Wednesday, December 3, 2014

To Seminar, or Not to Seminar, That is the Question

As a kid, I liked going to school.  I was the nerdy kid who took extra classes instead of study hall in high school, had even nerdier extra-curriculars in college, and still gets excited when there's conferences and symposiums to attend in my professional field.  And I enjoy training classes.  I'm in that category of people who get more of a rush training than trialing... and I get a pretty big rush trialing.   I'm also "that girl" who gets a little bit starstruck in life.  Which can be difficult when you live in big cities where a C-list celebrity may be sitting alongside you at a restaurant.   So, I would be naturally pre-disposed to wanting to attend seminars.  Because, (a) they're essentially classes on steroids and (b) there may be an agility star teaching them!  

Yet I find myself being incredibly selective about which seminars I will enroll in.

This started shortly after I began training in agility with Murray.  We were an incredibly novice team, but were already slightly addicted. Jon and I were going to my in-laws for Christmas break.  In years past, I would get a little stir-crazy in the days following Christmas.  So when I found out that a star-studded agility person (OMG they have DVDs!  and books!) was hosting a seminar, advertised as a novice class, and a mere hour from my in-laws I got excited.  I did my due diligence to make sure that it was really okay for a newbie like myself.  After I got that confirmation, several times over, I enrolled.  It was going to be the highlight of my Christmas break.
Murray completing an exercise at the awesome Nancy Gyes/Jim Basic Seminar
at Happy Dog (photo credit: Mia Grant)

Rather than feeling excited and motivated following the seminar, as I had going into it, I left feeling defeated - almost second guessing whether I should bother continuing in the sport.  

Why did I feel that way?
  • I was not physically nor mentally prepared for the seminar.  Although it was billed as a novice/foundations class, in reality, most of the students in it were very experienced handlers with Masters-level dogs.  The instructor also had a relationship with almost every other student present, and so the seminar was taught to their level, leaving me in the dust, since several concepts went over my head. 
  • We did not receive our "fair-share" of one-on-one instruction.  This seminar had 12 students over the course of two days, which is pretty standard.  The facility was large, so we were divided into smaller working groups for some drills.  My group was never visited by the instructor, so the instructor did not realize that I was struggling until partway through Day 2, when a group member finally called her over for help.  
  • The instructor did not adjust any training to apply to the different skill levels present. When it became apparent that my dog was not able to do most of the exercises, rather than break down some of the exercises into more digestible portions, we instead were given a jump stanchion and a jump bump and I was instructed to just have my dog go back and forth over that jump bump for the remainder of the seminar.
  • There was not a diverse group of dogs participating.  One nice thing about classes and seminars is when you have others that you can really learn from by observing.  I personally learn a lot by watching dogs that stride similarly to mine but are a little drivier.  I don't learn as much by watching a performance-bred border collie jumping 22".  I love watching them run, but I don't learn as much from that team as it will never resemble my own.  In this particular seminar, almost the entire class consisted of high drive border collies (it's never a good thing when someone actually asks you "is eight inches really a jump height?")
There are things that I would have done differently, in hindsight, to have made the most of an otherwise disappointing situation.  I could not have controlled the students, and had done my due diligence to ensure that he was okay for the class (even though he clearly was not!), so I don't feel guilty about being in the wrong class for our level at the time.  I do wish, however, that instead of feeling intimidated by being in the presence of some big-name agility person, that I had spoken up for myself on day one, identified my shortcomings, and insisted on a more appropriate lesson plan. While that may sound pushy, any seminar is an investment - in time and money - and if that wasn't being volunteered to me, I could have advocated for my dog and kept him happy by seeking out help, rather than relying on the two individuals who were randomly selected for my group.

