O is for It’s OK to tip the WORK/LIFE balance scales in favour of LIFE.

Really? Nearly 2 years? Not a word? I don’t phone, I don’t write. I have no excuse. But here is something that got my muse moving. I wrote this after coming across a link sent to me by a friend. It’s a topic I’ve been musing on since I found myself in a new work environment that has made an enormous positive impact on my teaching career yet has also meant that I am working harder than I have ever done.

Heavily inspired by an article written by KATIE BERLIN DVM (March 28, 2016 For Pet Lovers)

I have a confession to make:
Teaching English to high schoolers is not my favourite thing to do.

It’s hard sometimes, being surrounded by people who say things like “It’s my calling” and “I’ve never wanted to do anything else” and “I can’t imagine my life if I were not a teacher.” I don’t feel that way at all. I was a “non-traditional” education student with a certificate in vet nursing, some work as a vet nurse and a few years of post-University life under my belt. I did everything from studying industrial furniture design, mobile dog washing, to fish and chip short order cooking, to just playing around with an English Literature degree that had Japanese as it’s minor (unsuccessful). I needed to find a profession that would keep me interested and challenged for the rest of my working life. I loved English and reading and writing and I enjoyed gaining my teaching degree and have been largely very lucky in the jobs I’ve had as a high school teaching practitioner. I enjoy my work, feel I’m reasonably good at it, and have a very strong drive to get better, learn more, and be the best I can be at what I’m expected to do every day.

But I’m that way with pretty much everything I do. It’s still just a job to me.

It’s a good job. I love the feeling when things go well. I like to see kids light up about words. I like seeing teenagers and young children grow and learn and think critically about their world. I love our motivated, compassionate teaching colleagues and admin staff and the parents who have more than one child come through my classes because they can’t imagine having their child learn in any other school. But if something happened where I couldn’t be a teacher anymore, I’d be sad for a while, but I have no doubt that I’d find something else to do and have a similar drive to be good at that too.

There are about a million things I’m interested in. I can’t remember ever being bored – ever. There is never enough time to do everything I want to do. But for several years I was really unhappy. Work burned me out, and I started to become a person I didn’t like very much. I was making decisions that didn’t reflect the person I really was. I threw myself into this sport that I just did as a hobby on weekends. I started travelling to learn from international masters of the sport. I read and read and read some more. I emailed and conversed about the intricate details of the art of agility and training dogs. I competed locally, nationally and eventually internationally. I saw how the sport was run in four different countries overseas.

I went to a gym to get stronger and faster, and stayed there learning to do things like Turkish squats and rowing. I discovered I can leg press a significant amount of weight. I rode a bike, taught my dogs to run with me. I got certified to teach other teachers how to teach in my profession and it just kind of trickled and seeped down into my sport. Now I teach agility to individuals, small groups and I have a regular Tuesday night class that nothing at work that day can keep me from. I read – everything from novels to history to social psychology. I love podcasts and Ted Ex videos and listen ALL the time – I’m constantly inspired.

I’ve become an agility junkie and a sponge for all the different approaches and strategies to get the most positive response from my dogs and my students. I’ve turned out to be one of our English department’s biggest advocates for any and all methods (conventional or otherwise) that gets reluctant readers reading and kids engaged with being inquisitive about their world. I’m supportive of any innovative ideas that create spaces where kids feel safe to take risks and speak their minds, where teachers feel safe to try things out and can expand the world views of their students and blow their minds with the amazing things that go on in this world. I’m all for reducing compassion fatigue (teacher burn out is a very real and unpleasant fact of this profession), and using social media to encourage more collegiality, real support and a sense of school being our community. My actual job, teaching proper grammar, expanding vocabularies, marking and commenting on papers, reporting, talking to parents, promoting reading and critical thinking, is fine. I like it. In fact I love it. Most of the time. I get positive feelings from doing it well. But it’s not who I am. It’s not what lights my fire and gets me out of bed in the morning. Four furry black and white faces who are thrilled their human is up and about to take them somewhere on a magical adventure to sniff and run and pee and do fantastically exciting things with them like agility is what that spark is all about. All the other stuff is what does that. And because that fire is lit, I am happier and better at work.

