Friday, July 1, 2011

Volunteering At Trials - Blog Action Day

Clean Run Magazine had an editorial by Monica Percival in their July 2011 issue called "Help Wanted", about volunteering at trials.  It seems it is getting harder and harder to get volunteers.  Yesterday I emailed Monica in response.  Today, I noticed on the Agility Nerd's blog that he initiated a Dog Agility Blog Action Day, inviting all agility bloggers to discuss volunteering on their blogs so other agility enthusiasts could hear their views.  It's a VERY HOT TOPIC, and bloggers first chance to group discuss! So I'm posting my views here, too, an expanded version of my letter to Monica:

I’ve only been competing for 14 months. I run one dog at 8”, another at 20”, 4 runs per day. One running Excellent B, the other brought up from Novice thru Excellent A this year. I'm not an experienced handler.  Every run is a personal challenge. My only options to volunteer this year have been the FAST classes I don't run, Novice after graduating from that one, Open when I no longer had a dog there. Short, easy stints, however, the entry level classes run at the end of the day, and now that I don’t have to run those, I only hang out to watch Novice and Open runs if one of my club mates/students is coming up through those ranks.  By then I'm exhausted!

Plus, I video the runs of most dogs in my club, plus some other notable teams I follow. Most high level trainers recommend videoing every run and studying them afterwards, which I do.  This is an invaluable training tool and I notice more and more people ring-side with video cameras.  I can't video and volunteer at the same time.

Also, trials are so loud and stressful by nature, so nerve-wracking, I find I need to conserve my energy. Without PA systems to announce what's going on, I have to concentrate hard on not missing my walk-throughs, memorizing my courses, preparing me and my dogs for our runs.  I now tend to avoid people because all it takes is one snide comment, one rude look, to mess with my concentration and set my whole day on edge.

Gate Keeping is my favorite activity but everyone has their own opinion how it should be done, thus volunteering for this job is always a gamble.  The problem, in my opinion, is that there is no standard. Gate-keeping, Timing and Scribing are skills which could be taught in a methodical manner, but everyone is making it up as they go. I don’t like feeling I’ve offended someone at the gate. I certainly don’t want to be responsible for messing up someone’s score.  But where do you learn how to scribe, read the judge’s hand signals, not watch the dog, what to do when in doubt about what you saw the judge do?   And Timing, while easy, requires some knowledge of electronic equipment and the responsibility of not transposing numbers.

Leash Running, Bar Setting, Scribe Sheet Running, and Chute Straightening are easy enough, they could/should be looked upon as opportunities to introduce non-competing volunteers to the sport. Girl Scouts, 4H’ers, volunteer firemen, computer clubs, etc., could set up their promotion tables for free and wear their T-shirts at our trials in exchange for working these easy positions.  Many community service organizations are looking for exposure, and need community service hours.  However, they all require some training. For instance, if you see a divit alongside the weaves, do you leap out between runs to go fill it in, or wait for a bar height change?  Or is course condition strictly the competitor’s responsibility?  Shouldn't every leash runner be taught not to pick up the leash while the dog is still on the start line?  I've filmed several dogs who become distracted watching a stranger make off with their leash.

Since every job is so important, why doesn't each organization put out an e-course on how they want everything done, standardize it, and make it available to their Ring Stewards. Clubs steeped in the old “learn as you go” system would balk at it, but more progressive clubs might gather their helpers for an orientation before the trial and show the video, explain how all the jobs fit together, how every piece matters, make “Bar Setting” seem important. Set a professional standard.  We're not an infant sport any more, operating in a "wild, wild west" manner.  We could even use such training sessions to popularize our sport.

My bottom line, I attend trials to run, hopefully to Q, and earn titles. I have to take care of my business first. Between check-ins, pick up armbands, listen for whistles and judges that don’t project their voices, walk throughs, potty the dogs, potty myself, run, cool down, eat, hydrate, cheer on my club-mates, check and record my scores, file my move-ups, help orient new competitors, take the videos, try to remember new friends names, stay positive, develop a tough hide, don’t take rude comments personally, and learn from others’ handling techniques, I’m mostly stretched all I can stretch.