Not at a seminar! Photo credit: Clark Kranz
Although this was my first seminar as an active participant, I have attended subsequent seminars with other instructors, and have had very positive experiences in those.  The sting from the first one, however, have made me very picky about the subsequent seminars I have chosen to enroll in.  Having spoken to other friends who have "less-than-flashy" dogs (and further confirmed by the responses to a recent post on Daisy Peel's Facebook page regarding seminars), I get the sense that I am not alone in struggling with enrolling in seminars.  Now, when considering enrolling in seminars, these are the questions I try to answer:
  • Why does this seminar appeal to me? What is the seminar subject?  Does it address my needs? If the seminar was about Gamblers skills, and I only competed in AKC Standard and JWW, I might pass (Jim Basic - can you please come back and teach your gamblers course again?).  If it's about a brand new & improved handling SYSTEM, and I'm happy with mine, I will pass.  If it's about a more specific issue, one which I am looking to improve upon, then my interest has been piqued.  Just because the seminar exists, doesn't mean that I must attend it.  I will get more out of a seminar that's addressing one of my training gaps, or building on something that I'm looking to build on, than a catch-all foundations seminar for a totally different system or a very specific seminar on something that does not apply to my team.
  • Who is teaching the seminar?  Does s/he have experience teaching/running dogs similar to mine?  What kind of style does s/he have?  Some instructors have brand names, while others are more locally or regionally known.  In Southern California, we can enroll in seminars instructed by our regular, local instructors, in addition to nationally or internationally renown coaches and competitors (not that the two are mutually exclusive - we have lots of talent in this area!)  Rather than getting jazzed by someone's competitive track record, I'm more interested to know about their system or style and who they instruct.  I usually ask my instructors, or other friends with dogs similar to mine.  If it sounds like the style may conflict with ours, then I'll pass. Likewise, if 99% of their students run dogs that are vastly different from mine, I'll pass. There's probably a reason why they aren't teaching medium-speed doxie mixes.
  • Who is in my class?  Unlike a lesson, in a seminar you are generally observing more than you are working.  Are there going to be students in there who have the same issues that I have?  Are there going to be students who run dogs similar to mine?  I usually ask the seminar host about the other dogs enrolled to make sure that it's not 11 border collies and my guy.  Likewise, sometimes the "steady eddie" dogs are grouped with the "young and the restless" dogs.  In this case, I will ask the seminar host why they are being grouped together.  If there's a good reason (i.e. we are doing short sequences to keep the steadies motivated and the young'ns brains from exploding) I may still participate... but if there isn't a thoughtful reason for grouping these two dog types, I'll turn down the opportunity, to avoid the risk of my dog getting a disproportionate amount of time. 
  • Am I ready for this class?  This is where I must be honest with myself.  Last year, there were two seminars being offered at one facility - "Almost Masters" and "High Drive Masters."  The seminar host did not know me nor my dog, albeit my instructor trains with her.  So when I expressed interest in the class, I was very honest about our abilities - that we "met the criteria" for the latter one (we had our Masters titles) but that we were not a "high drive" team.  I also tipped her off to my instructor.  She determined that the "Almost Masters" class was the better fit for us, and it was.  Rather than trying to get into the most advanced class, we were in the best class for our needs at the time, and we got a lot of value out of the instruction.  I believe that we would have struggled and not learned as much in the more advanced class.  I would rather be honest and not get an answer that I like - whether it means excluding myself from a seminar entirely, or being told to be in a class that I don't want to take - and not take the seminar, than take one and regret it because we were over- or under- prepared.
  • Do I know anyone who has taken a seminar with this person before?  What is their structure?  Any other feedback?  Each instructor has a different "sweet spot."  Some are amazing teaching in a private lesson setting, but have difficulty keeping control of a larger group.  Some excel at shorter, half-day seminars while others are better spreading their instruction over two days.  Some may be best teaching via online courses.  I like to get opinions from friends about the structure of the seminars and whether they felt that it was conducive for learning before enrolling myself.  I also like to find out the seminar size (I'd rather do fewer hours with fewer students than a longer day with double the students) and format (instruction then everyone getting a turn?  small groups with instructor circulating?).
After establishing these questions to determine whether or not to enroll in a seminar, I have had several very positive seminar experiences.  Some of them are with our regular instructors, where we have the benefit of them knowing our team and teaching to our needs.  Some have been instructors who have traveled in, who have some household name for something in the agility world, and have bestowed on us some new skills, or at the very least, a new set of eyes.  I am grateful to have the opportunity to immerse myself in seminars with my amazing little teammate, and to come away with more fun homework.

