Taking ownership of it can be quite uncomfortable. Although, I must say that when you do take responsibility, it can be empowering.
Owning up to our responsibilities can make us feel somehow noble? Sounds silly, but deep down……….true.
By admitting we are responsible when something goes wrong in our training we can take our power back knowing we have the opportunity to take a problem and solve it .
In my life as an agility instructor, getting others to realize that they must take responsibility for their dog’s behavior is a huge part of my job. Dog training is truly “All about me!”
I was inspired to write this after talking with my friend and student Helen King. She recently posted a note on Facebook pertaining to people blaming their dogs loudly at the agility shows for their dog’s failure at a behavior in the ring.
There are those (not you of course) who leave the ring after a problem they had in the ring, obviously pissed off; striding purposely towards their set up as if they were a General about to dress down the troops for a battlefield failure. As they walk briskly to their set up, they loudly berate their dog for the dog’s failure, exclaiming, “No cookies for you, you are a bad bad dog!!!”. Not cool.
In a sport as complicated as agility there are so very many places for people to struggle: poor handler timing, lack of behavior generalization, lack of value, lack of control, vague criteria (one of the biggest)………many many more.
Creating a high level of understanding is the core of all my agility training. I want to get understanding for the basics of a behavior and then go about adding huge value and understanding to that behavior to generalize it and ultimately to create a stellar behavior that can be duplicated in any location in a myriad of situations.
When I give seminars or teach a new student, one of the first things I make clear to the students is that they must take responsibility for what their dogs understand.
I always make this a positive, never a negative. Looking at the situation in a proactive way not only serves the dog in the long run, but also the trainer. There is no advantage to feeling bad about your dog or about yourself!
I will explain that I do not judge them for what their dog does or doesn’t understand. My only goal is to look at their dog’s behaviors and their mechanics, access any problems and then come up with a plan to fix them.
There is no room for judgment in this, negativity is counterproductive. We are all a product of what we have learned and what we understand.
When you ask your dog to do a behavior and there is a failure, rather than blaming the dog or yourself, look at the problem objectively and problem solve. Take responsibility for the failure in a proactive way. Always attack the problem, don’t be a victim by blaming your dog or others!
This will make you feel empowered, rather than crappy about the situation; a much healthier state of mind for you and your dog.
To berate your dog for a behavior that is ultimately your responsibility is completely counterproductive and often cruel. As evidenced by the handler that leaves the ring, marches their dog back to the crate and then proceeds to tell the dog how awful they are. WHAT???
If that person actually thinks that the dog understands that they are getting punished for something that happened in the middle of the course 4 minutes ago, they are sadly deluded.
What about the folks who get angry at their dog for something in the middle of the run? Let’s say the dog knocks the 7th bar and then proceeds to finish beautifully nailing their remaining contacts and weaves, and as the handler leashes up and walks away from the ring looking unhappy and we hear them telling their dog how bad they were for knocking the 7th bar??? Seriously???
Often I will get a new student, give them a task and as soon as there is failure, the student’s response infallibly is “He knows how to do that!”
Case in point, a new student comes to my school and I ask them to put their dog in a stay and do a simple recall so I can see how they work with their dog.
They put their dog in a stay, walk away, the dog gets up.
“ummm your dog is up.”
“Huh” They turn around, “Hey! Sit!!”
The dog sits. They step away, the dog is immediately up.
“Hey, You Sit!!!!”
They take 2 steps away, dog gets up.
“What the??? He knows how to do a stay”
“Really???” I say (I am often accused or praised, for being blunt and slightly sarcastic. it’s all said with love 🙂 ).
“Yes!! He absolutely knows this!!”
“So” I continue, “If you ask him to sit stay in your kitchen while you put his food down, he stays?”
“Yes, of course, I make him do that”
“OK” I continue, “Would you say he could hold his stay if you are at a park and a bunch of dogs run by?” (You can’t see me but I have a very innocent look on my face).
“Well, no.” They laugh, or look chagrined or embarrassed or perturbed (depending on the student- this conversation happens a lot!).
“How about if you get your dog very excited, put them in a stay and then suddenly take off running, or what if you threw your toy hard forward while they were in a stay? Could they maintain the stay?”
“Wellllll, probably not”
“OK” I say, “Let’s clarify; your dog does understand a stay in certain situations, when there is little distraction or when it’s in a situation that you have practiced repeatedly like having him stay when you put the food bowl down.”
“So, I would say his understanding would be classified as situational”
“Hmmmm, OK, yes.”
And so the beginning of the human understanding the animal begins.
