Are you paying attention?

I am not much of a sport fan which means I do not watch the Super Bowl so I miss out on all the flashy ads and the mid-point entertainment. However, one of my brothers did send me a jaw-dropping performance of

Border collies doing a disc (Frisbee) routine.  Wow, I thought, how can they do that?  As a professional trainer, my mind oscillates between the actual performance (the chain of behaviors) and how exactly the dog was taught to do it. While I love to see, dogs having fun and excelling at difficult tasks, I am much more interested in the how.

The same could be said about pretty much any sort of training.  But here I want to focus on sports training.

Dog sports are here to stay and they are ever so popular.  What makes them so popular?  I think there are many reasons why people like to engage in them. Here are some:

1. People enjoy “hanging out” with their dog, and dog sports give them an opportunity to do so

2. The challenge of teaching the dog to do “x” or “y”.  Again, for me the most interesting one

3. EGO!! Yes, pure and simple.  No, not the ego of the dog for sure, but the ego of the handler.  For many folks -unfortunately, their dog’s success is perceived as equivalent to their own or the success of their “child”.  Believe me, us trainers see a lot of this transference when we are working with clients over anything, even simple stuff.

Screen Shot 2017-04-07 at 7.55.12 PMDon’t get me wrong, I think competition in sports have their purpose.  Not only do we have a clear goal in sight, but can really up our game because we have a very compelling motivation to practice hard.

Competitions can also be a very valuable and well-earned reinforcers for the time and effort put into the endeavor. Again, all good stuff!  However, things really take a turn for the worse when the ego of the handler/owner is in the mix.

Now there is no paying attention.  The handlers do not care if the dog is having a good time while engaging in practice or competition.  Think about it, a lot of these dogs are truly being asked to perform at a similar level that our human Olympics are asked to. The difference though is how little care and understanding there is about dog physiology such as developing of the muscles to prevent injury or imbalances that can lead to pain or injuries later on.  Developmental markers as to how much should a dog of a certain age be doing and let’s not forget the dog’s emotional ability to withstand the rigorous practice and pressure of performance.  Yes, dogs can suffer from performance anxiety- just like people.

Dogs can become athletes but athleticism in dogs is something not to take lightly.

I am chatting with another fellow trainer who has participated with her Border collie in sheepherding trials.  If you have never done this, it is easy not to realize how difficult it is. My colleague is not having a good day with her collie at the trial.  And as she explains to me, after the trial the expectation from fellow participants was one of being incredulous a the bad “run” they both just had.  “But, they claim, you ARE a professional trainer.” How is it possible that your pup was not able to perform better?

Ah, expectations!  They will come and bite us in the butt IF we are not paying attention. Here the expectation is that my pro friend should be able to always earn the highest marks, after all she is a pro. But what about people and dogs having less than stellar days?  Has that ever happened to you?  Not only in competition but just in day-to-day life?

Expectations can be very dangerous traps when they are not referenced in reality. The undue burden can really mess thing up for dogs.

The world of dog training unfortunately is not immune to the “shoulds” so abundant in rearing kids and professional performance. My dog should be able to do this or that… my dog should know better (an old time “favorite” of mine….)

I have come across this should and “want” also in respect with my agility courses. From the get go my goal was to teach agility by following a program that would take both novice dogs and handlers from a true foundation, which once learned, would allow dogs and people to happily and successfully engage in the “flashy” stuff of agility. That is: the speed of a dog turning, the precision to follow the course by correctly reading the body language of the handler, because the handler has learned how to do this also, and on and on.

While my clients have really worked hard in learning the basics, they are perhaps taken aback as to how arduous the training can be.  But, what about the tunnel, the weave poles? When can I work with those? They often ask.  And the answer remains the same: Not until you and your pup have mastered the foundation.

Linked to the above is that in training we must have the ability to look into the future- our goal while remain process orientate.  We must know what the final goal/behaviors look like so that we can have a sort of road map to follow, but we must never lose sight into the how we need to get there.

After all, we owe it to our dogs. Who should not be silent participants struggling with our ego and demands but must be joyful and prepared participants of which ever crazy sport we choose to engage in.

If you are interested in the interesting and super, fun challenge of agility taught from the foundation with an emphasis in teaching the dog voluntary participation, to work independently from you, and you both really learning about each other, please give this class a try. You can follow this link   to learn more about the class.  Once there, scroll down to find the listing for the six-week course: Agility from the ground up. (AG1).