Five Odd Things the Olympics Can Teach You About Dog Sports
Like much of the world, I was glued to my television watching the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio, Brazil. As a competitor in the sport of dog agility, I love to watch athletes compete in other sports and to look for similarities between whatever sport I am watching and agility. I also love listening to the Olympians' interviews. You can learn so much about sports psychology and how top athletes view the mental aspect of "sport" by listening to their experiences and carefully chosen words.
Here are five things I learned from watching the Olympics that can directly relate to dog sports (and, really, most sports.)
#1: Don't Turn the Camera Off Too Soon
As a former journalist, I am interested in how events are covered. I pay attention to what the analysts say and which camera angles are shown. Because of this, I noticed something from the Olympic coverage that I had seen many times before but never linked it with dog sports. After a race, game, or event, the camera operators didn't immediately turn their cameras to the scoreboard to show the time or the score. They didn't immediately turn off their cameras. Instead, they focused their cameras close up on the competitors. They captured the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat. They captured teammates celebrating together, and they captured teammates consoling each other.
In agility and other dog sports, we video each other's runs. This is a great thing to do as we can later go back and see what we did right and what we did wrong. We can analyze our handling and get better. But so often after a run, the videographer will turn away from what is possibly the most important part of the run—the exiting of the ring—to focus on the time. Once the dog goes over the last obstacle, the camera clicks off.
The truth is the ending is where the bond between the handler and dog is best showcased. It's where the handler should be pouring praise onto her hard-working teammate. It's where the two should be celebrating their successes, leaving the analysis of their failures for later. A good videographer should be focusing in on the ending so the handler can later evaluate whether she is praising her dog to the moon or not as she puts on the dog's leash. Is she giving the dog happy praise? Is the team's bond showing? Or is the handler slipping on the lease and exiting the ring without partying with her dog?
What would people think if the USA Beach Volleyball team of Kerri Walsh Jennings and April Ross left the court after a win without acknowledging each other? What if they scored the winning point, went over to grab their things and left without the high-fives, hugs, and celebration? You can bet the media would be all over it, wondering about their partnership, questioning the state of their team. Shouldn't those of us who have another species as a teammate be even more aware of the importance of celebrating and rewarding our partner after a run—whether fully successful or not?
Those videoing agility runs and other dog sports should ignore the time. A handler can get that information from any number of sources. Instead, focus the camera on the team's reaction at the end. That's where the proof of how successful the team's bond is will be on full display.
#2 Diversity Is Important
Maybe it's just my area of the country, but agility in my region is very....white. Watching the USA Olympic Team, it has been a joy to see athletes of all colors representing our country. We are the "melting pot," after all. We are known for our diverse cultures and a wide range of skin colors.
So if all of that is true, why is agility in the USA so white? I haven't seen any blatant race discrimination in the sport, and I am left wondering why agility doesn't represent the proportional percentage of the skin colors of the USA. It is pretty obvious that having a "colorful" USA Olympic team leads to success. If having athletes of all stripes compete improves sport, then we can assume it would also improve agility.
I honestly don't know why agility is so white, but there are things we can do to diversify the sport.
- Be sure to make those with skin colors other than yours welcome both in class and in competition.
- Don't be too cliquey. Be sure to visit and spend time with people who may not look like you either physically or socio-economically.
- Greet and help newbies to the sport with a colorblind attitude. Encourage them and help them adjust to the ins and outs of showing.
- Know your prejudices and work to overcome them.
- If the opportunity presents itself, be willing to demonstrate and promote dog agility in areas of the community that are more racially and culturally diverse.
- Discuss the issue. Bringing light to the issue instead of ignoring it can help competitors feel more comfortable to reach out and involve those of different colors.
If we pay attention to the lack of color in dog sports, we can slowly work to change that deficit. By becoming racially diverse, we can strengthen our sport and help dogs across the board.
This Particular Club Is Known for Generously Clapping for Competitors.
#3 Don't Forget to Applaud
When I first started agility, people clapped for every run. Cheers and slaps on the back greeted each competitor as they ended their run and went to sit in the stands. Whether the run was great or terrible, as long as the dog was well treated, fellow competitors would cheer.
Over the years, I have watched this cheering slowly subside. I, in fact, have found myself cheering less and less. Today cheers erupt for only great runs or only by close friends of the competitor. I know it gets dull clapping for every-single-run. I know that it's easier to get excited when a team does something stupendous on a course like great speed or wicked weave poles. But the Olympics taught me something.
