Sunday, April 22, 2012

10 Habits of Happy Agility Trainers

Yup there is certainly crossover between handling and training .. but I think training deserves a list all it's own! Many of the things here are influenced by my personal pedagogy - and similar no matter what species the student is!

1. Plan your sessions. There really is little purpose in training without a plan. Depending on who you are as a planner your plan may need to be very formal and written out on cards  that you can refer to as you play (for example 1) warm up 2) 6 reps of jump grid 3) teeter work 4) dogwalk work 5) aframe work concentrate on proofing the contact behaviours then cool down - we will spend 20 minutes in total on this)   or it may be as simple as saying I'm working happy contacts this session (which should still include warm up and cool down). Decide roughly how long you want to play and stick to it. Planning your training does absolutely no good unless you follow the plan. All the planning in the world is useless if it sits in a book undone. In order to plan forwards you can either backwards map (start with your end goal and fill in the training backwards from that point) or  you can scaffold (work forwards towards your goal building on the blocks you have in place). No matter which method you chose note taking on successes and failures will pay off in spades (my notes are very rough  - this is an aspect of training I'd love to improve!)

2. Balance your workouts. Training only what you do well is pointless. Training only your weaknesses means your strengths will erode. Training only what you like to teach means there will be holes. Training what you don't really understand will lead to great confusion on everyone's part.
Balance is going to look different for different dogs and people. Brody and I play a great deal with building drive ~ much easier to do with things he knows well. He has some holes in his training but we work so well as a team that we can often compensate for them; therefore, I don't need to work too hard on them. Thea gets bored if we do the same thing twice. We work basic things with her but they always look different. Sally's sessions probably look the best balanced to an outside observer as she has lots of holes to fill but also has lots of strengths to play with. Balance also includes taking time to just be.Sometimes let your dog be a dog and enjoy that. Take a camera with you - it's hard to train and snap pictures. Get a new toy that is just for playing not for training. Take a day or two or a week off. My dogs come back from a training break better than ever often with tough concepts nailed down. I am a huge proponent of cross training - a little rally, a little obedience, tricks, running flat out in a field, swimming - whatever!

3. Differentiate. Not just between dogs but for each dog. Give them alternate ways to learn things. Let me use the table as an example. (I very much doubt that non agility people will read this but just in case - in the AAC the table behaviour one wants is the dog jumps onto the table, lies down for a 5 second count then leaves for the next obstacle). All of the dogs here understand the behaviour required and none are particularly good at it in a trial situation so the table is part of our ongoing training plan. Differentiating the table means giving the dogs lots of ways to really understand the desired behaviour. One session might involve driving at a table in speed and rewarding the dog for not sliding off it. Another might reward the automatic down that is expected of everybody but Thea. A third might be using different surfaces for the table. Another might be proofing the sticking  to the table with a tug session on it. And on and on and on; every variation I can think of that will help the dogs understand what the perfect table looks like.

4. Break it down. Training needs to be achievable to work. Playing with Sampson has really driven home the value of this one. Still wholly shaped for agility he reminds me of the importance of building one brick at a time every time we play. Without luring or physical manipulations as short cuts he can only learn one step at a time. It's taking ages as I work him less than anybody else but his knowledge runs so deep it's amazing. If he's done it once he doesn't forget.

5. Believe in your student dog and yourself. There will be days that you will wonder why you play this sport, if your dog is happy and what the point is. Accept that and be prepared to work hard to support your team. Without being too new age about it, you can learn and have fun together even if you never go to a trial. In fact some of the best fun we have had did not happen at a trial. The journey is fun - enjoy! You can accomplish goals and you will have fun. I know it ~ so you might as well agree.

6. Know your collective limits. In no way do I mean limit your goals and aspirations but recognize where you and your partner are now. If you have financial limitations it may not be the year to chase Top Dog titles. My biggest limitation at the moment is time, creating time for training and competing is tough and has been for many years. If your canine partner is aging, or has soundness issues, or whatever, perhaps you'll have to pick and choose how often and how long you train and what your end goals are. Maybe you have physical limitations? Acknowledging the limits you face will help make training time much more meaningful and useful.

7. Learn from errors, mistakes, even failures! As you play with train your dog(s) mistakes will happen. Absurdities will creep in, have no doubt of that. That's OK! In fact it's cause for celebration. It shows you where holes are and gives you a chance to patch them. Patch them with joy and thoughtfulness not the panic you might in competition which could actually end up doing more damage in the long run. I get fed up sometimes when I am playing lawn agility. Wondering why something I am doing doesn't seem clear to the dog. I stop, regroup, and maybe even adapt the plan! (Be Flexible very nearly earned it's own number!)

8. Understand that everything you do is part of the sexy stuff! I really mean this! A solid nose touch, a rock like start line stay, a zippy tunnel, a happy wait in a crate are just as important as flying fast furious weaves or a slamming teeter. Each brick needs to be solid for the house not to fall. If it doesn't feel sexy to you make sure it's part of your training plan so it doesn't get neglected. With Brody aframes came easily to him so I MAKE sure we keep throwing them into training when we can.

9. Know your student and yourself. Are you inspired by working with a team mate? Watching others? Having lessons? Are you demotivated when somebody does better than you? Is your dog ready to do what you want to do? How long is your dogs optimal learning peak? How many correct repetitions of footwork do you need to do until it feels right? (Does your dog need to be part of every footwork effort? Not in my world they don't!) Does your dog need to be ramped up more often or work on impulse control more often? Are you fraught with nerves in new settings or so blase you run the risk of forgetting what class you are in? How can you work your plan to help with either end of the continuum? Understand all these things as you put together your training plan.

10. Be positive and celebrate the victories together ... in a way that is meaningful to you both! I have said it before and I'm sure it will come up again - positive training leads to positive results in the ring. Dragging your dog, yelling at your dog, punishing your dog in anyway is not positive and it will have a negative impact on your training. When your dog makes a mistake know how you are going to react and what you are going to do and react in that way. If you get frustrated give yourself a time out and go relax. You won't ruin your dog by taking time to calm yourself but you may very well ruin your relationship if you don't! In terms of rewarding Brody could care less if I picked him up and danced with him after he does something right. He wants to run to a crate or spot and be fed and told he's a super star! Thea likes to be cheered and then fed  (she doesn't care where) . Sally likes applause and to bark at me for a toy (or more agility) then food. I enjoy each of the routines for each dog. Training calls for the same level of celebration as competition. Often we ask for more difficult things in training then in the ring so we should reward whole-heartedly and with joy.


Sara said...

Everyone always comments on how I'm always smiling when I'm "working" with my dogs. I guess I'm a happy trainer, because my dogs rock.

If you read only the bold words of your ten habits....they totally work for teaching/training human kids! Hmmm, I wonder if school teachers have a leg up on dog training?

Amy / Layla the Malamute said...


I saw your comment on Sam/Marge's blog. I'm not sure if I'm the Layla whose blog you can't access anymore, but I had to make it private a few months ago (there's a post explaining why lol). If you want an invitation, just let me know (howserbowser at hotmail dot com). The annoying thing is my blog won't show up in your feed; you'll have to click on it every time you want to see if it's updated, but you're more than welcome to follow it! I just need your email to invite you. And if I'm not the blog you meant, totally disregard this!

PS ~ I love this post about happy agility trainers :)