We are off today to enjoy a weekend of Dog Agility competition with our dogs. It has been a source of immense pleasure for me for the past 10 years to run with my dog, Tiramisu. It’s a chance to feel the partnership that we have created and to see if we can successfully navigate some new agility courses given the skills we have both developed. It’s a great way to see how well my dog understands me, how well she understands the skills I’ve tried to teach her, and how effectively I can provide her the information she needs in a timely fashion. They call it a “trial” for a good reason; it’s a test of our skills, our communication, and our relationship. There is one thing I’m sure an agility trial is not – a casino.
One of the more difficult aspects of going to agility trials for me is watching the superstitions of other owners and handlers as they interact with their dogs. I know from experience that my scientific point of view puts me in a significant minority at these events. It starts with the judge who calls out “Good Luck!” to signal that I can start my run. There are “favourite toys”, pre-run trick and reward rituals, elaborate crating setups, special clothes or leashes to give the team a better chance of getting a qualifying run. But for me, it’s all there before we step onto the agility course. We either have the skills required or we don’t. And we will either execute them well enough or we won’t.
I think the hardest thing to watch is the disappointment. There are some handlers who do not take their non-qualifying runs with good grace or humour. There always seems to be a reason when things go badly and, remarkably, that reason rarely has anything to do with the handler. Or so the explanations go. “My dog just blew me off out there.” “It was a really stupid course.” “There must be a smell in the air today.” “He’s still upset that I didn’t take him to the park this week.” It couldn’t be a training or handling problem.
That’s not to say that there aren’t a few handlers who come off the course smiling broadly after a particularly disastrous run. Those are the handlers who learn when things don’t go as planned. They are also the handlers I tend to enjoy watching because their dogs never seem to do anything wrong. They have happy and enthusiastic dogs. Oh, they take plenty of off-courses and miss signals. It’s just that the handlers seem able to make mental notes without the need to reprimand or scold the dog.
Fortunately, I’m seeing more of those happy handlers these days than I did 10 years ago. The change is coming slow but it’s coming. I’m hoping that those of us who come to run and play and learn are having some influence. We are certainly having success. It seems that those of us using progressive, science based training to work with our dogs as a lifestyle can have both great relationships with our dogs and agility championship titles.
I don’t know how many more trials Tiramisu and I have together. She’s getting up there at 11 and a half years old. But she’s still happy and eager to play and we will run until she tells me she’s had enough. Her excited bark and wide smile are all I need to see at the start of a run to know that we have already succeeded.
Hope you all have a great weekend. I know I will!