Recently I decided I should blog more. I enjoy the challenge of taking all these thoughts that are swimming around in my head, and somehow giving them more purchase, more structure. I thought “hey now, let’s join this Dog Agility Blogger Action Day” ring to hold me more accountable to putting thoughts down, even if my schedule wouldn’t otherwise inspire said blogging. So what do you know, the first topic I’m here for is ‘Outside the Ring’, which is something I touched on in one of my other posts written only a few months ago, on the importance of fitness in your agility dog’s training regime. (http://www.emdogs.com/2014/05/fitness-at-the-forefront/)
With the fitness discussion already underway, I’d like to switch gears and talk about relationship, as just as important as the tangible physical side of agility is the ever-present emotional side. Everything you do in the presence of your dog is shaping your relationship, your partnership. You see, I don’t think that there needs to be a ruler in this dog/handler relationship. I think what there needs to be is mutual respect. You respect them, and earn their respect in return. Respect is not something you can demand and truly receive in a human relationship, so why do we so oft think it appropriate to demand it from our canine partners?
If you have a very harsh and demanding boss at work, you might put on the brave face and do as you’re told to get that paycheck, but once 5 o’clock rolls around you won’t give work another thought until the next day. You won’t be inspired to get in early or do a little extra to impress. On the outside you’re the model employee, but on the inside you’re watching that clock and relishing the time you spend away from work. You treat your boss with respect only because he demands it and you want to keep your job, not because you *feel* it.
On the flip side if you have a nurturing, supportive boss who respects you as a person and as an employee, chances are you’ll be more inspired to do better work. You’ll respect that boss as a person, as a leader, as someone you want to impress. Maybe you’ll be inspired to put in that extra effort, to make sure your work is noticed. Those are the relationships you remember, those are the ones that leave a lasting impression. In my life before I played with dogs full-time, I had both types of boss experiences. The bosses who were truly respectful of me, and worked to build a good relationship, are the ones I remember fondly. The others are all grouped together in a “glad I got away from that!” trash heap. (You don’t wanna be thrown out with the trash, now do you??)
I always aim to be the leader to *earn* the respect from my dog rather than demand it. It just makes for such a better, deeper relationship with her. I want her to feel confident to make decisions, because there are so rarely consequences if she makes the wrong choice, just rewards when she makes the right one!
“So how does one build that relationship?”
You might ask.
I reward my dog. A lot.
Very early on I teach my dogs how to shape behaviours, how to think, how to decide…how to engage with me. I use clicks, I use treats, I use praise, and toys, and “yes!”, and all sorts of superlatives in a very high and clearly ecstatic voice. Anyone who trains with me is at first a bit shocked (and likely embarrassed for me) by my “let’s have a party!!” routine after an especially awesome bit of training, but in time I always hope to inspire everyone to be a little more silly, more excited, about every little amazing thing. Build your dog up. Tell her how amazing she is all the time. I can’t tell my girls enough how pretty they are, and how amazing and super-fast and perfect and awesome they are. I build them up and tell them they are Champions – they are the best girls in the whole world. I have the BestStik, BestMonkey, BestBean, BestMils, BestMoon, BestNay…they all have nicknames that include BEST. Because they are. All. The Best. They might not all be the best at the same things, but they’re all the best at being who they are, and that’s enough for me. It is said that if you say something long enough you’ll start to believe it. Even though dogs don’t speak English, I think they speak emotions, feelings. If they can feel the love you give them as you praise and promote them, well, that’s good enough reason to do it for me.
I treat my dog with respect.
I treat them how I’d like to be treated. I mean, I wouldn’t go so far as to say I’d ever want to be served raw meat on a daily basis, but I wouldn’t mind a personal chef to cook and prepare my meals for me and make sure I get a variety, and double up on my favourites. No, I wouldn’t mind that at all.
What I mean is…I am fair. If the dog makes a mistake, I assume it’s my fault. I haven’t trained it, proofed it, cued it correctly…it’s on me. I’m not a pushover. I’m not a punisher either. My dogs don’t try to walk all over me, and I don’t walk all over them. Give & take. Respect.
I build a working relationship as well as a loving relationship.
It’s not all about the work. It’s not all about the play. Or the snuggling. Or the meals.
It’s about everything all rolled into one. I don’t want a dog that just wants to work and won’t settle. I want a dog who is absolutely gung-ho about working when it’s asked of her, and absolutely gung-ho about naptime the rest of the time. I like to snuggle with my dogs. I like to hike with my dogs. I like to teach them silly tricks and pose them for pictures. I like all of these things. Because of my relationship with my girls, this makes them like all of these things, too. Agility is just another trick I teach. It’s just another game we play. It’s one of the only times we’re scored on our performance, but I always walk into the ring with THE best dog. & lucky me, I get to leave with her, too.
What’s the best thing you can do with your dog outside the ring to make your runs go better in the ring?
Anything. Everything. With love & respect. Smile. Laugh. Play games. Teach Tricks. Hike. Swim. Condition. Spend the time. Get to know your dog. Enjoy your dog. Don’t worry about anyone else. We are all on our own journey. Your journey with your dog is just that. Love it. Embrace it. Cherish the time you’re lucky enough to get. Don’t worry about the results, as you already have everything you need at the end of your leash.
Everything you do outside the ring affects your time in the ring. Those 30-second blips in time are such a tiny part of the overall experience. Enjoy. every. second.
Enjoy some other blogs on the topic of “Outside the Ring” here.