Friday, August 5, 2011

Expecting More Than You Give

One of the things that I think people could benefit the most from during training sessions is understanding how important it is to establish and maintain a connection with your dog. This isn't something that you only need during competition or during training. Maintaining or establishing a connection prior to training or competing is so critical for success. Yet, this is probably one of the most overlooked or misunderstood training issues in dog sports.

I see examples of this lack of preparation and connection all the time. Dog is at the end of the leash and handler is distracted - either talking or completely immersed watching something. The dog knows the person is distracted and unfocused because this happens  frequently when they are together. When this happens, the dogs seeks out things that are more reinforcing for them (like sniffing the floor, investigating table tops and training bags within reach, going to other dogs, or just learning to be complacent and inactive). Basically, the dog and handler are not at all connected or focused.

People are consistent in how they remove themselves mentally from their dog and the dog figures out the pattern and applies himself to many other situations. This is well practiced during training sessions and classes - whether obedience or agility. The dogs perfect their performance of understanding how and when to disconnect from their trainers under certain telltale conditions. But what I find so interesting is how these people then suddenly snap into "working mode" and start focusing on what they are planning next.  They have switched from being focused on social things into immediately wanting focus from their unsuspecting dogs.

The innocent dog (who is now in a completely different world - totally immersed into smells, doggy interaction, sights, or tastes) is expected to recognize immediately that they are now in working mode and transition into that perfectly focused partner. There is usually no time spent trying to get the dog focused because the person is hurrying into whatever is coming next (as they probably pushed the socializing up until the last minute). They expect the dog to have some sort of mind meld and to be so connected to the trainers thoughts that it immediate knows that it's time to focus. And when the dogs don't immediately know that the handler has gone from unfocused to focused, they are corrected or overly handled or controlled. This gives a very poor start to the training or competition and causes some perceived attention issues in the ring.

What people don't understand is the attention issue is not the dog's problem. Rather, the attention issue is the trainer's problem. When you have decided to socialize or get unfocused while you are hanging around (or waiting for your turn) with your dog, put them into working mode by doing a sit stay or down stay or Crate Games - so they can focus on a task. Then it is up to you to be able to multitask (train AND socialize) at the same time. Continue to reward or address stay progress with the dog, while you socialize, talk to someone, or watch something in the ring. If you can not multitask training with these things, then you have two options.

1) put the dog away (in a kennel, tie out, x pen, car, etc) during the time you need to be unfocused on the dog.
2) remain focused on the dog and keep that connection with them and ignore what is going on around you

When both you and the dog have been disconnected from one another, in order to both be successful in training and competition, you need a short period of time to reconnect. It is unfair to expect any dog to immediately go into working mode when they have been "somewhere else" mentally, just because you can go from unfocused mode into working mode immediately. Take time to warm them up mentally with a game of tug or heeling or anything else that helps reestablish that very important connection.

Here is a great article by Bob Bailey on this subject: click here to read it.

Here's hoping that some of the things I've mentioned can help you become more productive and ultimately more successful with your training. Many times it's not the training itself that causes the issues, it's the fact that there is consistent lack of connection between dog and trainer which causes other training issues to arise.