Thursday, January 22, 2009

Once I finished writing the following post, I really questioned whether  I should put it up on my blog. It didn’t feel as light-hearted or uplifting as others I have written. I decided to let it go because there are a few lessons that I have learned that I would like to share. Perhaps they may help any of you that are currently struggling with transitions in your life. So here goes . . .

While trialing away from home these past few weeks a couple of incidents made me think of something “Karen” wrote on my blog. It was in her response to my question: “what separates you from the best agility competitors in the world.”  Within Karen’s thoughtful reply was this sentiment:

Then again, I’d need one more thing…the desire to BE the best-of-the-best.  While I admire those who are at the top of their game, I could not imagine living in a fishbowl in which your every move is scrutinized.  And God forbid if the “top” handlers make a mistake!

This got me thinking about the label of “top-handler.”  I remember teaching at  one of those Clean Run sponsored mega-camps many years ago. Here a mass of “top handlers” where assembled to teach in one camp. I was exercising my dog outside when I overheard one novice-level student compliment another person on what a lovely  dog she had. Now, unbeknownst to this novice student was the fact she was addressing a camp instructor, one of the so-called “whos-who!”  The instructor turned to her and acidly questioned; “Don’t you know who I am? Don’t you know who this dog is?” In the process, I am certain, she must have made this student regret her attempt to compliment another human being that day.  

True, some of us do live in a fish bowl, but we need to remember it is only a small fish bowl in the big ocean of life’s accomplishments. We are not Mother Teresa, nor are we racing each other for a cure for cancer. It is dog agility. As important as it is to each of us at this moment, it still remains a hobby. Yes it is true, this hobby has turned into a wonderful career for some of us, but for me, the reason I compete remains the same. I love my dogs, I love to see them be excited by the chance to do something with me and I love to bring out the best in them. After years out of the veterinary pharmaceutical sales trade, I still have head-hunters phone me with offers to go back in the business and trust me, I would do it in a heart beat, if my motivation for dog training ever changed.

I think for some people that make the jump from an agility “wannabe” to an agility “look-at-me” somewhere in this transition things do change. Sadly that is often when dogs, ring stewards and other competitors get looked at with judgement rather than acceptance. It is here where more objectionable training techniques, that previously would have never been considered, are now routine, all born out of a disparate quest to beat another competitor with a great dog.  Friends are “out grown” in a insatiable hunger to move upward and hang with people that support these new training views.

I was recently sent a insightful piece of writing by Maya Angelou. Maya was writing about negative thinking people whom she referred to as “haters”.  As strong as that word is, it made what she was saying all the more powerful. In her piece Maya wrote:

“When you make your mark,  you will always attract some haters…”  

 “The problem I have with haters is that they see my glory,  but they don’t know my story…” 


“If the grass  looks  greener on the other side of the fence,  you can rest assured that the water bill is higher there too! “

I think life in the fishbowl is exactly as you would have it be. If it causes you anxiety, stress or embarrassment, I am sure on some level, it is where you want to be. It doesn’t need to be a top-handler -fishbowl either. It is no different that those of you that are amongst the “best” at anything; the top realtor, the best local quilter, a national’s agility judge, the parent with the best hitting little leaguer. There are lessons to be learned on the way up and and revelations about people on the journey. There is a great quote that  “Sport doesn’t build character, it exposes it.”  In the past few years there has developed an unfortunate “us against them” mentality in agility as people at or near the top of agility have chosen to follow one handling system over another. There has been some pretty blatant ridiculing (calling those of us that choose to follow the GD handling system “kool-aid drinkers,” not being the least of it.)  During my recent trialing in Florida people actually laughed out loud, I mean really loud and pointedly long, when Encore and I weren’t on the same the same handling page and we had a mis-direction. To find that much joy in someone else’s struggles, is loathing on a level I hope I never feel personally for anyone. 

