Like so many of you, I’ve spent large chunks of my adult life in obedience venues. My perception at the time was that there was pleasure in a few brief moments of any trial day, but that you had to plow through a considerable amount of tedium to harvest it. Now, in the absence of trials as we knew them, I realize there was both familiarity and comfort in many of the details of competition I hadn’t recognized before. Like:
- The constant low-key din of background noise: crates opening and closing; dogs whining, snuffing and barking; dozens of on-going quiet conversations; the calls of both judges and competitors in the ring; the occasional tumult of cheers as a team in the ring successfully completes a long-elusive exercise or title, or a dog does something unexpected and either heroic (stops before taking the wrong jump and changes direction to take the right one) or funny (dog detours to take a jump during the Drop on Recall, but then drops on command despite that); the spectator gasps or wails of empathetic disappointment, for example when a team that was doing beautifully blows the last exercise. After over 20 years of steady competition, these sounds were as familiar and indeed soothing to me, as they washed over me in a venue, as the constant background noise of waves and gulls when I walk by the ocean.
- The interplay of anticipation and patience, and the challenges they impose on the handler. It has happened to all of us: you are ready to enter the ring, you’ve warmed your dog up to the perfect stage of readiness, and then – Something Happens. It doesn’t matter what caused it or whose fault it is. The challenge for me and I suspect most of you is huge: how to NOT experience an onslaught of negative emotions, how to quell at best or at least not display those negative emotions if you experience them despite best efforts; how and what to communicate to your dog, to maintain the team affect you want as you finally do enter the ring.
- The constant “up and down” as you leave your seat to monitor the board to see who is where, and what it means in terms of your own timeline. And the dozens of mini-chats that even social side-liners like I have, as I wait and monitor.
- The challenge of controlling your dog and yourself as you enter the “maximum focus” zone before competition, as you try (and occasionally fail) to ensure that you remain courteous and aware.
- Those lovely “just-between-us” silent communications you sometimes have with the judge that go well beyond the “I’m so sorry” typical of how a judge kindly conveys that you won’t qualify in that class. I’m talking about looking up after you’ve taken the dumbbell from your dog, who is looking up at you illuminated by pride, and seeing that the judge has that lovely soft look on her face that we’ve all seen hundreds of times when we meet or pass-by people who are openly enchanted by our dog. I’m talking about how a judge momentarily slips aside her mask of impersonality, to make eye-contact with you and laugh when your dog does something undeniably naughty but funny. I’m talking about knowing that none of these valued communications is a promise of a good score, but instead is a demonstration of “us-ness” – the knowledge that she’s been there too.
- The awareness that when in the ring, you and your dog are performing. Of course – your primary audience is the judge. But you know that there are people watching. I am very focused in the ring – I never see or hear anyone outside the ring. But I know that they are there and that at least some of them (not just my own students) are interested in learning. So, as an elder in our discipline, I feel a responsibility to perform in a way that I hope will help them and inform their understanding and their efforts. I’m talking about showing how to interact with your dog in a positive fashion even if/when he makes a mistake; I’m talking about how to interact with stewards and judges in ways that are both thoughtful and time-effective; I’m talking about finding a way to display to newbies or those with acute ring-anxiety, that it is possible to have fun while in the ring.
- The input of colleagues. It doesn’t happen in every venue or with every club. But in many, congratulations or commiseration after you’ve left the ring is a critical factor in reinforcing the perception that you are not alone – that there are others who understand, who watch, and who care.
As I re-read the list I just compiled above, I realize that this has turned into an ode to the sport I’ve loved for so long. Do you remember this line from Big Yellow Taxi: Don’t it always seem to go, that you don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone? Until I sat down to write this piece, I didn’t even recognize how much I value some of the points on my bulleted list, which I had until now, perceived as irritating but unavoidable. Absence does indeed make the heart grow fonder.
- The joy of victory. Of course we all like winning. But winning does not comprise only coming away with a ribbon. Even if you don’t qualify or don’t place – you can and should be able to take pleasure in your achievements. Any time that your dog does well at something you’ve been working on – it is a victory. So almost every time you compete, regardless of outcome – there are wins.