Are you ready to race? That's a question I hope all the teams members and team captains will ask as they prepare their tournament entries. I've been concerned over the last few tournaments at the increased occurrence of chasing, lane crossing, dog/dog contact and other interference calls in our region's tournaments. I'm asking for everyone's help to try to reduce that occurrence.
First, I want to emphasize that I am not directing the following comments at any one club, team or individual. This is an "equal opportunity" occurrence, and the judges and I have talked to a number of captains about this problem.
Second, I'm not trying to be "holier than thou" on this subject. For those who don't know, my dog was excused from his first tournament. He crossed lanes and targeted another dog, sending jumps and dogs flying. It's not something I'm proud of, but it happened and it taught me a lot. Luckily the other dog wasn't seriously injured, but I learned a valuable lesson from that tournament. (more about that later)
We have a lot of new clubs and new team members joining the sport of flyball. That's a good thing, but it also brings challenges. One of those challenges is to maintain the enthusiasm and attitude of your members, all of whom want to race as soon as they can. I think we're seeing too many green dogs being put into competition too soon. I hear people bragging about how they just started flyball 60 days ago and their dog is already racing in it's first tournament. Statements like that scare the %#$@ out of me, both as RD and as someone racing in the other lane.
The ability to complete the pattern in a practice situation doesn't necessarily translate into readiness to compete in a flyball tournament. We all know the rare exceptions--the extremely talented dog/handler team who beat the odds and are ready to race in an extraordinarily short amount of time. But folks, that's the exception, not the rule. There are no quick fixes in dog training. If a dog is not 100% at home, he's not going to miraculously get better at a tournament. I hear people say "Well, he chases at home, but that's with the dogs he knows and he won't do that at a tournament." WRONG! He will probably do it more at a tournament.
If you think your dog is 100%, think about these questions: Is he solid with 2 lane work? Have we ever done 2 lane work? Have we ever done 2 lane work with strange dogs? Have we ever done 2 lane work with strange dogs in a strange location?
If you answer no to any of these questions, I'd suggest there's a little more preparation needed before a first tournament. I made some recommendations to a couple of teams this weekend that I'd like to pass along to the group.
- Vary your practice locations. Many dogs are perfectly comfortable in their own practice facility, but it blows their minds to hit the road. Move to a different park, a new schoolyard, another building.
- Contact another team in your area and set up a scrimmage practice. Your dog might not have any interest in the dogs on its team, but everything changes when there are strange dogs in the other lane.
- Don't put too much pressure on a green dog at its first tournament. Consider just warming a green dog up for a couple of tournaments before putting it in the lineup. When you do add it to the lineup, consider just running a few heats per day.
- If the dog is stronger in one lane than the other, consider just racing it in that lane for the first tournament or two.
- Do everything you can to set the dog up to succeed, not fail. If the dog starts to interfere, either in warmup or racing, pull it. You're not going to fix the problem at a tournament. Go back home and re-tool.
- Bravo's problems at his first tournament were caused by my being too eager to compete, not completing sufficient 2-lane work prior to the tournament, and not pulling him immediately when I sensed he was getting distracted. Following that first disastrous tournament, we went back home, worked a lot harder on the distractions, set up as many situations as possible to assess his tournament readiness, then raced him VERY SPARINGLY in his next 3 tournaments (probably no more than 3 races per tournament). Was it hard to wait out with my dog when others I'd started flyball class with were racing? You bet. But it was the only responsible thing to do.
Last piece of advice, don't get too comfortable once you get the chasing problem licked. Some dogs never interfere again; others are always "tempted." Be aware of what's going on around you. If a certain "type" of dog sets your dog off, make sure you know what dogs are in the opposite lane. If you have any doubts whether your dog will stay in its lane, err on the side of caution. Bravo's 9 years old now, on the road to his FMX and has run in every position on our team. However, there are still situations that I know have the potential to go south, and I am never too complacent. Watch your dog, and watch your surroundings.
I know there are some who think the judges and I are too harsh when we've excused and/or written up a dog. I'd like you to think for a moment about the impact of an interfering dog on the dog in the other lane. We have a couple of dogs in the region who were on the receiving end of some pretty intimidating interference at Astrohall. Those dogs are still having confidence problems, attributable directly to the interference. You may think your dog is "just playing," but the dog in the other lane doesn't necessarily see it that way.
Our primary goal must be the safety of the dogs. Nothing can take priority over that concern. If we don't all do our best to make sure our dogs are really ready when we come to the line to race, we're jeopardizing the safety of others.
Thanks for taking the time to read this lengthy message, and thanks in advance for working toward safer racing in Region 5.
I guess the one thing I'd add today is that safety is everyone's responsibility. It starts with the BOD, enacting rules and policies to promote a safe racing environment. The RDs have the responsibility to communicate with judges, tournament directors and club owners about the importance of safety and proper training prior to competition. Judges have the responsibility to promote safety in the ring. If there's a problem, address it quickly and firmly, without regard to personalities or emotional pleas for "just one more chance." Team Captains have the difficult task of maintaining their members' enthusiasm for the sport while ensuring all the proper training and proofing has occurred. They have the hard decision to make of pulling a dog that's not ready, even if it risks team strife. The individual handler is in the best position to prevent accidents. Take a good hard realistic look and honestly answer the question "Are you ready to race?"