I consider myself to be a good dog trainer in a world of many other exceptionally talented dog trainers. Young Gabreille and Tori are perfect examples of the existence of many others around us that possess great talent to train dogs. These two young girls are in a fishbowl of their own right now but the view from the outside looking in is not quiet as clear yet. With more success will come more viewers and more who will judge. Let them look girls, while you continue to be brilliant, never try to be perfect, only do what is best for you and your dog. While spending time in my fishbowl I try to put a positive spin on anyone that openly sit in judgement of me. Seeing their actions, immediately makes me think of gratitude.  I am grateful for those that truly care about me, who are genuine in their delight of my successes, who support my dog training and rally around me when I fail– making it easier to fail once more and to learn from the experience. We all will fail occasionally and you need to not let those who will belly-laugh at you for doing so, alter your enthusiasm to allow yourself to opening fail once more. I believe I have won as much as I have in agility because I am not afraid to fail, I don’t get particularly nervous before any run because I am confident I am living out God’s plan for my life. A statement like that may make some of you uncomfortable, but I would hope you all have a higher power that gives you the peace that I have knowing He guides me in every aspect of my life. Our life’s plan includes dealings with the few morons out there as well as our enjoying the highs and yes enduring our tragedies too. In September 2005  I was at an USDAA Regional event in Dallas, Texas. I was having a great weekend. It was Saturday night and I was excited about the next day as Encore’s Dam team was in first place heading into the final round and I had qualified both her and DeCaff for the finals of the Grand Prix, with an automatic bye into the finals at stake.  Then, after dinner that night, my brother called to tell me that my father had been killed in a car accident. My priority was to get home to my family as quickly as possible. The thought of agility was the furtherest thing from my mind. It is easy to let yourself forget, but important to make yourself remember, that the balance of world peace does not depend upon the outcome of your next agility run.  I, like any of you I would imagine,  am far from perfect.  I get irrationally irritated at times. Just this past weekend I snapped at a ring stewart as I was trying to juggle my two dogs running in both rings at the same time.  I felt like a schmuck right afterwards and I am glad I felt that way. Feeling that way makes me more accountable to people around me. Rather that reacting, I continue to try to think of gratitude. Gratitude always makes me feel good and helps me to see what a waste of time and emotion it is to allow yourself to be irritated by the actions of others.

Beautiful shot taken at the trial in Orlando.

Beautiful shot taken at by the photographer at the trial in Orlando. (c) 2009 Pix 'n Pages

Today I am grateful to the vast majority of people out there that can embrace the triumphs of others. Some of you, as Karen suggested,  may just admire others achievements as some unattainable accomplishment that you have no desire to try to match.  Others may be like me, you may be watching, but at the same time planning to take up the challenge to push the limits yourself, hoping to exceed all of your expectations in the process. Hopefully though, regardless of how competitive you may be, you can still respectfully acknowledge the mastery of that which you witness, regardless of who the conquerer is, or which side of the sandbox they normally play in.



  1. A few years back I was at an agility trial, and while walking to the ring, I overheard on of the “bigwig handlers” ranting. “I can’t believe the judge called that. Doesn’t she know who I am? I can’t believe she did that to me.”

    It wasn’t about learning something from the incident to improve her handling or her dog’s performance, it was all about how the judge should have given it to her because of who she was.

    OTOH, there are a lot of big name handlers who are more than generous with their time and knowledge. They vastly overshadow the ones who think they are God’s gift to the agility ring.

  2. I’m glad you made the decision to post this blog, Susan. It has really made me think and indeed puts things into “perspective”. I’m just a low-level amateur who puts people like you on a pedestal and sometimes forgets that people like you are really just people like me, only without the cloak of invisibility we unknowns are graced with. Today I’m grateful for your gift of insight.

  3. “I believe I have won as much as I have in agility because I am not afraid to fail,”

    In that, you and I, though at completely opposite ends of the Agility success spectrum, are, the same.

    I do “fail” at Agility (and other sports) often enough, but my dogs and I would not have the successes that we have – and there are many – if I had not made the decision along the way not to let fear of failure keep me from trying.

