20 September 2011

Project Top Handler-How's that working out for ya: A lengthy essay on goal setting and what to do when those goals appear to end in massive failure.

The year of 2010 was a pretty good year for me and Otterpop. We had a pretty good run of things dog at the dog shows. We had a good time at the 2010 Regionals, and I had this idea. How about I stick Otterpop on a plane, and me and her go try our hand/paws at a big agility event-the USDAA Nationals in Louisville, Kentucky.

We gathered up the money, lots and lots of money. I taught Otterpop to ride in a tote bag, and we flew across the country to compete in the dirt and dust and autumn colored Kentucky air right down the street from the Kentucky Derby. We did ok. We learned a lot, me and Otterpop. We stayed in a hotel next door to Colonel Saunder's antebellum chicken headquarters. We went to Waffle House and the Haunted Tuberculosis Sanitorium in my tiny blue rental car. We just missed out on making it into the Performance Grand Prix finals by a fraction of a second. Overall, though, I felt like I made lots of errors and Otterpop wasn't running her best because I wasn't good enough to show her how.

This made me feel pretty shitty. I wanted us to do our best, but neither of us could do it because of me. And I wasn't sure why, exactly. We both love doing agility, and we both got to the level of being pretty good. And what we found was, the better we got, the more fun it was. So becoming better would be directly proportional to tons more fun. And the shittiness, begone.

This is sort of a reoccurring theme in my life. I do stuff pretty good. Hell, I can do a lot of stuff pretty good. You would be surprised at the list of things I can rattle off of stuff I do pretty good. I just taught myself to play ukulele a few weeks ago. Once I cut holes in a wall of my house and installed windows. I can eliminate under eye puffiness and crows feet in Photoshop. But I'm not the best at anything.

Actually, the window thing, not even pretty good. Those turned out to be pretty crummy windows, and trying to make them level ended up with me laying on the ground weeping.

Aside from window installation, I am pretty good at making things fun. So how about if agility, which is fun, is made funner by being the best, which we then find out to be tons more fun? Something we wouldn't know about due to not being the best at yet. But conjecturing, way more fun. Are you following my reasoning here?

After much thought, like at least 20 minutes of thought, I decided to embark upon a year long project called Project Top Handler. My idea was to see, would a year of hard work and gritty focus towards a specific dog agility goal result in a marked change in our agility performance? Would I emerge, after a year, like a shiny, sparkly butterfly from a cocoon of 10,000 Malcolm Gladwell hours, a top handler, running a top dog of such amazing skill and speed that we'd win lots of prizes or even if we didn't win, have such consistently awesome quality runs that I'd at least FEEL like a top handler? I'm not a big prize person. I didn't want the trophies and ribbons. My house is too small for stuff like that. I just wanted to be Really Good. That sounded fun.

And then, it maybe it would get even better. Like the local paper would write another article about us. And then filmmakers would make a Lifetime movie about my saga starring someone like Sarah Jessica Parker. Or Nancy Botwin. Reese Witherspoon! Someone plucky and persistent and hot in an oddball way. Who wears non age appropriate clothes and totally works them. Otterpop would get to play herself in the movie and I'd be the dog wrangler. We'd eat lunch at the kraft services table and they'd have a lot of vegetarian selections.

Tim Gunn would hear about us and offer to consult on my wardrobe in a constructive and useful way that allowed my choice of footwear and me and Otterpop would ride more airplanes and checks would be direct deposited into my bank account and I'd get an iPad because I actually need an iPad due to all the traveling and we'd be on the road to fame and fortune and awesomeness experienced by all the other top dog agility handlers. And I'd be on the ride to this fame and fortune with Otterpop, a weird little tank dog from the side of the road in Watsonville and I'd practice courteous, humble speeches about me and Otterpop and how to do nice smiles that didn't expose my missing front tooth and I'd also probably need a Blackberry or an iPhone. Maybe even a bodyguard.

It was going to be a whole new life for us, me being a top handler.

It's been almost a year. And I can say with certainty that exactly none of those things have happened to us.

I have been trying very hard. I have coaches who are on the World Team and a coach who IS the coach of the World Team. I listen carefully to the advice of many top handlers that are generous with their time in trying to help me. I take good advice and try stuff out. I Jazzercise and share a personal trainer with my friends once a week and do painful homework for my cores. I train my dogs. I cross train my dogs. I run other people's dogs. I watch lots of people run their dogs. I read things about dog agility that are a little boring and I have to focus hard on to have excellent reading comprehension. I use CRCD. I have tried about a gazillion creative things to improve Otterpop's startline. I have a positive attitude and gratefulness. I am nice to my dogs. I tried Canadian mental management techniques and went out to dinner with Susan Garrett. I tried visualization. I got a fuel efficient car for all the dog agility related driving I do every week in my quest towards topness. I let Gustavo be Gustavo.