In our profession, as in many others, it often seems understood that we are to live and breathe our jobs and that we took them on because we felt we barely had a choice.

We were MEANT to do what we do. Maybe that’s the case for some people, but I don’t envy them. I love that I have so many passions and have made peace with the fact that dealing with the joys of adolescents, assessing, marking and reporting is not one of them. It does not lessen my skill or my compassion, or make me any less a teacher than the person who hasn’t considered another career since she was 6 years old.

So, to the prac student- teachers, new grads, recent grads in the 5-year slump, and veterans who keep thinking, “Is this all there is? When do I get a break?” – I’m telling you. It’s OK to do other things, and to love them, and to love them more than your job. At the end of your life you will not wish you were more obsessed with work. You will wonder what you could have done if you had been less obsessed, or if you had let go of the expectation of obsession. Life is short. Choose joy. Live what you love – whatever that is.

Self Criticism Vs Critical Reflection

Just back from first session with Cathy Slot from Queensland who is over in Perth conducting a jumping workshop based on Susan Salo’s teachings. She has worked with Susan a couple of times now, including 7 days last year in Canada, lucky girl! Anyway this will only be brief as we are back early tomorrow morning for the practical side of things. I was just struck by an observation I had made about something she was talking about. It was regarding how we probably underestimate the power of watching our dogs and others run in trials as a tool for improving our own training in terms of how our dogs jump. It made me realise there is a difference between self criticism and critical reflection. Maybe it’s my edu-speak jargon coming back to haunt me, having been a teacher for seven years now but the word ‘reflection’ to me implies something you do in order to fix things or make them better or to try and improve. I’m not sure about other handlers but quite often I come off a course in trials in full on self criticism mode, able to articulate stridently to all around me (whether they are even remotely interested or not) exactly how I managed to stuff up that run and what a complete doofus I was in not seeing something early enough and what a pity it was because it was all going *so* well up until that point. I hardly ever (in fact never) take the time to watch any videos of my runs, or think about what happened or what I saw taking place in a reflective mode that is constructive rather than negative or completely destructive. Oh sure I go home and write down what happened in each of our runs, what bar dropped and where or what other errors happened. I have the acronym HE in my trial record keeping. It stands for Handler Error. Sadly it has a depressingly regular appearance. But I digress. All I’m trying to say here is that I really need to start applying more critical reflection and less self criticism to my runs. I know Agility is simply a fun sport we play with our dogs and I have managed to get much better over the years at not holding onto those self criticisms for too long. I know there are those out there who would insist such reflection is probably over thinking things but I am of the firm belief that if we don’t try to improve or make things better or become more skilled at what it is we enjoy doing then really, what’s the point? I’m sure people can appreciate that this self improvement can and should happen on many different levels depending on the persons’ perspective. Whether it’s a brand new agility person who simply wants to achieve attention from their dog as they are walking up to a start line or a world champ level who wants to shave those extra milliseconds off their run by tightening up a particular behaviour performance. It is all relative as they say. So I’m looking forward to this weekend with a view to becoming a more critically reflective agility handler/trainer. Jumping seems like a great place to start as no matter what venue you run in or even what event you do (with the exception of tunnellers I guess) there are always going to be jumps, and they are a whole puzzle by themselves that need to be solved before you can broach the whole agility course problem.

