I am an unrepentant student of dogs. It’s a big subject. My most keen interests have been in areas of how dogs experience their world, canine learning, and the dynamics of teaching dogs. I live with dogs so it makes sense that I want to understand them better. I have discovered that just learning about dogs, their behaviour, and how they learn is surprisingly complex. Our understanding of dogs is growing almost daily as we look deeper into the capabilities of our dogs and our relationship with them. It can be a lot to keep up with.
Years ago when I was just beginning to dig into books about dog science, I needed a practical application for what I was learning. You can’t just read about behavioural science and canine learning. You have to actually get your hands dirty and try to teach dogs. I mean, how can you know if any of that stuff works if you don’t use it? I chose dog agility as my activity of choice with my dog.
My wife had been active in dog agility when I got my dog Tiramisu as a puppy. It seemed a natural fit to just continue with agility as something of a family affair. I took all that I was learning about dogs and behaviour and applied it to trying to teach Tira to be a great agility dog. Interestingly, I found that being an agility dog is really an “extra” set of skills. If I didn’t teach Tira the basic skills to be a good companion and family dog, teaching the agility stuff wouldn’t really do me much good.
As it turns out, dog agility is kind of a big deal as dog activities go. There are world championships, different venues or “leagues” with different skills and different scores, plenty of weekend trials to earn “titles” and test your skills, and classes – lots and lots and lots of classes. You can spend hundreds of dollars on everything from agility “basics” to weekend workshops on how to get your dog to move from one side of you to the other on the course. But for me, it was a training challenge. There were very specific skills that my dog and I had to learn and, for me, the class and workshop formats just complicated things. They didn’t work for me.
The more I thought about it, the more I believed that what I was learning about dogs and how to teach them should be as useful for teaching agility as anything else. So while many of our friends in agility attended regular classes and paid for expensive weekend workshops and seminars, Tira and I worked mostly in our living room and a few minutes each week with agility equipment. After years of success for my dog and I (including several championship titles), it still puzzles me why people spend all that money and time in classes when they might do just as well on their own. Perhaps there is something to the often repeated nickname for agility enthusiasts – “Agility Addicts”.
Trials and tribulations
We spend a lot of time and money travelling to agility trials and we have made some great friends in the community of dog agility competitors. But I don’t talk about it much in this column. That’s not an accident. The truth of it is that I have witnessed some of the best and worst of humanity at agility events. I’ve seen people celebrate small moments of confidence in fearful rescue dogs who are learning to trust again through agility. And I’ve seen people kick their dogs, both accidentally and on purpose, as if they were nothing more than malfunctioning sports equipment. It can be hard to talk about.
I’ve always approached dog agility as a somewhat independent pursuit. For me, it is about how well I have trained my dog and how well we work together. Agility trials in any venue offer me a chance to test my skills in order to obtain a qualifying score or “Q.” But they also score each event with placements so that competitors can compare their results to other competitors to see how they stack up. Some people play to see if they can “qualify” and some play to see if you can come in “first place.” Or maybe a bit of both in different measures.
Agility trials are interesting environments. In addition to the organized activity of giving each handler and dog a chance to compete in the ring, many people are also spectators who like to watch the other handlers run. There is social time where people with a similar interest can talk and laugh. All of it is enclosed in a relatively small space crowded with dogs and people. A big part of dog agility is about managing dogs and navigating a busy and potentially stressful environment for the dogs.
It’s always interesting to me to watch handlers when they step out onto the agility course. It can be nerve-racking to be out there, just you and your dog, facing a course full of equipment with a judge and your peers all watching. The spotlights are on and whatever happens, everyone can see it. At least that’s one way to look at it. Others, like myself, lose all sense of anything but their dog and the course. We are alone in a crowd to play our favourite game for a few moments and enjoy ourselves.
One of my favourite sayings about being in the agility ring to compete is that “This is not a casino.” It’s a test of skills for both handler and dog. If you don’t have the skills to be successful when you step onto the course, they aren’t going to magically appear. But that simple truth doesn’t seem to stop competitors from practising all kinds of pre-run rituals and superstitions. Even if you have the skills, it’s not always easy to use them perfectly every time. Playing agility with your dog means accepting that you aren’t going to be perfect every time.
Perhaps the hardest thing for me to watch is when handlers blame their dog for mistakes on the agility course. It happens a lot more often than you might think. It seems that our very human expectations of our dogs and ourselves can lead to frustration and upset when things don’t go the way we wanted. It is our human emotional responses in those unsuccessful moments that can have the greatest impact on our dogs. And that’s a hard thing to watch.
What the dog knows
Our dogs are not sports equipment, they have feelings and thoughts. Our dogs are not people, their thoughts and feelings are not as complex or as refined as ours. As I watch agility competitors and their reactions to their runs in the trial ring, both successful and unsuccessful, it can be very enlightening to watch the dog instead of the person. Their reactions to their humans can tell you a great deal about the relationship they enjoy, or don’t, with that person.
As a spectator,I see a lot of things at agility events both inside the competition ring and outside it. Too often I see a wary glance or the smallest flinch. The hesitation in a dog’s stride. The sudden interest in a smell when the handler seems upset. Even that some dogs speed up at the end of a course as if they are grateful that “it’s almost over.” All the while their handler is looking at the time clock or hoping the judge hasn’t called any faults. Is this a qualifying run? Did we get first place? Success or failure defined in very human terms.
But there are other runs. Dogs who joyfully run without hesitation or worry. Handlers who laugh with their dogs when things go wrong instead of giving a stern correction. The pure joy and connection that is apparent between some handlers and their dogs shows off the best that dog sports has to offer. A recognition that the dog is just there to play with their human. An understanding that not qualifying is not the end of the world. That finishing second or third or last doesn’t matter to their dog. After all, agility is such a small part of our dog’s life with us.
I’m sure much of what I’ve said here will resonate with people in Dog Obedience, Conformation, Lure Coursing, or any of the other dog sports out there. These are activities that we have created to show off the abilities of our dogs and our abilities as their teachers to show them how perform well. When we succeed, it is because of the relationship I have with my dog, her willingness to work with me.
And when we fail? The failures are mine and mine alone. I am the trainer. I am the one who manages the relationship. I am the one who can make life wonderful or miserable for my dog. I guess it comes down to whether my need for success in dog agility is more important than my need to help my dog feel good about life. That’s an easy choice for me.
Until next time, have fun with your dogs.
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