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10

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?

3

Performance vs. Outcome Oriented Goals and why the difference matters

This content originally appeared as a weekly newsletter in The Agility Challenge – but it's important enough, especially at this time of year, that I wanted to share it with everybody! You won't be able to comment as directed (that was only for Agility Challenge Members), but, I hope that it gets you thinking about what you envision for yourself and for your dogs for 2019!

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What are YOUR thoughts on how the idea of performance vs. outcome oriented goals applies to you and your dog? I hope this gets you thinking about how performance goals AND outcome oriented goals have a place in your planning for what's to come in 2019!

10

Hillbilly Hydrotherapy

In mid April, just two weeks prior to the AKC USA AWC Team Tryouts, Frodo and I went from being super prepared and ready to rock and roll to…rehab. Frodo suffered a traumatic tear of his CCL on a Thursday, April 13, and had a TPLO Friday, April 14. In the flurry of activity that followed, as well as me being shell shocked about the injury, the surgery, the rehab, and being knocked off that high place of being ready to rock and roll at tryouts, Chispa didn't poop for nearly a week and ended up at the emergency clinic herself. During this time, she had a persistent lameness that was troubling me. Xrays revealed it was not shoulder OCD – something nobody wants, but in the grand scheme of things is fixable. Further digging, and a CT scan revealed fragmented medial coronoid processes on both elbows. So, a month after Frodo's TPLO, Chispa had bilateral arthroscopy on her elbows, and fragment removal on the left elbow. The fragments were in situ on both elbows, and it took some prying to get the clinical (left) fragment out. Because of the difficulty on the left, and given that the right fragment, also in situ, did not seem to want to budge, the right elbow was left alone. No joint incongruency was detected in either elbow. I have no idea if she'll be able to do agility, but I suppose I will give it a go, and see where we end up. Frodo's prognosis is much clearer; he'll probably be back in action in just a few months, more energized than he's ever been before, and certainly, I'll be more eager than I've ever been to get back in the ring with him.

In the meantime, I have two dogs who need rehab. I live way out in the country, and have access to a lot of great information, so the only thing beyond that is to just do it. I'm not in to driving in to downtown anywhere to get dogs to an underwater treadmill, but I do recognize the importance and benefits to hydrotherapy, whether it be ice packs, heat packs, swimming, or walking in water (cold or warm). I have an appointment with a rehab specialist in Seattle mid-June, but until then, I'll be DIY-ing it with the information I've got.

If your'e curious as to the rehab protocol I'm following with Frodo (who is at the 6-week mark this week and has his follow up Xrays!!), it's a combination of these two:

Top Dog Health – TPLO Guide – This guide is a free download, and I also get weekly emails with videos of each exercise. I'm pretty impressed with how thorough it is. It's fairly conservative, and I've been moving a little faster than this guide spells out, but then again, Frodo was in top condition prior to the injury, not overweight, and I have access to a lot of fitness equipment and information – this guide as well as the next one is clearly aimed at a pet audience. I'm sure that veterinary professionals and rehab professionals are cringing right now, but I'm ok with that – and for sure you can reserve the right to blame my use of this and other DIY resources on any rehab failures we may encounter 🙂

MedVetForPets – TPLO Guide – I can't remember how I found this one, but it's also pretty thorough, and includes more exercises with a little faster progression. I like that I can look at the two together and get a rough idea of how to proceed.

Now, I recognize that these PDF files are not a substitute for an individualized rehab plan, and so, like I mentioned before, Frodo, Chispa, and myself will be heading up to Seattle in mid-June to spend some time with a rehab certified veterinarian who also does agility to get some plans for moving forward.

Hillbilly Hydrotherapy

That brings us to Hillbilly Hydrotherapy. With Frodo, since there was no previous ligament disease, and it was a traumatic event, his prognosis for healing is excellent. Getting back to full activity is mostly a matter of building back muscle, once the Tibia has healed. And, building back muscle to the point we were at prior to the incident will be determined by how much muscle wasting occurs while that Tibia is healing. So, I knew I wanted to get him walking in the water as soon as I could. I knew I wanted to be able to do it without driving an hour each way multiple times a week, daily if possible. With Solar, who had a soft tissue injury in 2014, I just used an inflatable above ground pool and walked in circles with him, but I didn't like how he could swing his rear out and pivot, rather than tracking with front and rear together.

When I saw this set up posted by somebody on FB, I knew I wanted to build something like it myself, with a few modifications. Here's my setup (click the image to enlarge):

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On disappointment

This past weekend, Frodo and I headed to Perry, Georgia for the 2017 AKC Agility National Championships. As in the past when I've gone to Crufts, the NAC follows almost immediately after. This year, NAC marked the end of a 2.5 week stay in Germany, followed by Crufts, and then, Perry, GA. Frodo and I have come a long way since our first AKC Nationals together, in Reno, NV, back in 2015. We weren't much of a team, although we did manage to have a good run in I think Jumpers with Weaves. We didn't know each other very well, and I was still deeply disappointed to have lost Solar as my running mate when he was still arguably in his prime.

