a Taj MuttHall Dog Diary: How to Win At The Nationals

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

How to Win At The Nationals

SUMMARY: In which I explain my strategy for not being at the top of the game and whining about it.

My post about not going to the USDAA Nationals the other day drew several off-blog responses.

My parents do their best to follow my agility blather, and, like very good parents, they've come to watch their kid compete a couple of times, but really the hiking and nature posts are more along their lines of interest. But also like good parents or friends who want to understand more, they often ask questions about things that I take for granted but that, in fact, are not obvious to anyone outside the small agility community (or, sometimes, outside my very head).

Here's my dad's queries and comments about my post:
It's too bad that only Elizabeth Taylor could take a horse to the Nationals, and win. Perhaps Hollywood could get Drew Barrymore (or her ilk) to the agility nationals without anyone but her hoping to do well. And win.
It sounds as though you're being rational about the whole thing. But what are the things that you have to do to go, successfully, to the nationals? Love the dogs you have, but acquire champions?
Because you probably can't get winning coaches to take your dogs through the courses and have them do better than with you. And it would be disappointing if they could and did.
"Do thousands of repetitions" sounds like someone who doesn't have to do some wage-earning. Or who earns enough so that they can hire a full time trainer.

And here's my final response:

About "agility nationals": There are different flavors of "agility nationals." USDAA national championships (really, the Cynosports World Championships) is a very different animal from CPE national championships (the other venue in which I compete). At the last CPE National Championships that I attended, Tika won 5 out of 9 classes, Qualified in 8 of 9, earned High-In-Trial in her category, and missed by about one foot of distance in a gamble being in the running for high-in-trial over all. So there are some agility national championships that we are plenty qualified for. However, most of the top competitors in USDAA (and AKC, and the world) don't bother with CPE. So--we're good, but we're not in the top tier over all.

Tika's chances: 4-5 years ago, I'd have said that Tika had a moderate chance of making it to the finals at USDAA Nationals in either Steeplechase or Grand Prix. She wasn't winning anything locally, mostly because of knocking danged bars, but her *speed* was in the range where, if I could avoid making foolish moves on course and she could avoid knocking bars, I could see us being there--assuming that enough of the topmost dogs collectively had problems with those things, giving us room to squeeze in. I would never have said that she had a chance of winning, though; too many very good dogs for them ALL to crap out.

However, every year, the dogs get faster and faster and more accurate and the handling gets better and better. It's been an evolving sport and the increases in performance of people and canines has been amazing to watch. So--Tika is much faster than Jake or Remington were. She can do 12 weave poles in around 3 seconds, which is much faster than either of the boys could do them, and that seemed fast to me. But now--Boost can do them in 2 seconds!

And Tika might be slowing down just a little bit. Maybe not much. But consider that the time separating the top 8 dogs in Boost's height of the Steeplechase finals last year was about 1.5 seconds total; the difference between 1st & 2nd in Tika's height of Grand Prix finals was .02 seconds.

So something like having weave poles that are 1 second slower just about puts us out of the running right away. Could I speed up Tika's weaves? I dunno. Some methods have been suggested, but at her age, it seems unlikely, and her running style is just enough different from those low-to-the-ground border collies that it also seems unlikely. AND, OK, I'm too lazy to want to spend the time to try retraining.

Get a champion dog: Boost is champion-quality, even in today's tough competitive environment, in these terms: Speed (she is physically just incredibly fast; she's built for it). Drive (desire to do it and to do it at the utmost of her body's ability). Agility (she can turn on a dime, she can do any obstacle at optimum speed, that sort of thing.) With the right handler and training, there is no physical or mental reason on her part why she couldn't win at the top levels.

And there's the rub. I've never been the most coordinated person in athletics. Maybe better than the average bear, but not by much. I can think I'm doing one thing, but watching the video shows that I'm doing something completely different. If I were really determined to win, I'd make a concerted effort to videotape all my runs, and probably some specific sequences at home or in class over and over to figure out where I'm going wrong, and work at it, reviewing the videotape, until I got it right.

And, even more, I don't have a good training regimen. I practice what I feel like practicing when I feel like it. The truth is that I want to have a chance at winning without really putting in the work in that's required to do it today.

About those "thousands of repetitions"--the sequence that my instructor suggested would take maybe 15 seconds including a reward. I could do it ten times, three times a day, and it would really hardly be a blip in my schedule. But, like, OK, boring. See? I'm not Olympic champion material, and so my world-class dog performs like a neighborhood-class dog if you just look at the final results. (On any given shorter sequence or single obstacle perforance, she's world-class. 2-second weaves. 2-second dogwalk. Runs full speed across the teeter and slides to the end to slam it to the ground. World-class. There are very few dogs that are much better than that. Just--there are many dogs who are in the *same* class. And, yup, the difference is the handler and the training.)

One example of dog vs training vs handler: Several years ago, there was a world-class Border Collie competing in USDAA. He was in the Top Ten (in the nation) categories. He won events. He was at the top of his game. Then his owner died. A friend kept competing with the dog, since he was still in his prime and eager to go. But basically he became an Ordinary Dog. Oh, they did OK. They earned qualifying scores (meeting the minimum requirements) and thereby eventually earned a championship in one agility organization. And he always looked like he was having a generally good time, so it was a happy ending, really. But the new handler didn't have what the old handler had. So it wasn't the dog, and it wasn't the training (at least, not of the dog).

