Sunday, September 22, 2013

IFP and Finding "Success"

Probably the last set of thoughts I want to muddle through on the subject of Imaginary Future Puppy has to do with the nebulous notion of "success" in dog sports. This, I think, is the most selfish and least defensible group of reasons, but it's there and it's a factor, so if I'm being honest then I have to admit that this goes into the calculation too.

At the outset, let's go ahead and admit that the idea of "success" in dog sports is really pretty absurd. It is. It just is. There are maybe 50,000 people in this country who care at all about dog sports, and they don't all care about the same ones. This is a tiny, tiny subculture. Competitive hot-dog eaters have an exponentially bigger audience; at least their events make the local papers when they're in town. Dog sports people are a niche on the level of, I don't know, competitive dollhouse stamp painters.

So on one level it is completely ridiculous to care about "success" in this endeavor beyond doing the best you can to ensure that you and your dog are having fun, because nobody else cares.* Your dog-sport friends will be happy to celebrate your success wherever you set the benchmark for that success -- whether it's winning a championship or just fixing a broken dumbbell retrieve (to cite one not-entirely-hypothetical example), your friends will be thrilled for you either way.

And your dog, who is really the most important party in this entire thing, will (if you're doing this right) be happy about whatever you're happy about. The dogs do not care about titles or ribbons or scorecards. What they care about, generally, is whether you think they did a good job, and possibly whether there will be a celebratory hamburger on the way home.

But, on another level, human nature is what it is, and if there is something to be won -- no matter how trivial it is -- people will vie to win it, sometimes to excessive extremes.**

And if you want to win, which I do, then you need a dog that can win.

It is generally recognized that a great trainer can win with a not-great dog (Exhibit A: Silvia Trkman, pulling greatness out of dog after dog with Issues), and that a lousy trainer will not win regardless of how awesome the dog is. But most of us are somewhere in the vast gray continuum between "great" and "lousy," and even the best handlers don't go out of their way to choose problems (for all her awesomeness, I don't think you're going to see Silvia trying to compete with an elderly, fearful, wheelbarrow-bound English Bulldog anytime soon), because a great trainer with a not-great dog is still going to lose to a great trainer with a great dog. So most of us are trying to choose dogs who have the potential to excel in whatever it is we're trying to do.

I know I am. The conventional wisdom is that it's the human who is usually the limiting factor in any team -- if the dog isn't being brought out to its fullest potential, that's on the human trainer -- but I honestly feel pretty comfortable saying that nope, the limiting factor for us right now is Pongu. He is what he is and I love him times a million, but he is also the partner who spent 40 minutes hiding in another room when I first set up our new bar jump.

The problem I face while trying to choose Imaginary Future Puppy is that, while almost any dog on Earth should be able to do better than Pongu, that "almost" is pretty key. Because I don't actually know how to choose a sound competition prospect. Last time I tried, I wound up with Crookytail, possibly the only dog we've ever had who could somehow manage to be a downgrade from Pongu, so my track record on this front is not exactly awe-inspiring. (Admittedly, we've had foster dogs who were blessed with awesome potential. If I had kept Mab or Sydney instead of Crookytail, my perspective might be a whole lot different today. But, nope, I'm an idiot who kept the big slow dumb one, so here we are.)

So there is an element of Dumbo's feather in play here: I have no faith in my own ability to identify a top competition prospect, therefore I need the talismanic reassurance of a good breeder choosing a good puppy for me. I need the breeder to say "here, this is the one, this is the dog who can do everything you want." Then I will believe it, and I will take this puppy and attempt to do everything with full faith that we can achieve it.

But right now, my ambitions outstrip my experience. And this third dog is absolutely, totally, non-negotiably the last dog who can be in our house until one of the other two dies. I really, really need to get it right, and historically I suck at getting it right, so I'm going to outsource the pressure of choosing to someone who's better positioned to handle it: a knowledgeable and ethical breeder with a proven track record of successfully placing dogs in competition homes.

Ultimately it comes down to "I'm vain and I'm cowardly," but hey, those are factors too.

EDIT: lol I never actually wrote anything in support of my original thesis statement, wow that is sad even by my pitiful standards.

Anyway so that was just going to be the banal observation that "your demands of the dog are dictated by your definition of 'success,'" i.e., Pongu might be considered a raging success by some standards (such as my own, a year ago) but not particularly impressive by others (such as, I dunno, obedience people who love to hate on Rally? Although frankly I'd like to see them do anything with this dog. As the infinitely wise Bart Simpson would say: eat my shorts, Rally haters).

But obviously that is such a super banal point that it hardly deserves to be made, and also as I was in the process of writing it down (originally, not this time) it occurred to me that the fact that there are fewer rescue dogs who reach the pinnacles of whatever sport has probably less to do with the dogs themselves than the risk-aversion of the people handling them.

If you're going to invest thousands of dollars and hours in your dog's competition career (and a significant opportunity cost, since most of us only get to handle a tiny handful of dogs in our lives), most people are going to try to bet on the Complete Package, which is perceived as being the Purebred Performance Puppy partly because if the breeder is doing a good job, that is the complete package, but also because that's what you see all the other successful competitors doing, and it takes a certain bullheaded optimism to break away from the mold. It's sort of like how a lot of people in competition obedience and IPO "proof" on prong collars even if they don't particularly enjoy doing that to their dogs. If that's what all your teachers and role models are doing, and you never see anyone else doing things differently, you will probably do the same rather than risk having to fumble your way down an unknown new path and, in the process, maybe losing.

Basically, it's not that the dogs are themselves any worse, it's that people don't see them as often, and nobody wants to gamble on the less-sure thing. The AKC's Canine Partners rules further operate to push people away in a semi-insidious fashion because they ensure that almost any mutt will be more of a gamble than a purebred: because every dog without papers must be spayed or neutered to compete, it's just about guaranteed that you will not get to see your dog's parents, aunts/uncles, littermates or progeny on the competition field. Every mutt, and most cross-breds, will be a first-generation unknown.

Sucks. But definitely discourages people aiming for top-level competition, even though it has very little to do with the actual merits of the dogs and much more to do with the inability to observe their ancestors and relatives in action.

(* -- Actually, this isn't quite true. There is a small but vocal subset of people who are not your friends and yet may still have something invested in your success or failure: the people who are out fighting the Training Methodology Wars. To a large and happy extent, this war is over in agility and Rally, and [I think] it's dying out in competition obedience, because it has been [mostly] well settled that you can achieve top honors in those sports by a variety of methods, therefore people can just pick whatever fits their own personal values best, stfu, and get on with training their dogs.

However the war is active in full-flame fury in IPO, where it is still vocally believed in many quarters that you cannot title a dog without the use of force [although, predictably, just as happened in every other sport, the goalposts are being reset to "you can't win national competitions" and then to "you can't win international competitions" as people begin overtaking the earlier marks], and it's not entirely dead in competition OB.

To the extent you might possibly care about being a poster child for one of these causes, you have to care about winning whatever the goalpost-of-the-day is. Personally, I'm tired of it and no longer all that interested in getting involved in such annoying and fruitless discussions. But it's Still A Thing, so I note it here.)

(** -- A brutally good short story on this topic is William Gibson's "Dogfight," included in his 1986 collection "Burning Chrome." It has nothing whatsoever to do with dog sports, but I like it as an exploration of the costs that can be incurred by the heedless pursuit of trivial victories. Plus it's just a damn good piece of spec fic writing.)

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