This has made me a busy person. I hardly ever see my husband. I don't have time to be funny. I don't have time to paint things. My cores exist under a layer of jiggly fat from eating on the run. I try to file those things in the bad for life, good for story drawer and keep on with the project. I am obsessed.

And here's the kicker, as in, just kick me in the can. Otterpop's agility got worse.

If I am working 89% harder at agility, her performance this year at trials deteriorated by 87%. That leaves 2%. The amount of fat in milk. I'm not even sure what that 2% is, other than a very low interest rate. I am not the best at statistics. Clearly. But studies show that if you work really hard and you get worse, something is working wrongly, not rightly.

I think that's what studies show. Except maybe in the Secret. Did I forget to follow the Secret again? Is that the problem?

When I look in my notebooks, as we worked hard this year to make agility faster and funner and nothing but awesome and great and better and fun, her performance in trials got slower and stickier and more sad startlines than happy ones. The more rewards and exciting extravaganzas we had for blazing fast starts in practice, the worse and more stressy and depressed and looking like under the duress of hornet nests Otterpop got at dog shows. So we are having more fun, things seem to be getting better, but the end result is not going in a logical direction. Top Handlerism is only working in the privacy of agility practicing and classes.

My friends and coaches have tirelessly tried to come up with ideas to make this better. I have implemented many of them. OK, maybe not the Prozac. A real idea by a well known agility mastermind. I am pretty sure I don't want to put Otterpop on Prozac. And the chiropractor. Otterpop doesn't like to be touched.

She did visit a dog psychic, Miss Latifah back in Kentucky. You'd be surprised at how many people say, did you bring her to a psychic?

I know. Dog psychic. Recommended by many straight faced, college educated, dog trainers. Mostly straight faced.

Miss Latifah gave me the creeps a little bit. OK, a lot. And one thing she said that Otterpop said, to her, in dog psychic language, was that she does the dog shows just for me. And also that she really wanted me to move some piece of furniture in the bedroom somewhere else. I never figured that one out, exactly.

On America's Top Model, they don't have to win with their dog. Project Runway, usually the team challenges are the ones that get the ugliest. They're solo ventures, the best one left standing at the end of a series of arduous trials and tribulations. Project Top Handler, I guess I saw at as this thing about me and my dog. Specifically, Otterpop. Ruby is retired from agility or pretty much anything involving running and Gustavo, well, I'm just trying to see if I can get him to use his newly ammonia free brain in a productive manner. He's a work in progress, once again this morning he couldn't even take a treat from me on the agility field and then he wanted to run away into the forest. Thanks to diligence and creative thinking and rewarding and not giving up, he ended his training session doing a little bit of agility later and playing with his toy and eating some treats, so happy ending but not very top handler. But every millimeter we inch forward is progress, with Gustavo we're just on Project Trying Just to Be Somewhat of a Handler.

Goals are important for achieving excellence. I read that somewhere, maybe on Facebook. Facebook is awesome that way, quotes galore from the Dalai Lama and Tony Bennett and dead football coaches. And don't get me wrong. My goal is very fun. I like my goal. I tell myself that when we drive home late at night through the construction zone on Highway 17 after agility class after having nothing for dinner except wine and some crackers. That's something I know about myself, I need to make most of my life very, very fun at all times or else I go crabby and door slammy and take on the sour expression of a striped sock emo girl. Otterpop is the same way. We must maintain our sense of humor at all times or we will explode.

But I guess what I was hoping, was that it would go how it usually goes in the movie version of things. Velvet and the Pie win the National Steeplechase event and Liz Taylor is dripping in diamonds and Michael Jackson until the day she dies. Danny Noonan wins the big golf match in Caddyshack and Bill Murray blows up the golf course. Donny dies at the end of the Big Lebowski, but they all go bowling.

