The sport of dog agility is wonderful fun for dogs and their handlers. It requires communication, team work, trust, and energy. Agility is meant to be fast so there is a maximum amount of time allowed for the team to complete the course — and being fast and accurate takes some work.
For the dogs it’s about moving quickly from one obstacle to the next in the correct sequence; for the handlers it’s about thinking and reacting fast enough to direct the dog properly to get them there. And frequently it’s nowhere near as easy as it looks.
I’ve been playing dog agility for about seven years now. It’s taught me a great deal about dogs, from their physiology and instinctive behaviours to their capability to learn and communicate with their handler. It’s been an amazing journey full of surprises and disappointments. Mostly I’ve been wonderfully surprised by the capabilities of the dogs and disappointed by the human handlers (myself included) and their misunderstanding of their dogs. But if you do it mostly right, your dog will happily forgive your mistakes and teach you how to play with him or her.
Navigation Requires Communication
Just over a year ago, I was asked to start teaching handlers what I’ve learned about running dog agility. Most of my students are surprised when they start because I come at the sport differently than most other agility instructors. You see, for me, most of dog agility is about communication and not navigation. Yes, one must get around the set constellation of equipment in the prescribed sequence so navigating it successfully is important, but in order to navigate it together you have to be able to communicate and work as a team.
Much of what I’ve learned with my own dog in playing agility is almost “organic” in nature. It’s timing, it’s “feel”, it seems almost like an intuitive link between my dog and me as we work together on the course. So the trick for me in becoming an instructor to handlers was how to translate all of that “feel” into tangible instruction. Fortunately, a book gave me some insight and some structure for how to present the material.
Go Ahead and Blink
I had stumbled upon the non-fiction book Blink by Malcom Gladwell by accident. The notes on the book’s jacket describe Blink as “a book about how we think without thinking, about choices that seem to be made in an instant — in the blink of an eye — that actually are not as simple as they seem.”
Blink showed me a new view of how humans think, from the ways in which our minds help us out every day by rapidly taking in and processing information to tell us when danger is near or when something is “not quite right” to the ways our patterns of thinking fool us and lead us down wrong paths to the wrong conclusions.
In the course of reading Blink, I began to understand my own journey from a novice agility handler to one who had attained a Championship title (Agility Trail Champion of Canada) with my dog. Much of the seemingly esoteric knowledge I had developed about working with my dog was actually definable and tangible after all. It just needed to be put in the context of how the HUMAN thinks about the sport and not just what they do to physically direct the dog. And this, to me, was a startling revelation.
The World As a Dog Sees It
So I structured the handling instruction classes to focus as much on how we humans think about our communication and relationships with dogs as as on what can be done to navigate the agility course. I wanted the handlers to become more aware of what they were seeing and feeling as they ran with their dogs. I wanted them to understand what the game looked like from the dog’s perspective and through the dog’s eyes and ears. Most of all I wanted them to understand the relationship dynamics that can come from good and bad communication with their dogs.
At first it all seemed strange to the students. Many wanted to get to the running, jumping, going-through-equipment part of agility. We spent a good deal of time talking about what we saw, in ourselves, in each other, and in the dogs.
I tried to impress upon my students that it was important to actually fail! After all, if you don’t do something incorrectly, how do you know what needs to be adjusted? I encouraged them to try “too much” and “too little” in order to find what was “just right.” All the while I encouraged them to reward their dogs for making the effort even if their signals and communication were not as effective as they would have liked.
Removing Fear of Failure
As the weeks progressed, I could see the students relaxing and enjoying their dogs more. The pressure to “succeed” at the exercises was being replaced with a desire to explore what was possible without fear of failure. I began to see students making observations about each other and sharing feedback.
By the third or fourth week, we were laughing together and brainstorming about how to communicate differently with this Australian Shepherd than we do with that Golden Retriever. It was an amazing experience to see my own experience in agility translated through these people into not quite the same thing I had with my dog, but something equally rewarding in it’s own way for both the handler and the dog.
By the end of that first set of classes, the handlers were working more confidently with their dogs. In turn, the dogs were trusting their handlers more. The handlers gained insigh ts and the communication and teamwork between dogs and handlers improved rapidly. And it was extending beyond just the agility field. Both dogs and the handlers were looking less stressed by the end of the classes than they did at the beginning.
At this point, I could say that it all happened in a “blink” but that would be a bad pun. But Malcolm Gladwell’s book had been both an inspiration and a great source of information for me to take a fresh look at human perception and how it affects the way we live and work with our dogs.
Beyond Conventional Wisdom
In moving from more traditional dog training methods to more modern methods based on behavioural science and positive reinforcement, I was forced to discard a lot of my preconceived notions about dogs and dog training. My journey in dog agility similarly forced me to examine and discard a lot of “conventional wisdom” about how the sport of dog agility is trained and played. In doing so, I found my own way and it seems I was able to communicate it to others through these handling classes.
At a class a couple of weeks ago, one of my students came over to me and put her arms around me and said, “I just wanted to thank you. My dog and I are finally becoming a team.” That actually choked me up. She didn’t come to tell me about the ribbons she had won or her accomplishments on the agility course. She came to tell me that she and her dog were enjoying each other more.
She went on to joke that somehow I was psychically training her other dogs as they too were working better together. In reality, this student has become more aware of herself and her dogs, all of them. She was tapping into those powers of observation and intuition that Gladwell’s book had shown me and improving her relationship with all of her dogs.
Our motto at our agility group is “Go fast! Have fun! Don’t trip!” Put another way, trust each other enough to go fast, have a good relationship so it’s always fun, and always keep those basic principles of behaviour, self awareness and motivation in mind so that you don’t metaphorically trip up on the way.
My heartfelt thanks to all of my students who have taught me more than I could have hoped to teach them.
For more about my personal experiences, please read my previous article “Dancing At High Speed” here at Life As A Human.
Go Fast! – Arkuin/Jorge Arcas 2010 from Flickr
Team – Arkuin/Jorge Arcas 2010 from Flickr
Championship Run – Eric Brad 2010