There was much discussion in the last week in the agility world– mostly consisting of how qualifications measured our success in this sport. I don’t plan on discussing that here. There were plenty of intelligent debates and discussions sparked because of the recent qualification changes to the NAC, many of which I wholeheartedly agree with. The most important thing I took from these discussions was one simple thing. That below the surface, under the stress and training and trialing we all do, the number one priority remains the same for all of us– our dogs.
I think that sometimes there is a misconception about those who compete in this sport. That the dogs suffer because of the handler’s desire to succeed. (Mostly those not familiar with the sport in the same way we are). In my experience, that couldn’t be further from the truth. The handlers I most admire, the ones I compete alongside, and myself personally, value our dogs above anything else. We respect their bodies and minds. We usually put their needs before our own. They have chiropractic and massages and supplements and high-end protein-rich food. They are exercised and strengthened and conditioned to the best of our ability. We devour articles on how best to treat injuries– but even more so how to prevent them. We notice every misstep, or change of expression on their face. Maybe to the point of slight obsession.
I’ve experienced burn out with this sport. It waxes and wanes. It usually depends on the season, like a slow-moving moon edging the tide. Something I think most of us have had at some point. Between training, teaching, trialing– oh, and the “real world”– things can get blurred. We forget balance. I think what the NAC discussion stirred was, at the heart of it, a concern for the well-being of our dogs and the desire to not reach burnout. To limit trialing and training a safe amount of time– whatever that unquantifiable number may be. A month and a half after demolishing a jump, Bolt is fine. Truly, fine. He’s happy, stretching, and back to moving and running normally (maybe a little better than before even). But still, I watch him every time he moves just to make sure. My warm-up routine time has doubled. At the time of the jump incident I reminded myself of a quote from that I had saved: “Every experience, no matter how bad it seems, holds within it a blessing of some kind. The goal is to find it.” This is how I seek to live my life. At the time, it seemed as though a big part of me was caving in. I felt guilt like none other.
The new extended warm-up is the blessing I’ve found from that moment. A better appreciation for my dog (which seemed impossible) grew from it. A better understanding of body mechanics, muscles, and appropriate routines. It also has me rethinking my previous training schedules, and show schedules– in the best way possible. It has me prioritizing my dog in ways I hadn’t considered before. Still learning all the time, you know.
My advice? Try to maintain the balance of desired success and what it takes to get there. I know you, like me, value your dog’s wellbeing above all else. This is a wonderful thing. One that would do us well not to forget. Set aside the time to devote to your dogs training. Try to make it happen separately from the lessons you give (if you teach), and try to limit the time you spend there. Plan your session before you head out so you have direction when you get there. Prioritize strength, stretching and massage (for yourself too).
We cannot be perfect, we certainly cannot make our dogs invincible. But I think we’re making incredible progress as a community to a healthier approach to this sport, and our dogs– and that’s the best thing we can do.