Category Archives for "Posts by Daisy"

What Makes A Good Coach?

Although I originally posted this on my personal website some time ago, the information is perennially relevant, so I thought I'd share here on the Classroom Blog, where posts of a more educational nature reside ūüôā

There are a lot of online classrooms springing up here and there, and I think it will be interesting to see how they evolve over time.  Some seem to provide little to no personal feedback at all, and instead simply drip scripted content to the user over time. Others, like mine, really are the online equivalent of a class, where students receive homework, do their homework, receive feedback on their homework, and also participate in discussions, sometimes with, and sometimes without the instructor chiming in. But, the instructor is providing that oh-so-valuable feedback! And, as an update, I'm happy to say that my Classroom now provides the best of BOTH worlds Рthose on a tight budget can still get the valuable information at a lower price, and those with a little more disposable income can participate in the discussions, still, at a reasonable price Рsomething I'm proud that all the instructors here have stuck to.

As an instructor and coach, and as a person who actually has a formal education and degree in Science Education (and as somebody who taught in the public school system for a number of years!), the question of what makes a good coach is an important one that I think every person should consider. But it's not the only question! As lifelong learners, we all need to consider several factors when deciding what makes a good instructor or coach for US, personally.

Why do you need a coach?

That's probably the first question to ask.  Why not pick up a book and just learn about dog agility by reading? Or, why not just watch free videos on Youtube? I do think that as a kinesthetic activity, the vast majority of learners are not going to realize maximum learning by simply reading about or watching dog agility Рalthough I do think watching is better than reading when it comes to kinesthetic sorts of activities. DOING is going to be the thing that really helps us learn how to DO dog agility with our canine partners.   And, when it comes to DOING, we're going to make lots of mistakes Рsome of them essential to learning. However, with the help of a coach or instructor, who has hopefully made at least some of those mistakes herself, you as a learner can avoid some of the basic mistakes, and move on to more advanced learning more quickly!

Dog agility as a vehicle for self improvement involves changing your behavior.¬†BECOMING. Becoming faster, fitter, smarter, happier, more relaxed, more confident, more clever…there is a whole list of such things that I'm betting you could come up with, but at the end of it all, dog agility, like many other activities in life, is a way for you and your dog to¬†BECOME¬†something. And becoming something means that you are¬†CHANGING¬†– changing from something you WERE to something…else. ¬†There doesn't need to be a goal for this, it's just something that happens to all of us as we live our lives. This is where coaches and instructors come in. ¬†Coaches and instructors provide¬†feedback. And, feedback helps you¬†change your behavior. And, changing your behavior helps ¬†you in your process of¬†becoming. For many of us, myself included, it can be difficult to change our behavior and become something we're not comfortable being. Coaches can help us find ways to move forward, either by asking us pointed questions that we can think over for ourselves, or by telling us specifically how to move our bodies, when to reward our dogs, what sequences we should practice, etc. etc.

What makes a good coach?

Asking yourself what your specific needs with respect to coaching are going to be will help you determine just what kind of coach you are looking for. Everybody's needs are going to be slightly different, as we're all unique individuals with unique needs. But, I do think that there are a few things that are important for all coaches to possess.

While I don't think a good coach NEEDS a formal education in education or coaching, I do think that the best instructors and coaches are those who either have had some formal education on the topic, like myself, OR, they've had some tutelage and mentorship from instructors and coaches who themselves have had some formal education in the field of education. Anybody can hang their shingle out as a professional trainer of dog owners – but make sure your instructor has more than just a shingle to hang out ūüôā

starCoaches need to be able to communicate information

First and foremost, a coach's role is to provide you with information you currently do not have. An experienced coach can help jumpstart your learning by providing you with information so that you don't have to discover how to do things well (or poorly) through trial and error. Although you should still be evaluating the information you receive to make sure it makes logical sense, it's information you don't have to go out and spend time on yourself. If your coach or instructor makes you feel really good about yourself, and you have a lot of laughs, and a great time, but at the end of the lesson or seminar or workshop, you realize you really didn't receive any information, then you weren't coached Рyou were just at a social gathering.

