You know how on Mondays after a trial weekend, your Facebook feed is filled with smiling(/smug) photos of dogs with ribbons?

Well, this time I have no such photo. And I stayed off Facebook entirely on Monday. Why?

I had a crappy dog show weekend.

Yes, it happens to everyone. Darkness defines the light. The only true failure is when you stop trying. Michael Jordan lost eleventy billion games, etc. <insert favorite motivational quote here> Blah blah blah.

Failure sucks. I really don’t like it at all.

Yes, it’s part of life. Yes, it’s important to learn from failure. Fall seven times, get up eight. (See, I know lots of motivational quotes about failure. I spend a lot of time on Pinterest.)

But sometimes, I think it’s ok to lay on the ground awhile between falls 5 and 6, and maybe wallow a bit before getting up. In dog show terms, that means putting your dog in her crate and going to cry in your car. Consider taking up other less emotionally and financially expensive hobbies. Maybe knitting… that seems very trendy these days. I could learn to make all of Harper’s clothes myself. We could get an alpaca or two, and I could learn to spin…

I’d really prefer to pretend last weekend didn’t happen. But I’ve been reading Brene Brown’s The Gifts of Imperfection, and so those lessons are fresh in my head. (I’m still not entirely sold on the “gift” aspect… as usual, I’d really rather have a pony.) And she brings up the value in being open and honest, and yes vulnerable, even knowing you may be judged. It’s a good book. I highly recommend it.

So as a service to myself, and hopefully others who may be comparing themselves to my social media highlight reel, I decided to share my story.

Warts and all…

In my defense, I want to preface by saying, I went into the weekend after being up 2 nights with a colicky horse (who is now fine, fortunately). So I started out anxious and exhausted… always a good recipe for mental clarity under stress, right? Ha!

The trial was in a large livestock arena. We’d never been to these particular fairgrounds before, but historically my dog has done pretty well in such spaces. They tend to be more open and less crowded, and give me opportunity to adjust distances and keep her safe. For whatever reason, she did not feel good about this particular arena. I don’t know if there were weird echos, or something about the layout or the presence of the bleachers. My mental state and the disruption in our routine were likely factors as well. But all together, she was decidedly stressed by this environment.

Intially, she wouldn’t take food. But I had gotten there plenty early as part of my plan, so she would have time to walk around outside where she could see, hear, and smell everything from a safe distance. We followed my plan to gradually work our way into the building, used her snuffle mat, found an out of the way spot for her to hang out and watch, played her relaxation games. I sprayed Adaptil on everything, including myself, like a boy with a new bottle of Axe body spray. She was able to start eating food and doing some favorite tricks. We worked our way in and out, with lots of breaks and chill time in the car. I got her to play with me both with and without a toy. Seemed like things were progressing nicely.

First run went ok. We missed the weaves (not a big surprise, some legit training homework to do there), but otherwise felt like I had a dog.  Second run, I repeated our routine, but the wheels started coming off. She disconnected at the start line, but then came back. GOT the weaves this time (yay!), nailed the teeter (double yay!), but was definitely much more in and out with her focus, resulting in delayed responses to my cues, wider turns, slower performance in general, and an extra A-frame. The off course didn’t bother me, but the overt stress signs did. A lot.

Should we call it, pull her from her other classes and go home? Probably. Did I? Nope! I thought to myself… well, we had that big, weird delay between when we entered the ring and starting the course because the judge was talking to the rep about something or other… so surely that won’t happen again. And she did settle in and start running better once we got moving (see, if I’m an expert in anything, it’s rationalization). So we’ll go ahead and do jumpers. It’s fast and fun, and maybe it will be ok… (You fool.)

Next day, third run of the weekend… We did our routine as before. This is day 2, she should feel more comfortable, right? Wrong. Again, started out not able to eat but worked up to taking food, doing tricks, and playing with me in different spots around the arena. I decided this counted as a good sign, and used that to validate my decision to run the course. (FOOL!) We did our waiting routine, I pulled out the tug toy to warm her up just before our turn… and she wouldn’t play with me. In fact, she TURNED HER HEAD AWAY.

You know that moment in the horror movie when the character hears a noise coming from the basement? Well, taking a dog who won’t play with me into a competition ring is basically the dog show equivalent of opening the basement door and going down the stairs to investigate. Alone. In a bathrobe. It’s NEVER a good idea. Ever. I actually know this from experience, because I’ve tried it before. And because I’m a scientist, I have to repeat it several times to verify my results. But you, dear reader, do not need to experience this horror first hand. You can learn from my mistakes. And I really hope you will. Please don’t let my public embarrassment and shame go in vain.

So yeah, it wasn’t good. Total disconnection. At no point was she actually with me. She didn’t leave the ring or anything. She even took a few jumps. I briefly attempted to salvage things and get a successful sequence, but it was as futile as talking to my husband during a football game. I quickly realized the best thing to do at this point was to bail and get the heck out of there, like I should have done 5 minutes earlier (if not before). The first step to getting out of the hole is to STOP DIGGING.

So I calmly leashed my dog, walked her to her crate. And then cried in my car.

A few thoughts that I had during that time:

  • I hate agility. Agility sucks.
  • I’m a terrible trainer. I suck.
  • This dog doesn’t have the temperament to do sports. Why can’t I just have a normal dog? (you see how deep in the pity swamp we are sinking at this point?)
  • Blue laws are stupid. It’s ridiculous that I can’t buy gas station wine at 11am on a Sunday morning. This state sucks.

There were others in this same pathetic theme, but I think you get the drift.

Now with a good night’s sleep and a few days of perspective, I do feel a lot better and I have decided not to give up dog training after all (this time). I maybe don’t hate agility, and building reinforcement history and fluency for those behaviors will only help our performance, and I’ll likely enjoy the process. Because I do, after all, love dog training (probably). I have decided to keep my dog, because I do love her (ok, not keeping her wasn’t really on the table, but you know how those dark whispering voices are when you are in the depths of despair). While we did a lot of things to prepare for this event, there is still more we can do to improve her emotional state. And the more I practice reading her thresholds and building her confidence, the more our relationship will benefit anyway, even if we did never enter another trial again. So, back to the training plan we go!

I still feel the same way about blue laws. Lame.