On my way to work this morning this thought ran through my head -- My life has turned into one of those “bad run” agility scorecards…
It has always been me that really needs the training…funny how you teach your dog something and they remember it for life and some of us humans just repeat the same mistakes over and over again. These are sad thoughts but…to be able to compare it to agility makes me smile. And that gives me hope that I’m not lost, just wandering.
Who’d have thought so much could be read into the game?
I received this email from an old friend on the morning I was saying goodbye to my 16 year old Australian Shepherd Reis. It really struck me, the reflective comparisons between agility and everyday life. If I were to look back over the last 45 years as an agility course, what would my scribe sheet say?
I had a great start line stay! A solid family foundation to show me the behaviors that were acceptable and the ones that weren’t. I was socialized so I could learn how to play with others. I think I probably became one of those approval seeking puppies for many years, wanting to fit in and wanting to be liked. Sometimes sticking my nose in where it did not belong and yelping when I was corrected for it. I was in a rather large litter so I learned that you had to speak up for what you wanted or no one would hear you!
Early on in my course, a trauma changed my perception of the game leading to bouts of mistrust, inner doubts, and insecurities. My confidence in how to go about day to day was shattered and I questioned every turn on course, failing to recognize the cues and signals that were meant to guide me. That indecision with my path led to many knocked bars and off courses. For many years I exhibited classic destructive behaviors, from chewing on the wrong thing, (in my case pizza and beer), to excessive barking and spinning, (wild nights out) and basically chasing my own tail. While I did try to listen to the people that were trying to handle me to the correct course, at the time I found the alternative much more rewarding. I was not able to see the titles they were trying to help me earn.
As I learned to become more aware of the game I was playing, I began working with handlers that would teach me in a more positive manner. I began a long time working relationship with my Wayne Dyer and Deepak Chopra cassettes and books, trying to understand the patterns and criteria I needed to try and focus on. I learned how to deal with distractions and discriminations on course in a more proactive way. I worked on the bigger behavioral picture and not just focusing on the day to day running of the course. I realized that if I could not fix my underlying issues, then the course would remain very difficult to traverse successfully.
Looking back, I realize just how many contacts I have missed along the way. The people I should have supported and the time I should have spent with family and friends that just never seemed convenient on busy weekends. Once you have missed that contact you have failed to qualify. The only recourse that you have is to try again and work harder to stop and pause before launching forward on your path. I have always found that there are lots of rewards to be had when I stopped for my contacts and waited until the right time to move forward.
It is also amusing to imagine that as we age we seem to keep moving up in level, some advancing more rapidly than others! When we are just beginning to make our way in the world, we certainly do run the courses like Starters or like Novices. The challenges are a bit easier and not terribly overwhelming. As you progress into Advanced or Open, you start to see bigger challenges and need more independence in dealing with them. You start to see more numerous opportunities to go off course and there is a stronger likelihood for more difficult discriminations. You need to focus more on the course and plan how you wish to handle those challenges before going forward. You hopefully recognize the need for training better skills in order to deal with those challenges.
Once you make it to Masters or Excellent, you are really ready for primetime. This is the level where you spend most of your life running. While many seem prepared and competent to handle the challenges presented, there are still those that struggle with the skills required to be successful. You see some that seem to coast through the early levels of accomplishment and are unprepared for the problems presented at this higher level. For many it seems to bring about the awareness that they should have built a stronger foundation in the first place and they often take a step back to fill the gaps they see in their life. Others seem content to simply continue dealing with the problems by not dealing at all and just incur the same faults over and over again.
In agility, this Masters level is where we see the truly accomplished handlers. These handlers are those that have spent countless hours in order to improve their game. In Malcolm Gladwell’s book Outliers, he refers to a study in which they track the hours of practice it takes for someone to become a Master of any given skill. The magic number is about 10,000 hours. There is a direct correlation between the hours spent training and the level of accomplishment. How many hours do we spend on trying to become more proficient at dealing with life? How many of us go about our business and never look for more meaning? How many of us never train for our life and spend all our time competing in it? It seems pretty obvious to me that if I do not like something on course or in life, the right action is to figure out why it is a problem, then go back and train myself to do it better or differently.
While I am pretty good at figuring out what is wrong with my life, it is often much more difficult for me to figure out the fix. I seem to be much better at understanding how to repair the issues in other people’s lives and am often at loss at how to repair my own. I find this to be true of my agility experience as well. Most of the time I can tell a student or friend how to address problems with a particular skill set or how do deal with their dog’s behavioral problems, but have a really hard time seeing my own resolutions or knowing how to go about fixing them. Maybe that is why I love to teach, it makes me feel more competent than I sometimes do with my own experience.
Later on the day of Reis’ passing, I stood in the office of the crematorium and looked down at the orange cremation card they would attach to his body to ensure his ashes were returned to me, I thought again of my friend’s email. How strange it felt to hold that card. I had filled out hundreds of them while I worked at a very busy veterinary emergency service. That year I had filled out two of them for my own lifelong companions. The grief of that day was momentarily tempered by the amusement that I had spent much of my time with them looking at scribe sheets and regretting the information there. Now the only letters that mattered were the correct spelling of his name and of mine and the huge sense of loss I was experiencing.
My agility experience with Reis was full of missed contacts, wrong courses, refusals and time faults. My life experience with him was full of the same. Through all of it, we developed a connection and bond that made his passing unbearable. Earlier that year I had lost my mother, my father and another life changing dog. Each of them had been the primary instructors in my life course training. In every minute of those losses, Reis remained my constant shadow. Always present, always at my side. There had been such comfort to that and I was unaware of how much comfort until it was no longer there. That awareness hit the very second he stopped breathing.
In his lifetime Novice years we connected instantly and began to run a wonderful course together. His life ran much like mine. An early trauma changed his life and brought him to me but he was plagued with insecurities and fear. He had moments of brilliant happiness and would bounce with joy on a hike but he would shut down when the pressures of life became too great. He talked a lot and wanted everyone to like him, which made him an easy target for dogs that had aggressive tendencies. He loved to play and was terribly disorganized most of the time. We really understood each other!
In his Master’s years he really came into his own. He was a teacher. He was the wise old dog that taught the puppies important life lessons and a little border collie female named Bliss was the best gift I had ever given him. He taught her the art of gentle play and impulse control. They spent many hours together wrestling on the floor with her tempering her desire to play rough in order to keep the game up without hurting him. He handled the aging process with the calm precision of a true champion and when he would stumble or fall, he got up and continued on with no regret. There was no shame in mistakes, you simply kept going. There was nothing to gain by stomping your foot or shaking your fist, the fun was in the running! When it became too painful to run, he let me carry him. On a trip to the Colorado Rockies the month before he left, Reis was content to sit in a bicycle trailer renamed Reis’ Rickshaw and enjoy the view while we hiked, pulling him along the beautiful mountain trails. It seemed fitting that he had carried me through so much and now it was my turn to carry him.
While the titles and awards we earn on an agility course are nice perks, they pale in comparison to the greater benefits that we experience from running the course or living the life. The titles and letters after names are things to be proud of and many people put those names out for all to see whether it is by displaying a certificate of DVM or MD or the list of dog’s titles on the signature line of their email. We display our ribbons in training centers or homes and try to earn those big titles at clubs where we know we will have the best shot at the ribbons taller than us. They give us a sense of accomplishment and are something to be proud of.
But when it really comes down to it, the life titles are the only one’s that really matter.
The letters on the orange cremation card spelled out the title
Loved by Nicole Levesque