starCoaches need to be able to help build you up, or at least not tear you down –

Although I just said in the previous point that coaches need to provide information, and that if they're just really good at making you¬†feel¬†good and are NOT providing information, they aren't really a coach, I¬†do¬†think that it is important that a coach or instructor help ‘build you up' with the information they're presenting, rather than tearing you down. Now, I'm not a really touchy feely, hugging, kissing, flowers and rainbows type of person myself. ¬†Ask my husband and close friends; sometimes my ‘bedside manner' just plain sucks ūüôā I get really in to giving information, and lots of it, and I can forget that sometimes it needs to be softened around the edges so that the receiver of the information can actually RECEIVE and USE that information! I'm not going to tell somebody they're¬†great¬†unless they were really¬†great¬†– but on the other hand, if somebody is putting forth a great¬†effort, I will definitely be letting them know! Coaches need to present information and skills that are perhaps just out of reach with respect to the learner's current ability, and then¬†encourage¬†the learner to work to raise their ability. There's a big difference between encouraging and coddling. When I teach a lesson, workshop, or seminar, my primary interest is in helping to raise the ability of each and every individual. ¬†Sometimes, it doesn't always feel good for the learner at that moment of learning; it can be frustrating, uncomfortable, awkward, and nerve wracking to work on changing your behavior, changing your skill level. If I allowed everybody who came to me to stay in a comfortable place where they always felt good, they probably wouldn't be learning much. ¬†But, on the other hand, I think it is important for a coach to recognize that it IS awkward and uncomfortable to be pressing forward, and to be appropriately encouraging.

starCoaches need to make an effort to communicate YOUR way

This is a really hard one. People learn in different ways. Some people, even though they are paying a coach for a lesson, are ‘drivers', and like to feel like they are behind the wheel. ¬†They need a coach who can gently guide them to think that every new idea is THEIR idea, allowing that driver to stay behind the wheel, so that they will learn more effectively. ¬†Try to drive a driver and they will ‘mule up', planting their feet in the sand and refusing to budge, mentally or physically. Of course, coaches are people too, and being able to put on a different hat every time a coach is presented with a different student is a skill that many coaches simply do not possess. You can be before the most knowledgeable coach in the world, but if they do not present their information in a way that jives with your learning style, you won't learn much (of course, you as a learner should be working to meet your coach halfway, you are, after all, trying to change your behavior! :))

starCoaches need to have experience

There are a lot of people out there presenting themselves as coaches. They have a passion for their sport and want to make money doing something related to their sport. ¬†In agility, there are a few ways to do that – make equipment, breed dogs for the sport, or teach. ¬†OK, maybe a few others, but you get the idea ūüôā A *good* coach needs to have¬†experience. Getting lucky with one dog and shooting to the top of the sport does not necessarily count as experience! I have enjoyed a lot of success with a couple of my dogs, and of course that makes you more aware of me – but like many in the sport, the dogs you DON'T know about so much, the ones who HAVEN'T been as successful, may well have given me more experience than the ones who HAVE. Ideally, a good coach can point to personal experiences with dogs who are naturally talented, and those who are not. If you want to win, who do you think you will learn more about winning from? Somebody who has ONLY won, or somebody who has won AND lost? Which person will more fully know all the different aspects of winning and losing? Coaches are typically also competitors, and their dogs are their pets, so it's a little unrealistic to expect a coach to have owned YOUR breed of dog – after all, there is only so much room in one's house for pets! But, a good coach should at least have experience working with¬†students¬†who have YOUR breed of dog, and they should be able to recognize the general character traits that might be more prevalent in your breed of dog.

starCoaches need to be able to see and communicate the BIG PICTURE

This sort of goes along with the last point. Coaches need to be able to see the BIG PICTURE. To explain to you why this one silly little thing you're being asked to do today is important in the grand scheme of things, even if it doesn't make sense NOW. They need to be able to present you with information that is going to stand the test of time, rather than just presenting you with a bag of tricks that works on one, two, a few dogs. What are the BIG things that tend to work across the board? With ALL dogs? Those are the important things, those are the things that a good coach can then help you customize for YOUR dog. ¬†Start big, then work your way back to the details for YOUR dog. If an instructor or coach is presenting you with ‘tricks' – newfangled things with fancy names – that might be fun, but is it going to be something that really helps further your understanding? Does it really help you to BECOME?

