Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Action Day Rewind: If I Knew Then What I Know Now

An early Show N Go photo (April 2013) of the little guy... he doesn't jump this way anymore, but I think it's the cutest.
(photo credit: Juanda Anderson)

My agility history spans less than a year and a half.  So I can't related with those who say "if only I knew my dog shouldn't have been jumping 30"" or "if only I knew that if I did a blind cross the earth wouldn't open up and swallow me alive."  I'm learning with my first dog, at a time when the sport is exploding, and at a time where mutts can compete in any agility venue they so choose (except for, perhaps, large mutts in TDAA).

What I do wish I knew then, and by then I mean May 2012 is this:

It's not a novel concept in the slightest.  When I was in school, there were many students that could function well in a traditional classroom environment.  And then there were others that couldn't.  And in college my roommate worked best at the library, others in the privacy of their own room, and me... in the communal dormitory lounge with the television airing Friends reruns in the background.  In senior year of college I completed my take-home Art History final exam (a result of the NYC Transit strikes stranding my professor in Queens) in J's dormitory lounge with some of his roommates getting drunk while watching those trippy Microsoft screen savers.  I got an A, but likely would not have performed as well if I were to have taken the exam in a library setting.  

Yet for an inexperienced dog owner, without the knowledge resources, it can be a difficult and frustrating experience to try to fit into a certain agility "mold" when you don't know what's out there.  And since many of us start in a group class setting, sometimes the training method of the closest/most recommended/what have you training facility may not be the best fit for you or your dog.  But you don't know until your dog shuts down or you come home in tears or every other dog is progressing while yours is chasing squirrels in the park.

Despite Murray's affinity for barking, he's a soft dog.  I didn't know what the term "soft dog" even meant when I started agility.  Heck, I didn't know that agility was about speed or even that there were full courses at first!  The place where I first started training seemed appealing because it was close and affordable and they said they really trained for agility.  The trainer had far more biddable dogs than Murray and not soft dogs in the slightest.  So training was more for these dogs that could redo something five times without having their feelings hurt.  My dog started doing things more cautiously, and therefore more slowly.  Or he'd shut down, or sniff, of bark at the unleashed dog who's walking around in the middle of the course.  But it took me a while to realize that this approach to training wasn't what was right for my dog, because I didn't know at first that there were so many different ways to train.

When I started working with my current trainer, I realized that there were more effective training methods for my dog.  If my dog made a mistake, it was likely my fault (especially if it was a blatant handling error!) so he should be rewarded.  Everything is 100% positive.  And we focused on drive over accuracy in many occasions.  As we continued to work with her, Murray got faster and more confident and less reactive in an agility setting.  Agility is totally his happy place.  When I started competing in earnest in May 2013, I saw the differences in handling systems, actions in the ring, and training between different exhibitors.  Some prefer to do blind crosses everywhere, some make their dogs drop after a contact, some yell, some don't use words, some party only after a Q, others are always exuberant, some will run with their dog if he breaks a start line stay, others will pull their dog from the course if the same were to happen.  Everyone has different goals and criteria and think of their dog in a different light.  So how they train and how they want their dog to learn is different.  But I just thought that my pokey reactive dog was "not fit for this" because I didn't know better.

One of the turning points for me was attending a show-n-go with advanced competitors and seeing what agility looked like and what I could aspire to.  So if I were to start all over again I would attend a trial or show n go and watch.  See which teams draw my eye (either because the dog is super fast or because they look like they're having fun or because someone says "watch this dog/handler").  Ask that exhibitor who they train with (just not right before they enter the ring!) - most will take a compliment well and volunteer plenty of information.  There's a high probability that someone who has yet to do any agility may not know what their goals are and be drawn to the flashiest dog there (who's on some crazy international team) but by attending a trial you can see what agility looks like and find out about local trainers.  Also, it's okay to move on if the class you start with isn't working for you, whether it be because of the environment, the trainer, or the handling system.

As we've gotten more entrenched in the agility world, I've not only gotten to understand which training methods are best for my dog but also which are the best for me.  And as we've dialed this in, agility has become more and more exciting for our team.

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