There were 5 qualifying slots up for grabs in East Durham last Sunday. I knew that there were top teams coming in from the Mid West, Florida, Texas and New Jersey who would be serious challengers. I was also aware that I was coming off a previous weekend where Stanley and I had been less than stellar at another major regional event in Maryland. We had a delivered an very good first freestyle round in Maryland, only to score a very low 2.5 points in the distance and accuracy round which effectively left us out of contention. Our third round fell apart after the first minute. It was clear to me that going into the AWI qualifier I needed to prepare myself and my top dog to stay relaxed, focused and energetic for a full three rounds of play.
How to do this? Well, I can definitely say that the way NOT to do it is to set goals around winning. For me, going into an event saying "my goal is to finish in the top three" is setting both myself and my dog up for failure. What if we perform well and end up 7th? Is that reason enough to be disappointed? When I first started competing I was ABSOLUTELY disappointed and upset if we did not place well. As a result, competing became less and less fun. At one point, I even considered giving up going to contests because of all the perceived pressure.
Staying relaxed firstly means keeping what we are doing in perspective. It's a dog sport - fun, exhilarating, heart felt - but not life and death. The dogs certainly don't care what their placement ends up being. They want to play and feel that you are happy playing with them. Some of them (like Stanley) even tune in to an audience and like to hear cheering as they run, leap and flip for discs. Its fun for the dogs to play with a human that is light hearted and enjoying the moment. Tracy Custer - one of my favorite freestylers - always seems to have a smile on as she's playing with one of her many cattle dogs. Having fun is priority number one every time.
Setting goals around your dog's behavior on and off the field is the other half of the competitive dog sport success formula. Going into the AWI qualifier, my goals for Stanley were as follows:
- reinforce calm behavior when in the proximity of other dogs
- make sure that eye contact has been offered before the release of any disc during the throw and catch round and during specific freestyle segments.
- reinforce calm behavior when resting in the kennel between rounds, particularly when taking other dogs out to play.
- during throw and catch, place the disc high in the scoring zone so that he has to stop running to find it. Cue his look with the "UP" command and mark his looking up to find the disc with a clear "YES". Effective execution of this strategy should result in at least 4 or 5 catches during this round.
- during Freestyle, follow through on two new releases and place then in a catchable zone.
- shoot for an 85% catch ratio during Freestyle.
How did things turn out? We were lucky enough to secure one of the qualifying slots and will be spending 10 days at Purina Farms in October! What a privilege to have the opportunity to perform on some of the biggest stages available to disc dogs. So thankful.