So, sure, if "the right person" were handling my dogs, maybe they'd be in the Top Ten and winning local Steeplechases left and right. So I've got the right dog(s). I couldn't ask for better than Boost, certainly.

Other handlers: But, no, of course I wouldn't have someone else run my dog! There are a very few cases of people running other people's dogs. Like, when I was injured and couldn't, some friends ran my dogs for me to keep them in practice. Like, there's a local woman who can train her dog in small sequences, but physically cannot do the running required in competition. So she works regularly with a friend who also trains with her dog and runs it in competition for her. But she's there at the start line and at the finish line and she does all the other work with her dog.

But, it would drive me nuts to have someone else run my dog and do better than I could.

Plus--all the best competitors already have plenty of their own dogs to run. MAYBE if I offered to pay someone enough, they'd consent to work my dogs. But why would they do that? To compete with a dog who wasn't their own companion and training partner? I know that it's done in horse racing and in dog conformation shows. Bummer! And I know of one handler who gets paid specificially to run other people's dogs because she can earn Qs with them and their owners can't. But thank goodness dog agility isn't like that for the most part. Agility continues to be about me and my dogs doing things together, bonding, getting to know and love each other.

I wouldn't say that world-class dogs are a dime a dozen, but now they're certainly very available, now that people know what to look for in an agility dog (rather than how most of us--and the sport--started, with whatever dog happened to be hanging around in the back yard looking bored). So the question is--am I a world-class handler? No. And, really, I don't have any right to whine (although I will, regularly), because I know perfectly well that I don't put the time and energy into being a world-class handler.

So how many repetitions of that agility drill could I have done while editing this blog? There ya go.

The world-class dogs stretch out for their morning nontraining session:


  1. Agreed, it really is interesting how fast things have changed.

    My first response was ... well maybe she should consider getting a small dog ... things aren't changing quite as fast there and a "hobby" handler can still win.

    But then I look at Porsche's main competition in USDAA. 2 years ago,
    she probably would have been winning most of her classes. But in the last 2 years, the competition has gotten better (2 new dogs started competing) such that the top dogs in our area are now turning out times that are 3-4 seconds faster than before. And these dogs are consistent.

    So maybe it is changing as much for the small dogs as well. I know I do regular aerobic, balance, and strength training with Porsche ... Reno just got aerobic. And she gets daily messages and regular chiro ... neither of which Reno ever got. And my handling is better and more consistent than it was with Reno ... plus I weigh 20 pounds less. So I seem to be evolving as well.

    Next thought is that maybe they will eventually have amateur and pro classes. But this seems to be happening naturally, with the USDAA becoming the "pro" org, and the others being the amateur ones. At least that is the way it is looking in our area.

    & Porsche

  2. Great post! You said so I don't have to--can I just cut and paste it to my blog?

  3. Debbie--Don't think I haven't noticed how few 12" dogs there are in USDAA! But I can't think of a 12" dog that I'd really want to have. Maybe someday.

    Cedarfield--Sure! And my fee is... (gotta make money somehow, since I'm not winning the national championship in Steeplechase).

  4. thing is definately evolving, although agility is a new sport in my country

    2 years ago...a dog with 2 or 3 faults stand a good chance to win...

    but now everything is about doing it clean....i'm sure another few years down, we will be talking about that sec of difference...

    handling skill wise, there's alot of thing to work, to prevent me getting my dog offcourse..

  5. I think we're going to the USDAA Nationals this year, and we're going on the National Velvet ticket. Liz and The Pie pulled it off so because I live in a big movie in my mind all the time, I might actually think I made it into the finals even though we got whistled out of everything way earlier in the week and my dogs freak out from the sheer spectacle of it all. Having a sort of Non-Orpah-like Life Philosophy of Oh What The Hell may prevent me from becoming a world champion but I can always pretend I'm playing one in the movie version.

  6. I was just talking to a friend who was on the World Team a couple of years ago and was at tryouts this year. She was saying that trying to make the team and being on the team feels almost like a job, it's a lot of work and you have to go to practice no matter how tired you are from your day job or what mood you're in.

    While I don't mind putting in the work I want to do it on my time. If I'm tired or crabby or had a stressful day at work I don't want to feel like I have to go to practice. For me it's a hobby not a job and if it means I don't win at the top levels, well, that's o.k., nobody's paying me to do this.

  7. Good post. The only thing I might have changed would be to stress more that (I think) for most of us, even those at the world-class level, a huge part of the attraction to the sport is the nuanced teamwork that develops over time between you and your dog. Each member of the team must do their job well, but it is the chemistry between you that is the big draw, not the performance of either member alone. In the other examples you gave, I don't think the chemistry of the individual team is as important, so switching out one of the members of the team is not an unreasonable notion.

    The closest thing I can think of to an agility team would be the teamwork between horse and rider in some of the rodeo events, like barrel racing, or roping, or in cutting horse events. Riders in the latter sport actually refer to their horses as their "partners".