starCoaches need to be OK not knowing the answers

Your coach needs to be somebody that you can go to with questions. ¬†And, your coach needs to be somebody that is comfortable saying I DON'T KNOW, when your understanding starts to approach that of your coach's understanding, and you start to ask questions. This is the coach's opportunity to learn from you, or at least learn with you – a good coach is comfortable saying, “I don't know, but let's find out together”. Personally, I would walk away, and FAST, from an instructor or coach who got huffy or defensive when I asked a question. ¬†Having said that, be sure that YOU are not asking the SAME question over and over – that's different, and that will drive even the best coaches crazy! If you are asking the same question over and over, and not getting a satisfactory answer, make it clear that that is WHY you keep asking. ¬†Or, ask the question differently. ¬†Keep asking GOOD questions, and a good coach will keep giving good answers, and “I don't know but let's find out together” is maybe the best answer of all, because then the coach AND the student are learning from one another. ¬†Both have given one another an amazing opportunity for self improvement!


Finding a coach that suits your learning style, as well as your needs and wants, can be challenging. ¬†It was even more challenging before the internet made the world smaller – prior to online classes, geography was the main consideration for most, and in all likelihood, still is. ¬†But there are so many more important factors to take in to consideration! Ideally, online learning would be coupled with local instruction, and you as the learner would schedule a lesson time with your local instructor, not for an actual lesson, but to discuss how you can help your coach help you to be the best you can be. Periodically revisiting that idea helps your coach remain aware of the need for self improvement as a coach, and helps you remain aware of the need for self improvement as a learner, and then everybody gets closer to the REAL goal…of BECOMING ūüôā

Experience the joy of sharing!
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Why Struggling is Key

Recently, I listened to an interview on the radio with a Psychology Professor named Jim Stigler at UCLA. He was talking about how he'd watched anxiously as a fourth grader in a Japanese math classroom struggled at the front of the class to solve a problem.

Maybe you didn't know this, but I used to be a high school chemistry teacher.  So although I don't teach high school any longer, I'm still keenly interested in pedagogy (the study of teaching), and my ears always perk up when I hear things that relate to teaching, mental training, and that sort of thing, as I think those topics are applicable to agility.

Anyway, this guy was talking about how the teacher had called on a student who obviously DIDN'T know the answer to the problem at hand. ¬†Now, as a teacher, I always tried to choose a student who I was pretty sure knew the answer ūüôā But in this case, the student didn't know the answer, and was up at the front of the room for a LONG time, getting the problem WRONG, over and over again. Finally, they solved the problem, and the class applauded.

I think that from very early ages we [in America] see struggle as an indicator that you're just not very smart. It's a sign of low ability ‚ÄĒ people who are smart don't struggle, they just naturally get it, that's our folk theory. Whereas in Asian cultures they tend to see struggle more as an opportunity.

To make a long story short, the point of the article was really that in the mind of this Professor, and according to his research, it seems that Eastern cultures have really promoted the idea that intellectual struggle is a GOOD thing, that the process of struggling intellectually is what MAKES you intellectually strong.  He contrasts that to the prevailing notion in Western cultures, that intellectual ability is something innate, something you either have or don't have.

That really resonated with me.

What if we were to change our thinking about ‘struggle' in other facets of our lives? This goes right along with all of my mental training for agility – the idea that it's the PROCESS that's the important thing, rather than the outcome. ¬†That the outcome really is a product OF the process.

In Eastern cultures, Stigler says, it's just assumed that struggle is a predictable part of the learning process. Everyone is expected to struggle in the process of learning, and so struggling becomes a chance to show that you, the student, have what it takes emotionally to resolve the problem by persisting through that struggle.