Creating a high level of understanding is the core of all my agility training. I want to get understanding for basics of a behavior and then go about adding huge value and understanding to that behavior to generalize it and to create a stellar behavior that can be duplicated in any location in infinite situations.
Another large contributor to training issues is the trainer’s ability to critically observe what is going on with the dog. I am referring to maintaining criteria.
Oftentimes failure is caused by the trainer not noticing when their dog is not maintaining criteria. This leads to rewarding a wrong behavior. Or the issue may simply be that the trainer does not understand the importance of clear criteria or even understand the basic concepts involved.
Although with best of intentions most trainers try to maintain criteria, often they simply miss seeing that the dog has failed.
The most frequent example of this is the broken start line. The handler puts their dog on the line and leads out. As they turn away from their dog the dog scoots forward a bit. They look back, the dog is sitting. This pattern is repeated; often with the handler exclaiming “Good Girl!!” as they head back to the dog to reward the stay or they release them off the line.
From that handler’s perspective the dog was successful and was rewarded with a treat or release into work. Unfortunately the reality is they just told the dog that breaking the stay is just the ticket! “Good breaking the stay, Fido!!”
This little scooting will, of course, lead to some major broken start lines. And then we hear the old lament ring out “Hey!!! What the heck!! You know how to STAY???”
Whether we like it or not, dogs are learning 24/7. This applies to whether we see the mistakes or not. We may not like that aspect of training but we best embrace it cause it ain’t going away.
I have seen people celebrating and copiously rewarding their dog for weaves when the dog missed 3 weaves in the middle but came out the correct way so since they weren’t watching their dog they didn’t notice it.
I have had students come out of the ring exclaiming how awesome their dog was for nailing all their 2 on 2 off contact positions when in actuality the handler pulled the dog off the bottom of each contact before the dog had a chance to stop. They will come to me and brag about it and I have to tell them that there was no stopping involved on any of the contacts. They will look at me, completely shocked, “No way, I know they stopped!!!” The truth is, they believe they dog did stop on the contacts. Unfortunately their perception was incorrect. In the heat of battle they were rushing and saw what they wanted to see. And whether we like it or not that will create a criteria problem.
Being a good observer is definitely a learned skill, as is your ability to understand what clear criteria is and how to maintain and nurture it through rewards and building understanding.
It’s all about the black and the white. When behavior criteria becomes grey (is no longer crystal clear) we take away our dog’s ability to understand exactly what our expectations of the behavior are.
Back to the trial situation:
Probably, most likely, yeah ok, my dog’s failure is my fault.
I am often asked by competitors if they should take their dog out of the ring if they break their start or come off a contact? My only answer is “I can’t tell you because I have no way of knowing exactly what is going on in your training or at trials.”
I have no idea if they have been diligent about maintaining criteria: if they have built the behavior to the point that the dog has value and understanding for staying at the start line when they are in a high level of arousal, if they have had failures that they have either allowed or have not seen and therefore allowed, their criteria not clear enough…so many possibilities.
It is not fair for you to take your dog on the walk of shame out of the ring when you are the root cause of the problem.
One last awesome example. Or I think it is awesome :-).
A handler says ”My dog won’t do their contact behavior correctly at the show but they are perfect at home or in class.”
“Well that could be that you haven’t generalized the behavior enough, but most likely because you have not maintained your dog’s contact criteria at a show and you always maintain your criteria at class.”
“That can’t be, I always make sure my dog gets their contacts at a show.”
“All-righty, then let’s say you have a Double Q on the line and the final obstacles are a dog walk to a jump (very frequent occurrence in Southern California). Your dog drives down the dog walk without stopping and then rather than marking the behavior you let them fly over the last jump and celebrate the run. That has never happened?”
“Well I wanted the QQ.”
“I totally get it, but you just gave the dog the understanding that it is not only just fine, but awesome to run off the end of the contacts in competition. You wouldn’t have done that in your class. I bet you ran out of the ring and gave your dog a load of cookies for earning that QQ. Correct?”
“Ok. Now you see you just handily taught your dog that their criteria are different at a show than at home.”
And as simple as that, we have created a problem.
Once again I am not judging the handler for their action, but want them to realize that they must take responsibility for the dog’s failure because in actuality, they trained it.
The only thing that berating the dog will get you is a slower dog and one that probably doesn’t like you a whole heck of a lot when you get around an agility ring.
Now, all is not lost and these things are fixable, although admittedly some dogs are easier to retrain than others.
Remember, failure is what it is, and it happens to everybody from the beginner up to the best in the world. The most proactive thing we can do is put on our thinking caps and figure out the problem, or get help and work it through.
I love me a trainer who takes responsibility!
Stacy Leah Winkler