Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Reflections on Competition

I have never really been a traditionally competitive person by nature.  I'm not really one to try to go out there and do anything better than anyone else does it.  Don't get me wrong - sometimes, when I end up doing something better than anyone else - it feels very good!  But being "the best" has never been a drive of mine.

However, I am competitive in a different way.  I do strive to be the best that I can be at things.  I've always been that way.  In school I always wanted to earn the highest grades that I could.  While I did not try to have grades that were higher than anyone else's, but to have the highest grades that I could earn.

I am the same way when it comes to job performance.  I want the scores on my evaluations to be as high as I can get them to be.  And I am that way when it comes to dog training, performance, and sports.

I am not among the greats of dog sports and I don't aspire to be.  But I want to be the best trainer, best performer, and best competitor that I am capable of being.

This has made it a particular challenge to compete with dogs who have mental and emotional challenges.  Learning to put my dog's best interests and well being ahead of training and performance goals has made it necessary for me to keep my eye on goals that are realistic for those dogs instead of striving to be the best that I can personally be.  That has been difficult and that has been humbling.  It has also been incredibly rewarding.  Speedy and Dean may not have the top level titles in the sports that they and I have competed in together, but going out there and doing the best that I could with them as my training and performance partners has given me things like perspective, patience, and appreciation for my dogs as gifted individuals who have more to offer me than I could ever give to them.  Learning to see and showcase their particular talents instead of regarding them as a problem dogs that couldn't function properly as a performance dogs has forced me to grow in ways that I appreciate much more than I ever would have appreciated higher level titles earned with dogs that do not have to deal with their particular issues.

With Speedy and Dean, and even Maddie, a conservative approach to competition was usually best.  I learned to keep my expectations very realistic, focus mostly on supporting them, and to put their enjoyment above any concern for my performance or technical considerations.  There was a time and a place for me to push my own envelope a little, but that was always secondary.

Tessa has been different.  Her approach to competition is different from that of any other dog I've handled.  She goes out there with a "let's do this!" attitude!  She isn't just interested in a good time, but she is intent on getting the job at hand done.  She is an amazing partner.  She performs best when I set her to the task at hand and then trust her to do it.

I first realized this at our very first Agility trial.  We were getting ready for our third run of the day and I thought, "let's go out there and try to qualify!"  I checked myself - the Q is never the goal.  But then I glanced at Tessa and I realized that she couldn't care less if I'm out there working for the Q instead of making sure she's OK.  In fact, it was obvious to me that she would prefer that I get my mind on doing what I need to do to get the job done!  If there's a little pressure on her in the heat of the performance, she rises to the occasion, loving every minute of it.

And that has led me to start to think about competition differently . . . 

When Tessa and I first started, I babysat her a lot in the ring.  She didn't respond favorably to that.  I usually confused her a little.  Things suddenly looked different from how they look at class and she didn't get that.  I learned that I have to run her at competitions the way I run her at class.

At class I am willing to take chances.  I am happy to try new things.  I will take handling risks.  I am interested to see what works and what doesn't work.  There is nothing on the line and mistakes are just a way to learn - either to do something better or do something different.

I went into Westminster this weekend having made up my mind to put our Q's on the line.  To go out there and try things I've never dared to try in competition.  I made up my mind to give her room on the jumps, approach the teeter at a run, and give her space to get her weave entries.

We aren't in a race to get through every level of CPE Agility as quickly as possible.  We are at a point where I believe it's better for us to try things and grow as a team than to move through the levels quickly.

And I learned something that surprised me.

Sometimes, in order to move ahead, to improve, and to be the best team that you and your dog can be, you have to put everything you have on the line.  Everything - the score, the Q, and even your personal sense of achievement in the performance!

Granted, conservative can be appropriate for a dog who needs to be handled conservatively in order to have a good time and perform at his or her best.  Speedy, Dean, and Maddie absolutely needed for me to be conservative and focused on their well being.  And, of course, there is always a reasonable measure of safety that must be attended to - I'm not talking about physically dangerous risks here.

The idea of putting it all on the line is new to me.  The idea of walking away with all or nothing instead of eeking out whatever my team can manage is an entirely different way of thinking.

I am interested to see where this leads.  It makes sense in Agility and I feel like I know how to apply it there.  How will it play out in Freestyle and Rally FrEe?  I mean for Tessa and I to find out.  What is the best that Tessa and I can be?  How will we get there?  Were, exactly, will we go?  What will that do for Dean, who may still have some Agility left in him, and is still competing in other sports?

This certainly has me thinking!  And wondering where such thoughts will lead for everyone on our team . . . 


  1. Awesome post! I think it's a great life lesson as well. I honestly started realizing how one can grow through pushing to the limit or jumping in without knowing what your going to land on. I look at myself and the things I have done in the past three years. I have pushed myself further than I ever thought I was capable of. But I grew so much. There are things I never would have learned or experienced if I hadn't jumped into things. I didn't look when I jumped. Sometimes I landed on a comfy fluffy place but most of the time I landed on rocks! But it doesn't matter. Even those rocks had lessons involved. I never thought of applying this concept to dog training (within the dog's limits and safety obviously). You really got my brain going on this one!

  2. Thanks Stephanie! I'll be interested to hear where you go with it.