Marge's MACH is one of the things I am the most proud of from her competition career. Her MACH ribbons, the bar and photos hanging on my wall, and memory of her victory lap and MACH party are tokens that represent all we have worked through to become a successful team. More recently, she finished her CD title, which she probably could have gotten years ago, but I held her back until I felt we were both ready. Same with Rally Nationals. I've qualified for them a few times before, but only entered when I put the time in and knew that Marge would have a good time.
There are other things I am working on achieving with Marge, too. Since she is now a seasoned competitor, getting her ready for the ring across an array of venues is not nearly as much work as it used to be. I am spoiled in that she is a very easy dog to compete with, in many ways. It sure is fun to look at her official registered name and see the list of prefixes and suffixes that have become attached to it over the years. She is a jack of all trades type. She is not the flashiest, but she gives her best. We've worked hard to form a real understanding of each other and routine for in and out of the ring.
However.. she is almost ten years old. None of it happened overnight, and I sure as heck wasn't worried about this stuff when Marge was learning to be a normal dog and approach life with joy rather than apprehension.
It seems that not everyone shares that sentiment with me. I'd like to tell a quick story.
At a trial I was at very recently, I witnessed a licensed, fully approved judge essentially will a dog and handler team through a Rally course. The judge gave the handler tips on getting the dog to move while in the ring, blocked the exit to the ring multiple times, and allowed the handler to retry stations more than once. She told the handler to blow in the dog's face to get him to move.
Noble, right? Helping a struggling handler in the ring, who may be a newbie?
No, I don't think so.
This was not a junior handler. This was not someone's first dog show. I didn't mention that the dog was stressed or scared out of its mind, completely unable to work, and was NOT in the Novice class - so the handler was not new to this. And guess what? The judge gave that dog the minimum score of 70, allowing it to finish a high-level title, going so far as to proclaim "you're never going to have to do this again!"
(To be clear, there is nothing wrong with passing with a 70 -- I just feel that this team should have been excused for lack of teamwork, or at minimum given a non-qualifying score.)
What does that title really mean? Are you supposed to feel good about getting a high-level Rally Obedience title when most other judges would have not only NQ'd you, but excused you from their ring because your dog was horribly stressed?
Maybe I am being too judgmental -- maybe the dog was elderly or ill and was going to have to stop training, and it was their last chance to compete for this Q -- but I do NOT think you should compromise your dog's well being to that extent to bring it in to a ring, and I do NOT think that rewarding the handler with a Q is the right way to go. As someone who has competed with a dog who used to fear a lot of things, it breaks my heart to see this. Dog sports should be fun for the dog, not just the handler.
There are other stories I could tell, too -- including what I perceived to be someone poo-pooing me for thinking about holding Red back from his CGC if I feel he isn't 100% ready at the end of his basic obedience classes (for my purposes, the CGC is closer to a barometer on a trial-like performance than it is a measure of community soundness), or, on a similar note, handlers who put dogs in the ring at a young age when it is clear they are not mentally ready for it.
The first few times that a dog goes to shows might be tough. The first time an agility dog smells horse poop in a dirt arena or an obedience dog goes to a two-ring show might produce some interesting behaviors. I'm not saying every qualifying performance has to be flawless. Not every obedience run is a 200 (none of mine are) and not every agility performance is a blue-ribbon, sub-30 second Jumpers run (none of mine are, either). Dogs will be dogs - they will have zoomies, they will sniff, they'll even take a crap in the ring once in a while. But even in the beginning, and especially in higher-level classes, I would hope that every handler that sets foot in a ring expects their dog to have some level of engagement with them, and is not just going through the motions solely to wrap up a title or get that last qualifying leg.
When did we forget that our dogs are living, breathing DOGS, animals who have no concept of a CD, an AXJ, an RAE, and the title certificates should be a testament to a great working relationship - not a badge for sliding by on the skin of our teeth, with no regarding for how the animal half of the team feels about it?
I'm not going to pretend titles don't matter. It IS very satisfying to get recognition on a job well done, or on hardships overcome. But please don't forget about the journey, or forget about the dog, more importantly, in the process.