Thursday, November 15, 2018

The Balance in My Training

For many in the world of dogs, "balance" can be something of an emotionally charged word.  The term "balanced trainer" is used as a designation for a trainer who holds a particular training philosophy, which I am not going to discuss here because that is actually beyond the scope of this particular post.

Suffice it to say, I do not fall into the category of "balanced trainer".  

But that is not to say that there is not balance in my training - there absolutely is.  However, the balance in my training is a different sort of balance.

Allow me to explain what I mean ....

When it comes to training, or to titling endeavors, or to competition, or anything that I do with my dogs, I always strive to balance: what is truly in the best interests of my dog with my own hopes and ambitions for that dog in that activity.

I am not always 100% successful in achieving this balance, but I do my best to make it happen to the greatest extent possible.

This was not always the case.  I would imagine that pretty much every dog sport enthusiast grows and matures and moves far beyond the point where he or she started, and I can certainly say that for myself.

When Speedy and I started in Rally Obedience back in 2005, I secretly wanted him to go out there and perform perfect runs, earning high scores and placements.  I really gave very little thought to how the experience of competition might benefit him.

After all, that seemed to be what everyone around me was doing.  I heard many talk about their scores, and about having hope for higher scores.  One time a fellow competitor showed me a binder that she had brought along to a Rally trial where she had a written record of all of her Rally scores.  She pointed to a page and said, "See, I used to get really low scores".  Then she pointed to another and went on to say, "Now I get high scores".  Her "low" scores were actually pretty nice scores that I would have been more than thrilled with at the time.  It was clear to me that working toward high scores was a priority for her.

Back then everyone's attitude seemed to be centered on striving for perfection in their Rally runs, and in earning high scores.

So, I poured my heart and soul into training Speedy to a level where he could perform perfectly.  I dreamed about earning those high scores and those pretty blue ribbons, and working our way up to the point where we could earn the giant ribbons!

There was just one teeny tiny little problem ..... and that was Speedy himself!

On one hand, Speedy was a trainer's dream of a dog.  He had a gorgeous work ethic.  He loved to learn.  He loved to drill.  I used to get confused when I heard people say, "never drill a dog".  The more I drilled Speedy, the happier he became!  Speedy had to-die-for heads-up focus that I find utterly astonishing when I watch video of him now.

But then there was the other hand ....!  Mentally, Speedy was a mess.  He started out fearful of dogs and people, and later he became reactive toward other dogs.  We spent years working all of that out.  The even bigger challenge with Speedy was his tendency to become overstimulated by movement - even his own!

Speedy was trained to perform all of the exercises in (then) APDT Rally at all three levels.  He was good at them, and he performed the beautifully .... in class.  But, when we got to a trial, he could become so overstimulated that he could barely perform in the ring!  He would make wild circles around me, run around cones, back-jump the jumps (which, in those days, was an automatic NQ!), and sometimes even grab at my clothes.

He completely and utterly shattered all of my dreams of perfection and high scores.

After banging my head against the wall for a time, trying to come up with ways to help Speedy be "perfect" in the competition ring, it came to a point where realized that I had to make a choice.  I could shift my focus away from perfection and high scores and create goals that were more appropriate for Speedy, or we could stop participating in competitions.

Because .... really .... with Speedy those were the only two choices.

Speedy and I ended up taking a break from Rally and we got into Musical Freestyle.  In Freestyle I was determined, right from the start, that my goals with Speedy would never be for perfection or scores.  When Speedy and I stepped into a Freestyle ring together, I had two goals: to allow Speedy the opportunity to express himself, and to entertain the people.

Speedy could do both of those things very well.  No matter what happened in our performances, he was always entertaining to watch!  He drew everyone's eye with his gorgeous movement, with his intense focus, and with the artistic flair that he demonstrated in just about every performance.

Speedy always expressed himself better in the Freestyle ring than anywhere else.  It was a joy and a pleasure to provide him with the chance to perform as often as we could.

That is not to say that I had no concern for the rules of the discipline, nor that I did not create our routines with the performance criteria in mind.  Those were simply not my first and highest concerns.

What happened is that I learned to find balance in our training, and in our work together.

I came to recognize that Speedy was an individual with his own strengths, talents, and limitations.  I started to see training and titling and competition events as means to enhance the quality of his life instead of as a way to accomplish something solely for myself.

Later, Dean came along and taught me this lesson yet again, so that by the time I started my work with Tessa, I was not even thinking of success in terms of high scores or perfect performances.  I consider any Agility run, or Freestyle performance, or Parkour filming session, or anything that we set out to accomplish together, to be successful when Tessa is confident, joyful, and she comes away from the experience with a happy and satisfied demeanor.  Results still matter to me on some level, my priority is always the well-being of my dog.

This, in my book, is the most important balance I can have in training and dog sports. Results matter, to some extent.  But the quality of the overall experience of training and working toward titles, and seeing a clear benefit to my dog from the experience is always what counts the most.

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