    “I don’t get particularly nervous before any run because I am confident I am living out God’s plan for my life.”

    This is such a great reminder. I am going to try to remember this!

  4. Susan, I found this post particularly inspriational. I like the idea of being accountable. And also the reality of the fishbowl haters.

    I am so glad you have joined the blog-o-sphere, it is a pleasure to read your thoughts.

  5. I do think sometimes people don’t give the top competive people enough space and slack at trials. I remember going to a Regionals and a Nationals in Canada before I started competing and there were a few top competitors that I thought had major attitudes and did not look like very nice people at all – all based on their demeanor and other people’s comments. Since then I have gotten to know a couple of those competitors I thought were not so nice and it turns out they are amazing, friendly, funny people and were just in game on mode at the time.

    I agree that blatant self absorbtion and rude comments/behavior as given as examples in the post clearly show someone who I would not want to know any better. However, I now know not to judge those who seem so serious and self-centred at a major trials – I just assume they are in competition mode. I think if I had come from a sports background I would probably have realized that much earlier but I’m glad I know it now and I haven’t let it prevent me from approaching those great competitors (away from the ring) and gaining some great resources in my agility training.

  6. Susan,

    I’m so glad you write this blog. You are an educator in more ways that you know!

    IMO thoughts are best when they are provoked… what better opportunity for us readers to examine our HUMAN behavior than through the lens of a dog trainer who has gained perspective on things like fishbowls, social vultures, and emotional control? Keep it comin’!

  7. Thank you a lot for posting this blog. I think a lot of people on all levels need to read this one.

    It’a seems like the attitude is the same in Canada/ US as in Sweden.

    I have one question for you all. Here in Sweden i fell like there is a difference, handling a small dog versus a large dog.

    The really popular instructiors have large dogs and at championships is it always the winner of the large class that gets the attention. Etc.

    You get more respect if you handle a large dog, fx bc, instead of a small dog, fx sheltie. Us with smaller dog’s should certainly not think that we are as good handlers as the one’s handling bc etc…

    Is it the same attitude in your countries?

  8. Great blog. Thank you, Susan. It made me feel better about my fundamental goal in agility, which is simply to have fun with my dogs.

    Maya Angelou also said: “I have learned that people will forget what you said, and people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”

  9. I agree there are a lot of “haters” out there in the top agility field. I love how you stated that agility is just a hobby in the grand scheme of things. I agree with Andrea that top agility handlers should be given some space but I don’t see any circumstances where they should be rude, and demeaning to others. I have met Susan at various different venues and she has always been friendly, helpful and encouraging. There are many other top handlers that I can’t say the same about- even not so top handlers. These people think agility is the end all, be all, and anyone who they believe is not equal in agility success is beneath them. It shouldn’t matter what system you follow, or who you train with, or what type a dog you have, people should be friendly and polite to everyone. Sure you can take agility really seriously but take some advise from your dog- have fun.

  10. Susan,
    I’m so appreciative of your last two posts. Sometimes when we’re here deep in the wilds of Omaha (ha!) we forget that to try to emulate your foundation training, or Gret’s handling system doesn’t make either of you too perfect to relate to nor too perfect for us to aspire to similar achievements.
    You touched in your post of snide remarks or snickers from the peanut gallery as you recover from a handling glitch on course. In Omaha, believe it or not, we’ve got a hotbed of scrutiny over the training methods we’ve chosen at our club (yours) and the handling system we follow (Greg’s). It’s alienated many and it’s attracted just the same. I’ve been a subject of many discussions regarding “drinking the koolaid” or “One of ‘those’…” as I walk to my lead out pivot with my 21 m/o at his 2nd USDAA trial ever, and I find it just a shame really. Mostly because the it’s the ones who shame, mock or gossip that could benefit from your methods the most, it seems sometimes. When things hit too close to home, expose someone’s training gaps, well – I guess the lash out personally.
    Thank you for allowing yourself to be exposed and open with what’s going on with you in your blog…and with Feature. For someone like me, who’s just starting out with my baby boy, it’s reassuring to hear about similar struggles that you are having. And that they are normal for a baby dog – it’ll keep me from obsessing too much. And I am SOOO looking forward to you coming to Omaha next weekend. It’s going to be so much fun and such great discussion! Thanks again!

