Canine Massage Guild

Enjoy the process

How many of us who are now working a second or third dog in a sport we love, can look back fondly on our first dog, thinking how lucky we were that despite our inexperience and lack of knowledge and iffy criteria our dog somehow made it round a course, maybe even progressing through the grades.

And how many of us look at our second dog, who is rather ‘challenging’ and think that we’re lucky this wasn’t our first dog otherwise we’d have quit! And we love them but we wonder when it will all come together. And there are moments of brilliance with stunning clears, but twice as many moments where we wonder whether our dog even noticed we’re in the ring with them. (Yes Finn, I am talking about you!)

What if the difference isn’t our challenging dog, or our dodgy handling? What if the difference is our expectations?

None of us turned up at our first agility lesson with our pet dog dreaming of Grade 7 and crufts. Instead we turn up with a disobedient bird chasing Spaniel (Yes that’s you Poppy!) and we gaze at them in awe after they first put their feet on a stool, or actually retrieve their toy.

And somewhere along the line we get bitten by the bug. We get a little bit better, our dog actually understands us, we can even string some obstacles together. Eventually someone mentions competing, we enter a competition, and are amazed when our dog mostly stays with us and even does some obstacles. And when the clear rounds come it’s time to celebrate, but they’re never taken for granted.

Fast forward to dog two. Normally a puppy, or a rescue dog with ‘sports potential.’ After all, now we want to be competitive. Our first dog is great, but we know we made mistakes. Maybe they’re not quick enough, or the ‘wrong breed’ or maybe we should have actually trained contacts rather than closing our eyes and hoping.

So puppy starts on a plan. Must be able to tug. Must be fully handler focussed, sometimes spending lots of crate time when not working. Must accomplish certain goals by certain ages. Must be in the ring at 18 months getting experience.

It feels amazing when it all goes well, when young dog starts to weave, or does simple sequences. But there are oh so many times when it feels crap. When puppy bogs off to see his mates, when he stands there and barks in frustration, when he disengages and stops trying altogether. Eventually you make it into the ring and maybe get an early win. That’s it, pup is destined for stardom! Until you spend the next year getting faults or demolishing courses, and watching friends struggle to say anything positive. And somewhere along the line it just isn’t as much fun.

What if it’s not the dog that’s at fault? After all this dog has just as much potential if not more than our perfect dog number one. But what if it’s also not our actual training skills? After all our dog is capable of completing a course well, and again we managed with dog one.

What if it’s that we’re so focussed on our end goal, on getting in the ring, on winning, on progressing up the grades that we forgot to have fun and enjoy the process? We’re so determined to get it right that we over manage, we nag, we get frustrated. And our poor dog either ups and leaves, or sticks around but tells us off or ignores us. We got it wrong plenty with dog one but we just laugh, and catch them again, and work out what we can do differently. Dog two buggers off and it’s the end of the world, our bond must be rubbish, we’ll never be any good. The only difference? Our expectations of an end goal, and how we see failure.

For me, it’s no coincidence that Finn improved dramatically when he stopped being able to compete. Yes the jump height made things easier, but once we had no expectations and no goal, and I was just genuinely happy to be able to run him, gradually we both started enjoying our training sessions, he wants to work, he tells me off if I’m rubbish and we’re both having fun. I’m gutted I can’t take these lessons into competing with him, but at least we’re having a lot of fun now, and funnily enough getting consistent clear rounds at any size. And one day a future dog will benefit greatly from all the mistakes I’ve made with Finn. 

I’m not saying ditch your goals. On the contrary it’s amazing to have goals and dreams. But I am saying ditch your expectations. Dogs two and onwards won’t be amazing just because another dog you had was. They’re all different, you have had different experiences, work with the dog in front of you. If you have a goal, break it down in to steps. Know how you will achieve it, know how to adapt it, and how to proof all the steps so that you and your dog can be the best. But don’t stop having fun with it, because if we aren’t enjoying the process, what the hell is the point in having a goal?!