Friday, August 26, 2005

We're not all freaks ...

So Mr. Pants pointed me toward an article in Slate about dog sports, specifically agility. It's kind of cool to see an article on the topic at geeky news site, but what's not so cool is that a lot of the article is complete bullshit.

First off, the tone of the article seems to be "So you want to be a world-champion agility competitor?" This really gives a skewed view of what agility is about for most people. All but a few of the people I know in agility just want to do something fun with their dogs and are happy with the little wins we achieve at local and regional trials. The few who are aiming for national competition put in quite a bit of money and time--which is what the article implies are necessary for everyone. Not so at all. It's not cheap, and you do have to take a lot of classes and build some training time into your schedule, but you don't have to pay world-class trainer Stuart Mah $75 an hour just to make it into master's level competition. (BTW, he is excellent--he's one of the people you'll see if you ever catch agility competition on TV).

But even worse is this sentence: "The bad news: If you haven't been training Fido since he was a wee pup, you've likely already blown it." That's absolutely incorrect. I didn't start Lucy in agility until she was six years old. In fact, she didn't even take a basic obedience class until she was one year old, and even then we almost failed it because she seemed very put out by the idea that I would make her do such boring and stupid things. But she's sheer joy out on an agility course. I'm the one who needs more work, since 95% of the problems one runs into in competition are handler errors. Getting your dog to do each obstacle correctly is fairly easy compared to getting yourself to learn to read a course and come up with a strategy for it, and then successfully communicate it all to your dog on the fly in actual competition. Our worst problem is that I'm usually slightly out of position at crucial moments, which translates to Lucy as confusion about which obstacle she's supposed to take next. I'm pissed that my mother didn't give me handler training as a toddler ...

What really ticks me off about this myth that you have to start a dog in training at 49 days is that it perpetuates the belief that you have to go to a breeder and pay a lot of money for a (probably highly inbred) puppy from champion lines. My friend Diane has tons of titles--in flyball, agility and herding--on a mutt who was adopted and returned twice to a shelter before she got him. And he's just an all-around great dog who's happy to keep the sofa warm when he's not out playing sports (i.e., he doesn't drive her crazy with obsessive-compulsive energy).

But the really horrible, horrible thing was this bit on "evaluating" puppies (from a "trainer" named Mirabelle Wrist): "To test the puppy's pain threshold, spread the front paws and press a fingernail into the sensitive flesh between; ideally, the dog can withstand this for four or five seconds. To evaluate trainability, hold your dog supine for a few moments. If she overcomes the embarrassment and returns to you, she'll be a willing, forgiving student." I cringe every time I hear or read someone perpetuating barbaric methods of training or "evaluation." Why on earth do you need to know how much pain your puppy can withstand? Proper (and civilized) agility training does not involve inflicting pain on a dog. And why would you need to see if a dog will "forgive" you as a measure of "trainability?" What are you planning to do to the poor dog? If you use positive, reward-based training methods--as every trainer should--your dog won't ever need to forgive you. So is this woman beating her dogs to get them to do agility?

And finally a more minor quibble: to "illustrate" the article, the author linked to a page of photos that contains a few examples of bad ways to teach the obstacles. The worst: The first photo shows someone training an A-frame by luring a leashed dog over the obstacle. This is not only dangerous--if the dog freaks out and bails over the other side, you could end up dangling him by the collar--but there are much better ways to introduce a dog to contact obstacles. They also show a handler teaching weaves by luring the dog in and out between the poles. This method usually results in slow weaving, clumsy footwork and a dog who is dependent on the guidance of the handler to complete the weaves. The channel method is better for getting a dog to do fast, independent weaves.

Yeah, OK, so I am a bit of a freak, really ...

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Lisa, your frustration resonates with me in so many ways.

In museums, the people you are going to irritate the most with a topical exhibit are those who know the most about that topic...because you are never going to "get" all their details and never going to tell the story the way they want it told.

In reenacting, I'm on the other side of that. We get profiled quite a bit in newspapers and they either make us out to be sentimental racists, weirdos, or half-hearted family campers. And they'll always focus on the odd-balls in the bunch and never really get to why this hobby is interesting TO ME.

In "media criticism", this stuff makes me extra wary of what the press writes, and extra critical of how they write it. This is not a partisan complaint because it ails all reporters: they just can't seem to get stories accurately. I keep saying that if you tell a reporter 2+2+4, they'll write it up as 2+2=5. So I end up extra skeptical about how things are put together, like Ross McElwee's documentary I wrote about.

So I guess that makes me a bit of a freak also.

Chris G