Training begins at home...
You've set off early in the morning to get to the show, 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 go by in a blur as your dog jumps the first hurdle before you're 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. If you are not careful, you can quickly end up in a cycle with future dogs not meeting your dog training expectations. Gemma Fisher thinks it's worth considering where the roots of that performance began.... at home.
When you are experiencing difficulties, various things may spring into your mind. Perhaps it's the breeding of your dog. Maybe you'd be more successful with another dog from a different breeding line - or perhaps even a different breed. Maybe you need to change the food you're feeding. Maybe your dog's diet is causing over-excitement or possibly the opposite - lack of enthusiasm. Possibly it's the training you're getting or the methods you are using. Maybe changing instructor or moving around to gather ideas could be the answer. While there's a certain amount of truth in each of these scenarios, 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 consistency. At the time, I confess to thinking that this didn't bode well. Remembering all the things she was teaching us was quite complicated enough without having to enforce it at all the time, too! Now I'm an instructor myself, I try to remember that, like me, people can be overwhelmed by the information that is being presented at first . When l plan my lessons and stand in front of my students, I am aware that they might not take everything on board straight away.
With new studies and ideas coming out all the time, there is so much to learn in the modern dog training world, but some key lessons remain unchanged.
Consistency is essential
I can think of many occasions when I'll have been chatting to someone as they've been getting their dog out of the car. I hear them tell their dog to wait just as the dog barges out to say 'hello.' When I've jokingly pointed it out, people are usually a bit red-faced and try to shove the dog back into the car again. Of course, this really it isn't the dog's fault. It hasn't been taught any differently, Moreover, in the handler's eyes, it isn't really a major problem. But how often is this the same dog that doesn't stay on a start line which does, causing the handler tremendous frustration. Can you see that if our expectations aren't consistent - a nice, crisp black and white - then how can we expect our dogs to perform to our expectations?
So now, when I'm teaching, can I realistically expect people to completely re-think their home live so it revolves completely around their dog's training needs? Once upon a time when I was young, foot-loose and fancy free, I might have, but now my life is rather busier. With lots of demands on my time and money, I appreciate the stress that other people are under in their daily lives.
One of the key messages that most modern dog trainers teach is that we need to allow our dogs 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. Dog training is a skill like anything else. How much practice time you're able to devote to the theory and mechanics side of things has to be taken into account. When you are goal setting, you need to be realistic about what time you have available to meet your goals. Our priorities will be different according to our own personal experiences.
It's also about realising that simple changes can have really long reaching consequences. It's important to be aware of the cues you are giving your dog when you are talking to them. If we don't actually expect the cue to be followed, then best not to use it!
What the dog is actually doing may not be what we think they're doing. Videoing yourself doing some simple training and watching that back can be incredibly helpful. Here I'm thinking of the people who turn to me and say 'Did they move before I released them?' when their dog does the 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 of this article 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 you just how much fun agility can be. 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.
About the author...
She is also a self-employed dog trainer who runs Daybreak Dog Training, a North Somerset dog training school, teaching everything from Kennel Club Good Citizen classes through to competitive agility and specialist workshops.
She has been in agility for about ten years now, and currently competes with Ella (Border Collie) at G7 and Championship classes. Her two youngsters Diva (Shetland Sheepdog) and Jade (Border Collie) are due to come out to play in G3 next year.
For more information about Daybreak training go to www.daybreakdogs.co.uk