    Melissa & Treo

  11. This was an excellent post! I am glad you decided to share it with us. Lots of food for thought — thank you. 🙂

  12. In one book I read a long time ago it spoke about a bunch of bananas hung from the top of a pole just out of reach of a colony of captive monkeys. As each monkey grabbed for the bananas he was doused with a cold spray of water. Each one tried and after many attempts they all gave up. Then researchers removed one of the monkeys and replaced it with a new one. As the new monkey tried to climb the pole, the other monkeys who had been sprayed kept grabbing him, pulling him down although no spray was given. Finally after being pulled down the pole many times that monkey gave up. They continued to replace the monkeys one by one until they had a room full of new monkeys that had never been sprayed and would not climb the pole but not one of them knew why.

    It takes a brave person to go out and do your best in spite of controversy and remain true to your passion. I love everything about agility and the bond it creates with my dogs. And I am very good at failing! But I also do my very best to succeed and enjoy every minute of it.

    I am thankful for your blog and your very timely message for me!!!

    Kathy S

  13. Yes to quote Susans post “You are an educator in more ways than you know!”

  14. This is an uplifting and inspiring post.
    I have a little pyrenean shepherd now 3 yrs old. (I might add, I’m not a veteran agilityist, we’ve been in a grand total of 4 competitions to date.) It wasn’t until my dog was 1 1/2 that I purchased Greg Derrett’s DVDs purely by chance.It had occurred to me that nothing about the training at my dog club pleased me, and suddenly I knew why. (I don’t ‘get’ the kool-aid jibe?) I also got your Crate Games, knowing practically nothing about you. Then I discovered the overwhelming amount of information available on the net, and it became clear to me that the wisest thing would be to choose someone who inspired the most confidence, and use them as a guide. So I chose you, and Greg.

    One of the things I enjoy about my club is that it’s convivial. Be that as it may, I discovered that more experienced people are easily vexed, no one at my club is interested in listening to any thing I have to say. (It is not an understatement when I say that foundation work appears to be unknown.) However, I now have confidence in handling my dog and I ignore advice I feel is wrong.

    At my last competition, I made a mistake and alas, had to call my dog away from an off course obstacle, and the judge said “another pyrenean shepherd!” I laughed to myself, resolving we would prove her wrong. I notice as a novice, people secretly don’t want you to be too good anyway.

    I just know we’re going to get better.

  15. Susan, on my walk tonight I thought of your post. Didn’t you know that you are not supposed to have feelings, that you are supposed to be deaf to rudeness and should do everthing perfectly. I think the next time you enter a trial you should dress up in a football uniform so that you cannot hear them and that you will have broad shoulders and let it all just roll off your back!! Of course I am saying this in jest. Sad that the better you do the more you become a topic of conversation. No one talks about me 🙂 Another jest, I hope, but not really.

    Susan you have a talent with dogs, how can someone no matter how much they train consistently do so well with their dogs. You get the most out of them and they are chomping at the bit to work. My applause goes out to you. And as the saying goes “You Go Girl” and Enjoy.

    Thanks for showing us you are human, go figure!!

  16. I look forward to reading your blog most days and I love your truly thoughtful posts. I am in agility because I love my dogs and being with them and training them keeps me relatively sane 🙂 I feel like I truly am in it for that reason.

