Don't forget, it's a team sport...
For many of us, one of the reasons we enjoy competitive canine sports so much is due to this attachment we form with our dog(s). Reciprocally, to succeed in these sports, one must start with a good, solid relationship with the dog. Kathy Herzog began this article with the idea in mind of discussing forms of reinforcement and reward, and how these concepts relate to agility training. However, as she began her research, she realised that an exploration of one's relationship with one's dog is much more germane and basic to the ultimate goal of having a cohesive and successful agility team.
The deep and lasting bond that develops between humans and dogs is a fascinating phenomenon that has been researched and written about extensively. This bond is unique: different from Man's relationship with almost any other animal. You can't exactly have your horse or bird snuggle on the bed with you.
Understanding how dogs learn, and understanding the bond between you and your dog are very closely linked topics. Janet Lewis (1997) states, 'dogs that are trained by handlers who do not try to understand how their companions learn will never be able to quite master the rules of the game (p.10).' Similarly, the mutual trust and respect you help engender with your dog is key to later training.
Three Steps to Training
Finally, you maintain the behaviour: ask the dog to sit at different times, in different places, etc. (Lewis, 1997).
While these steps are basic, it is important to have a conscious understanding of them as you teach your dog new things, and reinforce previously learned behaviours. Patti Hatfield, in her wonderful agility seminars with Stuart Mah, stresses that one should always take advantage of any training opportunity to reward one's dog. Yes, uninterrupted rounds are exciting, but the dog does not learn half so much as when you take your time to reward and reinforce throughout the running of the course. Even with an experienced dog, go back to basics often e.g. rewarding for the perfect completion of one obstacle, and don't ever fade out food completely from one's training sessions.
Agility is a very fun way to spend time together, but don't under-estimate the power of merely hanging out, or playing games like tug, etc. You may be surprised that as you become more mindful of your relationship with your canine friend, your performance in the agility ring will improve.
Kathy Herzog, a clinical psychologist by day, lives in south-eastern Massachusetts (USA). She was born in England (Cambridge) and has a sister who lives in Oxford so she visits frequently. Although she grew up in America, she has entertained thoughts of returning here to live, but the quarantine laws put her off since she has three Pembroke Welsh Corgis. In addition to Agility, she shows Keri, her Corgi bitch.
Agility therapy: Do you find that people don't understand your relationship with your dog. Do their eye's glaze over when you start talking about agility at a party? Help is at hand. There's a worldwide audience out there waiting to hear your true stories or see your pictures of your best friend. You can share that special feeling that you have with dog with others of the same disposition by sending it to:- Agilitynet.com