If You Want Your Dog To Drive, They Have to Trust Your Directions
While I was teaching a recent seminar, I noticed that dogs were questioning some of the information that the handlers were giving. This in itself is normal of course since there were some technical sequences and handling in the drills I gave them.
As I watched the dogs and handlers over the course of the seminar, I realized that many of our dogs do not completely trust the directions we are giving them. This leads them to question our handling and usually check back with the handler before making decisions as to where to go next. This can lead to many frustrating problems such as spinning, barking, curling off of jumps in their line, or choosing off course obstacles. So why don’t they trust that we are giving them the right directions?
Have you ever called your dog off an obstacle they were heading for, or given a late front cross that changed their direction after they were obviously heading straight? How about accidentally pointed your body in a direction that you didn’t want the dog to go then changed it last minute? These are situations where we show our dog that they shouldn’t completely trust the directions we give. This typically results in the dogs checking back to make sure the handler isn’t going to change their mind and causes late commitment points.
So how do we get the dog to trust our directions? In a perfect world, all of our crosses would be on time; our decels would be clear, and our footwork precise. Realistically, this isn’t always going to be the case. I am NOT a perfect handler, nor do I always give my dogs the best direction on course. My dogs do however trust my direction the majority of the time and very rarely look back at me for more direction. So I started thinking about how my training sessions differ from what I’m seeing from my students and I think I came to a very important conclusion.
In my training, I never try to “save” my dog from going off course. I don’t attempt to call them off of the wrong tunnel entrance they are heading to or get them to go to the next jump if they check back with me. I simply stop the exercise, reconnect with my dog, and make sure that my directions I gave to the dog were correct. If they weren’t, then I immediately break down the exercise into the piece that my dog questioned and make sure I am in the correct position to give them the direction they need. This may mean that you break a tough exercise into pieces and take a lead out to be able to get to a front cross on time or show a proper deceleration cue. The important part is that my dog learns to have confidence that I will tell them where to go next.
So what happens when we aren’t in position during a run that isn’t in training? We can’t possibly be perfect all the time and we typically aren’t going to break things down in a trial situation. This is very true, but if we build up the confidence through our training, our dogs are more likely to continue to trust us after we have been wrong on course. If there is more history of giving good direction than bad, the dog will easily gain back any trust that they have lost from a bad run. They will run with confidence, and that is a crucial part of creating a fast, consistent agility dog.
Agility is all about teamwork between you and your dog. Remember that if you want your dog to drive, you have to give them the right directions
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