Every handler and dog, from the novice team at their first trial to the national championship team, makes errors. There are a few things you need to think about when you analyze your mistakes. Most errors will fall into one of three categories: a breakdown in execution, a breakdown in the dog’s understanding, or a breakdown in the handler’s understanding. By understanding where the breakdown occurs, you can create an effective plan to avoid future mistakes.
Be sure to listen to our podcast on this topic as well for an expanded discussion.
Breakdown in Execution
A breakdown in execution means that you know what you’re doing, your dog knows what he’s doing, but one of you just doesn’t do it! The more experienced the team, the more often mistakes are going to be simple breakdowns in execution. These mistakes tend to be on the handler’s part. Perhaps you executed a late front cross or you forgot the last part of the course. Or less likely, your dog inexplicably fell off the dogwalk or tripped while launching for a jump, causing a knocked bar.
- Learn from your runs. Maybe your dog was too fast for you to position yourself for that front cross, and a rear cross would have been better. Refine your timing.
- Practice doing the sequence correctly. Many maneuvers and courses are difficult for the handler! As you practice moves like front cross, serpentines, and threadles, they become easier for you to execute at speed. Running sequences is a mechanical skill for the handler that can be improved with practice. As handlers become more experienced, they tend to neglect walking shorter sequences, especially in practice.
- Work on your mental game. Many breakdowns in execution occur because we are unable to execute our plan during the stress of a trial environment.
Breakdown in the Dog’s Understanding
If you feel you are executing well, but your dog is still making mistakes, you need to honestly evaluate whether or not your dog truly understands the skill. We doubt that dogs make mistakes on purpose to make you mad, although sometimes it can feel that way! Dogs run the best they can given the training they have received and the timely information you give them during a run.
Training is how we transfer what we know and want to the dog. Naturally, if the dog doesn’t understand something, the fix is going to be more training!
Make sure your dog understands your cues:
- at speed
- when they are excited
- when YOU are excited
- around distractions
- at distance (can your dog drive ahead without you? can they race to catch up without knocking bars?)
- and any other combination of factors they are likely to see during a trial
Breakdown in the Handler’s Understanding
If your execution is good and the dog understands his job, you need to take a long hard look at your own understanding of the cues you are using. Everyone has their own system of handling–a collection of cues they use to get their dogs around a course. You don’t need a system developed by a famous handler, but you should have a set of cues that you can use consistently. Each cue needs to be different enough for the dog to perceive at speed. There should be no ambiguity–as soon as the dog perceives the cue, they should know exactly what to do.
It’s very difficult to recognize when there is a flaw in our own understanding. Many novice handlers will understand that there is much for them to learn. But as each team gains experience, it can be very difficult to recognize areas where the way we have been doing things is no longer the best way. The absolute best fix is to have a training partner, instructor, or coach that you respect and trust give you feedback. As a novice, you need to be able to listen to and trust your instructor. As you gain experience, you need experienced peers who will challenge your assumptions and help you work through issues. Once you have identified the breakdown in your own understanding and determined how you wish to change your handling to fix the issue, you need to teach these changes to your dog, and then go out to the agility field and execute.
By identifying whether it is execution, our dog’s understanding, or our own understanding that is causing our handling mistakes; we can quickly focus on the aspect of training that will help fix our issue for the future.