I didn't go to AKC NAC in 2016, for various reasons, but I'd been looking forward to the event this past weekend, because at this point, Frodo and I are a good working team. We still have places to go with respect to our development, we're not finished growing yet as a team, but we're a pretty smoothly functioning team at this point nonetheless.

I'm fairly objective about our odds most of the time, and in my mind, our odds this year were pretty good, given the data that I had going in to the event. And at the event, in the International Sweepstakes Round, we put down a great run, coming in third by just a few fractions of a second. I'd wanted to do well, although winning would have meant turning down a spot to go to the European Open in Italy. Why turn it down? Last year at the European Open, Frodo had a hard time with the crowds ringside – he's much better at big stadium style events where there's more distance between the noisy crowd and the ring. So, while it's possible he'd be better this year, I didn't feel like it was in line with my goals. In any case, ISC was perfect – we did really well, but we didn't win, and so I didn't have to say no, which is chronically difficult for me.

In our first NAC run, jumpers, we had a solid run, and came in first place. I probably could have cleaned up a corner here or there, but it was a solid run. In round two, we had a solid run going, and Frodo slipped trying to take off for a jump. I felt pretty bad for him, he really does try very hard to keep the bars up, and I can't even remember when the last one he dropped was. But, mistakes happen. The rest of the run was a little wobbly, as I was thrown off by the dropped bar. In any case, that ended my plans for making it to the Finals by just having three clear rounds.

By Sunday morning, before round 3, I was a little angry, and a little disappointed. Not in Frodo, just disappointed with myself, and for not having done better. I tend to run a bit better when I'm a little fired up, so it worked out well for us in the third round, and Frodo and I got first again, which meant we made it to a special Challenger's Round. Winning that round meant another shot at the Finals, and again, I knew the odds were in our favor. That's not the same as saying I think I've got something in the bag, obviously. But if you know the times that you and your dog are capable of, and the times that your competition is capable of, you know if you have a shot or not.

Nothing is in the bag, though, and a miscalculation in Challengers, a mistake on my part, cost us what was a pretty nice run up to that point. Again, disappointed.

After that run, several people came up to me and said “nice run!”, which really was kind of annoying, because it was not a nice run. It was an elimination. It was a nice TRY, but it was not a nice run. And that's ok. But please, don't tell me I had a nice run when it was an elimination. Tell me it was a valiant effort, or a great try, or that it was a great run UP TO THAT POINT, but not just…nice run. I don't want to be soothed in to thinking that an elimination was a nice run, because my personal goals and standards demand more of me than that.

I debated writing about that, or about disappointment in general, because I'm not sure how it would be received amongst the USA agility population in general. I'm disappointed about the weekend, no doubt about that. Over and over, I heard people saying that they were “just happy to be here”. That's fine, and I don't begrudge people that, they SHOULD be happy to just be at NAC. But, that is not how I roll. It just isn't. I'm not *just* happy to be there. I'm there because I want to compete, and I want to try to end up on the top of the heap. Finals is not “just gravy” for me. It's what I'm aiming for. It's the meat at the end of the HUNT. And, this past weekend, Frodo and I came home from the hunt empty handed. Yes, we placed at the top of the heap in a couple rounds leading up to the Finals, but with respect to the BIG hunt, we fell short.

Now, don't get me wrong. Our performances were really good, and I am happy with them. After sleeping off the disappointment of mucking up the Challenger Round, I'm even happy with how THAT run went, ultimately. I messed it up and chose to immediately take Frodo to his leash, and his treats, and his toy, rather than finishing up the run in a fog of disappointment. Frodo never knew anything was wrong all weekend, and historically, hiding my disappointment from my dogs is not something I've always been successful at doing. I can be happy with parts of how the weekend went and still be disappointed, though!

There's nothing inherently wrong with disappointment. To gloss disappointment over in a Pollyanna “well I'm just happy to be here” way, or a “this is just gravy” way, or “this is just a game I play with my dog” way can be limiting, though, in my mind. Of course, this IS a game, but it's not JUST a game. Saying something is “only” a game or “just” a game limits its importance in our lives. There's no doubt about it that this game is basically my life. I eat, drink, sleep, and dream this game. Basketball is “just a game” as well, but my guess is that after a big loss, NBA players aren't shrugging off their loss as an “oh well, it's just a game” moment. Minimizing disappointment, or pretending that disappointment in an outcome is inappropriate because “it's just a game” prevents self-reflection. It prevents rumbling with the uncomfortable feelings of not being good enough, not being able to make it happen when it counted, wondering how things could have been prevented or improved.

