Wednesday, September 4, 2013

That Jiggle in Your Jaakko - Raising the Bar for "Vintage" Agility Handlers

This post is part of a Dog Agility Blog Event Day on the topic of "Aging".

A wild mix of ages and abilities. It's the way agility is played today. But is it time for a more mature approach?
Video credit: Bad Dog Agility

It's the NBA finals and the team runs out onto the court. Starting for the team are a few top pro players. You recognize their names. You've seen them in all the sports press and on TV.

Around them, the rest of the team is warming up. You spot the stars' moms, grandmothers and even a few of their kids. They're suited up in team uniforms, getting ready for the big game. 

Chances are, this wide mix of ages and abilities, all competing for top stakes, is something you wouldn't see in most sports today.

But the "all for one" style of dog agility is definitely part of the way agility is played today.

It's always been this way. But is it time to consider a more mature approach?

Gen X, Boomers and Wild Old Women (WOW).

'Nuff said.

All it takes is a look around at almost any trial, and it's clear that US dog agility is mostly a sport for as the French would say, "women of a certain age." According to a demographic breakdown published by Agility Nerd, Steve Schwarz, and based on "Likes" to his Agility Nerd Facebook Page in 2011, the largest demographic group participating on his site is women ages 35-54.

About 50 percent of his followers fall into this age group. This is a percentage similar to what most of us see in practice at our local agility trials.

So in the interest of good, customer-focused marketing, it might seem to follow that US dog agility organizations would focus their regulations, course designs and judging on the needs and preferences of their core demographic.

Wouldn't it?

But wait. There's another -- and very vocal and visible -- core demo to consider here. And that is the group of leading agility competitors.

They're the same as us. Just a little more...well..super.

I don't have figures on this, but it's a relatively small group, percentage-wise -- probably no more than 10-15% of the total group of agility participants.

These are participants whose main goal is to train and compete at a very high level, with goals that include winning or placing strongly in national and international events. Many earn all, or at least part of their income as agility professionals or have agility as a primary life focus.

Is it "bad" to have a group like this in the mix? On the contrary, it's great!

These are the people leading our sport. They are often innovators and content creators, people who raise the bar of agility training and competition.

Without them, we'd still be here.

This influential and vocal group of people usually have the ear of dog agility organizations. Very often,
their aim is is to bring the standard of handling, training and competition in the US more on par with trends they are seeing in Europe and other parts of the world.

But here's the catch:  Most of us just aren't feeling that super (anymore)! 

Yes, we try. We go to seminars and we practice. We go to the start line with Winning in Mind. But try as we might, there's a catch in our Ketschker. A little too much jiggle in our Jaakko.

Agility these days seems to be running in sleek, tech fabrics and terrifying, clawed feet on its way toward an internationalized future.

Too often, we women of a certain age are stuck huffing behind in our cotton blend, breed-specific T-shirts as we try to keep up with both our genetically high-tuned dogs and our own fevered aspirations.

It's ok. Mama's just got a little too much jiggle in her Jaakko.

Time for agility to Just. Grow. Up.

It's maybe a little too much to expect that agility can remain a "sport for everyone". Sure, it should be a sport that everyone can play. 

Especially for people in their middle or later years. Those little sprints around the course are motivation to do the harder, long term things that keep us healthy. Dreaming up training plans and memorizing courses is the stuff that keeps a person young.

Not to mention all the gossiping social opportunities that help build new, life-enhancing connections at a time of life too often marked these days by empty nests and early retirements.

But it's really a little much to think that the valiantly aging contingent can compete on purely equal footing with the young and nimble.

Perhaps it's time to re-think things just a bit.

It's not to say that elders among us don't enjoy learning new things (we do) or that we can't appreciate a challenging course design (we do!).

Today's girl is smart to ask for what she wants.

