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Sunday, December 4, 2011

Best Lessons I Ever Learned Came from Canine Sports

I wrote this post almost 2 years ago right after @MousetheDog earned his 22nd and 23rd titles, but I never found the right time to post it.  I truly feel that some of the more valuable lessons I've learned came from dog showing.  @MousetheDog was my first dog, and he was a spectacular and exceptionally well-tempered and forgiving creature.  I'm so lucky that he tolerated all my mistakes. 

Now that he's nearing the end of his competitive career, I'm starting this process over again with another teammate.  The goal of this post isn't to encourage others to start showing their dogs, but to remind myself of all the lessons I've learned over the last decade.  I'm going to use these lessons as I start off with my new partner in canine (I love puns), @VestaTheDog@MousetheDog's new job will be to teach her all that he knows, and Basil's new job will be to keep our new little tyke in line. 

The Roman Reign Posse, in a shark.  

I love my dogs.  It doesn't take long for someone to realize that I'm borderline-dog-show person.  The only way I get to stay on the sane side is by being equally immersed in other activities.  This blog post isn't entirely about dogs, it is most much about what I've learned through showing dogs.  I've showed, trained, handled, and judged (not in all activities) dogs in conformation, weight pull, drafting, rally, herding, water rescue, packing, and obedience.  Needless to say, I was exposed to many different breeds and many different types of dog owners.  And the politics in the dog world is tremendous.  The movie, Best in Show was a severe understatement of what really goes on at dog shows.  Dog show politics makes any other type of politics (including governmental) look like a walk in the park on a sunny day when the birds are chirping.   I heard that horse show politics are worse, but I'll avoid that for the time being.

Showing dogs has made me a more patient and understanding person.  Showing dogs can be the ultimate test of persistence, and it can frustrate you to no end.  After all, the essence of handling a dog in the show ring is that you and the dog have to work together like a team.  That's right.  That animal that would rather hump your leg is supposed to do what you ask.  Furthermore, that dog doesn't speak English.  I tend to laugh when people complain about their students or their employees.  At least human students and employees speak English (or another spoken language) and can be reasoned with in some logical fashion.  A dog cannot.  A dog does not care to learn your way of communication nor does the dog really care about what you want. 

"Mom, I don't speak English. I speak dog."

Motivating the unmotivated: Mouse wakes up in the morning with a few things on his mind: I want to pee, I want to poop, I want to eat cat poop, and I want to find something to gnaw.  While he didn't tell me that himself, I'm just going to guess that is what's on his mind.  Dogs are not motivated to do what humans want them to do in general, and it certainly is true for some activities like competitive obedience.  Some of the exercises in competitive obedience are pretty unnatural for a dog in the wild (ex. sitting perfectly still for one minute, heeling with precision, or retrieving an object with a jump in between).  Teaching a dog that doesn't speak your language to be motivated to perform unnatural exercises in unpredictable environments is a pretty big feat.  To do that requires a great deal of creativity in communication and motivation

One thing that you'll learn in showing dogs is that the handler is wrong 99.99995% of the time.  Let's just round that up to 100% of the time.  I've learned in dog shows that I'm always wrong.  Everything that doesn't go as planned is my fault.  Either I gave the wrong hand signal, or maybe I set up dog up to miss a turn, or maybe I didn't proof my dog for a certain distraction, or I got flustered and made my dog misjudge my commands - it is always my fault.  Being wrong in dog shows all the time makes taking responsibility for being wrong in other realms so much easier.  I'll say it now. I'm human, and like all humans, I'm wrong from time to time.  I try not to be wrong, and I try to fix my wrongs.  But I'm pretty sure I'll mess up here and there. 

There are more microcultures in dog shows than there are in the Center for Disease Control.  I tried to break down all the groups, but that list just got out of control.  There are at least 30 or more microcultures, and learning to navigate all these different microcultures is a challenge.  But however it makes drives home the point that in order to work with all these groups of people with completely different attitudes, one must truly understand them and their motivations.  This becomes even more important when companies try to market to these different groups. Marketing plans are not always generalizable. 