So, on the two hour or so drive back to the airport, I rumbled a lot with disappointment. Again, not disappointed with Frodo. He did really well, and I couldn't have been more pleased with him. Disappointed in a couple of my handling choices. And just, disappointed in general that I didn't meet my objective. It's Monday morning, and I'm still disappointed. Last night, while deep in that stage of rumbling with my disappointment, I was questioning whether or not I should go to Tryouts at the end of April. I'm far less certain about the odds being in my favor at Tryouts than I was for NAC, and look how NAC turned out? If I couldn't ‘get ‘er done' at NAC, what makes me think I'm good enough to get the job done at Tryouts? These were the thoughts rumbling through my head while I drove and listened to music.

One of the things I am NOT disappointed in over the past weekend was that I played to win. I was pretty sure, given the data, that I could have “just run clean” in most of the rounds, and that those clean rounds would have been good enough for the Finals. But, I didn't want to play to not lose, I wanted to play to win. I watched several competitors this past weekend play to not lose, instead of playing to win. I don't want to do that any more. I really enjoyed playing to win in Germany, and at Crufts. It's what I enjoy about the bigger competitions. However, if I'm playing not to lose at smaller shows, shifting to a ‘playing to win' mindset at bigger shows is going to be that much more difficult. Sure, there's more risk involved in playing to win, or at least it feels that way, but at this point, I'd rather take the risk and fail than just play not to lose. These ideas are talked about at length in a book I read recently called Top Dog: The Science of Winning and Losing. You can click on the link to read about it if you're interested, and I highly recommend it.

Anyway, so, what makes me think I'm good enough for Tryouts? That's kind of where I left it last night. This morning, I'm still very unsure about the odds. It feels risky. It feels like a lot of money and time for maybe no reward at all other than having taken a risk. I'd like to play to win, despite not knowing the odds. The reward, after all, is a big one. World Championships has always been my dream, my goal, ever since I started agility in 1999 and found out about it. It's not about the notoriety, and it's clearly not about the money (what money?). It's not my dream because it's easy. This dream has put me in front of more disappointment and heartache than I could have ever dreamed a passion would make possible, and yet, I persist at it.

I'm not religious, and I don't believe in karma, but for whatever reason, agility, and THIS type of agility in particular, it's in every cell of my body to want to be a part of it. I've been fortunate enough to be able to participate not one, or two, or three, but five times on that stage. Sadly, just about every time I've gotten there, I've played to not lose. Even now, holding on to the idea of playing to win is tricky for me. Our system of agility in the USA does not promote playing to win, on the whole. It promotes caution, and playing not to lose. Trying to hold on to a mindset of playing to win requires thinking outside the ring gates to some extent. Every time I've spent any amount of time in Europe or Scandinavia, it doesn't take long to get in to the playing to win mindset, and after the latest excursion, I am trying hard to hold on to that mindset with all I've got.

Back to disappointment. I am disappointed by this past weekend. But, I spent some time rumbling with it, accepting it for what it is, and looking at it. Not discounting it, not discarding it, and not plastering over it with trite and happy sayings. I'm still deeply unsure about the odds being in my favor in any way at Tryouts next month. But I can't not go. I will not accept defeat, and my bruised ego will survive. I will get up, and I will go out to my amazing arena and beat my head against those things that I know are weaknesses for Frodo and I for the next month. I will go out and work on precisely the things that make me feel uncomfortable, in an effort to knock some of those things off of that list. And I'll head to Tryouts with a foolish sense of gumption, trying my hardest to ignore the odds and focus on the rewards, because the risk, ultimately, is worth the effort.

The hunt is on.

International Course Challenge: 2-14-2017

Here's the setup, course map, and analysis for the course that we ran in class at Clear Mind Agility this week. Enjoy!

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International Course Challenge 2-3-2017

Here's the setup, course map, and analysis for the course that we ran in class at Clear Mind Agility this week. Enjoy!

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International Course Challenge, 1-23-2017

Here's the set up, course map, and analysis for the course that we ran in class at Clear Mind Agility this week. Enjoy!

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International Course Challenge, 1-1-2017

Here's the set up, course map, and analysis for the course that we ran in class at Clear Mind Agility last week. Enjoy!

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Course challenge for the week of 12-27-2016 at Clear Mind Agility

Here's the set up, course map, and analysis for the course that we ran in class at Clear Mind Agility last week of 2016. Enjoy!

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International Course Challenge – December 15, 2016

Here's the set up, course map, and analysis for the course that we ran in class at Clear Mind Agility the week of December 15, 2016. Enjoy!

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Course map with focus areas – click to enlarge