Is competition a good thing?

Is competition a good thing? Or does it eliminate too many, too early, before they get to develop.PuppyclassesJuly302013 005

The goals, the deadlines, the chance to show others how well you and your dog can do under pressure, or how beautiful or fast or obedient your dog(s) are – that’s competition.

Getting together with others who have similar knowledge and interests, being able to speak jargon and have them get it, meeting people who really understand, doing things, lots of things with your dog – that’s competition.

I'm winning!
I’m winning!

Disappointment, triumph, frustration, expenses, travel, anger, loss, wins, luck – that’s competition. Based on the set up, there’s bound to be more people/dogs losing than there are winning – one winner per class, two winners – first and runner-up or best of opposite overall. Even the Dutch system, with its multiple blue ribbons, has one champion/first place.

Competition can be a good thing, by getting a deadline and motivation, lots of stuff gets done; it drives activity and imagination and focus. If you’ve competed regularly with your dog for several years you usually know much more than others do who have just attended training or workshops on the same topics for the same amount of time. Some people treat competitions like a workshop and are there to have fun and not really compete much.

Competition can be a bad thing creating a desire to win at all costs with the dog as the scapegoat for all troubles. It can make better judgement go out the window. It can make the dog less important, more of a thing to manipulate to win, damn the consequences. Competition winners can drive breeding programs, training programs, sport programs – whether they really should or not, because they are WINNERS!

My dressage trainer always felt that training gets driven in the wrong direction by competition patterns. Instead of learning to know when to apply the aids based on the horse’s readiness it was a letter on the side of the arena driving the application. The same can be said of dog competitions, the patterns, the equipment often drive the training, instead of the training being driven by the dog’s needs. I think there probably should be both, but the competition shouldn’t come too early in the process.

I’m thinking competition often comes too early, there is a rush to compete. And it’s before kids as trainers have really learned how to train and before the dogs understand the learning, the fundamentals aren’t there, it’s mostly just hope. But then again there is a procrastination factor, so maybe whenever it was it would always be too early.

Too often the competition outcome is where the training is focused instead of on the need to have a strong, trusting relationship or on the need to learn how to learn and how to fail and then learn from that. If the final competition product is where the training starts, then if the process doesn’t go all that well (as many beginning teachers know is likely to happen when you haven’t taught something before or don’t have experience) then it can end up poisoned for both parties.

For 4H (I’m a dog project leader) the competition at the fair seems too important. Dogs are with us all year, for lots of years. The eight weeks or so before the fair shouldn’t be a rush to competition, ready or not, then OK done, or maybe next level.

Fast need drives people towards punishment (tools for ‘quick’ fixes). Things that they wouldn’t do otherwise start to seem like a good idea. And that route means suppression instead of understanding. Not having great fundamentals means there is nothing solid to build on when more complex things are desired.

Problems (doggy dramas) also drive people toward punishment because suddenly something is very wrong and needs immediate remediation. It’s not just competition that does it, it’s not being aware of what’s happening until what’s happening is so obviously bad it can’t be ignored.

Dog training is used in college psychology classes to teach students about learning models. Dogs learn very much the same way people do (albeit lacking verbal language skills). A couple raising a puppy has a chance to work out the disconnects they have in child care, before they have a child. Being a good trainer is important as a life skill.

We don’t have fairs for parents to compete with their children. How well did you train little Johnny? Blue ribbon, red, white? And parents seem overly concerned about failure – maybe the fundamental understanding about how learning happens isn’t there and failure is a signal to quit and not a signal to try and try again.

Try again and again and again.

I attend a weekly agility class with my dogs. This week the tire jump was included in the pattern and Jazz has little experience with it. She went through the wrong spot twice. I thought no big deal and let her try again, right, reward. Another handler felt I should have dropped the height to make it easier and more obvious after two failures, which is a good rule of thumb initially.

If she hadn’t had lots of reward based training and if she wasn’t confident about trying stuff I’d agree, but she’s ready to have a whole bunch of failures and keep trying. She knows she’s likely to figure it out. If I made it too easy at all levels she’d not be the great learner that she is.

But early competition … I don’t know, the judging and ribbons and the trophies seem … hmm. What do you think?


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