Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Success, failure and expectations of fun

I do obedience and agility with my dogs.

I have friends who do obedience but not agility.

I have friends who do agility but not obedience.

I have friends who do both obedience and agility.

We all find the games we play with our dogs highly rewarding for a variety of reasons - sharing a relationship with another species, the physical and mental challenges of training and competing, the delight in problem solving, overcoming obstacles, the sense of achievement, the simple joy of spending time with an animal we love. The list can go on and on. Winning ribbons and prizes might be on that list but I’d guess the childish fascination with ribbons and trophies has passed for most of the folks I show with.

It’s not about the ribbons but frequently it IS about what they represent - a level of achievement. Whether or not we are able to achieve our perception of success often impacts our perception of fun. Repeated failure is generally not considered fun.

Exhibitors in any venue whose dogs fail repeatedly usually take one of two routes: they change something in their training so they can succeed or they leave the sport. It’s human nature to want to feel successful at anything we do. Even though you may not care about winning the NOI or being on the agility world team, most people have a minimum level of expectation for themselves and their dogs.

Either of the above choices is totally acceptable. No matter how much you love your dog, it’s not written anywhere that you have to love agility or that you have to love obedience (or tracking, nosework, herding, earthdog, freestyle, protection or anything else) because others proclaim these activities to be “fun.” You will naturally gravitate to the sport(s) you genuinely love and once you’re there, you’ll be willing to work through whatever training issues might stand between you and your goals because you DO find most aspects of that sport fun and rewarding.

Most of us would agree we have chosen to participate in our selected dog sports because they are fun. They appeal to us on a level we find hard to explain to “non-dog” people. Having said that, “fun” is highly subjective.

The Farmer is convinced that getting up before dawn to drive two hours, dragging crates and chairs through the snow into a semi-heated horse arena in March and sitting around in that arena for the next 7 hours, during which time you get to “play” for less than 2 minutes is not what a normal person would consider “fun.” He is quite sure he is normal. He is quite sure I am not.

So, “fun” is largely in the eye of the beholder. It’s probably safe to say none of us would do ANY sport if we didn’t think it was fun.

Right now, Phoenix and I are a bit of a mess when it comes to obedience. Although we’ve had occasional moments of brilliance, showing him in obedience this year has not been a lot of fun. So we’re taking (another) temporary break from showing.

But training him is a riot! Our ring issues have reflected training issues and as I’ve accepted a few inconvenient truths and looked for ways to change our training, that training has become more and more rewarding. I hope eventually it will pay off in the ring, where it will allow us to have genuine fun together.

I’ve thought obedience was fun since I showed my Novice A dog when I was 9 years old. If I didn’t find it fun, I would have abandoned Phoenix’s obedience career a long time ago and pursued other activities with him. I can’t explain why I think I love obedience any more than I can explain why I love strawberries and hate plums.

While I wish I could have avoided the issues that have caused our ring time not to be fun, I know this whole experience with Phoenix is invaluable. The last couple of years with this dog have been part of a priceless (and ongoing) journey.

Obviously, this business of having fun is a very complicated thing. Finding a balance between dreams, goals, reality and the whims of the obedience and agility fates is vital to finding the true fun in your chosen sport. The “we’re having fun no matter what” attitude is a nice way to recognize there’s more to life with dogs than getting titles but sometimes it’s a false pretense that does more harm than good. I see people come out of the ring disappointed, frustrated and angry. They are obviously not having fun “no matter what.”

It’s okay to make mistakes and hit rough spots and be disappointed and admit you’re not having fun. It helps us grow as trainers and in our relationships with our dogs. It’s part of life. The fun is out there, sometimes you just have to look a little harder for it.


  1. I used to show horses and learned the best way to ensure a good day every time at a show was to pack my every favorite thing for lunch!

  2. I think agility is fun. Am I good at it, probably not. Lets face it, 3 years in Open standard to get 3 freaking Q's , probably means you are struggling. I only have one Q in ex jww A in over 50 tries. Why do I keep going back for more?? I have no clue. LOL I think its because I like training my dog. I like going to the field and not thinking about anything else excpet what Im working on with my dog. Its a vacation for my brain from life. Do I ever feel like quitting, of course. But the next day, Im again trying to figure out how to fix the problem. I keep thinking one day we will get it and things will start coming together. Until then, I just keep working on things.

  3. I never found showing a dressage horse in tails and boots "fun" but I sure found bringing along horses and teaching them the very basics of the sport incredibly rewarding and "fun". Taking a journey with Louie has taught me so much more than I could ever say - both through life and dealing with our health issues and also learning Utility. I am so fortunate to have had, and continue to have, such journeys with my wonderful and generous partners!

  4. So well said. I feel the same way about conformation. And since I've been out of the ring for awhile, I'm itching to get back in. This post just said it so well! :)

  5. Excellent post. I am new to this whole obedience show thing and I admit to days wondering why I am dragging my "I hate mornings" @ss out of bed but yet I seem to be hooked.

  6. Fantastic post. And my husband has the same thoughts as the farmer!

  7. Coming in to the discussion a little late but AMEN to the entire post! It's exactly where I'm at right now in obedience (not so in agility and while I enjoy the training aspect it is my dog that enjoys showing. Maybe it is because I don't put as much pressure on our performance and it seems to come so easy for him).