Today is Dog Agility Blog Action Day and the topic we are going to be discussing is FUN. Three little letters and a concept easy to grasp most of the time, but often times so difficult to achieve in training or trialing. Instead of writing about fun games to play in training with your dog or fun things to do at trials I want to talk about my journey to having fun in agility so as to maybe help that one person who reads this that is struggling to have fun. I often see people at trials or in training that are at a place I used to be. I haven’t always had fun in agility with my dogs, but I believe I’ve arrived at a place now that I can have fun regardless of the outcomes.
When I started doing agility in 2008 with Kalil I was having a lot of fun training him in something new. It was great that my working dog was doing a real job and, coupled with his drive and energy, was immensely rewarding. It was a lot of fun doing 2 classes and a couple of training sessions each week. I remember eagerly waiting for the days my classes were on so that we could go play this fun game! There were times in training where we struggled (weave pole training with Kalil almost made me give up agility), but I was still having fun training and playing this game with him. In January of 2009 we did our first trial and in our very first run (so embarrassing to watch now, but remember I was new!) we got a Q! I was HOOKED. However, things quickly went off the rails and agility became not fun.
Despite that first Q, Kalil and I never enjoyed a lot of success in the sport of agility. We competed for a little over 2 years and only barely made it out of Open in AKC agility. As someone who played competitive sports all the way into college I tend to have a very competitive nature about some things. Agility was one of those things where I was competitive and not being successful at it hurt. At the time, it stung for multiple reasons. I was failing in front of a bunch of people. I was failing while spending all of this money traveling to different places. I was failing when I initially had success. I was failing to reach my goals (titles and ribbons). I was failing when I thought I had all the pieces to success and knew it all (HAH!). All of those failures happening weekend after weekend just made it worse. I would say I hit rock bottom (what am I, a junkie?) at a NADAC trial. It was the only NADAC trial Kalil did while he still had all of his legs. Over 2 days and probably around 10 runs we did not get 1 Q. My displeasure and anger at not Qing was apparently very evident as at one point I went outside with Kalil after another failing run to cool down and calm down. Someone actually followed me outside to watch me as apparently they thought I was going to abuse my dog in some way. Of course I wouldn’t do that, but it was illuminating.
I got Luna in April of 2011 intended solely as an agility dog AND one that I wanted to compete with in the upper levels of the agility world. Luna showed an immediate aptitude to this sport and, coupled with me knowing more about how to train and having an excellent mentor, we excelled at both training and trialing right from the beginning. However, success with Luna hasn’t always translated into having fun. There have been training struggles (running dog walks!). There have been competition struggles (1 Q at the 2013 Cynosports!). There have been goal struggles (AKC NAC requirements). All of those at one time or another have made me not have fun. Thankfully, it’s not been a constant in our agility career of not having fun.
In April of 2013, Onyx was added to the pack and, as with Luna, she was going to be my next agility superstar. However, from the beginning she let me know that things were going to be different. She had a different way of learning. Whereas Luna was thoughtful and “slow”, Onyx just threw everything at you at 100x speed. There literally have been times where she will offer ALL the behaviors/tricks/commands she knows in the span of 10 seconds all before even one command is given. There have been times where she learns something and is a rockstar at it and then the following week she has no idea what you are asking for. This has all resulted in times where neither of us were having fun in training and both of us becoming highly stressed. Unfortunately, that resulted in a very large speed bump that we had to get over which took quite a long time. We’re both in a good place now and we have fun no matter what we do.
Now, with all of the above said you may be asking yourself the following: How did you start having fun in agility?
The first step was the gut punch of Kalil’s cancer. Our agility career was suddenly cut short by the unexpected diagnosis. Suddenly I could no longer play agility with the dog that started it all. And when I reflected on all of the anger, frustrations, and general feelings of disappointment I had while playing this silly little game with him I realized those negative feelings should have had no place in my world while playing agility. Instead of being angry all of the time while doing agility, I should have been laughing and smiling because we were playing a game together.
The second step was being able to see agility from a whole different level. When I was selected for my first EO team in 2014 and attended the EO in Hungary it had a huge impact on me. Seeing some of the best competitors in the world run the same courses I was running and making the same mistakes I made or doing worse than we were really put a lot of things in perspective. When I came back from Hungary, I no longer felt pressure to Q 100% of the time at local trials. Who was I trying to impress by Qing at these trials? I no longer was upset or angry about not Qing. Now local trials were training opportunities. If mistakes were made, it was no longer a feeling of failure but more of a feeling of “Ah Ha, training hole!” If I wanted to beat the best in the world, I had to take these failures and, instead of getting angry, make a plan of how to tackle these failures to turn them into successes (which leads to fun) in the future. I know that what it took for me to personally reach this step is unreachable for a lot of people, but I wanted to illustrate how I reached the point of taking our failures and not getting angry over them. I see so many people in the ring just get angry when their dog makes a mistake. It pains me to see it because I’ve been there and, looking back, I hate that I was that way. I hope maybe my path might help others.
The third step was a realignment of goals. There have been certain goals that have taken a lot of fun out of the game of agility at certain times. I came to that realization in the fall of 2015 when I decided to try and qualify for AKC Nationals. My decision to strongly pursue this goal lasted all of 3 days. A decision was made on Wednesday and quickly given up on Saturday. That Saturday, I got so angry that Luna dropped a bar in our first run of the weekend costing me those precious points that I stewed in my anger for a good 30 minutes before I knocked some sense into myself. I asked myself what was I doing paying money to play a game with my best friend and the end result was that I was angry about something inconsequential in the big picture. So I dropped it and haven’t looked back since. And that mindset has actually continued with me towards other goals that I deem more important than qualifying for the AKC NAC. At high level events amongst my competitive peers I’ve laughed at things on the course when we mess up. Those things no longer cause me to get angry. It’s just another silly little mistake that I may look back on one day and laugh and tell stories about. I need to enjoy the ride now, because you never know when the ride will end and that enjoyment will be no longer.
It has taken me a long time to truly have fun playing agility with my 4 legged friends. I wish I wouldn’t have had to take the journey I have, but we all walk a path in life. In the end, as long as we arrive wiser and happier it will be OK.