Just as our dogs have the option of accommodated jump heights to help them as they age, perhaps older handlers should receive some consideration, too. Here are some ideas:
  • Veteran handler classes at existing trials - Veterans would have the option to run the same courses as regular trialers but compete against other veterans. Age could be based on the human version of currently accepted Veterans age for dogs at 7 years. Equivalent age for people would be approximately age 50.
  • Veterans-only tournaments - Similar to the Senior Pro Golf Tournaments, senior agility handlers would have access to their own regional and national competitions. Course designs would be challenging, but with a focus on experience and skill rather than handler speed and mobility. Senior National Agility Championships could be offered.
  • Simplified competition options - Competitions open to any age, but with a focus on simplified course designs that offer moderate and fun challenges for handlers and dogs. Goal would be to open agility to a wider spectrum of handlers and dogs, recognizing that all handlers and teams do not have a desire for strong physical tests or widely varying challenges. Overall goals are geared less toward winning and more toward accomplishment.
  • Develop Championship-level venues that feature international-style challenges - Make peace with the fact that agility continues to evolve and that US competition should not be artificially bound to handling and course design traditions of the past. Competition and winning high stakes is encouraged to take center stage. Offering competition options that allow US competitors to lead the world ends up helping us all in many ways. Training and handling efficiencies will result and we can all share pride in the achievements of our country's leading trainers and competitors.
A wider variety of competition options allows for development of participation options that better suit participant groups within our sport (that's called, "customer focus"). 

Agility becomes less subject to being pulled in two separate directions motivated by two entirely different aims. It's also less likely to take the course of least resistance and develop as a compromise solution that makes neither group very happy.

Working to stay in the game means communicating our value.

Women in the middle to older age group are the majority in US agility. But as in so many facets of American life, greater numbers and experience for aging women does not equate with greater power. 

Heck, most of the time, we're lucky if we're modestly appreciated!

For those faced with aching joints and recalcitrant body parts that just won't join the party, we need to step up and make sure our voices are represented in the planning of agility's future.

But gee, I've never contacted an advisory committee before!
What will the neighbors think?

Contact your organization advisory committee and describe your experience and viewpoint. Tell them in specific terms what you love about agility you'd like to see in competition as a mature exhibitor. 

If you're an AKC participant, you can contact the AKC Agility Advisory Committee.

Promise it won't hurt and you'll probably be surprised that they actually listen. 

Don't stop there: Write articles. Make videos. Join social media. Keep in touch with proposed changes. State your opinions.

Perhaps most of all, support your own. We girls don't do a good enough job of that overall. Mentor and support not just the young newcomers to the sport, but the older ones as well.

Older girls are willing and able to learn.
We just need the right kind of instruction.

If you are an instructor or an innovative trainer, give some thought to developing methods that are effective for handlers who are less quick and mobile. There is a great need for people who can develop and teach insightful, sound, workable solutions for this group of handlers. 

Stuart Mah is a great example of a leading instructor who is innovative and able to teach effective techniques to both ends of the spectrum.

Finally, we older girls we know how important it is to find ways to work smarter. No matter our age, there's one way our numbers and our networks will always make an impact. And that's with our pocketbooks.


Doranna said...

"Jiggle in our Jaakko." Hee hee hee! But I like the suggestion of having the option to compete in a veteran's class after a Certain Age. (Don't ask me exactly what that age is.) Not everyone would have to take it--some of the truly awesome dogs in this area are run by those who would be eligible under any reasonable terms--but there's only so long one can fight time and injuries and expect the same results as when one...wasn't.

liz said...

Love this. One of the more fair and level-headed discussions I've read on our quickly "diverging" sport in this country. Thank you!

minnow said...

What an interesting direction to take things. Great post.

Celeste said...

Great post. Love all the ideas!

Kelly Ely said...

what a fun and intelligent conversation to be had on aging!! Loved it!

Marla said...

Love the idea of a seniors tournament. They definitely do it in swimming and track. Called "Masters" events:-)

Nancy and Stewie JRT said...

Awesome article, I definitely have bad knees and other aches and pains.

Also NADAC does offer Veteran and Disabled handler divisions for handlers 60 or over. I believe they get 10% more course time.

To Dog With Love said...

Great post! Loved lots of your suggestions, especially veteran's class for humans.
Diane and Rocco, agility pup in training

catinohio said...

I thought it might be neat to have a Senior Handlers tournament. Instead of showing a dog's height card, participants would show their AARP or Golden Buckeye cards.

ViewFr4Inch said...

Thanks for all the nice comments. I worked pretty hard on this post so it's nice to see it hit a common chord with some of you.

Definitely seems like there is interest in a Seniors/Masters-only national event. Hopefully someone at the trial organizations will give it some thought!