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Let’s Pardon Some Turkeys

Happy Thanksgiving!

 

Here in the USA, this time of year is often referred to as the season of remembrance.  Thanksgiving and the upcoming holiday season helps to remind us to be thankful for the things we have, be mindful of the many who go without and to send positive thoughts to those who cannot be with their families and friends because they’re busy protecting us so that we can enjoy our freedom.

With that and agility in mind, lately I’ve been thinking about how lucky we North Americans are for the agility opportunities we have in the United States (and Canada) and how I need to be mindful of that sort of thanksgiving as well.  As you look across this continent and think about the very basics (and beginnings) of training and shaping behaviors through the highest levels of complex competing (not to mention all the conditioning and advanced medical resources we have available), I genuinely believe that we have the best handlers and trainers in the WORLD right here in North America.

 

Current trends in seminars might seem shiny and brighter because they come from outside North America, but if you closely examine them, don’t they seem oddly familiar?

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Getting great feedback as a participant

Objective

Getting great video feedback starts with submission of a great video! The following tips will help your long distance instructor give you the best feedback possible, whether that instructor is me, another instructor in my online classroom, or an instructor in another online classroom. Let’s get started!

Dress Appropriately

It may seem strange that you’d need to dress appropriately for something you’re just heading out to do in your back yard, but the clothes that you wear can affect the quality of the feedback your instructor can give you. If you want your instructor to be able to comment on your movements around the course with your dog, make sure that your movements can be seen. Wear bright colors that contrast with the background; for example, if you’re working on a dirt surface, you don’t want to be wearing brown pants, or your instructor won’t be able to see your legs! If you’re working on grass, avoid wearing green. And ALWAYS avoid wearing black, since it makes your body very difficult to observe on the screen.

In my videos, I make the effort to wear bright colors such as red, or blue. It’s not just because I’m patriotic! I also try to wear clothing that has stripes or other features on it. For example, in many of my videos, I’m wearing a pair of athletic pants that have white stripes down the leg. These white stripes make it easier to see the angle of my legs as I move. And, I tend to wear tops that are either brightly colored and/or have stripes on them as well, so you can see my shoulders and arms better.

I try to wear clothing that is not lumpy or loose. Not only is it difficult for me to run in loose lumpy clothing, but it makes it difficult for an observer to even tell if they’re looking at my front or my back end! Even if I might not feel entirely comfortable in snug fitting clothing, I know that to an observer watching my videos, snug clothing is going to make it easier to see my body, and how it’s moving.

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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 🙂

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 – those 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 – something 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?

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Afraid to be beautiful

Juno is my only girl dog. Those of you who know me know that although I love working with students that have female dogs just as much as those with male dogs, there’s just something about me that just likes boy dogs more. It’s the boy puppies in a litter I ooh and aah over, and I just love their dopey happy attitude toward life. Girls in general seem too serious for me, and I’m already serious enough! Boys seem to temper my seriousness…

And yet, I have Juno, and I can honestly say that she is my favorite out of all of my current dogs (the rest of whom are male). She and Solar are both constant companions in the house, but it is Juno who will jump up on the chair behind my standing desk and paw at me to turn away from my computer to pet her. Juno brings me my shoes, bones, toys, anything she can find. She brings me sheep and is a thing of beauty when she is herding – she forgets she is afraid to be beautiful when she is herding sheep and is like watching a field of ripe grain swaying in the breeze on a summer day…or any other number of beautiful things you can come up with, that is Juno when she is herding. I’m getting sheep when we get back from Belgium, to eat the grass, but in large part to give me more opportunities to watch Juno be her beautiful self.

Juno is an amazing agility dog. She can bend and twist over the jumps like you’ve never seen before. She is faster than Solar, she can turn tighter than Solar, and her contacts are better than Solar’s. She can make turns off of the end of the dogwalk, at full speed, that are unbelievable. She barks, she bites, and has a grand time doing agility.

Most of you who have seen Juno run at a trial, however, have not seen that Juno. The Juno that resides between the rings at a trial is barking, jumping up and down, and keen to watch the dogs in the ring. But that Juno gets left at the gate, and the Juno that usually enters the ring has her ears down, head down, and tail down. The Juno that most of you see is plodding around the ring at less than half the speed she goes when nobody is watching.

So, a couple of weeks ago, at an AKC Trial, when Juno and I had this run together, I was absolutely thrilled. My mouth was filled with dirt from my lower jaw scraping on the ground the whole run. This is still not the Juno I get all to myself at home, but she was HAPPY, and had her game on:

Yes, she dropped the triple at the end – but frankly, if that is the cost of Juno letting others see what I get to regularly see when we’re on our own, I’ll pay it, and more.

This particular trial was a 4-day trial, and I spent much of my time before entering the ring teaching Juno to nose-target the ring gates. By the end of the weekend, she was pulling happily TOWARD the ring gates, rather than cringing when we approached as though I regularly beat her with them. To an unsuspecting onlooker, she probably looked like she was straining to get IN to the ring, although I knew she was just straining to get TO the ring so she could touch it with her nose for cheese. But, I’m OK with that, it’s a good start.

On Sunday, Juno and I finished up our 20th QQ to get her MACH. At the end of the run, rather than a “victory lap”, we just did a “victory jump”, and you can see that although Juno was holding back for the run, she let her guard down a bit for the victory jump 🙂 I thought that would be more productive than asking her to run around the ring again 🙂 I’ve gotten MACH titles on four dogs now, and I can honestly say that aside from Fly’s first MACH (and mine too!), this one has represented the most in terms of “becoming” on my part, and so it’s a very special one.

This past weekend, a friend from Australia was in town staying with me while I taught a seminar at the Clear Mind Agility Hall. She ran Juno for the seminar, and although there were other people watching, Juno really warmed up and ran for Simone. Beautiful, sweet Juno…Juno, who is afraid to be beautiful, let a whole group of people in on her secret – that she is amazing. It was hard to give good handling feedback to Simone, I was so happy watching Juno be happy.

I don’t know if Juno will ever let her guard down to let the world see how beautiful she can be, but I’m going to keep at it, in the hopes that one day, we’ll turn that corner together, and have run after run after run that makes my jaw drop to see how happy she is. With Solar and Jester, it is all too easy to take for granted a love not just for agility, but to step into the limelight and shine in front of others. Juno has that same love for agility, but it is rare for her to lift up her head with pride and have a run like the one at the top of this post. When she does, though…those runs are more special than any National Championship Final run could be to me.

All of us have had the experience of being afraid to be beautiful, and Juno’s ongoing lesson to me so far has certainly been one of learning how to be more nurturing, and to not take for granted how easy it is for some (dogs and people alike) to go into the ring and shine; for others, like Juno, it is not so easy.

My husband and I have often joked about what we’d say to each dog if we had just a few minutes where we could speak plainly to our dogs and have them understand us. If I had those few minutes with Juno, I’d spend them telling her how amazing she is, encouraging her to be brave and beautiful and proud.

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 🙂 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 — 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.

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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