Cheering for each other is important.
While watching the USA women's indoor volleyball team, I realized the women sitting on the bench were on their feet most of the game, rooting for their teammates on the floor. You could feel and hear the women supporting each other. There was a feeling of oneness—not individual glory.
I wonder sometimes if we have lost something important when we cease to clap for other competitors. Each team has a unique story and unique struggles. As long as the dog is well cared for, safe and loved, each team deserves an "atta-boy," regardless of the outcome of their run. After all, they showed up. They attempted it. If the dog was treated well, he probably had fun. That alone deserves a cheer and a slap on the back.
#4 Consolation Is a Prize
In my region of the USA, there has been an upswing in the number of people giving unwelcome advice to fellow competitors, especially after a blown run. I am hearing more complaints than ever about people standing at the ring exit waiting to tell fellow handlers where they messed up and why. That is not something a handler needs to hear immediately upon leaving the ring. At that time, the handler should be focused on praising their dog, not listening to unasked-for critique.
I think the agility community should take a lesson from Olympians. I am not sure which race it was—perhaps the Women's 100 meters—but after the race, one of the cameras focused in on a pair of runners from the same country. One had failed to win the gold. She was devastated. The second runner from the same country apparently had not expected to medal, and she had not. The second teammate went over to her fellow teammate, gently took her hand and rubbed her friend's wrist to console her. It was touching. I don't recall the consoler saying anything. She didn't tell her friend how she messed up. She didn't give her unwanted and unwarranted advice. She was just there kneeling next to her friend who had collapsed on the ground, offering support by just being present.
Years ago, my dog Aslan was injured during a run at a busy trial. I was very upset. I was unsure what the injury was until we could get home to my vet. Most people said they were sorry, and then happily went on relating to me how their runs went and how their dogs were doing that weekend. I couldn't handle hearing about their successes when the future of my dog's ability to run agility was up in the air. I went off to sit by myself, near tears. A friend came over and sat with me. She said nothing. She just sat, unselfishly, with me. She had things to do. She had friends and family to watch run. She had dogs to take care of. Instead, she sat quietly with me. Supporting me. Consoling me.
I learned a lot from her that day.
All too often, I am the one standing at the ring exit ready to offer unwanted advice when what is probably most needed is just a friend standing in support, saying nothing or just offering praise for what was done well.
It's time the agility community hold each other up in comforting support and let the judges judge.
#5 Don't Forget Your Team
After watching the swimming events, I noticed how much more fun the Olympian swimmers were having in the relays where they were on a team with usually three other swimmers. The camaraderie of the being on a team allowed them to share in the joy of victory and the disappointment of defeat. It seemed their emotions were heightened during the team events, and you could see them work even harder in the pool to not disappoint their teammates.
The USA ladies' gold medal gymnastic team also showed wonderful camaraderie and beautiful friendships. Their constant chatter supporting each other during their routines was encouraging. With few exceptions, their smiles after a teammate performed a great routine seemed real. They appeared to have more fun competing together than competing individually.
Team sports, it seems, are more fun.
Fortunately, dog sports are all about teamwork. Our teammates are furry and don't speak English, but they play the exact same role as human teammates do in other sports. They give us a teammate we can turn to at the end of a successful performance to whoop it up, raise our hands, and give each other high fives. While dogs aren't humans, we still don't want to let them down. We want to give our teammate our best. We want to handle as well as possible in order to allow our teammates to shine. Our dogs encourage us through their trusting eyes to be more than we think we can be, not just for ourselves, but for them too.
Team sports are more fun. Those of us in dog sports are blessed to have the most trusting, furry teammates who don't judge or hold grudges when we mess up. It's the best of all worlds. Play your dog sport as a team.
Is Success Metallic?
I learned much more watching the Olympics—such as gold can be found in all of us—but this small list will have to do for now. I love the Olympics, and not just because it's fun to watch sports. I love the Olympics because we can learn so much by watching athletes struggle against forces that would keep them from reaching their best. Whether those forces be physical, mental, emotional, governmental, prejudicial, financial or more, watching people overcome great odds to reach success makes us all better. Defining what "success" means makes us all better, and "success" is rarely metallic. The Olympics gives us two weeks to remember that winning isn't what it's all about, and don't let any "elites" in your dog sport say it is. Often Gold is won by struggling just to show up.