Maybe me and Otterpop are more Big Lebowski than National Velvet. Who the hell knows. It is not uncommon for people to tell me to shut the f&%k up. Project Top Handler still has time before it expires. I'm just sayin. I think perhaps, instead of becoming the best, or even staying pretty good, we actually have gotten worse. It's a conceptual quagmire. Do they ever make a movie version of that? Even on Lifetime? Would that be that thing that it's the journey and failure is only a state of negative mind places not inhabited by Dalai Lamas and the greater you fail actually you are not failing you are achieving something that, don't worry, isn't failure? The clock is still ticking on the Project. I will let you know how it turns out. Probably.


Anonymous said...

The Dude abides. That goes for TSD, too. To make this post more meaningful, I used caps where dictated by grammar. I never use caps....

Lynn Ungar said...

This is a very good point, Mary. Laura, although you may not be Top Agility Handler, you are Top Agility Blogger with funny stories, poetic descriptions of derelicts in Santa Cruz, champion illustrations and videos in which Gustavo does for real look like a speedy little black weasel. Susan Garrett may be Top Agility Handler, but her blog is largely about selling stuff and isn't a bit funny, let alone no illustrations.

Nancy Gyes said...

But Gustavo IS getting better. You have had a couple weeks in class of the G-Man looking pretty fabulous. Don't give up, but if you do, could you still come to class and just entertain us?

Deborah D-H said...

I think Project Top Handler turned you into Agility's Top Blogger!

Love reading your stuff - especially loved this posts illustrations -

Look forward to seeing you at another event!

Deborah D-H Pm2 Dog Agility team
(Rickie Roo, Gigi, LC and the pack too)

HurricaneDeck said...

Sounds like what happened to me in law school - the more I studied and cared the worse my grades got. So I just decided to have fun with it and I actually ended up graduating on time.

Your work ethic is amazing - I love hearing about your successes and I share in your not so successes - keeping plugging away at it! Maybe one day one of the big venues will allow you to bring a frisbee into the ring!

Michael B. said...

You're a pretty darn good writer, even if you used laying for lying because failures do make us better. And you have a great imagination. And, and, you have become a better Dirt Nite Trainer. Honest.

Celeste said...

Brilliant post and I can relate to wanting to be a Top Handler. Except I've been lame for about six months so the Project has been sort of on hold. Except I have a BC and you have an Otterpop. So things are a little bit different. So even though I can't Totally Relate...I can definitely Kind Of Mostly Relate in a heart-felt sort of way.

But that's not why I'm writing. I just wanted to type "DUDE ABIDES" but somebody beat me to it. I also wanted to type "TOP BLOGGER" but several somebodies beat me to that one, too.
Oh, well.
But I can still say: "Love you! You make me laugh! You give me hope! and Love your blog!" THANKS!

Marilynn said...

would you consider flying to Dallas so we could have the pleasure of your company? We love to laugh at ourselves here, and there are lots a lots of pretty good handlers down here. You'd feel right at home. Oh, and would you bring Otterpop? My Podengo has fallen in love with her illustrations.

Elf said...

Your blog is way better than almost any blog out there. Plus your illustrations. Plus I've seen you do agility, and your handling is way better than mine, too, and I think I've been doing it a lot longer.

I'm sure I've mentioned Remington before. Remington was my first agility dog. When we first started, Jim used to say things in class like, "When you have a fast dog like Remington," and then within a couple of years, it turned into, "When you have a slower dog like Remington...." It was so sad. Made me cry. Made my cry at trials. I was chasing all over the countryside trying to fix his contacts--seminars, agility camp, trips to southern CA--. I really really worked at it but I never fixed them, plus trying to get him to go faster just turned him off completely and he got really slow.

I don't have an answer to your puzzle, but the answer to mine was that I got Jake, who could get Qs and even placement ribbons, and whom I could train in agility all day long and he never got tired of it. So with Remington I almost never practiced doing agility (so that, when I did practice, he became really fast again as long as I didn't do very much of it). And I stopped caring whether he ever earned a Q or got a placement or even ran the right course, and he got pretty fast in the ring again, too. Oh, and sometimes other people ran him for me, and he was pretty fast then usually if it was people he knew. But I'm not sure whether I could've let it all go if I hadn't had another agility dog who was more border collieish and was happy to obsess about agility, too.

He never did get his 3rd masters standard Q or a superQ either. But he was getting to be pretty darned fast indeed again, as long as I didn't worry about contacts or correct courses or anything.

But of course one really wants National Velvet.

Shannon said...

I think it's good to dream big. But for goal-setting, something that SG has said resonated with my experiences. Goals should be performance-oriented (rather than outcome-oriented), and should be realistic, and timely.

