Would you like to know one of the simplest hacks in dog training? A trick that will help you get the most out of your training while helping you to progress faster when training any behavior, in any discipline? \
Ok, here it comes, hold onto your hat……….
And the answer is…..Be a good observer!
Whaaa? Does that feel totally anticlimactic? Too simple?
Well, it’s not.
Not only is it one of the easiest ways to improve your training dramatically, you will also get more out of your training with less work.
And guess what, most people either:
- Don’t give it much thought.
- Don’t think they can multitask enough to accomplish it so they basically don’t even try.
- Don’t realize how very important it is.
And,…bonus, it’s a cheap fix! You can do it yourself.
- You can video yourselves, which is a pain in the butt granted, but it is a massive help.
- And/or you can just learn to watch your dog.
I have had many students over the years who would say to me, “ Stace, I can’t possibly watch my dog’s obstacle performance. I have to concentrate on my handling and where I’m going. That is hard enough! I can’t do all that and critically watch my dog’s behaviors”.
I get it, I do. But the fact of the matter is you can! The key is to start small and break things down. If you make the act of watching your dog manageable you can train yourself to start seeing the details.
Have you ever heard the phrase “Don’t over-face your dog.”? It basically means don’t ask for too much too soon, or give them a challenge they are unlikely to succeed at.
Well the same applies to you! You shouldn’t over-face yourself. You shouldn’t make a task so difficult that it is very unlikely you will be able to accomplish it. Or, even worse, make it so hard that you can’t imagine being successful, so you don’t even try.
So, let’s make it easy for you to succeed at being a good observer!
I will use a few skills as examples but you can take any behavior you are trying to teach your dog and break it down into small, easily executable pieces.
LET’S GIVE IT A GO
If I asked you to watch your dog over a single jump, could you do it? Heck ya you can.
So let’s dig in deeper.
Let’s say your goal is to have your dog jump a single jump and execute a tight turn.
Do you think you could watch that turn to see if:
- Your dog shortened their stride as they approached the jump then turned very close to the upright?
- Extended their stride, launched forward and then turned?
- Was somewhere in between…..?
In this picture the you can see the dog has completed a very clear decel at the jump which has given him the ability to execute a turn tight. He is wrapping the upright with no wasted space. I’m very happy with the way he accomplished the jump. From this picture I know that he clearly understood his task and I was able to cue the turn in a clear manner. Success!
In the beginning, it is important to give yourself a simple task – one jump, one skill. Perfect that and then gradually add in more difficulty: 2 jumps or 2 obstacles then multiple jumps or multiple obstacles. And so forth. Only progress when you feel confident that you have a handle on that part of the drill. If you need to make it even easier, you can start off by standing still and then add in running while you watch your dog……however you feel comfortable progressing. Make it a doable task!
While building your skills of observation, It is a great idea to take a few notes on what you are seeing. This will heighten your awareness and begin the process of teaching you to be a more skilled observer.
Like any other skill, the more you do it, the better you will get. This is especially true when you are training your eye to see nuances in performance.
Most trainers that you feel have enviable skills on their dogs, watch their dogs and judge everything that they do.
As they watch their dog jump they may be thinking: Did I like that turn? Was it tight enough? Was the dog supple over the bar as they turned? Did they jump in a more rigid way and then turn? Did they power through the turn……..Was it my fault if their performance wasn’t up to par? Was my timing bad? Do I think I gave the dog the appropriate cue but they still didn’t execute? ( which really means that they probably don’t understand the behavior as well as I thought they did) on and on……
What went wrong. What went right.
Did I love it, hate it? Was it: good, great, amazing, mediocre …..
These are things you want/need to notice.
If you don’t notice how well your dog is performing over the jump, how are you ever supposed to create reliable and functional tight turns? Having clarity about your dog’s strengths and weaknesses is the only way to begin to improve on skills that are not up to par. This is not only better from a performance standpoint but also likely an important way to make the sport safer and more enjoyable for your dog, as your skills and connection will exponentially improve.
I recommend reading my blog, “ The Perfect Picture” to understand how important it is to create a very clear picture of the behavior you are teaching before you set out to train it. If you are not clear on what you are training, how on earth can you train it well? This blog and other free training articles are located on my website under “Blogs” at www.stacywinkler.com .
Let’s look at another jump scenario.
If I ask my dog to jump a line of jumps, leading out so I know that my dog should handily beat me to the end of the line, what do I see?
Here are a couple of examples.
- Does he slow down to wait for me? Even slowing to the point of turning back towards me or stopping to wait for me to catch up? Maybe even spinning, reluctant to go forward?
