Since this is supposed to be a dog training blog, I thought I should occasionally write about dog training. My winter project is to go back in time, to how I used to train 10 or 15 years ago. I am sure that sounds kind of twlight zonish to you, especially since I pride myself on innovation. Well I think I may have innovated my way out of some good crap, so I am going back to pick it up.
Back in the old days, like early 90’s, one of my goals, as an agility handler, was to do as little as possible. Yes, back then I could stand in the middle of a ring and have my dogs do entire courses, all on verbal cues from me. Aahh, the epitome of lazy-ass-training! One of the great benefits of this was that all of my early dogs; Shelby, Stoni, Twister and even Buzz where pretty much unbeatable at Gamblers. My more recent dogs; DeCaff and Encore are growing into decent Gamble dogs but really lack the understanding of working from verbal cues alone.
What my younger dogs do have is a brilliant understanding of positional cues (my body has importance, well at least to my agility dogs it does). This great understanding of positional cues means that my dogs are pretty impressive at running courses (yes I have a slight bias when I say that). If you watch my runs on youtube (www.youtube.com/clickerdogs) you will rarely, if ever, see either of those dogs take their eyes away from the course. They lock on a line at the start and just follow my arm changes and body motion cues all the way up to the finish. I would say that is my primary goal as a handler today, for my dogs never to have ‘questions’ as they run a course. You will be amazed how a slight glance up at you eats up time around 20 obstacles. If the question from your dog results in a full head turn, or worst yet a spin away from you, you are just cooked!
So can I have both? Can I have a dog that clearly understands to follow my arm changes and not glance up at me PLUS have a great gamble dog? I am about to find out. I decided to go back to the stuff I wrote about in my book “Shaping Success”. Using trees & garbage cans to teach an understanding of verbal cues to “go around stuff”. Plus I am polishing up my directionals, something I rarely, if ever, use on course, except for distance challenges like those in the gamble, snooker or fast classes.
I think the key is balance. Agility enthusiasts up here in Canada generally put alot of emphasis on Gambling. I think that stems from the fact that our National Championship is dependent upon our dogs being able to succeed at any outrageous gamble challenge the judge can come up with. In my opinion we have the best Gamble dogs in the world up here. Just ask some of the Americans that come to our Nationals and struggle at Gambles. Between my 3 earlier dogs that I competed with at the Canadian Nationals (Stoni, Twister & Buzz) I have 4 National Championships and 11 Regional Championships. My 2 since then I have zero, nadda, zippo, zilch. They haven’t done much to carry on the legacy, quite honestly, because it just hasn’t been that important to me.
If I had to choose, I would much rather have a great Standard, Jumpers. Steeplechase dog than a great Gamble dog. Encore is 4 years old and has won each of the 3 Canadian National Steeplechase finals that have been offered at our Nationals and this year she won both Standard Classes as well. That is what I want from my young dogs. An understanding of handling.
The question to myself is, do I have to decide? Can I have both? I know I do not want to lose any of the teamwork I have with my dogs on course, but I would like to build their understanding of Gamble work. All things in moderation, dog training requires a balance. I will work some of these skills with my dogs over the winter, while never leaving good handling technique. I don’t want to see a dog suddenly start turning wide, flanking, flicking or looking up at me on a standard course because of working gambles. So, I will work on my new skills without losing sight of my ultimate goal, that of wanting that effortless, unspoken, communication throughout each and every run we do.
Today I am grateful for my friends. I have a few really great ones. You know what I mean, my friendship with these people may have started through dog training but I know it will be there no matter what. One thing I have learned over the years, it is that it is far better to have a few really good friends than a wack of them that come with strings attached.