The person I am when I’m training people agility is different to the me that goes out with friends for an evening… We all do this, don’t we? We might not be conscious of it but we all vary the role we play according to our company and context.
The you that sits down with your family for Christmas dinner will speak and behave a bit differently to you in your everyday workplace. To take another example, maybe your friends have pointed out that you have a “telephone voice” which doesn’t sound like the voice you use with them…
In exactly the same way, the best agility handlers and trainers do not behave in a fixed, rigid way regardless of the dog they are partnering and no matter the situation. Instead, they make adjustments to their own persona to best suit the particular dog’s needs at that time.
It’s worth taking a moment to think about this consciously so that the part you play as your dog’s handler and trainer is optimal rather than incidental. Let’s consider 3 different dogs in 3 different contexts:
The dog is a 7 month old Terrier puppy. The situation is that you are working on running through some known tricks with this puppy beside an agility competition ring. Although the puppy is managing pretty well, he is way more readily distracted in that situation than you are used to at training.
As a handler, you’ll need to be super-focused on your puppy in this moment to make him succeed. You will likely need to be a handler who is a little bit extra engaging, exciting, vocal and energetic than you might be normally with the same pup.
The dog is an easily over-aroused and over-excitable 6 year old Collie cross Spaniel. The situation is an agility class, in which you are teaching the dog a new behaviour. The dog is displaying behaviours such as barking loudly and spinning in circles.
In the heat of the moment it can be easy to fall into the trap of responding by becoming an aroused and frustrated handler, but this usually escalates the situation. In this example, the dog is likely to be better served by a handler who exhibits calm, controlled, decisive behaviour.
The dog is a 21 month old Border Collie who is sensitive and can be unsure of unknown dogs. The situation is her first ever competition. She has been set up in a wait on the start-line and you have walked away preparing to start your run. She is staying in position but you can tell from her body language that she is slightly worried by the dogs that are queueing up a couple of meters behind her.
To ensure she has a positive, successful experience, you may need to interact with her visually or verbally more than normal during the short period she is waiting – to avoid her becoming too fixated on her uncertainty. You may need to be louder or more engaging with your release and to be more lively and emphatic the whole way through your run and during your rewarding to keep her attention and focus on you and on the enjoyment and fun of the experience.
If the handler your dog sometimes needs is not someone you feel comes to you naturally, what do you do? For some people, being malleable in their demeanour comes apparently without thought or effort. For others, less so… But you know that saying – “fake it till you make it?” That applies big time here.
Look for inspiration. Watch out for real-life examples or videos of a handler who you feel is dealing with a similar dog and situation well. What are they saying? What gestures are they making? Facial expressions? What are they not doing? What are they not saying?
Try playing the part of that handler with your own dog, while allowing it to still be your take on them. Observe how your dog responds for feedback on how the part you are playing influences your partnership.
Just as we expect to be able to mould our dog through training and practice, being open to adjusting our own selves and behaviour can be key in unlocking that sensational partnership.