Showing dogs has taught me deal with arbitrary rules and regulations.  Dog show can be rules are pretty silly an useless.  In a particular draft dog test, a dog can fail an entire test for moving their feet during the greet a stranger exercise.  Yes, a dog could simply fail for shuffling their feet.  Seems silly, but rules are rules.  In competitive obedience, the handler is only allowed to give the dog one command.  No where in practical life would you only give a dog a single command, but again, those are the rules.  In dog shows, changing rules and regulations takes years, and by the time a rule has been changed, your dog has passed prime show time.  I typically follow rules I don't agree with, but as is life.

"I like to eat cupcakes." 
There is no one way, and there's no "expert."  All dog are different, and all handlers are different.  I don't believe there's a single one and only way to train a dog as I don't believe there's only one way to market or to use social media.  Also, in dog training, I don't believe in experts.  While there are many people who are extremely knowledgeable and highly experienced that I look to for mentorship, those people are always learning and changing their techniques.  They do not claim to be experts, but they do claim to keep learning.  I hope that I'll keep learning my entire life, and if I ever call myself an expert, someone please kick me. 

Through showing dogs, it is nearly impossible to embarrass me.  Let's just say that my lovely dog, Mouse, was a character, and he had embarrassed me in the ring to no end.  From picking up a a piece of a mop and frolicking about the ring in his cart in front of the entire national club members to jumping a ring to pee on a tree, I'm not embarrassed anymore.  Mouse is a dog, and he does things that dogs do.  Life goes on, no matter how foolish your dog makes you look at a dog show.  

I wasn't dancing. Mouse and the sheep almost tripped me.  That's pretty typical. Photo by Yvonne Schoeber.

I'm accustomed to failure and criticism.  I fail because I try.  I've been asked many times how I manage to do so well in so many areas.  The answer is 1. Because I'm type A and 2. Because before there were many successes, there were many failures@Jason talks about this many times This week in Startup, and I think that it is a common motto for many people who try many ventures.  Failures are a learning experience.  Every failure leads you closer to success.  Criticism can be a hard pill to swallow, but I've found that people who give me constructive criticism do it because they care and want me to succeed.  If I wasn't given ways to improve, I'd stagnate and stay the same.  If you hadn't seen Randy Pausch's Last Lecture on criticism, do so now. 

Support is critical.  Dog people are extremely supportive.  Check out this card my trainer sent me when Mouse earned his companion dog title (below).  My trainers are pretty darn awesome.  In my group of friends in the dog community, we all treat each other like family.  Even with friends across the country, they know that I'm available anytime of the day (literally) if they need me, and they are available anytime I need them.  I remember being woken up one morning at 5 am to a phone call demanding that I evacuate to Virginia due to Hurricane Rita.  If I didn't leave now and drive up to them, them were going to come down to get me.  That's how much they cared, and that's how supportive they were.  Another friend I met through my breed club was so supportive that two days prior to his passing, he emailed to congratulate my dog and I on our recent achievements.  He never let on that his cancer had severely worsened, and even when he was the one in need of support; he thought of me first. 

With that said, showing dogs makes you really reprioritize your life.  For the most part, many of my mentors in the dog show world are older, and when working with an older population, death is inevitable.  I would hazard to guess that I've lost at least 25 friends in the dog show world in the last seven years.  When some of your strongest supporters and wisest mentors pass, it makes you really rethink your life and how you spend your time.  One of my biggest influencers passed away from a heart attack on the day I gave a lecture about finding your mentor.  That was kind of rough, but it makes me care a whole bunch less about little things and more about people. 

Also, dogs are earnest. You can't fool a dog.  They can tell when you are nervous, upset, or tired as they can read body language much better than humans can.  You're better off being honest because your dog will be. 

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