Fot. Reni Janicka Rene Studio
Today I've read a story about someone I don't know and I don't even know the name of, who lost yet another young dog in suspicious circumstances, in a sense people know that this person has not been satisfied with that dog as an agility prospect and some time later, that dog is gone. Gone as in put to sleep, not gone as in rehomed. I guess all of us have heard rumours of that kind about this or that succesful agility competitor / trainer etc. - they they "went through" many dogs before they actually found the one that was good enough. Now, I know from experience that rumours can be vicious and they can also be totally untrue and I am fortunate enough not to know personally any person who actually did that - so, without finger pointing, because it's not about that.
I've been thinking for a while about how much pressure and expectations we're placing on our dogs. A student of mine recently wrote a blog post about internet pressure to be perfect, which basically causes people to hide their problems or lie about them. We are creating a virtual version of ourselves and our dogs, hiding behind a couple of minutes videos with last radio hit for soundtrack, picking out carefully the good moments to present to the world. Our dogs need to be perfect, we need to be perfect, as there are evil tongues just waiting to babble about how horrible our new puppy is (totally freaking out / aggressive / lacking drive / unfocused), how horrible we are to our dogs, how we ruin our dogs health by doing things too early or how we fail to train them the right things at the right time or how we overtrain or... That's one side of this story and it might somehow contribute to this phenomenon of dogs changing homes or worse, dogs being put to sleep, just because they didn't rise to expectations as performance tools.
But hear me out. The thing is, the succesful dogs might give you those 5-minutes of fame in our small and not so important agility (or other canine performance sports) world. I can tell you firsthand that even the biggest success is overshadowed and forgotten sooner or later.
It is not that which defines you. It is not that that teaches you the most.
It is those difficult dogs, it is you not rising to the occasion, it is you failing your dog that teaches you the most if your eyes and mind are open wide enough to see and accept that.
People who remember me running with Vigo can attest to the fact how badly trained he was, that he was not ready for competing when I actually started competing with him, that sometimes I looked as if I might kill him, that it took us YEARS and four dozens of crappy runs before we managed to progress from A2 to A3 and that was only because back then you could progress from A1 to A2 with runs with one fault and also, I swear, because the judge had a leg injury, so couldn't put a dogwalk in a course, hence we didn't get that dammed jumped dogwalk contact fault, the other time it was raining cats and dogs and the judge actually didn't see the jumped contact and that last one was just pure luck with our luck-or-no-luck flying running contacts :D.
Vigo is the dog that I failed to train to reach his full potential. It is a fact, but I'm not really hard on myself about that, because well, he was not an easy dog, I had much less knowledge that I have now (but I only have it because of him), there was really noone who could help me with his kind of problems back then. I did what I could and what I knew.
And yet, I cried because of him, I was mad at him more times that I could count, I was so helpless I did things I wouldn't do today (fortunately that was nothing so bad that would damage our relationship forever... but nothing to be proud of either).
Our success story is not about making an agility champion out of unlikely prospect. Maybe because it was more because of my shortcomings than his, so they were more difficult to overcome. Some things you can never never undo - I failed to train properly from the beginning so he was never reliable, running with him was pretty stresful for me for a long time, since I never knew what I could expect. Oh yes, we did our share of succeses eventually, but truth is, he could have been much better and could have achieved more if he had more experienced and better trainer. But he doesn't give a crap about that, so that's not important either (although we could have both been happier if that wasn't for my expectations and wanting him to be a succesful agility dog - and that matters...).
But we do have our own bigger success story nevertheless. That I love him goes without saying, but I also like him and he likes me, and more importantly even, he trusts me. After all those years we have lots of things we enjoy together. Cuddles. Tricks. Long walks. He is able to relax now. He is not nearly as reactive as he used to be. He is the easiest dog during the walks you can imagine. We have good life together now. We've come a long way. Because of that, we have special bond that words can't really express, bond that you can only have with an old dog, as much as lovable and special all my youngs dogs are.
So what I would like to tell people who get rid of their dogs because those dogs are not good enough... I think they deprive themselves of something really beautiful and really powerful. They damage a part of their soul beyond repair. And the only thing I wish for them is that one day they realise that and become heartbroken over what they have done to those dogs and to themselves.
What I would like to tell everybody else, who has dogs as friends first and as agility/ sport / performance dogs second: cherish every moment. Love your dogs, especially the old ones, who have been at your side in good and bad, who taught you a great deal and yet the lesson is not over. Admit your failures - painful as it is, they are the stepping stone to anything you might be able to achieve later. Oh, and did I say it already? Love your dogs.
Fot. Natalia Matłosz