Defining Success and Failure, and how they sometimes end up being the same thing

As usual the Dog Agility Blog Action Day topic has given me an opportunity to talk about something in a way I might not have planned. The subject this time is “Success”, a sometimes nebulous concept to try and define, especially in the moment after you stumble out of the ring.

It just so happens that last weekend was the Nova Scotia/Newfoundland AAC Regionals. I entered Mu and Raafi and coincidentally they actually finished with scores very near one another. Neither got a qualifying score for Nationals and finished with only 20 points in difference between them, and yet I consider Raafi’s weekend a resounding success and Mu’s weekend a bit of a failure that will hopefully lead to success later. And, as it always seems with such things, the final conclusion has less to do with objective markers for performance and more to do with managing my expectations.

Raafael’s Regionals Performance

So, let’s start with Raafael’s weekend, especially since I haven’t really updated here with his progress since he started trialling in April. Before Regionals he had done a grand total of three days of trialling, and in that time I have gotten eliminated from more rounds than I have in the two and a half years I’ve run Mu.

See, Raafi doesn’t like being wrong. In fact he actually shuts down and stresses if he gets even a hint that he wasn’t perfect in a trial environment. At fun matches he has reacted to that stress in some classic displacement behaviours—zoomies or sniffing, depending on how much energy he had going in. But those behaviours didn’t show up particularly often (or for more than a few seconds), so I didn’t fret about it too much, considering it normal growing pains for a somewhat neurotic young dog. Going into his first trial I accepted that he might just ignore me and lap the ring (which is what Mu did, and it was actually hilarious). I accepted that he might go off sniffing. I accepted that he might just run out of the ring to go hang out with his buddies since he loves people so much.

What I didn’t see coming was him zooming, then sniffing, then peeing on the tyre jump.

We were eliminated from two out of three classes our first day of trialling. If he missed a tunnel and I called him back, no matter how happy my tone, he would stress, run off, sniff, pee and then come right back ready to try again. Unfortunately you get kicked out of the ring for that stuff. At least his jumpers went ok (left me briefly but then came right back). More than a little mortified, I spend the next two weeks working on recall games, connection games, and anything I could think of that could give him a little more handler focus on course and help us keep our connection.

Going into our next trial I adopted an “everything is correct” strategy. Basically, if he ran past something I would just keep going. Also, I would run in to interrupt him before he had the chance to pee on anything so he couldn’t continue to practise the behaviour. All the while I tried to be cheerful and happy and nice. As you can see below it did result in no peeing, but at the expense of any level of accuracy. It’s a bit of a hot mess, but I called it a success as Raafi absolutely looked happier, and we didn’t get eliminated for eliminating. Heck, we even managed to eke out our first Q in gamblers.

Next trial was at a site he had trained in a bit and had hung out at least a dozen times while Mu trialled there last year. I was hopeful that he would feel more relaxed and I could start reining in the zoomies. And then he peed in the first round. And then he basically fled the ring when he did an unplanned dogwalk in gamblers (without me even saying oops or indicating in any way that it was unplanned). Jumpers he settled a bit and finished with 10 faults but a lot more focused and relaxed.

Basically, three trials in I wasn’t feeling particularly good about how things were going or what to do about them. Due to money constraints I had only been doing one day of trialling at a time, and I always finished the trial thinking, “Man, if I could just come back tomorrow after he’d settled a bit, maybe he could start feeling more comfortable in a competition environment.”

I’d entered Raafi in Regionals already as the entries were due very early and I hadn’t even trialled him yet. That may seem like a crazy thing to do but I knew that a) he could handle more technical courses, b) handling him on technical courses was actually EASIER and would be easier to keep him from getting the zoomies and c) this would be one of the few chances I had this year to trial him two days in a row, and I really wanted to see if that made a difference.

I went to Regionals with some pretty basic goals:

  1. Don’t let him pee in the ring
  2. Give him some ring miles
  3. See if he’s happier running more technical courses

The first two classes (standard and gamblers) went pretty much like everything else he had run to that point, but I managed to keep him from peeing on anything and he got better as the rounds progressed. Going into jumpers I decided to take a chance. At home if he ignores me and I feel like he’s doing it because he would rather just sniff a hole in the dirt I would occasionally use what I call my “Stop Fucking Around” voice. It’s not a nice voice, and it’s not a sound I like to make very often. But he was practicing a lot of bad habits, and I figured if it freaked him out I had the whole next day to work through it. I wasn’t trying to qualify for Nationals with him so now was as good of a time to try it as any.

As you can see it worked. In fact he responded exactly the same as he does at home. Basically, I was treating my dog like a delicate flower and he responded like a delicate flower. But when I treated him like a dog who actually knows his stuff and won’t crumble if I give him a firmer command, he responded just how I expected.

After that he got better and better. Slightly rough start to the standard the next day but got the turn off the dogwalk, hit a hard weave entry, no off courses, and no sniffing. Got over 30 points in gamblers with one very brief moment of distraction. Missed the contact on the dogwalk in the main, but his turns aren’t fully training and in no way had I proofed them from that position—him not getting that was expected and a pretty easy thing to work through. And then the little overachiever decided to go clean in his last jumpers. It was the best part of the weekend and I had a big stupid grin on my face for some time afterward. He finished up with 323 points, just 27 shy of getting a qualifying score for Nationals. Considering how little experience he has, and the fact that it wasn’t even remotely a goal I was going for with him, I was floored.