It got me thinking – in my day to day life, do I view struggle as a sign of weakness? Or, do I view struggle as a challenge, as an opportunity for growth? In my day to day interactions with my dogs, how to I react when I bump up against something I don't know, don't understand, or struggle with?

Think about this, the next time YOU bump up against a training challenge.

If your ‘training chops' are a muscle, if your intellectual ability is a muscle, and if muscles are made strong by exercise, by working through resistance, then think of your training challenges as that resistance that will make you stronger.

Obviously if struggle indicates weakness ‚ÄĒ a lack of intelligence ‚ÄĒ it makes you feel bad, and so you're less likely to put up with it. But if struggle indicates strength ‚ÄĒ an ability to face down the challenges that inevitably occur when you are trying to learn something ‚ÄĒ you're more willing to accept it.

Rather than getting frustrated, or disappointed, think of anything that you view as a struggle as an opportunity to become more fluent through the process of persistance, not giving up, trying and trying again and trying differently until you SOLVE your training, trialling, or mental game challenge.

If you're interested in reading to or listening to the article that caught my attention, check it out here: Struggle for Smarts

Thoughts on handling the Novice Dog

Juno had her big Novice Debut this weekend! She's almost certainly had the least preparation and training of any of my dogs to date, given my busy travel schedule and focus on Solar and Jester, but nevertheless, she did great. I've been waiting for her debut for some time, not only because running a Novice dog is a ton of fun, but to prove to people that you don't have to step in to the ring perfect, or perfectly prepared.  To the contrary, there are things I believe that the dogs will only learn in the ring, and so I see no reason to wait til they're running Master's level courses to enter them in a trial, provided that I can provide a positive experience that will further growth between my dog and myself as a team.

Juno's debut in the Novice ring has gotten me thinking how all of the things I've been working lately to make sure I'm implementing as a coach for my students really applies to our dogs as well. For those of us involved in a team sport with our dogs, we serve not only as trainers, but as canine coaches too, and although it's taken me several years to fully grasp the concept, I do believe that in order to achieve maximum success with our dogs as athletes, we must be flexible coaches, able to be the coach our dog needs us to be as his/her needs change, rather than expecting our dogs to conform constantly to our needs.

Like us, I believe our dogs move through different levels of competency as they learn the ins and outs of the sport of dog agility.  To review, here are the four basic levels of competency:

