Loss Aversion…huh…what is it good for?

This content originally appeared in The Agility Challenge as one of my weekly newsletters – but it's an important enough topic that I wanted to share it with everybody!

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When I started the Agility Challenge this year, I wanted to center the philosophy and approach around K. Anders Ericsson's ideas presented in Peak: The New Science of Expertise, with respect to mindfulness and purposeful practice. Another great book I've enjoyed in the past year or so is called Top Dog: The Science of Winning And Losing. One of the topics that I enjoyed from that book was the concept of playing to win, vs. playing not to lose.

When you go to a competition, are you playing to win, or are you playing not to lose?

Now, some of you are going to say, “oh, I just want to have fun with my dog,” and to that, I say, 95% of the time, nonsense. Not that I don't think you want to have fun with your dog – that's IMPLIED. Without the fun, your dog isn't going to want to play the game with you. But, we all know you can “just have fun with your dog” in your backyard. We ALSO all know that the SOCIAL aspect of the game can be met without paying the money to step in to the ring. If you just wanted to play with your dog, you probably wouldn't enter it in competitions, which can be a pretty costly enterprise, once you add everything up. If you just wanted to socialize, you could just go and volunteer; much less expensive and arguably just as satisfying, socially.

So, let's just get that out of the way right up front. Everybody wants to have fun with their dog, but I'll wager that just about NOBODY who is at a competition JUST wants to have fun with their dog (of course there are always exceptions, but fewer than we'd like to imagine). If you're stepping in to the ring at a competition, or a trial, or a test, or whatever you want to call it, you're there for something more. It's totally ok to admit that, and I'm going to argue that it's a bit unhealthy to DENY that. I'm going to go even further out on my limb and say that I'm pretty sure that the reason that some of us say “oh, I just want to have FUN with my dog” is that we're putting up a safeguard in case of failure. “Oh, I didn't really care about that Q, I just want to have fun with my dog.” Poppycock, I say!

So, you're at a competition. You've paid the money – for the entry, the fuel, maybe a hotel. This is a big deal. You could do well (fun!), or you could crash and burn (fun?). Your dog could win it all (fun!) or poop in the ring (fun?). You're there for MORE than JUST fun – enjoyment being a necessary part of the equation. Or, maybe, satisfaction, or getting closer to a goal…similar to “fun” but not quite the same, but even so, worth chasing AND implied in all of those is that you're doing your best to make sure your dog enjoys the endeavor as a game, even if you're deadly serious about it (or wanting to get a title, or qualify for a big event, etc.). Now, are you going to play to win, or play not to lose?

Depending on where you are in the world, or where you're at in your agility journey, your answer may differ. If you're in the USA, it's more likely that you're going to play not to lose. You go in to the ring with a Q (qualifying score), and your goal is to keep that qualifying score, for a clean round. If you're in a European country, it's more likely that you're playing to win. You go in to the ring aware of who else is at the competition, and there's no prize for clean rounds. There are no titles. Bear in mind, this is a generality; the rules differ slightly from country to country, but on the wholethere is far less emphasis on clear rounds, and on their accumulation resulting in titles earned, than there is on winning rounds, and on their accumulation resulting in advancement to the next level.

In Germany, for example, where I've competed several times at local shows, including at the A1 level with Chispa (their novice level), there's no official recognition for anything other than winning; winning counts toward advancement. Further, at A1, only agility runs count. Jumping is often an ‘open' jumping class, combining levels A1 and A2. You might get a prize for winning, but it's not as fancy as the prize for winning agility (with contacts) and it doesn't count for anything other than personal satisfaction (and experience).

Sit back and think on those differences for a few minutes.

For those of you in a European country doing FCI agility, how would your handling and mindset change if you moved to the USA, where winning was of no consequence most of the time, and instead, keeping a clean round that you started off with was the goal? Are you currently looking at standard course time as your goal, or are you looking at how close you can get to the top time on any given day as a goal? Do you think you would feel more or less free to “just have fun” with your dog on course if you didn't have to think about winning to advance? Is it truly hopeless if you know your dog isn't as fast as the top dogs?