  17. Susan, you post was very inspirational, open, and honest on your part. You were brave to expose yourself like that but I think that your bravery is to be commended. We all started agility to have fun with our dogs. For me that is what I enjoy -playing with my dogs. Unfortunately, when you succeed at anything there are people that always want to criticize. I hope that you do not take it personally. I have found that most agility people are very helpful and want to assist the novice people where ever they can. That is one of the benefits of agility. I am really looking forward to your visit to Omaha.


  18. i want to respond to two blongs here: “what makes us different…?” Three things. First; the ability to see clearly, with knowledge and understanding, a goal. Second; self discipline to take things to their full potential. Third; Talent or natural ability. With these things anyone can be at the top of their game; and certainly worthy of admiration and perhaps scrutiny by everyone interested.
    Those that jeer are perhaps like dogs who bite just unrewarded for enough good, and those that cry just lack confiddance.
    You susan are at the top of many games…LIFE…thanks for sharing and inspiring.-bianca

  19. Hi Susan,

    Mind if I copy this for future start line use myself?
    It’s so true.

    “I believe I have won as much as I have in agility because I am not afraid to fail, I don’t get particularly nervous before any run because I am confident I am living out God’s plan for my life.”

    It’s an excellent commentary on who I know you really are.

    On another note it’s really refreshing to read about the “handling wars” straight on. It’s all so boring. Funny how some people just can’t let go & move on.

    Obviously some competitors go to Nationals to win, or to do something awesome and fun with their dogs, while others go to be remembered for their t-shirts, which in the kool aid case, leaves no room for doubt about what a huge influence you had on their agility careers and what a hold you still have on their thoughts. You’d think people would value the space in their head a little more than that. Meanwhile I think you should take it as a compliment!

    Later on you write this great closing:
    “Others may be like me, you may be watching, but at the same time planning to take up the challenge to push the limits yourself, hoping to exceed all of your expectations in the process.”

    I really liked this. Thanks for a great read.
    P.S. ROFLMAO thanks to John! “fart in a colander” – hope you enjoyed the fart joke!

  20. Susan,

    This has become one of my favorite blogs and often posts like this one will stick with me in my mind for some time.

    While I’ve only been doing agility for 6 months or so, as long as my poochie still wags his tail in excitement when we pull up to the agility course, then I’m all in. We’ve still got a LOT to learn, but that is just part of the journey!


  21. Hi Susan
    I am really enjoying your blog. I find it quite scary sometimes what you write is like I could of written it myself but you obviously word it better.
    You guys are on the complete opposite side of the world. You are really cold and we are cooking in the summer heat. Plus this post will turn up ummmmmm yesterday. Cos it is tomorrow here.
    Agility is not even International in NZ but we already have the same things happening. Our favourite saying is ‘hey mate, it’s not Crufts’ but I guess the people up there cannot say that.
    And that Novice handler will probably always remember that comment made to her. I had a comment once made to me with my first dog – ‘your dog is useless at agility cos it does obedience’. I found this particular hurtful as in my eyes my dog was the best in the world! And I was proud that she had achieved dual discipline achievements. This particular person had moved up through the ranks very quickly and had labeled themselves ‘a good handler, trainer’. They got another dog, ensuring it was fast and furious and were unable to control or train it and have since dropped out of Agility. Another comment made to a friend of mine – ‘Why do you bother travelling, you never get anything’. Thankfully these sort of comments can push you to prove that person wrong. Let’s hope it was the case for this Novice handler.
    I did a Greg Derrett seminar about a year ago and I felt like the Novice handler. I was still in Novice with one more win to go and I was in this seminar with Agility Champions. Some of them I felt (and overheard) were just there to show off their dogs and how good they were. These people did not have the time of day for the rest of us. It was interesting to see that some of us who had the ‘Novice’ dogs were actually able to perform the sequences better than the Agility Champions and these people knew it. Maybe it was because we were willing to learn and they thought they already knew? Who knows. So at the end of the day, sometimes things have a habit of coming back to people. I just hope this Novice handler uses this person’s comment to better herself – even if it is to never make a similar comment to someone else in the future.
    Cheers From Us in little ol NZ

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