When things don't turn out exactly as planned.
Image credit: Her Sadness by Olof Erla Einarsdottir
Here's how we picture ourselves running with our dogs in agility: It's a perfect day, the sky is blue, the grass is green. We make flowing gestures that form perfect cues to a dog whose attention is all ours, as we move effortlessly around the course. The moments tick by in droplets of pure happiness, as we move together in a dance that we wish would never end.
And that is how it is sometimes.
But more often than not, that is how it is not.
And that is where the sadness come in. You see it along the sidelines of every trial. You have your winners, and more than that, you have those who feel they did not accomplish enough.
Taylor, my perfectly imperfect little Papillon, has protected me from this feeling for many years now. Even if we don't qualify. Even if we aren't so fast. I feel we are always winners. Just because I feel so special to have been gifted this tiny flawed jewel of a dog.
But I see it all around me, and I remember it, will always remember it, from the years I used to run my little terrier, Shaun.
He was a wonderful little guy, rescued at two years old from a very tough start in life. He's the reason I started training dogs, and the reason I discovered agility. But at the same time, as much as he was healed by training, he found life in the show ring a challenge.
It was really too much for me to expect for him, to not only recover from a difficult start, but to also somehow metamorphose into a dog that would wear well and prosper in the ring.
His is still with us, of course. He is one of the "Men of Action" pictured just below this article in my blog. He is thirteen years old and probably as happy as as drowsing old terrier could be. He was and is, a good dog.
The lesson I learned with Shaun, however, is that the "myth" with which we so often decorate our thoughts of the way agility "should" be, too frequently pulls the ground out from under the way agility so often "is".
It's true we all usually start running "for fun." But it isn't long before other goals begin to overtake the ones we start with.
Soon, we want to develop the skills we need to show. Then, we want to Q. Not just sometimes,but often. Then we aspire to only double Qs, and of course, the time had better be fast.
Yet throughout this mental transformation, we have the same furry tail wagger at our side. The same one who, at first, was just happy to run, and jump and climb.
But somehow, as time passes, his tail seems somehow not to wag so often. Though we insist our dog is having fun, we notice his times are slowing down. Instead of bounding joyfully around the course, he seems to freeze, or release in odd directions. Or sniff. Or run away.
It's the beginning of a sad chain of events, that unless lovingly redirected, sets itself as inevitably as an anchor on a rock.
It's puzzling. How do the two mindsets -- both the highs, and the lows -- co-exist so inevitably in the sport. It's the limitless thrill. And yet so often also, the bottomless despair.
I actually looked up the symptoms on my browser to see if there might possibly exist a reason or a cure.
This is what I found:
- Racing thoughts
- Grandiose notions
- Inappropriate social behavior
- Increased talking speed and/or volume
- Markedly increased energy
- Poor judgment
- Sad, anxious, or empty mood
- Feelings of hopelessness or pessimism
- Feelings of guilt, worthlessness, or helplessness
- Loss of interest or pleasure in activities once enjoyed
- Decreased energy, a feeling of fatigue or of being “slowed down”
- Difficulty concentrating, remembering, making decisions
- Restlessness or irritability
These are, in fact, a slight moderated list of the symptoms that describe bipolar disorder. It's a wonder how such a simple sport can inspire such deep emotions.
As for a cure, I haven't found one.
Except for never losing sight of the fact that this is a sport we do this with dogs. It's a reality so obvious, yet prone to become lost in illusion.
Love the dog. Don't forget that it's a game.
Don't get lost in a quest that, in the end, leaves what's most important behind.