Having a dog like Duncan as a first agility dog has been a blessing in disguise. He’s not a boy who runs for the love of the game; he runs for the love of me. It’s been my biggest challenge to learn how to make that rewarding for him. He’s a shy guy who worries, so our agility journey has included finding ways to help him find his confidence. When he’s got his brave on, he just flies. We’re still learning, but we’ve picked up a few good ideas along the way.
I’ve learned to maintain a positive attitude; while training, while walking the course and while we’re waiting for our run…if Dunc knows I’m concerned, he starts to wring his paws, and that leads to a tentative performance. As a result, he’s made me more efficient and much more positive handler. If I’m annoyed after a day at work, I need to either check my attitude when I get out the clicker, or admit defeat for the night and trade training for snuggles on the couch.
I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve walked a course and heard other handlers say that they know their dog won’t make it through a sequence, or take the correct end of a tunnel. And you know what? Most of the time, they’re right. Worries can become a self-fulfilling prophecy. I don’t proclaim to be innocent of negative self-criticism… I do have to tell my inner voice to shut the hell up sometimes. I can get very competitive, where doing well is my main priority. But that’s not the way I do well in agility… not by my own choice…but because Dunc requires it.
Why? With Dunc, I saw the chance to compete in sport again, and do well. But shortly after beginning to trial, it became apparent that only one of us was having fun. Dunc was shutting down completely on course, and I grew ever more frustrated because the same dog who ran joyfully fast in practice showed me every avoidance behavior ever invented at trials. My sweet boy was unhappy, and I needed to either find a better way for him, or something else where we were both having fun. The agility bug bit me, but I wasn’t fair to continue to ask him to do something that upset him.
In searching for a better way, I was shown how to train by shaping, using only positive reinforcement that allowed Dunc to figure out how to learn on his own terms. The change was immediate. He fires up every time I get out the clicker, and is so responsive to encouragement, that I began the long process of eradicating as much negativity from our training and my head as possible. I could train in a positive manner, but until I also committed to thinking positively, Dunc knew my heart and mind weren’t completely on board. In short, I decided to believe in us as a team…if I couldn’t believe that Dunc was capable of doing well, who else would?
I don’t ever approach a course thinking anything less than “we’ve got this”. Because if I step to the line thinking we’re beaten then we are.
I’ve often heard “when you have a fast/slow/bar knocking/distractible dog you can’t do that cross/sequence/contact or make time’. To which I think ‘don’t limit yourself’. We all have unique challenges. Dunc’s challenges are no tougher or easier than any other team’s…he’s just Duncan and I accept him as he is. It’s how we figure out a way to overcome and work through these challenges that makes the journey worthwhile.
I know our limitations and we play to our strengths. If you know you can handle a sequence in a different way, then go for it! It’s amazing how far a little positive thinking (and boatloads of practice) will get you. If a popular method of handling isn’t working for you, find another way. It may take a lot more time and effort, others may criticize your choices…but if you know it’s the right for you, stand up for your teammate and do it.
And when something doesn’t go as planned and we don’t do well on a run? I hear the words of a very wise friend in my head. “Finish happy”. This game isn’t about my ego, or our Q rate. If I want a sport that I can walk to the line in a bad mood and assign blame after a crappy run, I’d better find one without a living, breathing, feeling partner. This game is about the bond between handler and dog…and it goes far beyond what I ever thought was possible.
If these thoughts make me Sally Sunshine, that’s okay with me. There are enough negative things in this world already; I don’t need to make up more. So each time I get my dogs out to run, I try to remember the important things. Run Fast. Take up the Challenge. But above all…