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.