There's No Crying In Dog Sports

By Laurie C. Williams CPDT-KA
Or getting angry (especially at your dog), or throwing a tantrum and storming off, or blaming everyone and everything other than your lack of practice, training, and/or ring readiness. And yet it seems I am seeing these things happen more and more these days, especially from those who are relatively new to dog sport competition. Full disclosure, I have cried myself after a very poor performance. I've been at this game for more than 30 years now so I'm not going to even try to portray that I haven't had my own moments of weakness. But that's exactly what it was, weakness, and the cloud of shame that came over me afterwards in turn forced me to reflect on what exactly was going on in my head and causing the momentary breakdown. I don't have a problem with anyone being competitive and wanting your performance to reflect the time you've put into the training for that particular sport.  Healthy competition is fine, but the operative word is "healthy." When your participation in a sport leads you to sadness, disappointment and/or very unsportsmanlike behavior, it's the opposite of healthy. And then there's our teammates, our dogs.  What happens to them amongst all the anger, crying, disappointment and blaming? Don't think for a moment that they don't feel it all. We all know every emotion we feel travels right down the leash and is absorbed by our dogs. What message are we sending them about what just happened? What associations are we making for them? Is this the mental picture we want etched into their brains about being our teammate? And then we wonder why so many dogs become "ringwise."

So, how can we avoid these emotions taking over after a less than stellar performance?

1. By remembering any extracurricular activity we do with our dogs is supposed to be FUN, first and foremost. If you can't ensure that both you and your dog will go into and come out of the ring or competition feeling like you've had fun, don't do it.

2. Your dog did not ask to be there, and yet your dog is participating FOR you and trying to do the best he/she can. Trust me when I say, your dog would just assume be playing a game of fetch with you in the back yard or laying with you on the sofa. He is doing this because you want him to and therefore you owe him a debt of gratitude and part of that debt is paying him well, with love and lots of rewards regardless of what happens in the ring.

3. Realize it's quite possible, actually quite probable that you just weren't ready. You may be logging a lot of hours training and practicing, but maybe it's time to analyze your practice. Although I don't necessarily like the emphasis being on "perfection" as the goal, I do like what the late coach Vince Lombardi says about practice. "Practice does not make perfect. Only perfect practice makes perfect." So, is your practice perfect? I see this a lot with people when they are transitioning from on to off leash work, for example. The first thing I ask my students is, "is your performance ON leash perfect?" If not, why would you expect your off leash performance to be even close?

4. Your partner is a dog, not a computer. No matter what you've trained there will be times your dog will remind you of this. Learn to deal with it, even better, laugh about it, or get out of the game.

5.  Reflect on why this is all so important to you to begin with. What is it about your life as a whole, your self worth and esteem that makes what happens in a competitive dog sport hold so much importance? And then ask yourself if it is fair to put all this pressure on your dog? I think you know the answer. It might be time for you to take up competitive chess, Scrabble or something that will not put pressure on anyone other than yourself.

6.  Training is a journey and a continual learning experience and each dog you train and each ring experience will in turn help you become a better trainer. Or at least it should if you let it.

7.  And this one is for those specifically working with their "Novice A" dogs, or their "practice dogs," as I like to call them. Hey, learn to take your lumps!  I guess it's all part of this fast food mentality that has permeated our society that has made us all very impatient. We want instant gratification, and when we don't get it, by way of a Q or a placement, then something has to be wrong and/or someone or something is to blame such as the judge, the weather, your trainer, the leaf that fell off a previous competitor's shoe and was left in the ring right at the starting line, your husband forgetting to buy the hotdogs, Obama.  Whatever.   I also think social media has a lot to do with this as well. We all now have a forum to post our "wins" instantly as they happen and receive accolades and "likes" galore as further validation. Naturally, that can make it doubly disappointing when we have nothing to report. If this is impacting you, keep your trialing schedule to yourself and stay off Facebook.  One of my favorite things to do is sneak off to trials, telling no one other than my husband and maybe a close friend or two. I am able to trial in peace, with no pressure to report or expectations from others. I've had some of my best ring performances this way.

8. Read some books on sports psychology.  There are some great ones out there. Part of being a great competitor is learning how not only to win with dignity, but also to lose with grace and learn from those losses.  To get you started, peruse through these:

9. WWTD (What Would Timmy Do?).  If I had to name the quintessential "perfect" dog owner in history it's gotta be Timmy Martin, of "Timmy and Lassie" fame. I remember his relationship with Lassie was nothing short of magical and the bond the two of them shared, though fictional, was based on love, trust and exceptional teamwork and communication, one we all should strive for. They went through a lot together, some very traumatic experiences, but they always emerged even closer than before, and with a nice moral to the story to go with it. Could you imagine if Timmy and Lassie had ever run agility? If Timmy could send Lassie back to the farm to inform his parents that he had fallen in a well, surely sending her to a tunnel and A-Frame would have been a piece of cake!   She'd have surely been MACH100 Lassie!

10.  In the end, it's just a game. I think we have it all backwards. We train and train with going to trial and earning Q's and titles being our objective, the end all, be all.  However in the grande scheme of things what happens in the ring during those few short minutes is insignificant. Relationships with our dogs are not made in the ring or on the field.  Those are made in all those thousands of hours leading up to and following.  Keep that your focus and don't damage it because things didn't go as you would have liked for those few short minutes.