Sometimes Everything Just Sucks

I am totally getting this plate someday

If I ever get a dog-themed vanity license plate, it’s going to be this one.

You know, when you (co-)write a blog about dog training and dog sports, it’s really easy to slip into a pattern of just talking about the good stuff: your training successes, the things you’ve done well, the ribbons you’ve won, the obstacles you’ve conquered.  It’s a little bit like Facebook: if you spend too much time over there, you can come away thinking that everyone you know is constantly winning awards, getting married, having babies, getting promotions at work and so forth.  One of the unintended consequences of Facebook is that it sometimes makes you feel like your own life–with your messy kitchen and your half-eaten bowl of cereal and your pile of unfinished work–just doesn’t measure up to the lives of everyone you know.  And it’s the same thing when you read dog blogs–you read about other people’s trial successes and the cool training they’re doing and the huge ribbons their dogs picked up last weekend–and then you look over at your dog, who has dirt on her nose from digging a hole in your yard and is in the process of chewing on something alarming, and you think, “Nope. That is not my dog, that is not my life, those are not going to be my ribbons.”

So it is in the service of balance that I am now going to come over to our usually sunny and positive blog and tell you this: I went to a trial last weekend, and it was awful.  The dogs and I all performed terribly, I didn’t learn very much from the experience, and I didn’t leave feeling like, “Hey, this is something to build on, and it’ll be a great baseline for when we start practicing again” (which is generally how I feel at the end of trials: usually, while I know that things weren’t perfect, I am proud of my dogs and ready to start fixing the places where we made mistakes.)  Not this time, though. This time I left just feeling depressed and frustrated, and the thought of going home and picking up my clicker and my rally cards again just bummed me out.

My trial experience was stressful for a lot of reasons: it was multi-day, it was far from home, it was expensive, it was one of the few trials in my area that my tripod dog is allowed to participate in (which meant that it was high stakes, title-wise), it was going to be my puppy’s debut; most importantly, though, we didn’t do great when we competed at the same venue last year, and I was full of determination that I was going to Show Them This Time, blah blah blah.  So I worked hard with my dogs to prep for this trial.  We practiced the exercises to the point where all three dogs could do them in tandem anywhere we were. We trained in novel venues–the pet store, the hardware store, the busy park–and we worked a lot on focusing through distractions.  I did perch work with Nellie and Widget, working hard to get their heels nice and snappy.  We did some mock trials with a training friend of ours, and I even enrolled the older dogs in a class, just so we could get some practice performing in front of a group of people and dogs. We practiced in the hotel room the night before the trial, and everyone looked gorgeous. And I was confident! I was sure we were going to leave the trial with a new title for every dog! I put my entry forms in, paid my fees and showed up early to the venue, ready to take on the world and show everyone how awesome my dogs were.

We bombed. Every one of the dogs NQed in every event I entered them in.  And true to their natures, when my dogs NQ, they do not mess around. Some people NQ because, say, their sits are a little crooked or they misread a card and do the wrong kind of turn.  When my dogs NQ, they run out of the ring and go roll in poop under a tree, or get so fascinated by the smell of the grass that they they forget I exist completely, or they ping-pong around on leash so much that it looks like I’m trying to walk a kite in a windstorm. It was the kind of thing where I didn’t bother to wait around and hear scores afterward, because there was no possibility at all that we’d Qed. And after all the work we’d put in, and after the effort and time and travel and money….it was embarrassing, because it truly looked like I’d just walked into the ring for a lark without doing any training at all.  I left the trial early, feeling ashamed and sad and like I never wanted to do anything like that again. I wasn’t mad at my dogs–things like this are always the human’s fault–but it was definitely not the fun experience I was hoping to have with them.

And I want to submit that this is something that happens more often than we admit in dog training: sometimes you are hopeful and confident and have plans of action, but sometimes you are frustrated and sad and don’t know how to fix the problem that you’re having.   And increasingly, I think it’s important that we acknowledge to ourselves that this is a real thing: dog training isn’t a constant process of building on your successes, and even careful preparation doesn’t always result in the outcomes you hoped for.  Sometimes things go wrong and you don’t know why.  Sometimes things just suck. And sometimes you don’t want to hear people’s advice about how to solve the problems you’re having and listen to the way they got THEIR perfect dog to do the things your imperfect dog isn’t doing: sometimes you just want to wallow and feel crummy about everything.

What is important, I think, is what comes next after the urge to wallow starts to fade away.  I will admit: it’s been three days since I got home from our bummer trial, and I have had zero desire to work on any training stuff formally.  But I have thrown the ball endless times for my dogs, and we went on a fun hike, and I’ve cuddled on the couch with them watching movies and they’ve sat on my feet and mugged me for bits of my peanut butter sandwich.  They are my buddies, regardless of what they do or do not do at trials, and I love them; that is solid, always.