The Dog Walk Debacle

It really is tedious sometimes, attempting to elicit a straight answer from debates on email lists. When the issue of the slats being removed came up at the last ANKC rules review I really had no feelings one way or the other. I figured if they were off or on, it really didn’t matter to me. In 12 years of agility I had only heard of one toe injury that could be proved beyond doubt, that it was caused by hitting a slat in an ugly way. Needless to say none of us here in WA really had a lot of information on this, however, there was a strongly voiced minority who had heard that this rule change to remove slats in the USA had gone horribly wrong and that the slats were replaced fairly rapidly. Yet there were those that were strongly voiced to get rid of them. The travesty that is the ANKC voting system is that it does not use the ‘one state one vote’ system which means WA’s vote counts for one whereas a state like Victoria or NSW counts for two. Seems unfair to me but that’s what we’ve got. So the slats/cleats came off completely. A rather pain in the arse job to do but it got done. Anyway to cut a long drawn out debate short it has been noticed (and still noticed over a year on now) that dogs are mistaking the seesaw for the dog walk and vice versa. Personally I don’t have an issue with it. Slats off the dog walk meant Raven sometimes ‘slid’ into the contact position, it didn’t concern me as she quickly figured out how much braking she needed to do. What I did see and still do see is previously rock solid dogs who ran confidently up the dog walk now come to almost a complete halt as they hug the up plank virtually crawling thinking the plank is a seesaw. I also see dogs that had well trained and well proofed seesaws do hair raising fly offs off the end of the seesaw as they think they were on a dog walk. It happens fairly often, often enough for me to notice. I really think that the touch and visual picture of the slats gave some of our fast dogs a clue as to what they were climbing. I cannot find one other major agility organisation that does not have slats/cleats on their dog walks. IFCS, USDAA, AKC, KC, UKA, NZKC, FCI, CPE; they all have slats on their dogwalk. This to me says something.
So I want to train for fast dog walks. Raven has been known to do sub 1.6 second dog walks in trials, but apparently according to some suggestions from the lists I am on, to have a dog moving at that sort of speed across a dog walk is apparently unsafe and irresponsible. That I should slow my dog down. I had hoped Australia had moved on from this kind of regressive thinking but I see that it is still alive and well in some quarters. Literally hundreds of top level competitive dogs from around the world can train the dog walks to be around 1.5 to 1.6 second mark. This is unsafe according to these thinkers, they believe they see dogs coming off because handlers are pushing for speed. Handlers cannot push for that type of speed, handlers learn how to train a dog who has that innate drive to move at that speed naturally. Dogs do come off when handlers do not set the line nicely onto the up plank or when handlers have not trained their dog to independently set their own line when starting the dog walk. It’s quite frustrating to read these types of statements such as “handlers do not need to have 1.4 second dog walks”. Of course we don’t ‘need’ them if we don’t have any inclination to be competitive at all but then why acknowledge first, second or third place? It’s called ‘Let’s settle for just enough to get us round a course and under time’. Agility is so much more than this. Like I’ve said before I have no issues at all with handlers who want to look at it like this, in fact I encourage them because we need them to keep our sport healthy, but by the same token those of that ilk should not presume to tell those of us who wish to aspire to achieve better in our chosen sport that we are being unsafe in doing so. First and foremost these dogs are our family and we take just as much care as anyone else in the sport to ensure their safety. It is a game we play; but we all know when we take up the sport that we will be exposing our dogs to more risks than your average stay at home pet dog. The enjoyment that our dogs and ourselves get out of it obviously makes it all worthwhile.

Greg Derrett…Chapter 1

We’ve had the benefit of the teachings of Greg Derrett here this past weekend and it has certainly been an eye opener for many of us. To be honest I was surprised more Perth agility people did not take advantage of the unlimited auditing. Everyone has their own ideas I suppose. Anyway the four seminars started on Thursday evening and ran through to Saturday morning. Thursday, Friday evening and Saturday morning all dealt with the younger dogs who were just ready to start competing or had been competing not too long. Then Friday morning was for the Advanced Masters dogs.

Before I launch into a blow by blow account of the four workshops I must make comment upon context. I truly believe that the type of agility competition a country has, the equipment that is used and the rules that are in place has a major impact on the training priorities of your average competitor. Australia is not a hugely populated country like the UK, the sport, whilst it is growing fast has nowhere near the numbers competing that it has in Europe. The rule that you must win in order to advance to the next level brings a whole different perspective into your approach to the sport. I can honestly say that I am glad that here in Australia you do not have to win to advance in the sport. For our sport I believe that would certainly mean we would lose motivation for many of our weekend warriors who set personal goals to progress higher and I think we would see the growth in our sport stagnate.

