Tuesday, April 06, 2010
Goals. We all have them. Or at least we're told we should have them. We're pestered to have them. And not just to have a goal but a GOAL. A worthy target.
I'm as guilty as anybody else about lecturing students (and on lists, and whoever is reading this) about how to set goals and what kind of goals to set. The right goals help you and your dog progress. The wrong goals may not only keep you from being successful, they might actually damage your relationship with your dog and your attitude towards whatever dog sport you participate in.
My big thing is setting performance goals instead of outcome goals. What's the difference? Well an Outcome goal is dependent on an outcome. "I want to Q." "I want an AXJ by this date." "I want a perfect score." A performance goal, in contrast, is task oriented. "I want a smooth front cross." "I want faster weaves." "I want a nice startline stay." Outcome goals can be poison. Because if you set an outcome goal and fail to meet it, then you feel a failure. Even if many parts of your run or performance have been fabulous, if you set your heart (and goal) on getting a Q and your dog dropped a bar, then you've failed. But if you have set a good performance goal and you reach that goal, then even if you don't Q you can still feel successful and good about your team.
The trick to setting Performance goals is to make them fair and doable while still pushing your skills a bit. It's not fair to set a goal to have 2 second weaves if you never have gotten close in practice, or to have a perfect call front if you haven't trained for one. I tell my students that it's best to do three. One for the dog (a good get-out, nice attention, etc.) one for the handler (keep shoulders back, execute a good turn) and one for both of you (work a correct contact or smooth transitions).
Even with my lectures and preaching about goal setting, I realized a couple of months ago that I rarely speak about my primary goal in dog sports. It's a goal I feel very strongly about, but it's a goal that many people seem to rank fairly far down their list. Some people don't think about this goal at all, it is completely immaterial to them.
My absolute NUMBER ONE goal in all of my dog training in dog sport is simple. THE DOG MUST HAVE FUN. If my dog is not enjoying training, if he is stressed and shut down and hating it, then I am doing something wrong. And if I can't fix it, if I can't work the dog through it or if I feel the dog really isn't going to get to a spot where he can truly enjoy the task and the game we play together, then I'm just not going to do that sport with that dog. It's as simple as that.
Now I can hear the cries of protest already. I'm not saying that no dog should ever be trained if they have stress issues or have to work to find that place of joy. Some dogs need time, patience and understanding to learn how to loosen up and have fun. Some dogs express happiness differently than others. Not every happy dog is a screaming speed demon. Some are quietly happy. Sometimes it takes years to help a dog bloom.
I'm also not saying that no dog should ever be forced to do something he doesn't want to do. I force my dogs to have baths and get nail trims. The come command is not optional at my house either. But to me there's a big difference between the things my dogs need to learn in order to be civilized and orderly canine companions, and doing a dog sport for fun.
That "for fun" part should go both ways, not just one. It is a goal we all should have for our dogs. And that in some cases that goal is sorely lacking. I have heard, more times than I can even remember, "I don't care if he likes it. He's going to do it anyway." and "This is his job. I want to do this, so he has to." And let's not even go into some of the marginal to truly brutal training methods used to ensure "perfect" performance in some events.
Dog sports should not be a "job" your dog is forced to do in order to satisfy your want and need to compete. If it really doesn't matter to you whether the dog is having fun, perhaps it's time to reevaluate why you do dog sport. Dog sports are, to me, about teamwork and about a game we play TOGETHER. If I can't make it fun and I know it's not ever going to be fun, then I find something else the dog can do that he enjoys, even if it's just lazing all day on the couch.
To me, a score or a title is nothing compared to having a dog who loves playing that game. We have our dogs for such a short time. Is it really worth it to set your love of a game above theirs?