And I’ve slowly started going over the trial in my mind, and I’ve slowly–very slowly–started to figure out what the trial actually taught me.  I learned that my girls still need practice in the actual ring, and that the faux-ring work we did in advance didn’t quite prepare us well enough.  I learned that my own ring nerves are probably getting transmitted to them, and eventually I’ll need to figure out how to fix that.  I learned that we’ve got to prepare better for specific kinds of distractions.  I learned that the puppy can go into the ring without completely losing her mind.  I learned that Lucy, my reactive dog, is actually at a point where she can go to trials now without threatening to rearrange everyone’s face.  I learned that bringing stuffed frozen Kongs to trials is a very effective strategy for keeping the dogs quiet in their crates.  And I learned that the next venue I try needs to be smaller, lower-key and closer to home. Next week, I will take the girls back to rally class, and I will do my best to consider all of these things and to integrate them into my training. Slowly, slowly.

Ultimately, there’s no bad experience that can’t teach you something. All a trial (or an encounter with the scary dog down the street, or a practice run on a difficult obstacle, or an offleash hike in a strange place)–is, really, is information: your dogs are always learning, and if you never give them a chance to show off what they’re learning, you never get the chance to make an assessment.  Sometimes what they tell you is that they are ready for whatever it is you are asking of them; sometimes what they tell you is that they are decidedly not.  Either way, you can’t know unless you give them the chance to tell you. If you can get something out of an experience, it’s not wasted, even if what you’re getting isn’t what you’d hoped for.

But that kind of Zen-like acceptance comes later.  If you’ve just had a bad experience with your dog, be it a blown trial or a training failure or a snarky episode in the park, you have my permission to not leap into thinking What Does It All Mean? and How Do I Fix This? and How Can I Find The Silver Lining In This? right away.  You don’t have to decide to quit your sport forever, or never trial again, or never go on a walk during the middle of the day; you may decide that eventually, but for now, sleep on it.  For your sake and your dogs’ sake, don’t rush right back into training to try to fix the problem.  Go have some ice cream, take your dogs out somewhere quiet and peaceful and just be with them, give yourself a break for a while.  And know that even if you don’t see it on dog blogs or hear it from the trainers you admire, everyone has the kind of day where they just hit the wall.  Everyone has felt hopeless and like they don’t know what to do next occasionally. We’re not superhuman, and neither are our dogs. As long as your relationship is solid, and as long as you have some hope that someday, down the road at some point, you’ll be able to get something useful out of the experience, then go ahead and wallow. Because everybody’s been there, and sometimes, things are just the worst.

DSC09022

From the hike we took before our second day of Epic Trial Fail. They may be monsters, but they’re MY monsters.

33 thoughts on “Sometimes Everything Just Sucks

  1. I really needed to read this because it does seem like we read all about the successes and not nearly enough about sitting on the kitchen floor crying…(well, that was me)

    Thanks for the reminder that everyone else on the other side of this computer screen isn’t perfect. :-)

    • I think that’s unfortunately just a side effect of writing in public (or, you know, as public as our little site is). I’m sure you’ve experienced this same thing in writing your own blog (which, btw, I read and love): when you write, you want to write something that is useful, or at least something that will make people glad they took the five minutes to read it. And when you’re like, “Well, today I sat on the floor and ate pie with my hands while the dogs chewed on the screen door, because I was exhausted and it’s too hot to move”…it is hard to turn that kind of thing into a post. MUCH easier to write “I went somewhere cool and learned something interesting!”. But then, as a reader, all you ever see are the cool and interesting moments, and it can turn into this echo chamber where it’s like Your Normal Dogs Vs. The Amazing Dogs Of The Internet. And that’s a shame.

      Now if you’ll excuse me, I have to go try to stop Widget from stealing all the cotton balls out of the bathroom for the forty thousandth time today :)

  2. While it’s sad to read about other people’s trial failures, I think it’s something we all need to read and I thank you for having the guts to post about your recent horrible experience. We’ve had a few doozies with Dahlia, as many people know. Trials where she wouldn’t move off the start line. Trials she was so stressed out by everything that she just shut down. Trials where I went to the car and cried halfway home and thought about giving up. It’s good to know we’re not alone, even though I hate that other people struggle as we do!