- Does he start forward well but as he gets further from me, start to shorten his stride and check back with me? And in order to have him complete the line must I constantly encourage him with arm waves and shouts from me to go forward?
- Does he power forward with confidence? Head looking straight ahead, running in extension, not glancing backwards or slowing down to see where I am? Does he need a toy lure to accomplish this or can he do it on his own?
- Any variation of these?
If I don’t notice these subtleties in my dog’s performance, how can I possibly achieve my ultimate goal, which in this instance would of course be: drive powerfully ahead as we run down the line.
Do you realize any small nuance between any of these variations in this scenario can be the difference between coming in 1st, 4th or 10th? How many courses finish with a run down a line? Like….a lot! The difference between 1st and 5th can often be a few hundredths or tenths of a second. Nuances matter!
If you don’t notice it you can’t fix it!
BONUS: Another way to learn to be a critical observer.
A super way to easily increase your ability to be a great observer is to watch other dogs.Your goal is to train your eye to see the nuances.
You can watch dogs on video, at shows, at class……
Break down what you see into its component parts and rate them. You can come up with your own rating system. But be critical. The folks you are watching never need to know, 😉 but you need to learn to see all the wee details.
Let’s take a dog with stopped contacts. Imagine I am at a show, and rather than just hanging out with my buddies, I go sit by the ring with the goal of critically observing every performance. Doesn’t matter the breed. Doesn’t matter what the handler is doing for now. Later when you get good at seeing the performance details, you can watch the handler as well. Remember we are starting in small manageable pieces so you can build your observation skills.
Let’s break down the performances of a dog that has a 2 on 2 off on the dog walk. Some things I would look for:
- Do they run onto the Dog Walk:
- In balance
- Out of balance….
- Do they:
- Trot up the first plank and trot across the entire DW
- Canter up the first plank then break into a trot
- Canter cross the first two planks and break into a trot on the down plank
- Canter or trot across the dog walk but then stop and wait for their handler
- Confidently gallop all the way across the DW no matter where their handler is
- Or any variation of the above
- What does their end behavior look like:
- Trot off the end
- Stop above the end then bail
- Run through
- Wait for the handler to catch up then do their end behavior
- Run to the end and do a beautiful 2 on 2 off
Do you see how many variations there are? And, as an aside, I have found that a key to how well the dog runs across the dog walk directly correlates to how much they understand and how much value they have for the end behavior. If they don’t clearly understand their end behavior, in this case 2o2o, very well, they are unlikely to run boldly across the entire DW. And I have found that, unless the dog has a fear of the DW, the point at which they begin trotting across the planks is a great indicator for how well they understand their end behavior. If they start trotting on the down plank, they understand the end behavior reasonably well. Trotting on the middle plank means they have less understanding and value and so forth.
In this picture you have a dog that has a very clear understanding of her teeter behavior. She has powered up the plank and executes a flawless weight shift. You can see from her expression she is confident and from her lovely rear end weight shift she is controlling the board. I know she completed the behavior with a great 2o2o. Exactly what I wanted. Good girl!
By critically judging her performance on each aspect of training her teeter, from its very beginnings through to an accomplished trialing dog, I was able to make adjustments in my training until I created an independent, confident skill.
WRAPPING IT UP
Good news! Although you may find this is difficult at first, as you practice your observation skills it will eventually become instinctual.
You will be able to quickly and decisively get a good handle on what needs to be improved and if you do not understand how to fix the issue you can always ask your instructor or a knowledgeable friend to help you out.
Remember that one of the most important aspects of all of this is that before you begin training, you need to know exactly what you want the perfected behavior to look like when it is fully trained.If you have already begun training your skills, then stop, take a moment to sit down and figure out your “Perfect Picture”.
This may seem obvious but most students do not have a good handle on this concept. You cannot possibly make clear decisions on what you need to fix in any aspect of dog training, from a simple sit stay (for instance, my ideal sit stay looks like: all feet are firmly planted on the ground, no motion, no vulture pose, eyes on me and no moving out of position if I go to reward.) If you don’t have a clear vision of what the trained behavior should look like, how can you possibly fix and perfect it?
Once again if you need help to understand how to create a clear picture of a behavior, please go to www.stacywinkler.com/this-simple-concept-makes-all-dog-training-easier/ and check out my blog The Perfect Picture. On the Blog page there are many other articles you may find very helpful in your training, many of which are also very simple to implement!
Best of luck in your training journey!
Stacy Winkler teaches at her facility in Oregon City, Oregon. She has been teaching agility for 20 years. More information on Stacy can be found on her website.