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:
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- 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