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Thursday, October 29, 2009

Epiphany on Teamwork w/ My Dogs

Epiphany(s) Regarding My Doggy Partnerships

A few weeks ago I was running Spot in a trial on a very fast Jumpers course. Ahead was an off-course tunnel and to the right, but not immediately obvious, was the correct weave obstacle.

As Spot and I approached the intersection of obstacles I began my usual weave alert drill which is to say 'weave' early, stop my motion, allow him to load and then off I go while he performs the obstacle independently.

As was expected for the course design, Spot didn't immediately see the weaves (but a glance at his head told me he did see the tunnel), so I held my ground, didn't move from my well-placed position and just kept saying "weave, weave, weave, weave, weave" until he successfully found and loaded into the poles, just as I had trained him to do.

Epiphany No. 1 Well, I wasn't surprised IN his abilities, but I was amazed at how much faith & trust I had in him. When I think back on the moment, I knew that he'd be able to accomplish the task (years of repetition had taught me this) and just like in training, I needed to give him room to figure it out for himself and to own that part of our teamwork.

Epiphany No. 2 was that at some point in our Agility Relationship, my role had moved from Mentor to Leader and Spot's role had moved from Trainee to Right-Hand-Man.

This is interesting because with my young dogs, I'm in the Mentor Role (where successful skill repetitions in varying situations is the goal) and will be for several years. After all, the kind of effortless partnership Spot and I have doesn't evolve overnight, but it did successfully develop over years, just like it did with Pinky. Our team work is equivalent to that comfortable pair of shoes you automatically reach for and know you can count on for a sense of security, comfort and fit. Sometimes we just forget that those comfy pair of shoes started out a little stiff.

Our Current Training Plan: These days I don't practice with Spot and coincidentally when Pinky was older, it was the same way. We don't train at home (at all), we don't take classes and yes, these days we simply show up at trials. I just want to say one more time that the early years of learning, training & repetition has made this possible. I also knew I'd hit this point when:

Epiphany No. 3 These days, when I enter that ring with Spot, there are several things I am absolutely confident about.

  1. We are a team
  2. I am confident that my dog knows his job
  3. I trust him to perform his part (because I've trained it, proofed it, was consistent and thanks to prior repetition, it's ingrained for both of us)
  4. I clearly understand both of our factual strengths & weaknesses
  5. I know that my job on the team is to have a solid plan the moment we step into the ring
  6. We will be successful, whatever success means at the moment, and
  7. We are a team (yes, I intentionally added this in twice )
Without having the items above, going into the ring is the equivalent to a gambling crap shoot that always favors the house. I wouldn't take such a high risk using my hard earned cash so why would I gamble my dog's experience with me, our time AND my entry money with such poor odds?

As I mentioned previously, to get to that final stage that Spot and I are in, there was a period of evolution that lasted years. Some things to keep in mind during this phase are:
  1. You & your dog are going to have periods of time and/or age appropriate skills. For example, a 16 week old puppy isn't capable of the mental challenges of an Excellent style course and a dog who has been trained in Agility for only 2 weeks isn't going to have perfect weave poles. These are natural progression phases that cannot be skipped by any team - no exceptions. Right now you're thinking "Dah!" but what makes this phase such a challenge is that every dog is different and there are no visible mile markers to tell you "Now entering 'I forgot all you taught me stage'" or "Now leaving puppy zoomey zone". We enter this phase blindly and we're continuously surprised by things as both ourselves and our dogs are developing.
  2. You should always be building toward a working relationship with your dog. Let me guess, another "Dah" moment . But remember that my definition of a working relationship is closely tied with the words 'team' or 'partner' and not words like 'dictator'. I am a firm believer in creating a thinking dog versus a robot who requires me to make all of the decisions and be in charge of every portion of our interactions. I do this because on an Agility Course and in life, I need my dog to make smart decisions for themselves. I cannot be everything to everyone/dog, so why adopt that falsehood when it comes to my dog? This is where:
  3. Teaching skills creates a common ground for my dog and I to communicate around and it reinforces my expectations and smart decisions.
  4. There are moments when time with my dogs is about the skill and moments when it's about the relationship, but you can never have one without the other. I'm not trying to speak in riddles here, but the truth is that if you fail to have a relationship with your dog, you're not going to be successful teaching skills and vice versa, if your dog is lacking in skills, you're lacking the type of relationship that allows you to reach Epiphany No 3.
There are a lot of deep thoughts here for everyone to digest and it has taken me years to develop and put these philosophical dog training beliefs on paper! I look forward to any questions since this is just the tip of the iceberg : )

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