Monday, October 15, 2012

The Agony of Defeat

Yesterday I took Pongu to his second APDT Rally Obedience trial, which was the second time he'd done a trialing event of any kind.

It did not go well.

At our first trial, at the Dog Training Club of Chester County, Pongu was entered in only one run. He was squeaky and anxious throughout, but he finished the course with a respectable final score of 196 and earned his very first Q.

That was in August. We're now in mid-October, and every day since that first trial, we've practiced at least a little bit to get better. We've worked Fronts and pivots and heeling around cones; we've hammered left turns and Stay drills and pretty swing finishes. Pongu's Rally skills are much sharper than they were at the time of his first trial. His precision and confidence have improved quite a bit, even if it doesn't always feel like that day-to-day. On good days, we move together like dance partners: I don't need to say a word, it's all communicated in posture and hand position and footwork.

I figured this next trial would be easy. He'd already done it once, he'd done it excellently, and he'd gotten better in the interim. We only needed two more Qs for Pongu to earn his first title, and I thought we'd get that for sure -- maybe even with two more high scores to earn an Award of Excellence. I entered Pongu in the morning and afternoon runs and scratched Crookytail at the last minute, forfeiting his entry fees so that I could focus all my attention on Pongu.

I was painfully, completely wrong.

The venue was smaller than our first trial or our regular training club. It was also crowded, noisy, and "informal" -- meaning that people talked loudly and let their dogs bark and moved crates and folding chairs around while teams were working in the ring. This was no big deal for the more experienced or calmer dogs in the competition, but it spelled disaster for Pongu the Insane.

Also disastrous was the fact that at this trial, the Rally signs were mounted on wire holders that raised them about two feet off the ground. Pongu had never seen such things before and immediately decided they must be some kind of terrible dog-spearing coathanger monsters. He hated them, refused to get near them, and panicked whenever we came to a point on the course where two or three signs were crowded together in such a way that they surrounded him.

And, finally, during the afternoon runs the facility began to overheat because the sun was shining brightly through the windows, so the steward turned on a large area fan to cool down the training center, and the loud noise of the fan sent Pongu into a panic as well. He'd started to recover until then, but he just couldn't cope with the fan noise.

So it was a total spectacular implosion. Pongu could not focus, and I didn't have enough faith in my dog to struggle through his problems and hope he'd get better in time to earn a qualifying score. We NQ'ed both of our runs because I pulled Pongu off the course halfway through both times. There were only two NQ's given out all day, across all of the many trials that were run, and we got both of them. Yay us.

I haven't been as miserable in a long, long time as I felt leaving the trial grounds that day. I was frustrated with my dog and frustrated with myself. It's no fun being the only team in the entire trial to NQ, especially if you do it repeatedly, especially especially if several of the other teams are limping along with comparatively sloppy performances and still earning qualifying scores. But they at least had the guts to go all the way through and finish. I didn't.

The fault is mine, not Pongu's. He did the best he could. He tried. I was the one who wanted too much and gave up too early. I was the one who decided we should quit rather than accept a substandard score. It's absolutely not fair for me to feel disappointed in Pongu for that, because they were all my decisions.

But it's hard, trialing a seriously fearful dog. I have to remind myself that most people who post about their Rally experiences (where they always seem to do brilliantly, with very little effort) are working with temperamentally stable dogs, so of course their dogs have an easier go of it, and it's not right to compare Pongu's progress to theirs. Even the teams with dog-reactive animals are at least working with a single known disadvantage. Pongu is afraid of everything. And it doesn't matter how brilliant he is outside the ring; I cannot fairly expect him to be that precise under pressure. Not yet, maybe not ever. I have hopes we'll get there someday, but it's not reasonable to demand that of him now.

This was only Pongu's second trial. There's lots of room to improve with experience and practice. We have another trial coming up in two weeks. It's at the same venue with the same judges, and I thought about canceling for a while, but I think we'll go through with it. I want Pongu to earn a title, and he can't do it if I won't even give him a chance.

I'll be running Crookytail as well -- and I don't plan to scratch him this time. Dog Mob will be out in full force. We'll do however we do, and this time I won't hold my dogs back.

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