Many years ago (2003), Greg Derrett (a world-class agility handler who has much to offer the community) published a video with the catchy title Great Dog, Shame About the Handler. Shortly after that, I started training and competing in agility, and for several years, that phrase was what you said about another handler when you saw a wonderful dog confused by its handler’s errors. And people also started saying “my dog needs a new handler” or “my dog is advertising for a new handler.” You can buy t-shirts that say “my dog is handler impaired” and “watch us and learn stupid handler tricks.” (It’s not all bad: you can also buy a t-shirt that says “handler in training, please wait a few months before passing judgement.”)
In one of the very first trials I went to, I was checking results and I overheard someone talking about Elly and me and what a terrible team we were. The handler was very clear: she didn’t think I should be there, I shouldn’t have even tried to compete in that class, and while it was a “shame about the handler,” it was also a shame that the dog wasn’t very good either. It was incredibly painful to listen to. I certainly hadn’t asked her opinion, I’m sure she had no idea I was standing right behind her, but she did consider it just fine to extensively trash me and my dog. I contemplated giving up. For years, until I realized what it was doing to my spirit and my approach to agility, I would answer compliments with “yes, well, shame about the handler.”
On Saturday, I told a woman at the trial I was attending that her dog was great and the first thing out of her mouth was “he needs a new handler.” She was doing a pretty good job with the runs I saw; I could understand why she’d say “I’d like to be a better handler” but she had nothing to be ashamed of.
Okay, I’m feeling exceptionally curmudgeonly lately, but I’m sick of this, folks. We are all doing the best we can, we all love our dogs (or else why would be buy them all those treats and spend all that time training), we’re not about to rehome the dog, and still we say “my dog needs a new handler”?
How about we change this concept? There are so many other things we can say:
- Thank you, I love his teeter
- I’m trying to be a better handler
- I find it very challenging to run him
- Thanks, we had some parts I really liked
- I need to improve my rear cross/front cross/blind cross timing
- I’m really proud of how far we’ve come
- I’m working on improving his weave speed
I’ve been training in running for the last year, and I’ve never heard anyone say “oh, I can’t improve” but somehow in agility, I hear handlers mock their own abilities regularly. I hear handlers mock the abilities of other handlers.
I’m not a particularly PollyAnna-ish person; I don’t think everything should be sunlight and roses at all times. But these remarks I overhear at every trial, trashing handlers who’ve done the best they can? It sets a tone, and the tone is not an enjoyable one.
This weekend, I was really struggling with Jumpers with Weaves. Three runs and no Q; my bad timing was to blame in all three runs, as Rush took off-courses or spun or both. I said to someone “Jumpers eats us alive and spits us out” before I realized that I was doing exactly what I hate hearing other people do: setting myself up so that I couldn’t succeed, no matter what. Now, I’m trying to say “he’s got such a huge stride that my handling has to be dead on or I get a spin or off-course, but I’m making progress with cleaning up my timing.”
In fact, we only had one error–that spin!–in our Jumpers run on Sunday; the rest was pretty amazing. Yes, it was an NQ, but look how far we’ve come!