For those of you in the USA, how would your handling and mindset change if you moved to Europe, where you were faced with the notion that you HAD to win to advance, and that there are plenty of handler/dog teams who never advance beyond level A2? No MACH, or ADCH, or C-ATCH. Are you currently looking at standard course time as your goal, or are you looking at how close you can get to the top time on any given day as a goal? Do you think you would feel more or less free to “just have fun” with your dog on course if you didn't have to think about running clean to advance?


Would you take more risks if you knew that just having a clear round didn't count for anything, but that you had to be as fast and efficient as possible?


The authors of Top Dog discuss the idea of playing to win vs. playing not to lose throughout their book. Here are some of the points they make:

  • Bronson (one of the authors) says “risk-taking is a crucial quality of competitiveness.” Science shows that “if you focus on the odds, you tend not to take the risk,” he says. How does that play in to USA agility?
  • In addition to that, the book states that women tend to be really good at assessing their own odds, while “men are good at ignoring the odds.” This can be a good thing, though, Bronson says: “There's times in our life that ignoring the odds is crucial.”
  • Also, author Merryman points to women's skills at “careful risk analysis and ability to judge really well” as a blessing and a curse. She says that while they are assets on Wall Street, for example, those skills could also work against women. While men can tend to be overconfident, women “will apply that same careful risk analysis to her own work,” she says. “Rather than overselling herself, she's underselling herself.”
  • Bronson says research has shown that at a younger age, women handle competition better than men, especially at elite schools. “Kids keep score,” he points out. “They're very conscious of how they rank versus other people around them, boys especially so.” And “whether girls are on top or in the middle or slightly below,” he says, “they do terrific in elite schools.” Boys, however, struggle if they are not on top. “Being a little fish in a big pond is a particularly bad experience for them,” he says. “Girls can handle it.”
  • Merryman also says “There isn't an ideal type of competitor.” “Po and I write about how people can be playing to win or playing not to lose.”

Merryman goes on to say that the difference is that playing to win means focusing on success, whereas playing not to lose focuses on preventing mistakes. “I think it's easy to switch into that playing-not-to-lose mentality,” Merryman says, “but if you want to grow, if you want to challenge yourself, if you want to innovate, you have to force yourself to be playing to win.”

OK, well, that's all pretty interesting, isn't it? But, at the end of the day, let's be honest, although we are at a competition and we might be ubercompetitive, there are plenty of us who AREN'T. Even in Europe, where winning is much more heavily emphasized, not everybody is interested in making it to the top. That's totally fine! One of the big takeaways should be the last line in the above paragraph. If you want to challenge yourself, you have to force yourself to be playing to win.

Even MORE important, I think, is to consider which mindset might be more fun for your DOG, and which mindset might therefore be more fun for YOU as well. What are the ramifications for how you interact with your dog during training, during class, and during a competition, at all stages, if you're “playing to win” vs. “playing not to lose”? If you're operating under the assumptions that your dog is more likely to go faster if:

  • He's well trained
  • He's well rewarded
  • He's highly praised
  • He's having FUN

How does that factor in to a mindset of “playing to win”? If you take a good hard look and decide that yea, you are at least, some of the time, “playing not to lose,” how is that affecting your training, your creativity, your handling, your strategy, and the FUN you are having (or not) with your dog?

Even if your goals ARE title driven, how can the mindset of “playing to win” rather than “playing not to lose” affect your approach in a positive way?

Have you had runs where you're aware that you're playing to win? Have you had runs where you're aware that you're playing not to lose? What were the differences you noticed in your own mindset, ability to execute, overall performances? What were the differences you may have noticed in your dog's enjoyment, or efficiency, or overall performance?