  • Unconsciously unskilled At this stage, the learner (the dog, in this case), doesn't even know that they don't know anything.¬† They're blissfully ignorant, if you will.As their coach, at this stage, you need to show them¬†what¬†to do, and make sure that you make the learning fun enough that the dog wants more.¬† Just like with a young human athlete, if the sport is¬†fun¬†at this stage, they're going to want to do it more. It's not necessarily important that the finer details of form are perfect at this point, as long as they're not forgotten about by you the coach, for later refinement. Juno is moving through this stage at the moment (as of the completion of her very first agility trial).¬† She doesn't even¬†know¬†that she's unskilled, and there's no reason for me to point that out to her.¬† While she's busy checking out the ring crew, the obstacles, the spectators, the judge, and ME, I'm busy guiding her through that experience, showing her¬†what¬†to do, and making sure she feels great about herself while she's attempting to do it.
  • Consciously unskilled At some point, Juno will move in to this stage, and since we can't directly communicate verbally, it may be that she's already there to some extent.¬† This would be the stage that a young athlete might be having a lot of fun and now they want to be¬†better. They're aware that they're fairly unskilled, either because they feel it internally, because you've pointed it out to them, or, in the case of most of us people, we see others doing better and measure ourselves up against that. I would never push a person or a dog who is consciously (or unconsciously) unskilled to do anything¬†fast; in the case of the dog, if they're not going fast, it's highly likely that it's because they know there is a lot to learn and they don't know a lot of what there is to learn, and they're trying to take everything in and process it…and that takes brainpower….which takes time…and so any reasonable creature will do the safe and logical thing….SLOW DOWN!As my dog's coach, at this stage, it's my job to make sure that I continue to support their efforts to figure out¬†what¬†to do, but as they are ready for it, to also show them¬†how¬†to do those certain things. I need to be observant enough to see when my dog is asking for help, or asking me a question about¬†how¬†to do something, and I need to be prepared to respond in a way that will help their growth as a teammate.
  • Consciously skilled As the dog gains experiences that they can put in to their own personal playbook of how the game of agility is played, they're going to gain skill. At this stage, though, employing those skills in the right places and at the right times is going to take conscious effort. At this stage, they're probably learning (or ready to learn)¬†when¬†to use the particular mechanical skills they've previously learned.¬† Developing your agility dog in to a good team player means you, as coach, need to be ready to spot when they've slipped in to this particular stage of their development.¬† It may be that they suddenly make¬†more¬†mistakes than they made previously, and as coach, it's important to recognize whether that should be attributed to a deficiency in mechanical skill, or perhaps, the mistakes are due to the dog trying to sort out¬†when¬†to do something, and not quite making the right decision, or making the right decision but not being able to execute it at the right time.At this stage, getting on your dog's case for mechanical errors (a dropped bar or missed contact) when the reason the dog¬†made¬†the mistake was because she was really making an effort to anticipate correctly what she thought was going to happen is not likely to improve the situation.¬† In fact, it may make it worse.¬† Imagine, you're on a sports team, and you finally think you've¬†got it, and so you take some initiative to be proactive and show your coach that you're getting it.¬† And then, despite your best efforts, you just don't quite get it right, because things weren't quite as they seemed to be.¬† How would you respond if your coach yelled at you for taking that initiative? Would you try harder the next time, or would you tend to hold off from taking initiative again in the future? What if, on the other hand, your coach congratulated you for your efforts, and then provided meaningful instruction and feedback on¬†why¬†things didn't quite work out this time around? My guess is that you'd be a LOT more likely to try even harder in the future!
  • Unconsciously skilled Finally, after perhaps several years, you and your dog together are unconsciously skilled.¬† You've gone through the motions enough times, and you've been consistent enough, that your dog can read your cues without much conscious effort, leaving more of his brain free to process things like that divot in the dirt that's right where he'd like to take off, or that splinter in the contact that's right where he'd like to put his foot.¬† He can deal with contingencies that arise, because the skills that he has come naturally to him, and he can use his subconscious brain to deal with whatever comes his way. Also, because you've been such a supportive coach, moving from the¬†what, to the¬†how¬†and then to the¬†when¬†appropriately, building your dog's self-image all the way, your dog is a confident and happy teammate.¬† Although mistakes happen, when they do, the both of you know that they are just honest mistakes, and not due to a lack of effort or understanding on either party's part.

Obviously, I'm going to continue to put an emphasis on enjoyment together as a team throughout these different learning stages, but like us, I really do feel that what makes something “fun” changes as you move through these stages.¬† For example, in the first stage, most would not find nitty gritty details and highly analytical training to be very fun.¬† That's not terribly motivating for a beginner in any endeavor! But, as the thirst for more develops, there may well come a time when a lot of pleasure can be taken in learning the finer details involved in perfecting a particular mechanical skill. Our dogs, like us, are changing all the time.¬† When I look at Fly, who is now 12.5 years old, he is definitely¬†not¬†the same dog he was when he was a year old.¬† Likewise, Jester, Solar, and Juno are all different dogs than they were when they arrived in our family, both physically and mentally.¬† Their development as individuals as we progress together as companions and teammates is what makes the sport so much fun, and so rewarding.¬† Our dogs aren't the only ones changing, though.¬† We of course, are changing all the time too.¬† As handlers, we may ourselves be moving through the four learning stages listed above, and then our task is doubled, as we'll have to be our own coaches as well as our dogs' coaches. Our circumstances in life change as well. We move, our interests change, jobs, partners, you name it.¬† The only thing that stays the same is that things always change.¬† But, being alert to the needs of your canine partner with respect to what they require from you as a companion, a leader, a handler, and a coach, is something that benefits both dog and human alike – it's the name of the game!

Juno's First Trial, 4/30-5/2, 2011