    • I’m sure there are people out there who have perfect dogs and are always fully prepared in the exact right way when they go into a trial situation. I just….don’t know any of them :)

  3. This is an excellent post. I tell my horse training clients all the time that there are going to be good days and bad days, and that it’s not other people’s horses who make us cry; it’s our own. Seeing other people’s success can be so overwhelming, and with social media being what it is especially.

    • The our horse/their horse thing is so true. It’s so hard to remember this when you’re embarrassed, but I do think it’s really important to keep telling yourself that you’re the one who’s the most upset by your own bad performances. Other people are probably not sitting there going, “The NERVE of her!”

  4. SO TRUE.

    Sometimes I tell myself that I’m the only one who has these problems, and I only have them because Pongu the Insane is, well, insane, so therefore my NEXT dog (a real true actual performance puppy! my first purebred!) is going to be absolutely super and stellar and will never EVER make so many dumb mistakes, because it will not be a ball of perpetual genetic fear and stress.

    This is not true at all, of course. But it works for me as a demented coping mechanism to feel better about the imaginary future in those occasional awful moments where I have no hope for my actual future.

    And of course the real actual truth is that eventually we get better, as does everyone, as long as we keep trying and don’t give up. Maybe not the next day, or the next week, or (occasionally) the next month. But eventually! :)

    • Oh, do I hear you there. Before I got accidentally got Widget, when I was still thinking about Fancy Performance Purebred Puppy, I did the same thing. Every time my adult dogs frustrated me, I would start making lists of all the things I was going to do with the puppy so we would never have any of these problems (which, now that I actually HAVE a puppy: ha!)

      I have actually felt like this with all of my dogs: Lucy is my Pongu-equivalent (though we’ve done way less cool stuff than you guys have!), and so when I got Nellie, I thought, “OK, my NEXT dog is going to be friendly and confident and outgoing and cuddly”. And she is! But of course, she’s got her own issues. And so when I was thinking about puppies, I was like, “OK, Nellie’s friendliness is great, but my NEXT dog is going to be structurally sound and a little more drivey and competitive.” And then I lucked into Widget at the shelter, and she is not only social, she has all the drive and focus and smarts I could have hoped for–I am so excited about her performance prospects, seriously. That said, she has handling issues like crazy, she is somewhat of a resource guarder, she has not even the distant shadow of an off-switch, and on and on. And so even now, when she’s trying to go all Cattle Dog Tooth-Based Movement Cop on my feet, I catch myself thinking, “Well, my NEXT dog…”

      What you said at the end was so true. Training books and videos and classes all seem to operate on the premise that once you get something down solidly, you’ll just be building on that and getting better and better. In my experience, so much of training is two steps forward, 1-3 steps back. And that is OK, because eventually, you get somewhere! It’s just a mistake to think that it’s always going to be a straight line.

      • Yep, it’s hardly ever (I would say “never” because in MY experience it’s “never,” but who knows, someone out there may conceivably have experienced something different) a straight line up.

        Did I already tell you that Lucy and Nellie were hugely inspirational to me when I was starting out with Pongu? Luce the red pittie, too. I would reread those posts (“Normal Ain’t Easy” and the recap of Luce’s career) over and over and over whenever we hit a huge roadblock that just had me in tears of frustration.

        In the beginning there were a lot of those, because crazy dog is crazy, and he was borderline unadoptable to start out with. Our early trainers cautioned me not to expect Pongu to set foot in the competition ring (and they weren’t just naysaying — they were right, and now that I’ve been around a little bit longer and have seen the pressure that some people put on their performance dogs, I understand more of why they gave me those warnings) and it was REALLY hard back then, and I got a whole lot of mileage out of those posts. If they’d been in book form I would have worn all the pages soft with rereading.

        So anyway, if I never said it before (and even if I did), thanks. Your words made a big difference to us. :)

        • Oh gosh, thank you for telling me that–you’ve just made my whole day/week! It makes me so happy that the post was useful to you guys. I actually also read and reread Katie’s writing about Luce when I was first getting started in sports with Lucy, so we probably both owe a little hat tip to Katie :)

  5. I want so badly to do some sort of low level trial/agility with Fred. The biggest thing that is holding me back is the fear of failure and, more than anything, doing something and failing badly in front of people. (gasp) Thank you for writing this, it has made me realize there is a very good chance that we could make a fool of ourselves, sh*t happens. But also, we might do great at times, I will never know unless I try. Maybe this is the year I put my toe in the water and see what Fred can do.

    • I think you should! The tiny silver lining of having a bad run is that you KNOW everybody there has had the same experience, even if they try to hide it under their fancy folding-chair-with-their-dog’s-embroidered-picture-on-it. It is hard to believe this in the moment, but really, I am pretty sure nobody else cares if you do badly, and if they do, it is almost certainly in an “Oh girl, I have BEEN THERE” kind of tragic-empathy way.

