You’ve set off early in the morning to get to the show, you’ve walked your courses and now you’re setting your dog up on the start line for your first run of the day. The next 30 or so seconds goes by in a blur as your dog takes the first jump before you were ready, takes a few off course obstacles for good measure, sails over the contact points with high abandon, and after a few attempts just about manages to negotiate the weaves. You’re left wondering whether all that time, money and effort is worth it, and head back to the car more than a little disappointed with your dog’s performance.
It’s worth considering where the roots of that performance began; otherwise you can quickly end up in a cycle with future dogs not meeting your dog training expectations. Various things spring into people’s minds when they’re experiencing difficulties – perhaps it’s the breeding of my dog; maybe I’d be more successful with another dog from a different breeding line, or perhaps even a different breed. Maybe I need to change the food I’m feeding, my dog’s diet is causing their over-excitement or lack of enthusiasm at the other end of the scale. Possibly it’s the training I’m receiving, or the methods I’m using, changing instructor or moving around to gather ideas is the answer. There’s a certain amount of merit in each of these areas surrounding a dog’s agility performance. But for me the key thing that handlers forget to consider is what the dog is doing during the rest of its normal day, and what it’s learning about your expectations of it over any given 24 hour period.
In the very first dog training class I attended over 10 years ago, the instructor explained that the most important part of successful dog training was being consistent. I confess to thinking that this didn’t bode well, as remembering all the things she was teaching was quite complicated enough, without having to enforce it at all times too! Now I’m an instructor myself I try to remember that when I plan my lessons and I stand in front of my students, because someone that is overwhelmed by the information being presented isn’t going to find it easy to take on board. And whilst there is so much to learn in the modern dog training world, with new studies and ideas coming out all the time, some key lessons remain unchanged.
Quite simply, reliable responses in our dogs come from consistent expectations, from handlers that live their training rules. Those people aren’t just training their dog when they go into a formal training environment like a class, they’re aware that their dog is learning all of the time. It’s about being aware of what we’re saying to our dogs as much as anything. I can think of countless occasions when I’ll have been chatting to someone as they’ve been getting their dog out of the car, and listened to them tell the dog to wait as the dog barged out to say hello. When I’ve jokingly pointed it out, people are usually a bit red-faced and might try and shove the dog back again, but of course really it isn’t the dog’s fault – it hasn’t been taught any different, and in the handler’s eyes it isn’t really a major problem. But this is also usually a dog that doesn’t remain on a start line, which does cause them tremendous frustration – can you see that if our expectations aren’t consistent and a nice, crisp black and white, then how can we expect our dogs to perform to their potential?
So when I’m teaching I’m expecting people to completely re-think their home lives, and revolve around their dog’s training needs? Once upon a time I might have, when I was young, foot-loose and fancy free, but my life is rather busier now. With lots of demands on my time and money, I appreciate the stress that other people are under in their daily lives. So my expectations about what change we can reasonably manage, differ from person to person. My key aim is to help handlers realise that unless they’re able to devote themselves fully to dog training on a day to day basis, they shouldn’t be disappointed in themselves or their dogs if they’re not making massive strides forward each week. One of the key messages that most modern dog trainers teach is that we need to teach dogs that it’s okay to fail. Funny how we’re happy to be patient explaining this to our dogs, but forget that the same rule could, and indeed should, apply to us too. Because dog training is a skill like anything else, and how much practice time we’re able to devote to the theory and mechanics side of things has to be taken into account. When we’re goal setting we need to be realistic about what time we have available to meet our goals, and our priorities will be different according to our own personal experiences.
Plus it’s also about realising that simple changes can have really long reaching consequences. Learning to be aware of what cues we’re telling the dog when we’re talking to them, and if we don’t actually expect the cue to be followed, then not to use it! Learning to be aware of what the dog is actually doing, and not just what we think they’re doing – videoing ourselves doing some simple training and watching that back can be incredibly helpful. Here I’m thinking of the people that turn to me and say “Did they move before I released them?” about their dog on the end of piece of contact equipment. I’ve practiced being aware of what’s happening even when I’m running flat-out, so that I would know if my dog has moved before I released them. But it’s a skill that needs practicing, just like anything else.
Simple though it might sound, working on key points like this help make the difference between a run like I described at the beginning, to a run that could earn you a rosette to pin proudly on the board at the end of a long day. And more importantly, this sort of focus helps remove a lot of the frustration surrounding your dog agility game and can serve to remind us just how much fun this should be. Because at the end of the day our dogs spend more time as our best friends and loyal companions than they do canine athletes. A long walk in the woods with my lovely lot is one of my favourite ways to start the day, their enthusiasm and joy in the simple act of running and playing never fails to make me smile. They remind me then, as they do often throughout the day, that sharing my life with them is much more than just the dog agility training we enjoy together. It’s about how much fun we have together the rest of the time too :-)