When I focus on an OUTCOME (like winning Steeplechase, for example), rather than part of my PERFORMANCE that I am able to control (such as breathing, executing crosses with correct timing, etc.), things don't go so well.

Also, my feeling is that there is NO way you got worse this year. Your skills and knowledge have improved, and things WILL click.

Best wishes --

Anonymous said...

Well, I again laughed, sighed and teared up a little (yes, we in So. Cal seem to cry easily)reading today's blog - you've been on quite a journey this year and so many of us were able to be along for the ride with you. And you must know that all of us experienced our own ups and downs too and that's why we relate so well to your blog! There's no question that you are a better handler today than you were a year ago...you've just done too much work not to be; it's just this darn mystery of Otterpop and why she insists on not running fast at trials with you.

We all have to learn to enjoy the journey no matter what the results -- it seems you gave it your all, made lots of new friends, worked with instructors who are masters at this sport of dog agility, spent a lot of time with your dogs, and made lots of people smile. Not such a bad year!

Looking forward to the next chapters of TSD - agility, walks, nursing home visits, no ammonia on the brain, your wild neighbors and of course your unique sense of humor about all aspects of life!

Beth & Lexi

team small dog said...

Oh my blog reading pals, thanks for saying all those nice things. I am too obsessed to stop doing agility, I don't think that will happen. And I am too easily bored to stop writing a blog, so there are likely more stories to come. Otterpop just ran fast in class and Gustavo ran with minimal weird incidents. I brought him tofu hot dog chunks. The Dude abides.

Jodi, eh? said...

All I know about goal setting is if I go on a diet to lose weight, I gain some and if I go about my business of working, playing and loving with some form of creativity mixed in it all, my body feels just about right.
You are brilliant at so many things....

vici whisner said...

Being the handler I am, short, of more weight than I should, slow and having a fast dog that everyone says, "wow, she could be a world champion" has truly been an interesting ride. I hear people on the sidelines (you may think I can't, but I can) say, "whoa, with a different handler, that dog could really be something."
I can sit here and think about how much better Fin could be if she ran with someone whos name rhymes with Merrit, or I could just go out and have fun and be the best I can be.

We are stuck with the dogs we have. Simple truth.
Our dogs are stuck with us. Another truth.

Fin loves me. Otterpop loves you.

They both love agility. Simple. Have fun.

It is our heads that tell us there is somthing wrong. Of course we have to be better. It loosing some of the fun if we aren't trying to improve. That is a good thing. I want to be a champion of the world and have a system that I follow...but sometimes everything we do right doesn't translate and we have a team mate that wants to make a chiffon purple top when chiffon is so last year.

You are one cool lady with some pretty wonderful dogs. You are improving. Breath deeply, don't worry so much about statistics, and enjoy the ride.

maryclover said...

You know how it is when you are standing right next to the tree and all you can see is the bark, and then you take a few steps back and realize it's a tree and then (if you could fly) you could pull back even farther and see that the tree is part of the whole forest? Well for the last year you've been right up against the bark concentrating on each little piece that makes up the whole tree or even the forest. It's really hard to see how far the tree has come in that last year. Take it from the friends, students and instructors who've worked with you this last year and know that being a top agility handler/champion is not really about he ribbons and trophies (which you don't want anyway). You may already be there or at least be a lot closer than you think.

Oh, and you are really funny!!

Amy Carlson said...

I just keep reading my life through your words. I did buy your shirt and when I told my husband I was tired of Hog Wars, or whatever that show is about wild hogs, he said "but that thing on your shirt looks like a wild hog".
I want your hair, though.
BTW - The XL juniors fit nicely!

Amy Carlson said...

Oh and if you name a dog Dude, what nickname do you use?

Anonymous said...

Laura....you are brilliant, gifted, and entertaining!! I always love seeing you (at Regionals) and miss when I don't (most of the year)....You have a heart of gold and a great love for your animals and all of ours too!! Come south and visit, but until then....keep writing!!
love from more of your small dog friends, Jackie and Stevie
ps- Beth and I will have a run up the hill, in your honor and Otterpop's, at Cherokee Park next month....

Anonymous said...

I LOVE your blog!!! I follow SG, too and I envy you having lunch with her. Really. I agree with the comment that maybe the goal of being Top Handler is to big a goal. Break it down. Maybe have it be that you and Otterpop (love that name) are the best in class once a month; then once a week, etc. I'll bet you and the "O" will be Top Handler and Top Dog before long..at least by 2013.