Monthly Archives: April 2017

Fear….

This year, as part of annual self-improvement day (New Year’s), I joined two different “Challenge” groups. One of them is Daisy Peel’s 2017 agility challenge group; the other is a running challenge group called the Hadfield 2017 Challenge. They have a few things in common; the one that stands out for me is that they are both mostly women, and both mostly women who are afraid that they’re not meeting some arbitrary external standard. “I’m not that fast,” they say. They write: “I’m not a very good handler” or “my dog deserves a better handler.” On the running challenge, they ask for advice about riding a bike in traffic (for cross-training) because they’re afraid of riding in traffic. Or about dealing with dangerous dogs that they might encounter in a new situation. Or about how to get up the courage to try a long distance race or a triathlon.

I think for many of the women in these groups, the “challenge” is overcoming their own fears. It’s that inner critic again: the one who knows all our secrets, including how scared we are to try something new–and maybe fail–or maybe just look foolish–or maybe trip and fall.

When I am trial chair, one of the questions I always get from first-time competitors is “what happens if my dog poops in the ring?” My answer is: you leash your dog, then you clean it up, and then you take your dog out of the ring. Sometimes the ring crew will clean it up for you. Oh yes, and “it has happened to every single experienced competitor in this trial.” And every single new competitor is worried that they’ll be embarrassed. There is that horrible video that goes around the internet every few years, of an agility dog having a wonderful run right up until he stops to shit; I cringe every time, because that poor handler must feel so awful that she asked her dog to run when he needed to go.

We all worry about making fools of ourselves.

We all worry about our safety.

We all worry about appearing clumsy or inexperienced.

We all worry that people are judging us and finding us lacking.

But I’ve noticed that most people aren’t interested in judging other people. We’re watching because we want to learn. We want to be awed. We want to share our experiences with others. We’re not holding up signs with numbers. Really, we’re not.

The role of trust in dog agility

I have a friend with a worried dog. The dog worries when she’s in the agility arena at a trial, and so my friend worries too, and the net result is that my friend does not trust the dog when running in competition. This lack of trust means that the team struggles when competing in a trial. I’ve seen the two of them in training, and they are a lovely team when working  in a quiet training situation. In a trial, though? They’re both unhappy at trials. Her dog wishes she’d stay closer and let her know earlier what she wants; she wishes her dog could relax more at trials so that she could relax and run.

Watching them has made me think about trust and agility. I trust Rush to do his best to do exactly what I ask him to do–which is sometimes not what I wanted him to do (if I gave him an incorrect cue, for example). In turn, he trusts me to pay the entry fees and get him to trials on time. Well, partly that, but mostly, he trusts me not to get upset if he makes a mistake. He trusts me to make sure he doesn’t get approached by small dogs (who worry him, because he’s been bitten by several small white fluffy mix-breeds dogs). He trusts me to make sure big fluffy German Shepherds don’t bug him. At least, these days he trusts me about German Shepherds. For a while, he was convinced they were all out to rip his head off, and he got quite defensive about it. These days he’s much more relaxed.

So I’ve been thinking about how you build mutual trust with your dog.

Back when I was in high school and college, “trust-building exercises” were very trendy, and we would have games we’d play, like closing your eyes and falling backwards into someone’s arms. Or walking holding hands with one of us blind-folded. These were supposed to build trust, but always made me worried. Frankly, I didn’t really trust many people. It took building a true relationship with Jay before I got to where I trusted someone absolutely.

There are times when I don’t trust Rush. Around golden retrievers, for example. He’s had so many bad experiences with goldens that he has a tendency to assume they’re all nuts. Or around cats, all of who should be chased and treed, as far as he’s concerned.

In the agility ring, however, I absolutely trust Rush. I know that I can put him in a start-line stay and walk away from him. So I can walk away confidently and just toss his release word over my shoulder, no worries. I know he can get pretty much any weave entry. I know he almost never knocks bars. All of that means that if he makes a mistake, I don’t get upset–because I know he’s doing the best he can. How could I get upset with a dog that’s trying so hard?

All of which makes me think that trust-building with your dog is about a lot of things. It’s about protecting him from things he worries about. It’s about providing enjoyable exercise and good food and good vet care. It’s about consistent rewards and a consistent message in training, so that the same behavior gets the same response every time. You can’t tell the dog that taking the tunnel if your feet are pointing at it is wrong if yesterday you trained him to take the tunnel when you pointed your feet at it.

Lately when I go to the training barn, I’ve been thinking about building mutual trust, not about training the dog to obey orders. It’s a different approach, and I’m enjoying it.