Yesterday, I was talking with my friend Deena about the pitfalls in learning to run a very fast dog, like Rush or her new dog Amber. (Amber is a vizsla-lab mix and faster than stink.) I pointed out that learning to keep on running while Rush did the weaves or contacts was very hard for me, because I was used to managing both the weaves and the contacts. By “managing” I mean slowing down or stopping to watch the contact, or stepping a certain way to “help” the dog do the weaves. (We’ve all seen this at trials. I do it with Dancer.)
Needing to manage an obstacle is a training problem; it’s also a handling problem. If I’m busy managing the contact, I’m not getting to the next place I need to be.
As an example, we had this sequence as part of a course in class a few weeks ago:
If you have to manage the teeter by going all the way to the end of the teeter (as I would with Dancer), it’s going to be difficult to correctly signal jump 4, much less the turn from jump 4 to jump 5 and back to the 6-end of the tunnel. If, instead, you can send the dog over the teeter, signal the 3-end of the tunnel, and make a front (or blind) cross at the exit of the tunnel while the dog is in the tunnel–as I could and did do with Rush–the sequence becomes fairly straightforward.
BUT… when I walked the course the first time, I found myself wanting to run to the end of the teeter, even though I knew Rush would complete the teeter without me. Why? Habit. I had to pause and imagine Rush on the course, think about where I needed to be, and trust my training. It was hard.
When I first started training Rush and thinking about the contact performance I wanted–a stopped contact, 2-in-the-dirt-2-on-the-board–it was really hard for me to also also think about my own contact performance. I wanted to train a contact where I could be anywhere. Moving, stopped, behind, ahead, lateral.
I resorted to training an imaginary dog. Before I started training the real dog–Rush–I trained Fluffy. Fluffy is perfect. He is easy to see with his big white paws and white nose, never misses a contact, never knocks a bar, has amazing weaves, runs exactly the same speed as Rush, never barks at me to say I’m late.
When I want to train an a-frame contact where Rush waits while I move lateral to pick up a jump off the side, I practice by sending Fluffy onto the a-frame, moving correctly, and “seeing” Fluffy make that perfect stopped contact before I release him to take the jump. Then I try to run Rush exactly the same way and with the same moves. It really does help.
I know we all practice handling our imaginary dog when we walk a course, but I had to imagine a perfect dog before I stopped wanting to manage the real dog–because my real dog isn’t perfect. It’s all too easy for me to succumb to the temptation to “help” the dog, to stop at the end of the a-frame so the dog stops, to step-in-time as Dancer weaves… and in the end, it doesn’t help me or the dog. Running Fluffy from time to time helps me remember to trust my dog.