Winning When You Lose and Losing When You Win

Thursday, February 5, 2009

I got a note from a student recently that was thrilled with her performance at a weekend trial, earning her first ever “double Q” in an AKC trial, the first step toward her MACH, gathering a boat load of mach points in the process as she was 18 seconds under time and 1.9 seconds faster than the 2nd place dog. She send me the video clip of her two runs. Now this dog was raised in our program, taught with a nose touch on his contacts and his nose touch in the trials that I have seen him in have been lovely, I tell you that in preparation for what I saw on the video. In the first one, a jumpers run I saw the dog lift his bottom up and down in place twice as she walked out to her lead out position. Other than that the run was beautiful. However that small movement , I know will lead to a broken start line down the road. How can I be sure? Because I have seen it over and over and over in the more than 15 years I have been coaching people in this sport. Next was her standard run. The start line was similar, however only one movement not two, but this time it was not up and down movement,  it wasa  slight creep forward, again all with the handler walking away, with her back to her dog.  The handling execution was beautiful I am proud to say, good choices, great timing, great execution. The dog hit the seesaw first and was not even given the chance to nose touch as the handler released him the moment his paws hit the ground. His running A Frame was lovely as he flowed through the course. The second to last obstacle was the dogwalk, again I expected a stop with a nose touch or two at the end. The dog paused in the middle of the yellow and looked up at his handler, who, without hesitation, released him on to the last jump and her first double Q.

As a coach this was a tough video to watch. I am thrilled with the handling and several other moments of brilliance but I had to put a damper on the celebration with a warning of what I know will come next.  I hate to be the voice of predicted doom and gloom. I try to do it gently (okay maybe not, but I take no joy in it, really). Written in our school on the white board at the front of the classroom (I really need to get a permanent sign made up as I have  re-written this dozens of times over the years) is this great quote from Zig Zigler: “The main reason for people’s lack of success in life is their willingness to give up what they want most of all, for what they want right now.”   Read this quote again and then go and write it at the top of your current goals setting sheet. It doesn’t matter if your goal is a MACH, or to lose 25 lbs or to be the best mother you can be. The truth is we fall short of these goals when get too wrapped up in living for this moment and not looking towards long term success. I really want to lose weight but I am really hungry and this candy bar is right here in front of me. . . . giving up what you want most of all for what you want right now. Many of the dog’s trained with us start with a dog walk performance that takes around 2.0 seconds. If it is a Border Collie it may be a few tenths under 2 sec, if it is a Golden or a Doberman, it may be a few tenths over. If criteria is not maintained in the first year or two of trialing, these times get closer to the 3 sec mark or over. You give up what you want most of all, “to be fast” in order to try to win the immediate race, in order  “to be fastest today.” I have had students tell me “I want to be on the world team, so I had to blow off my contacts for the year to get me there.”  Personally I wouldn’t want to be at the world championships without great contacts. Perhaps your journey is not to be on the world team. Why not see if you can make it there while maintaining great criteria? Does that mean you wait for 2 or 3 nose touches in the finals of big event? No of course not, but it does mean you don’t rip your dog away from the end of a contact before he has at least driven to his 2o2o position. I remember when Encore earned a place in her first USDAA Grand Prix National finals, she was 2 years old. The night before the run I asked myself  “was I going for the win or going for the investment.” Going for the win with an inexperienced,  2 year old dog, would mean this dog would get a chance to learn “when there are big crowds, the rules are all gone.”  I could have gone for the win and possibly gotten it, but then what would my future have been with this young dog? My decision was to make sure I got clear nose touches on my contacts and set this young dog up to realize it doesn’t matter how big the crowd is, you still have to do your job. There are many fast dogs out there in agility. What if I had gone for the win with this 2 year old dog and fell short?  I would have ended up not getting what I wanted right now plus would have taken a step in the wrong direction of what I wanted most of all. With Encore now being a five year old dog,  I do have the ability to release her as soon as her paws come to the ground as I made that investment when she was younger to give me multiple nose touches in the ring. However, even when I am going for the win, I still have discreet criteria that I look for before she gets that release. That is how you ensure long term success with a stopped contact. I know I will hear from those of you that compete in Europe with the lament “but we have a win-out system, we can’t do this and win!”  Well I have found there are excuses and there are challenges. Excuses give you a reason to be mediocre, while challenges give you a reason to find a solution. It is up to each of us to decide either to find solutions around our own obstacles or to become comfortable with mediocrity.

  Looking at my student’s video, I asked her if she felt the day was a success? Of course the answer was “yes.” What if the dog had knocked the last bar? Could she have given me the same answer? No, because not only would he have not earned that double Q, but suddenly the start line performance and her lack of criteria on the contacts would have been more apparent.  However, if she had maintained criteria on her start line and all of her contacts she could have looked back at the video and been beaming as it would have been a great investment in this young dog’s future, even with that knocked bar at the end. Certainly with 18 seconds under course time, there was time to spare and she could have enjoyed both.

There are many times I have “won” a class but I would view the round as a “loss” due to my lack of execution as a handler. It will make me examine the video tape and go home and work hard to improve that skill. There are other classes I have “lost” perhaps because we weren’t the fastest that day or maybe a questionable call by a judge, yet I know I have won because we executed a flawless brilliance together that day. Your success in the ring should never be rated as your outcome compares to other competitors or the clock, it should always be how you have done compared to the best that you could have done. Viewing the sport in this way will pretty much gaurentee you will never look at your dog with disappointment or frustration and you will never lose your love for competing. Never allow the outcome on the score card determine your sense of accomplishment for the day or how hard you should work the following week.