Murray and the other small dog participants from Melissa Henning's wonderful handling seminar, also at Happy Dog.

I think that it is necessary for students to do their due diligence before trying to enroll in a seminar, so that they can get the maximum benefit and also focus on seminars that are most appropriate to their teams.  However, I also think that some responsibility falls on the instructors to help students get the most out of their experience.

So, seminar presenters, think about your students - before, during, and after - as individuals being pieced together.  You likely won't remember many of us months down the road - especially if we aren't local to you or don't work with you regularly.  But every student can both add value and gain value at a seminar.  Most people without the "flashy" dogs don't have delusions of grandeur - they love the game and want to improve their team.  Recognize that and appreciate that said students are willing to invest time and money to go from being a B to a B+ team - not everyone can be on the A team.  Likewise, appreciate the stellar dogs, or the "high potential" dogs.

Instructors: it's okay to be honest about your preferences.  If there's a particular sub-set of potential students that you really just don't like or feel comfortable working with - admit it!  If you only want to work with dogs of a certain size or speed, or ones that have particular sets of foundations, own up to it.  If you wind up showing some preference at a seminar, it will be noticeable (agility folks are perceptive!) and if you continuously return to the area, over time there will be a de facto student type attending your seminars... and then another type who does not talk so positively about you.  I think that most would prefer being told they're "not right" to participate in a particular seminar over showing up and feeling like they're the lesser one in the group.

Focus on giving each student their "fair-share" - if there are eight students in four hours, no one expects to have the exact. same. amount. of. time.  That would be silly.  But if one student is getting through the courses fairly clean, find the points of weakness and revisit those during their turn. Because that student didn't sign up just to show that they could be accurate - they came to learn. And be thoughtful of who you are grouping together, as - quite likely - the person with the flashy young pup isn't aspiring to have a medium-speed adult dog.

And, sometimes, things will not go according to plan.  You may have thought you had a Novice class, and then all these Masters students show up.  Tailor accordingly - stick with your original lesson plan, and add some new challenges for the dogs that are "above and beyond."  But don't just leave the one team who's "not like the other" hanging and feeling lost.

Most importantly - both instructor and students - enjoy yourselves!  Because agility is fun, and learning is fun.  And being in an agility seminar sure beats being in a statistics recitation or chemistry lab.

This post is part of the Dog Agility Blog Events Blog Event on Continuing Education.  For more posts on the subject, click here


  1. Great, well thought out post for selecting a seminar. A lot of this could also be applied to taking an online class, though I would say there's less risk there. I also suggest (if it seems like the instructor comes by regularly to teach seminars) to audit the first one to really see what it's like.

  2. Hi there! I'm new to your blog, came across it as part of DABAD. Just wanted to say GREAT article, definitely a lot of good advice here!

    As someone who also runs dogs who maybe aren't the fastest, driviest dogs in the world, I totally agree and understand about the importance of a seminar presenter being familiar with a variety of types of dogs. Training/handling a high drive working dog is not always going to be the same thing as a medium or low drive [insert "non-traditional" agility breed here]. I can imagine how if someone has only ever trained the typical BC/sheltie type of dog, another type of dog could be more than they know how or want to deal with. I had this experience with a set of lessons I took, where occasionally I was struggling to motivate my dog, and the instructor (most familiar with drivey BCs) was like, "Get him revved up!" without offering ideas how to do this, as though I could simply press an Easy Button and magically rev up my dog. In addition, all of our classmates were the "naturally revved up / drivey" type, so there were no other dogs like mine in the classes. The lessons were still a good experience overall as I learned a lot, but there was a definite occasional frustration factor there for ME, never mind my dog! LOL!

  3. I've greatly enjoyed reading your post and going back a bit through your blog! Subscribed and looking forward to reading more on your training!