Should every handler expect to be able to put an Agility Champion on their dog or to win a National final? No, absolutely not. Should every handler be allowed to progress if they have trained and practiced enough to become proficient in running a course clear? Definitely. Agility, ultimately, is a way of having fun, spending time with your dogs and friends and challenging yourself to be a good trainer and handler. Do I want to win? Absolutely, not many people out there who have competitive dogs would say no to that question no matter how much it is not openly talked about! The question becomes then how far am I prepared to go to win? Do I want to go into 98% of my trials in a year and train my contacts so for those 2% of trials of big events I know that I have trained everything to the nth degree and have a much better chance of winning. Let’s face it no matter how much you train (even if I reinforced my contacts for 54 out of 55 trials in the year and do a quick release on that all important big event at the 55th trial) there can only be one winner and we are talking about dogs here, they may just take an extra unnecessary stride somewhere, they might tip a bar etc. I think it would be incredibly demotivating for the handler to approach their trialling career in this way. What makes running agility so much fun and addictive? That feeling you get when you have run a course in the smoothest way possible and you go clear. It doesn’t happen often but when it does it’s like a tonic that keeps you aspiring for more.

99% of most errors on course are handler caused; a simple fact that will hold up under strenuous analysis I’m sure, not forgetting that not only mistakes whilst running the course are handlers’ fault but if their dog is unable to perform a particular skill then there is a gap in the dog’s training therefore handler caused! There are times here when long term, committed handlers go into the ring and have a very specific goal in mind for that run that has nothing to do with running clear and more to do with a specific issue they’ve had in training or trialling. I admit to doing it myself on several occasions when something has become enough of a torture for me to blow off the entry fee and chance of a card and/or win and purely concentrate on reaching that goal of a reinforcing the rock solid start, or that goal of holding contact position, or that goal of independent weaves etc etc. Would I enjoy doing that almost all year round just so I improved my odds when it came to Nationals time? Would that one win in a National final be enough of a reward for me to keep my motivation and enthusiasm in tact for the rest of the year till the next National? The answer is of course a resounding no.

Our Nationals have been running since 2001 and whilst it certainly is the most prestigious event on the agility calendar year in terms of the best dogs in the country run there, it doesn’t determine who goes to a World Championships, it doesn’t lead to a chance to compete at Crufts or at the IFCS Nationals or even the USDAA Worlds Grand Prix. The following weekend or two weekends later you’ll still be back at your local grounds competing with the same dogs and same handlers weekend in and weekend out….and you will still be striving for that nice smooth clean run. So why lessen your overall enjoyment of your chosen sport just to ensure that you have the best possible chance to win a National. It would seem somewhat self defeating to have this attitude. I try and make sure that I budget so that I can enter as many runs as possible at each trial, then if I think I need to, I can use a couple of runs to focus on a particular skill. The rest of my runs I try for that rare, smooth, clean run. I have tried using an entire trial as training runs, and whilst I felt some satisfaction by the end of the night that the skill I was working on is more proficient because of it I still felt somewhat hollowed by it all, like I was depriving myself (and therefore no doubt, my dogs, who always are a reflection of their handler, felt something similar).

What has all this got to do with Greg Derrett you may be wondering if you have hung on this far. Well I think like all presenters you must examine the context they come from and make careful decisions about what aspects of that context apply to you. If speed is the number 1 priority because you have to ‘win out’ of a class, everything you do from day 1 of bringing that puppy home is geared towards that. If you have non-typical agility breed and you don’t have to win out but you would still like to progress through the ranks then maybe speed is an equal priority to other things like teaching weaves or contacts, you might be teaching obstacles in that case a little earlier than the trainer who has a dog who is likely to have the drive and intensity to work plus the structure to be a top world competitor. Maybe you have spent 18 months training your dog and whilst they are not at their maximum speed yet or perhaps not got the perfect contact behaviour happening yet you know they are proficient enough to get round a course with you without any problems. I don’t see any harm in competing in Novice even though your dog is not trained up to a Masters level. It becomes an issue if you do more trial runs than training runs and so therefore you are not reinforcing behaviours on the ring since you are trying to run clear (no tug toy or food). That is when your behaviours will start to fall apart. As long as your non-reinforced runs are severely outweighed by the reinforced runs there should not be a problem with competing early. This of course means more than a one night a week commitment to training then and that’s where the pet dog (ie they had a pet dog and decided to take up agility with it) weekend warriors may come unstuck in the higher levels.

Well this post has turned into a lengthy one. I will write more on the content of his workshops in the next post.