Not to mention, I spend upwards of $3-500 for a 3-4 day trial, including motel, entry fees, gas, food, etc., and while I’m only attending about 10 trials in 2011, and only within a 4 hour radius of my house, that's still about $4,000. Some of my club mates are trialing every few weeks at much farther distances! Some hold jobs just to pay for their agility addiction. Then there are the classes I attend each week, and the seminars, another $500-1,000 a year. And countless hours of volunteer work for my club. I can’t even imagine the money or the nerves required to trial internationally! Are they expected to volunteer?

Agility is an adrenalin rush, truly addictive, rapidly growing, an explosion happening before our eyes . . . . quickly becoming a business. People are getting more and more serious about Q’ing, everyone I know seems to be adding new dogs to their families – border collies for a greater challenge, mixed breed rescues, etc. Some people run 3-6 dogs a day! And there is a lot of networking going on around the rings. Volunteering is eventually bound to take a back seat with participants who consider themselves "competitors" and "customers", not just folks out socializing and "having fun with their dogs".

For our own club's trials, we rarely lack for volunteers because of our "25 Volunteer Hours per year to qualify for reduced rates on our classes".  Club members who qualify get to take our club's Obedience classes for free all year, and Agility classes at half-price.  Non-qualifying members pay $75/class.  That's an enormous motivator for local people to join our club as well as volunteer at our trials, seminars, and other club activities.

With all that said, I do feel a twinge of guilt about not volunteering. The offer of lunch doesn't tempt me much because I eat light when competing and bring my own food -- V8, grape juice, fruit coctail, Powerade, crackers, chips.  I can sometimes persuade my grandson to set bars if there’s a free lunch ticket, or even a drink ticket, in it for him. I tell him he needs to earn his lunch. When my husband attends any trial with me he helps set courses, and appreciates a hearty lunch.  Other incentives -- run tokens, raffle tickets, reduced RV parking fee, a nearby restaurant or motel coupon -- are all nice!  Being able to choose between them would be nice. This year my husband got drafted as our club's chief course builder when ours had an emergency, and he worked his tail off all weekend from 6 a.m. to close (4 days), without even so much as an offer of a club T-shirt!  I bought him one myself @ $10.  Special incentives for those doing extraordinary things above and beyond the call of duty should be proffered, I think.  Who gives the volunteer Gate Steward or Trial Secretary a prize?  I hope they get to run for free!

But mostly, I thrive on feeling included.  Being invited to an organizational meeting, asked my opinions, assigned tasks or problems to resolve, being actively recruited, actively mentored by people eager to teach me, is what makes me feel good.  Being on the outside looking in, wondering who's calling the shots and why them, where nobody makes eye contact when I offer to help nor asks my name, and frowns when I ask a question, does NOT inspire me.  Every trial, I think, needs a "Happiness Coordinator", someone with exceptional people skills who does nothing but circulate, see if folks need anything, if they're being treated right, smooths out wrinkles, never gives out dirty looks or says ugly things like "Ugh, I don't like small dogs?" or barks orders like "Get this crate out of the walkway" instead of "This isn't a good place for your crate.  Let me help you find a better place."

Bottom line, I think everyone at trials is somewhat stressed.  I don't notice it so much while I'm there, but when I get home and review the videos, I can't believe how much noise there is -- dogs barking, barking, barking, air conditioners whirring, people laughing, clapping, shouting, things clanging around. All the milling too and fro. Elation at Q''s.  Disappointment at NQ's.  It's a nerve wracking environment that takes some getting used to.

If the sport can’t survive without a large team of volunteers, then something must be done to inspire more volunteerism. We certainly don’t want to drive up the costs!  Along those lines, I really do like the idea of breaking up the longer classes into 2 or more height divisions, so the ring workers could sign up to work only half a class, and run their dog in the other half.  It would also help if the Ring Steward wore a special hat, vest or arm band, so you could tell who to talk to about volunteering and scheduling conflicts.  I rarely know who the Ring Steward is.

Michele Fry

Since writing to Monica, fearing I'd be viewed as a negative nay-sayer, I was most gratified to read all the posts from other agility bloggers (see link above), who shared similar feelings and offered some great suggestions. I had no idea there are so many agility bloggers!

Upwards and onward!

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