    • If you want a friendly, supportive agility experience, start with DOCNA.

      The people I interact with their are kind and informative and never made me feel like an outsider. Newbie, yes. Outsider, no.

      I highly recommend them as a training ground for the trialing experience.

      • I actually think my first agility forays with Widget are going to be in DOCNA, so I am excited to see your recommendation! If there were CPE in my area, I’d be on that too–everybody I know who’s trialed there seems to love it.

  6. I don’t do any of this stuff with my corgi, so maybe I’m not really one to leave a comment, but here it is, anyway.

    I wonder what your dogs thought of that day? Were they happy to be out with you? Did they enjoy greeting new people and new dogs? While they blew the Q out of the water, were they having a great time rolling in whatever?

    ‘Cause if they had a great day, maybe your day wasn’t so bad after all. Just wondering….

    • The most honest answer is that I think it was a mixed bag. I know there were some things they enjoyed: they’re all very social with new people and enjoy getting scritches from new friends, they got lots of good snacks, we went on a pretty good hike, they liked the polar air conditioning in the hotel room, they nearly always enjoy training, etc. And the puppy got to have her first night in a hotel room and her first time in a new state, and she’s a dog who really seems to enjoy novel experiences. I’m not sure how much they enjoyed the actual trial, though. Strange dogs really stress my oldest dog out–any time I bring her to a multi-dog environment, I have to balance my own desire to get her out with the fact that it takes a toll on her–and my younger dog gets very nervous when her sister is nervous. And the sniffing and ring leaving and so forth are pretty classic stress signals, especially for my guys, so I don’t imagine they were having much fun when we were actually in the ring. And that’s one of the reasons I just can’t feel good, or even resigned about this trial: I don’t like needlessly stressing my dogs out, and I don’t like dragging them from sign to sign when they would clearly rather be somewhere else. They often DO have fun at trials–Nellie in particular really seems to like performing–but this wasn’t one of those times, unfortunately.

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  8. I stumbled upon your blog for the first time and I wanted to thank you for your post – we have one dog, a 2.5 year old beauceron, who is both our pride and joy and our biggest challenge at the same time. We adopted him as a puppy (he was our first) and immediately realized that though he came from good breeding stock (physically and temperament-wise) and we had done our very best to research training techniques and strategies for puppies before he arrived, he was a much bigger handful than we ever could have imagined! After a rocky adolescence, a full year in obedience classes, and many hours of practice, Onyx is a highly active, mischievous, enthusiastic, and very well-loved dog. We’ve recently started agility classes with him and though he has a reliable recall and is friendly with both dogs and people, graduating to off-leash work in a very stimulating environment was difficult to say the least. We had many days, both in class, at home, or on walks, where we felt very much like how you’ve described in your post. Thank you for your honesty – it’s a huge relief to know that even trainers and professionals (as well as the best prepared dogs) sometimes have rough days. Our young man still has some growing up to do, but we are grateful that we have fewer days like this and more days where we can step back and say that we learned something from every experience with him. I look forward to reading more from you in the future! Good luck to you and to your dogs.

    • Hi, Stephanie! I’m so glad you stumbled upon the blog–I hope you enjoy reading it! Onyx sounds like JUST my kind of dog–I always tell people “I only like dogs who are baaaaaad!” (tongue-in-cheek, of course). Though I’ll tell you, reliable recall/friendly to dogs and people sounds like a pretty awesome package! I am so glad he had the good fortune to be adopted by people with both a lot of love and a sense of humor.

      I’m actually neither a trainer nor a pro–I’m just an idiot who likes to play with her dogs!–but there are several professional trainers who write for TU, and without exception, we all agree that we’ve had That Day, generally more than once (right, Sarah and Merissa?) You are not alone :)

  9. I am still learning, but I did find that I can enjoy trials with just one dog. More dogs and I can’t look after them all, keep them happy and de-stressed and have a good time myself. So I have decided to enter one dog per day and rotate among them. They seem to enjoy their outings more and I am noticing that I am having a good time myself. It does mean having someone at home to look after the others though.

  10. Every day is a learning day, but that means we sometimes need to take a break to clear our minds, clean out the junk and refresh. It’s good to know even the best have their trials and disappointments too. We are so human. But I compliment anyone who is trying to do the right thing for their dog and expose them to different training events that they enjoy.

  11. I am so glad a friend forwarded me the link to this article. I still wince at what I call the “Hell trial” back in April. It was an agility trial that was such a terrible experience that the only thing I felt I learned from it for a long time was that a hybrid car really can go 90 mph on the interstate when you are leaving something miserable behind you.