Today I am grateful to know that we all have choices and that the consequences of our choices become the building blocks of our future success.


  1. Great post and good reminder as I’m about to start trialing with my dog again after a long layoff.

  2. I can’t tell you how much I appreciate this blog! I have a young dog, and we’ve been training together for just about a year now. We’re both learning this game as we go, and loving it. Of all the resources I have to learn how to be a trainer and handler, this is one of my favorites.

    It’s so easy to get caught up in the fun and overlook what might seem like minor issues, like a little wiggle at the start line.

    Another thing I want to mention is how much fun we are having with the 2×2 method. Duff had just successfully done 4 poles in a straight line for the first time the morning before his last agility class, so we tried the poles in class for the first time. Despite the distractions (even once one of his favorite dogs getting the zoomies and running right past him!) he just kept driving at those poles. His execution wasn’t great under those conditions, only about 30% success, but his drive to keep trying was amazing! I was thrilled, and he was thinking hard and having fun doing it.

    Thanks again for these great reminders of what our job as handler really is.


  3. Wow, what a great post that speaks directly to me and my young Golden girl. I have another pup on the way and I have big, big goals for these two talented girls. Thanks for cementing my resolve to work for the goal and not the win!

  4. Susan, I can’t thank you enough for this post … I am debuting with my pup at an AKC “A” Match this weekend and was recently talking to folks about what I expected out of the runs … Your post couldn’t be more SPOT on … instead of looking at these two runs as a potential “Q”, I am going to make an honest effort, instead, to look at the runs and expect the criteria I have worked so hard to enforce in the last 17 months. Instead of cheering over speed and potential “Q’s”, I am going to cheer over criteria that is kept and hopefully enforced at this first public run! Thanks you for such an insighful post and enforcing what I KNEW, but had begun to question out of excitment for the runs! I think I may be able to say I’m back on track … so easy to steer away with the building excietment …

  5. That was a terrific post. I love reading about training and criteria. Now I have my shoulderpads on!! I am newish to agility, although I have two Springers with AAC championships on them. That as we know really doesnt mean a whole lot. One Springer got his VATCH by doing weaves entirely ONSIDE!! Go figure at almost 11 he can now do offside, amazing what training will do! Springer No. 2 does both, lesson learned.

    Now to the contacts, dog no. 1 had the Whoa boy, Whoa!! No. 2 has a half-*&! contact, although, after some terrific privates with Christine Boisvert, I started over on the nose touches to get them back. At one trial, after working very hard, Trudy was running down the dog walk and I said touch and she gave me this Beautiful nose touch. I was like, Wow, is that any good. So I blurted OKAY, and she took the off-course jump straight ahead instead of turning right as the course was designed. I didnt care, I didnt signal the right jump properly so cued her to turn after that jump and finished the course. I was thrilled with the run and didnt care about the course. Later when the ribbons were being given out, the judge came over to me and said that no matter how my dogs did, we always look like we were having a good time. What a nice thing to say. My victory was the nose touch, I didn’t need the ribbon.

    Now, getting back to the contacts, I guess I find dogs doing nose touches looks like chickens pecking for food. Trudy can be a wonderful chicken mind you. Bob has a nice 2o2o now and was never (my fault) a nose toucher. Aside from running contacts, isn’t there something else that dogs “Get” without being chickens? This is not meant with disrespect, just that I dont know so I am asking the question?

    Thanks, Michelle Armitage

  6. I learned this lesson the hard way with my first dog. We had great contacts and start line in training, but once we got trialing, I got the bug and it all went to, excuse my language, crap. It didn’t all fall apart at once, but it was a gradual tumble down a slippery slope that I was blind to. Now, with my second agility dog I am not paying attention to Q’s or time. He holds his contacts for a 3 count and stays at his start. No exceptions. I know now that I’m building a foundation to later speed and reliability. It’s worth it to maybe give up a 1st place or a Q to have those rock solid contacts people are envious of.

  7. Susan just wanted to say that I’m a huge fan and keep up the good work. This post is a prime example of your talent to communicate what agility/dog priorities should be.

  8. Thanks for the quote – I love it.

    Wondering… as a handler that is ‘watched’ every time she competes – what pressure do you feel (externally or internally) to make each run as good as it can be? In other words, how do you get past not winning, in order to ensure excellent contacts (as an example). Do you ever feel self concious knowing that there are plenty of poeple watching that don’t get what you are trying to achieve?

  9. Great post. I completely agree with you. There have been many times (both in training and trialling) where I’ve been completely thrilled at my dog’s performance, even though she made a mistake. Just the same, there have been times where we Q’d and won the class, but I was kicking myself for my “bad” handling. And then, I go home and work on it over and over again. 🙂


  10. As a newcomer to trials (to be exact…one under our belt!) I loved this post. I had this attitude going into our first Jumpers run- no expectations BUT a perfect start line stay. From there it only got better (in my eyes). We may have missed the first double and completely obliterated another jump, it was nothing but amazing. To know Heist, is to know a very spirited dog, and his focus on me and only me was what made me so incredibly proud.
    I keep reminding myself that I have nothing to rush to. I love every time we go to train, be it the backyard or the training hall or the front stairs.

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