The first time I was entered in the Gaines with Honeybear (The 1993 Gaines Cycle Central Regional Dog Obedience Championship in San Antonio) my wife Barbara looked around and said, "If all these people are having so much fun, why do they all look so stressed?"
I've often thought that what goes on outside the ring -- in private moments of agony (and there's plenty of that) or ecstasy, alone with our thoughts and our dogs -- may be more important than what goes on inside the ring. After all, once we enter the ring what we are allowed to do is pretty well constrained by the regs and the judge. What's more, by the time we're accomplished enough to qualify for a berth in a big national tournament what we do in the ring may well be executed largely by rote -- and thank God for that. But what's going on in our heads and in our world outside that ring, well . . .
Which brings us to the recent AKC National Obedience Championship (NOA) and Jeremy Schuster and Mack. Why am I sharing what follows? Because I think it gives us rare insight into the emotional gauntlet competitors may be running privately while everyone else is focused on the splendid show that's unfolding inside the ring.
Jeremy is a lawyer in Long Beach, California. He shows Rottweilers in competition obedience. I've known Jeremy and Mack for a number of years, but not very well. But well enough to know that when they show up at a trial the rest of us had better bring our A game.
Indeed, Mack recently became the first Rottweiler in the United states to attain the level of Obedience Grand Master.
At the close of the second day of the 2013 NOA Jeremy posted on his Facebook page some thoughts on his experiences at this year's tournament. Many who read them were impressed that an NOA competitor had the self assurance, the ego strength, that Jeremy displayed when he opened up and shared the inner turmoil he had experienced outside the ring that day. I'm reproducing those thoughts below.
First though, I'll clarify a puzzling comment he made in the first paragraph of his introspection: "We started off the National Obedience competition poorly with me in a panic because I was told we might not be permitted to compete . . ." I, like others who read that comment, said, "Huh?" So I asked him to please drop the other shoe. And he did.
Entering their very first ring on the first day of the event, Jeremy and Mack were blindsided by a boondoggle all of us have experienced. Jeremy read the placards outside the ring and noted that he and Mack were fourth in. Except that, contrary to custom, multiple absentees preceding them were not shown. Soon the PA system summoned Jeremy to the ring where he was told he had missed his turn and might not be allowed to compete.
"Thinking of all that had gone into preparing for and getting to the event (Long Beach to Tulsa), my heart sank," he told me. Just as he was blaming himself and wondering how to handle this sudden mess, he was told, "Go in now!"
"Right now?" he asked
Jeremy continued, "So I ran into the ring with Mack, who had not been prepped and was likely startled, and we were rushed right into the first exercise -- the drop on recall which was toward the bleachers and alongside a pedestrian aisleway with everyone heading toward their rings."
The dog didn't focus, missed the drop signal and Jeremy and Mack began their fifth Invitational together with a big fat NQ.
Now let's return to Jeremy's unique stream-of-consciousness report following the second day of the tournament.
I've learned so much about training and my dog. We started off the NOA poorly with me in a panic because I was told we might not be permitted to compete -- and likely that stress coming into the ring had a hand in the NQ we received there, who knows, but it was a bad way to start off a two-day competition.
Then we followed with modest performances. Lackluster, really, and I was disappointed because I knew what my dog is capable of and I blamed myself for failing to get him the rest he needed prior to competition. As Mack perked up in the afternoon, I felt a little better, but it was a challenge to be all I could for him after the NQ and a few of his opportunistic tourist finishes. I ended the day mentally and physically exhausted, thankful for a few moments of his brilliance.
Today was better because Mack's attitude and energy seemed to be on the rise -- until after lunch when he "mailed in" two ring performances that I thought meant he was too tired. Mack walked in on two exercises. I was disappointed but not upset, as the dog had achieved most every goal I had set. I figured, "Okay, it's over, he's too old and it was likely pushing it to try this competition." Thoughts like, "I should have known better," and the echoes of everyone saying, "He should have been retired," were in my mind. I know I pushed him to finish off the Obedience Grand Master title, but I was careful about how I did it (one day here, one day there, then a couple half days in a row) and felt as long as he was able I could be selfish and try for that title (he's the first Rottie to earn it).
After the second walk-in, and looking in the judge's eyes (who knew he was better, since he had done a 198 with her during the weekend trial she was judging just two weeks ago), I thought, "This is not my dog." Honestly, I was a bit embarrassed at that point, mostly for myself for competing him. Now I know why people opt to go out while on top.
I decided if we were going to "fail out," it couldn't hurt to at least give Mack a pep talk. We went outside, tried an exercise (drop on recall) and he slogged along. I said, "Oh, don't give me that, YOU"RE A ROTTWEILER, and I KNOW you can do more. " I stopped Mack halfway and pushed into him. He looked up, quizzically, as if to say, "Huh?" I said, "C'mon, Mack," and I advanced toward him again, tapping his chest with my knee. I said, "If you're too old, fine, but if not, then show me what you've got." He stepped forward. I pushed him back. He growled and took a step forward, and I pushed him back a half step. "You want to play or go home?" A somewhat muted "woof."
"What was that?" I said as I pushed with my hands and quickly stepped back.
"I can't hear you!" I said, and I tapped his chest and lifted him slightly.
"WOOF!" Mack said, hopping up and down like he does in his "food dance."
"That's my dog!" I said. "So stay or go home? "
"WOOF! WOOF! And happy feet.
I didn't know if it would last once we went inside, but it was as if the switch flipped. I could see it in his eyes and movement. Suddenly the dog that had been mailing in everything for as long as I had been letting him (months, really) looked at me as if to say, "OK, if you really want to show them something, then let's do it."
We went into the next ring where we had to do signals (a crazy-ass heeling pattern; thank you Judge Curtis.) a glove retrieve and a drop on recall. Total deductions: two points. Right into the next ring with another drop, a retrieve over the high jump (Mack's nemesis) and a broad jump. Total deductions: 2.5 points, with the judge making a point of telling me he hit me for two points because of my signal. So a near perfect performance from Mack in his eighth ring.
I shouldn't have let him "mail it in" the past few months. I let him do his own thing and he completely coasted, falling off in performance to the point where I was ashamed I brought him out when all I had to do was remind him with some physical play to "get back in the game" and that we were really "together," as that was what he needed to see. No pops, no jerking, no old school hang-the-dog. This dog works with heart and soul and just needed hands-on to get him rev'd and to feel it mattered. Now I'm embarrassed that I didn't recognize what was going on sooner, but I was caught up in everyone else's opinion of whether or not the dog should be competing. But that's another lesson learned, and the methodology for dealing with this older dog will be one more tool in the proverbial training toolbox.
Abraham Maslow said words to this effect: "If the only tool you have is a hammer, all your problems look like nails." I've learned so much and recognize that I learned more today -- and hopefully will be a better trainer as a result. I know I couldn't be more proud of my dog working with me and sometimes challenging me to find the right path, rather than going by rote or laying it all out for me.
Sorry Mack, it just took me some time to figure it out. You're the greatest, not to mention likely the first Rottweiler or Working Group dog to compete in five consecutive events like this and earn first in the Working Group three times. I hope you enjoy the mac n cheese and chicken n gravy tonight. :)
John Cox posted this comment: "What a fantastic lesson for all of us to remember. Keeping an open mind and perseverance are key elements in learning. These dogs are our buddies and we need to believe in them and teach them to believe in themselves and us."
And Deb Girvin said: "This story is worthy of some ink on real paper, for a re-read frequently."
Well, here it is.