The past couple of weeks, as Zora gets closer to earning her Novice Superior titles and thereby moving up into the Open classes, I’ve been pushing her skills at a distance more in prep for my eventual agility goals with her. I love the idea of NADAC’s bonus boxes and run indexes and extreme games.
Distance handling skills and comfort working at a distance are something I’ve incorporated into my training with Zora from the get-go, but like I said, lately our training plans have included pushing those boundaries further. And I’ve been getting frustrated. Because while she is able to do many pieces, her speed and response to directional changes have begun to deteriorate. And she has been clearly confused at times, just lying down to ask for me to come help give her better information (1)
Yesterday I watched a video by a well known NADAC handler and trainer, and I was reminded, “Oh yea, footwork.” So, we went out to train and review a few basic skills in the yard. And I realized, footwork aside, the bigger picture is I haven’t been being honest with Zora as of late. Which is why her skills were starting to slow and her confusion was increasing.
And by being honest with her, I mean as we’ve been competing I’ve stopped honoring my mistakes in the way I had been when we were just training. Ok, so what do I mean by that? I mean, in effort to sometimes salvage a run when I’ve screwed up, like maybe I wasn’t as clear as I really needed to be on which obstacle I wanted her to take or which line or path I was drawing, so when she moved to take the obstacle or path I was actually indicating (2) I’d go tell her “oops sorry, I was wrong!” and then ‘fix’ her to the numbered course path by suddenly changing my positioning. So from poor Z’s perspective she had been entirely right doing what I was asking then I’d rush in and tell her she was wrong. Despite that my version of that is I’m rushing in to tell her *I* was the one who was wrong, because I’m not honoring the path I did actually tell her as she was doing it, because my criteria then seems to her to be changing willy-nilly, I’m now getting the slowed and confused responses. She is an honest dog, so what I was beginning to get was a dog who wanted to double, sometimes triple check that what I was asking her was really what I wanted before she would then do it. Other dog’s response to this kind of thing might be to start randomly taking equipment, or taking the obstacle that has been most reinforced over time (like a contact or tunnel), or some dogs might disconnect completely and go off to sniff or run laps. I feel very honored that Zora trusts our relationship and the foundation we’ve established enough to chose the response of “I’m just going to make sure Katrin is really understanding what she is asking of me before I then do it.” Now it’s my responsibility to go back to our foundation and get my handling back up to where she needs now.
So, our training plan and now trialing plan is to go back to our foundation. Meaning when I screw up, even if it means the run will be an NQ, I have to honor my mistakes. I have to be honest with my dog. I have to tell her what a wonderful, awesome, brilliant little girl she is for doing exactly what I have asked (even when what I asked sent her off course) and let her complete the path where what I asked sends her. Even when I know I messed up. If I want her to be confident and fast and to trust my handling instead of feeling like she has to guess, I need to honor what I do tell her without rushing in to salvage a Q. Because the short term Q that is a salvaged Q, isn’t worth the long term problems it will and is already creating. I want Zora to be fast and happy and confident for many years on course and most importantly I want her to trust me. Both on course and off course. And that means, honesty and lots of screw up cookies in Zora’s future! (3)
- That is a trained response that I reinforce. If she is in doubt or question or confused all she has to do is lie down in place where she is confused and I will come help and try to be clearer. Over the years watching many dogs bark or grab at their handlers or spin or disconnect in frustration when confused, I consciously train a behavior I find more appropriate to give my dog a way to tell me they need more assistance and information.
- Yea, cuz sometimes where I think I am intending her to go or do, isn’t actually what my body language is truly telling her to do.
- A ‘screw up cookie’ is: she does exactly what my body language asked, even when it’s not what I was planning to ask her, and I go, “Oh yup Z, you are completely right I did indeed send you into that tunnel, I meant to send you to the jump, so sorry, I screwed up, thank you for doing exactly what I asked, here have a good dog cookie”