”. I’ve been going to a “just for fun” agility group twice a week. Why? Because Phoebe likes agility, and the trainer at this club mostly lets me do my own thing, which I appreciate.
As I’ve been watching the other people in class, I often wonder what they’re hoping to achieve. Many of them are clearly frustrated with their dogs half the class time. And so are the dogs with their owners. Neither of the other dogs in class are in tune with their owners. There is a Bearded Collie struggling at the end of his leash, barking his head off for minutes on end. There is a scruffy terrier mix who, as soon as her owner lets her off leash for their next run, takes off to look for and inhale rabbit poop on the agility field. She’ll run after him, calling, he’ll ignore her, she’ll eventually catch him and drag him behind her on his leash, scolding him while he ducks away from her, lifting a front leg, licking his lips, tail between his legs. There’s a Rottweiler who’ll often just get the zoomies and rush around the agility field, making it hard for his owner to get him back. There’s the sensitive Golden who’s reluctant to go through the tunnel sometimes. The trainer will hold him on one end, the owner will call him from the other end, and if he doesn’t want to go through by himself, they’ll try to push him into the tunnel. As for learning the weave poles, dogs are dragged around them on their leashes.
Are we having fun yet?
I’m not so sure. Owners are frustrated. Dogs are confused and, well, yes, they’ll have a fun run or two every once in a while, but at least half the class time, they would rather be doing something else. The owners are not reading their dogs’ body language, but standing around the field, complaining about their stubbornness.
Phoebe, on the other hand? Well, she’s there with me. She wants to be there. She can’t wait for me to give her the next cue. Her eyes are locked into mine. When we don’t run, we do other things. We practice fronts and finishes, proof tricks, and work on longer and longer down stays. Yes, I’m not teaching her to be ignored and be okay with it in this class environment. That’s okay: two hours a week, we get to train at a club. Around other, mainly crazy and unfocused dogs, some of them will uncontrollably rush up to her. It’s a perfect challenge, and we savor every minute of it. I’m not there to chat with the other owners. I’m there with my dog. She’s not there to look for rabbit poop. She’s there to work with me. We are not great at agility (and we’ll probably never be, because I don’t have my own agility playground, so I don’t get to shape and practice stuff as often as I would like), but we’re the only true team in this group of people who are there “just for fun”. And I think we’re pretty much the only ones who are having a good time every time, and from start to finish.
It hasn’t always been like this. Phoebe is almost 3 years old now. I’ve repeatedly taken her to various group classes. In the beginning, my RoR had to be extremely high in order not to loose her, and I usually left after 20 to 30 minutes of class-time. Sometimes, I’d just spend the time outside the training field, playing look at that or settle on a mat/in your crate games, then go home again. Phoebe, who’s focus is brilliant in most places today, was a crazy and all-over-the-place adolescent from 6 months to 2.5 years. It got better and better (and sometimes worse again), but we were never in a hurry. The dog sets the pace, and the dog determines what games we play, and what she’s ready for. I love a good challenge, and Phoebe has certainly been one.
From day one, she has been the perfect puppy for me, and she kept being the perfect puppy for me all through her phases of fear, of child/dog reactivity, of wanting to chase joggers, of having zero concentration, of being hyper-vigilant and overstimulated in public … I’ve always loved the dog in front of me; the individual I woke up to on any given day, and I’ve enjoyed figuring out the best way of getting through to her today.
I think one of the most important things I did, though, was that I always stuck up for her. If I didn’t feel comfortable working somewhere or doing something, I politely thanked the person, took my dog and left. I made sure she could always feel safe. She wouldn’t have to stay at an environment she wasn’t ready for, she wouldn’t have to be forcefully held by a groomer when she was scared of the clippers, she wouldn’t be lifted up on the vet table by a scary-smelling vet if I could do it myself, I did not let other dogs bully her, and whenever I joined a class or trainer who turned out to not be a good match for Phoebe and me, we left.
And however crazy she was in her adolescence, there are two things – just two things, the two most important things for me – I always insisted on: she had to have a bomb-proof recall in order to be off leash. And she had to walk nicely on a loose leash when on leash. Not doing the former meant being confined to the leash, going back to kindergarten in that respect and re-explaining what a recall meant, or staying home. Forgetting about the latter meant staying home, going back to kindergarten in terms of re-explaining LLW, or wearing the one harness I let her pull on. (Sometimes, you need to get from A to B. It’s useful to have a piece of equipment where you don’t care about pulling in order not to ruin your training by means of intermittent reinforcement.)
Today, I have a dog who’d work for cardboard. A little workoholic. She’s still an impatient dog, but that’s alright. She’s the perfect dog for me. And while we’re having fun together when we train, we don’t train “just for fun.” We train because we both love it. It’s our game, and we take it seriously: It’s what we do, the way we bond. Every shaping game is an conversation with the complex little person in front of me. And she’s challenging me to keep learning and growing with every look from her dark-brown eyes. There are no perfect dogs. But there is the perfect dog for me – and I’ve got her; she’s spending her life with me.
Do you ever wake up to a wet nose in your face and marvel at how lucky you are?