    I had to take some time too, then got back into obedience to try to get my out of control dog to have honest recall. I had been all worried about her contacts when a far more basic issue was slipping through the cracks. Live and learn, and cry and play fetch then get back on the agility course.

  12. I have been training, learning, teaching, and showing horses and dogs for just under 40 years now (just turned 70!), and I heartily agree with many of the sentiments expressed in your blog and in the comments left in it. One thought I have that I want to share with ALL of you bloggers and readers alike: THIS IS NOT (for most of us) OUR DAY JOB!!! It’s supposed to be FUN – fun for us, fun for our creatures. Unless it (and I mean ALL OF IT – the training, the showing, the travel, the preparations) provides us enjoyment, then WHY DO IT AT ALL? So many of the blog comments report crying and tears and overwhelming bad feelings from show experiences that were less than superb. Please reconfigure your thoughts about this! Horses and dogs are living creatures, with their own needs and quirks. I don’t do horses any more (arthritis caught up with me about 18 years ago), but I have had 2 dogs for many year years now, competing with both dogs in obedience, agility, rally – the dogs are Golden Retrievers, which some folks tell me are too easy to train (!!) and not really a challenge. Really??!!
    Anyway, my older girl crossed over the Rainbow Bridge at just under 14. I had been training Utility (“Futility!” with her for some time – she had an RAE, titles in agility, her CDX, GC, TDI…what a great girl she was. I showed her at 12 and a half in Graduate Open (she had FINALLY figured out the scent articles! – her problem was that she enjoyed retrieving so much that she defined that exercise as the “retrieve it” one, instead of the “find it” one!) and she got a leg! Not only that, but she was so joyful in performance that the judge commented on it, noting that she had more zest and bounce to her than the younger dogs! She just loved doing it! Her daughter started out the same way , getting her RE before 2, her CGC and TDI, and her CD. She also picked up an agility title. But somewhere along the way, she began to worry about being in the ring at the shows. And until 2 years ago, she was OK, but not great. Then an intact 80 lb. male went after her as we lined up for the Open group exercises. We were excused. The next day, the same dog LEFT THE RING to come after her again. Then when we were in the ring, she spotted him next to the ring on a leash as we went to the retrieve over the jump, and that was it for her. She left in the opposite direction as quickly as she could, and I have had difficulty keeping her in the ring at shows ever since.
    At first I had that same reaction as others have posted – just retire her and not do the showing any more. But then I thought about it, and decided to try to find a way to help her beat that fear and to enjoy our time together, wherever we might be. We kept our training going, but we entered Wild Card Novice at a recent show, and she did REALLY WELL! Scored in the mid 190s. So I found the right place for her right now. She was happy, and it worked.
    So I guess the message I want to leave with you all is this: it is NEVER a failure! It’s just a bump along the way. Go back to the point where it’s fun, and build it up again….but ENJOY!

  13. Just had a fantastic NQ on Wednesday night, (think uncontrollable zooms in a competition called no need for speed! every time I thought I got her back she took off again) and the post trial feeling you describe is exactly where I am. Walking the dogs this morning I finally started to think about what I learnt and how to best proceed.
    In reality Bea was probably not ready for the freedom of off leash competition as she had been on restricted exercise for the past couple of months due to a MCL tear, but she had a great time on Wednesday and looking at the video I truly see a pup enjoying her life, checking in while off leash and truly having an amazing time, gotta take that as a victory!
    Thanks for this post :)

  14. Merciel gave me this link, as I just had one of those trials with Leontine, my young GSD. Yesterday was her first time in the Obedience and Rally ring, and she managed to spectacularly NQ in both. She was doing the “kite” imitation you mentioned, and generally acting like she’d never had a lick of training. Well, to be honest, I helped with the Rally NQ by getting lost, and going around the wrong cone on the Figure 8 for my first ever IP. Leo is only 22 months old, and we train on our own, so to say that she was distracted by the other dogs and people would be an understatement.

    I’ve retired Ilka, my mutt, from competitive obedience and rally after a career (I guess you could call it that) of spectacular NQs and Excusals. Our first four scores in Rally Advanced were EX, EX, EX, and NQ. That was a difficult weekend. After the first two classes, I was pretty much ready to throw in the towel, and quit. But, I took her on a walk, and decided to stay for the rest of the classes. Well, she managed to finish her BN that afternoon. Somewhere along the line, I decided that I was going to have fun trialing her, even if it killed me. It nearly did. :) She is very reactive, so trialing was always stressful for her, and she had me holding my breath more than once. She has moved on to lure coursing and tracking, both of which she loves.

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