Over the weekend I saw a competitor get angry at their agility dog for being too excited and making a mistake during a run. Many people commented about how they agreed that this simply wasn't on and that agility was just for fun. That dogs shouldn't be punished for making mistakes as they don't choose to train or compete at agility.
But here's an interesting question. For those dogs who run slowly looking anxious/ worried/ perhaps slightly sore or those who simply leave the ring when competing in agility - are they not being punished (albeit differently and not intentionally) too? Do they have a choice?
Because it's easy to see when someone is being mean to their dog - they look angry, they shout and intimidate their dog to get them to do what they want. But what if without meaning to, people are running dogs with the best of intentions, but those dogs are equally miserable (or at best disinterested) - perhaps more so - without the handler realising it?
I have personally stopped competing with a dog who didn't seem to love the ring environment. She never left me by running out of the ring, and she completed her runs accurately and competently because she was well-trained and very capable.
But here's the thing. She didn't love it. She did it because I asked her to do it, rather than she wanted to be there.
Now I'll be honest - I didn't persevere with her agility career due to life getting in the way. But I know I've helped people with dogs who had far less ring confidence learn to love their job and have fun competing. And every so often when I have a spare 5 minutes I think next season I might just look to work at that with her :)
But I've also been blessed with other dogs who simply LOVE to compete. And personally, like I imagine most people, I love to run a dog who's every bit as keen to be on the start line as I am. A dog who's demonstrates their eagerness with eyes bright, ears pricked on top of their heads, potentially giving an excited bark or two for good measure ;)
My preference is having my dog in a fit state to queue calmly & quietly without needing an unreasonable amount of space to do so, without needing my constant attention. One that I'm comfortable having my young boys be around whilst we're waiting, like Jade is demonstrating in the picture above.
I then engage them in some simple cues when we're a few dogs away from beginning our run, and we go into the ring together - off lead, as a team ready to do our best at whatever the judge has set.
As a competitor I understand why people want to compete - that buzz when you've just done a great round and it's all gone well is an AMAZING feeling :)
But as an instructor I like to make sure that BOTH parties feel like that before I advise people to enter competition - and to constantly EVALUATE how the dog is feeling about being there. It's why I feel it's so important to think carefully about the puppy or dog we choose when we're considering our next agility partner.
Of course people get nervous and it's difficult for them to always look out for their dog - I get that. Perhaps more than most having been an anxious competitor in my time. But the better prepared our dogs are when we enter them in competition, the better our nerves will be, and the more they'll be able to do the job they've been well-trained to do.
And if it's our nerves that are causing the problems we have in the ring that are making our dogs uncomfortable or unhappy, I think we owe it to them to address that in ourselves. I know just the lady - Dr Kathrine McAleese from Mind To Win is just the person to help you be a better partner for your agility dog :)