We have another trial next weekend and it’s also one where we’ll get to go for two days. I’m not naïve enough to think that his distraction and stress issues are “solved”, but now I have  a pretty good idea on how to deal with them, and I feel like I am zeroing in on the handling that Raafi needs to be successful. Yes, there’s that key word—success—and I can say that for Regionals Raafi and I experience quite a bit of it.


Mufaasa’s Regionals Performance

And then there was Mu.

This was Mu’s second Regionals. He’s been trialling for a few of years now, and I went in feeling like getting a Qualifying score for Nationals was a distinct possibility. Even though I didn’t think I would have the money to go to Nationals I still felt like it was something we could pull off.

However, during the winter Mu and I hit a weird funk. I didn’t feel like we were clicking. Accuracy has never been Mu’s strong point but I felt as though we were actually getting worse at things. He was very haphazard about hitting the dogwalk. He had good days and atrocious days for knocking bars. He would swing away in a random direction after taking an obstacle and careful review of our training videos revealed nothing in my handling that could explain why, nor could my trainer give a good explanation. I would send him to a tunnel and he would look at me like he’d never heard the word in his life. Some days he would hit the most impossible weave entry ever, two days later he’d botch every entry and pop out several times (but each time at a different pole).

In short I felt like something in our partnership was broken, and I had no idea how to fix it.

I didn’t feel great going into our first trial and our runs were about what I expected. Lots of weirdness, and generally no round that made me feel particularly good. Second trial back and things went better. No Qs but I felt like we were getting back into it and he offered a bit more consistency. Third trial back was awesome. A near Q in standard due to a small bobble on the table (that another judge probably wouldn’t have called), a jumpers Q, and a decent gamblers round.

I went to Regionals feeling like we could continue on that trend, thus my goals were a bit more particular:

  1. Aim for a qualifying score
  2. Get those weave entries
  3. Attack the courses like you mean business

Spoiler alert, it didn’t quite work out that way:

There were two runs I didn’t add to the video because they were basically train wrecks (first gamblers and second standard). Aside from that nothing else was what I would call awful, but not great either. There were some really nice bits. That first set of weaves was great—he had decent footwork and a nice entry. The off course in that standard and the jumpers later was my fault (though you could argue the one in jumpers since you can actually see him turn his head, see me running away and yelling his directional, and then continuing straight ahead). Even missing the main gamble the next day I totally take on my shoulders. But after that first weave entry he didn’t give me another one for the rest of the weekend (I had given up by the time we hit the last gamblers). He was swinging away from me on jumps he shouldn’t have, missed the dogwalk EVERY TIME the first day, and I think his bar total for the weekend is the worst it’s been in a year.

Mu finished the weekend with 300.8 points, which is actually  an improvement of only 20 points over his score last year (where things went a LOT worse), and not a single clean run. He actually did worse than Raafi. By and large it’s hard for me to look at that weekend and see a lot of success there.

So how do you define success?

So, here I have two dogs who scored only 23 points apart, and two very different feelings about their performance coming off the weekend. So how do I react? How do I move forward?

In Raafi’s case I caution myself to not accept his success as the new norm. It will inform how I move forward but he is a baby dog and I am still learning to read him, to judge his commitment, and to finesse his obstacle performances. However, I am happy thinking about how well he did and that this might be the start of him viewing agility trials as a fun thing, not a stressful one.

The harder answer is how to react to Mufaasa’s performance. I’ve reached a weird conclusion, one that some might disagree with but I think it might be the only way to continue trying to run Mu without losing my mind (or giving up entirely).

Mu is not an accurate dog. It is not in his nature to be accurate, and it is a daily challenge to work around it. While out on trail and at parks he has taken more than a few people out on the knees because he can’t be bothered to watch where he’s going. When chasing a ball in class instead of stopping before he hits the wall he just lets himself slam into it. He jumps so close to the bars and turns so close to the standards that things go wrong very easily. He doesn’t have any inherent value in working, his enthusiasm is the result of a lot of work pairing agility with other things he likes. He absolutely looks like he’s having fun, but I know that he would have as much (or more) chasing a ball, or playing disc, or any other activity I think up. He loves to hang out and play.

Training for accuracy is almost impossible (note the use of the word “almost”). If Mu does something right but it’s a bit sloppy and I go back to try it again to “clean it up”, there’s a significant chance that he will perform completely differently, and it will take a lot of failed attempts to even get back to that original successful try. It seems like if I ask for the same thing again Mu assumes I must want to do something different so he offers something else (see my attempt to do the mini gamble twice in a row in the above video). It makes shaping really easy. It makes finish behaviours off really hard.

If accuracy is not his thing, and I remind myself that I am a handler that loathes babysitting runs (which in Mu’s case might not work anyway), then his success is more about me managing what I expect from him than going for Qs.

I’ve decided that for now Mu is Practice Dog. He doesn’t give two shits if he Qs or not, he cares if he gets his hot dogs or a ball afterward. He cares if he’s getting to hang out with me. I care if he’s happy (which he seems to be), if he’s exercising safely, and if he comes home content. And even if we don’t Q, every second in the ring with him means more trial miles for me, which is a valuable resource that there’s only one way to get.

I’m not going to give up on him, but I’ve decided to throw out any time frame for him to get better. Mu is unpredictable, so basing my success on predictions is actually insane, and just going to lead to a lot of disappointment (which he will inevitably pick up on). If I can move forward with him and still have fun playing at agility, and if that weekend at Regionals is what I needed to finally accept that conclusion, then it was actually a success after all.


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