Or why do we give up on ourselves that easily?
Going around for seminars and trainings I hear lots and lots of excuses. Mostly you can put them in two categories. First there are those who find the excuse in the dog (ohh, but he is to crazy, to calm, to nervous, to fast, to slow,…). Yes, dog’s are different and they all have their strong and weak spots, but it can all be managed with a smart personalized training. But that is not what this article is all about. It is about the second group of people; those handlers that blame it all on themselves.
Ohh, my dog is so great BUT I am so old/slow/uncoordinated/clumsy/can’t remember the course… all and all a terrible, terrible handler. Sounds familiar?
It is actually what I say to myself many times as well. But then I think about it for a second… How much effort do we actually put on really improving ourselves? If you try to think about how many minutes you spent on your dog’s training this week? And how many on yourself? Mostly people try to solve the problem by as many handling moves as possible, but it is really not about the moves. It is about your timing, precision, and reaction time. It is not in the moves but how fluently and in sync with your dog you can do them. And I can tell you – some of them are not really all that easy if you are not the most coordinated person on the planet to begin with.
Agility is a team sport. If we expect our dog to do his best, it is quite fair that we do so as well. And do we really do it? How many times do you forget a course? Or find yourself in the wrong spot? How many times do you give your cue too late or finish a front cross in the worst possible place, causing the dog to drop the bar or even sending him off course. And how many of those times you just bitched about what a lousy handler you are? Well, bitching doesn’t help, training does. It is funny how we all know that our dogs will get better at doing something if they train regularly. How come we just assume we won’t and just tell our dog we are the worst possible handler he could have? But the good news is that you really can improve at just about anything you want, and become the handler your dog deserves. You don’t need to become a super athlete, just be a better version of yourself. You don’t only owe it to your dog; you also owe it to yourself. Running agility with all the sudden changes of direction and the frequent stops and goes are not really pleasant to your body if it is completely untrained and rusty. Trust me, it is way more fun to run with the dog vs. sitting on the bench, with a broken knee, throwing balls to your dog.
Well, bitching doesn’t help, training does. You don’t need to become a super athlete, just be a better version of yourself.
Believe it or not, I am really not a naturally gifted handler. I owe most of my successes to the fact that my dogs are just awesome and I know how to train them well. But the results all came when I finally realized that I could do something about myself as well. There were times when I thought no course walk is ever long enough. I just couldn’t remember the course and even if I knew where the next obstacle was, I would occupy my brain so much trying to figure that out, that I totally left out all my verbal’s or lost the contact with the dog.
So I did some trouble shooting and that is what I came up with: I realized that remembering the course consist out of 3 parts – first you have to figure out the obstacle order, than you have to decide for a handling choices and finally you have to print it all into your brains so your legs can almost do the job on their won. My problem was I was trying to do everything at once and the result was – I couldn’t do anything properly. I have decided to take it step by step. If it is possible, I like to watch the judge when he is measuring the course, so I get an approximate idea of how the course goes already from outside. That way I don’t loose much time trying to find the numbers in the crowd. When I get in I would just follow the numbers once or twice, without trying to think about the handling at the same time. If you keep forgetting where the next obstacle is, try to imagine the course in shapes (for example: a straight line, followed by a circle, dog walk, and triangle back to the tunnel… It is easier to remember bigger chunks of the course than just one obstacle after another).
When you know how the course goes, think about the handling. Decide for your handling options. If you lack experience, this is the time to ask for help, but only from someone who knows your team well. Once you know how you will handle, the drilling starts. At that point you just keep repeating the course over and over again with maximum possible speed. Sometimes it is better to wait for a crowd to move further, so you can then run at least one part of the course full speed – believe me, everything looks different running and not walking. After the time has passed, I go out of the ring, close my eyes and try to imagine the course. I would do a little bit of shadow handling as well – not really running around, just turning at a spot every time I play a cross in my mind. If I can’t remember where to go next I will open my eyes and see where to go next. When I can replay the course in my mind without getting lost in the process, I am done with the course walk. This whole process might take long in the beginning. But it will take less time each time you do it. So just PRACTISE and you will see how much easier it gets!
On top of being totally forgetful I am also extremely clumsy. I can’t even tell you how many times I finished my front cross and ended up far from where I should be and possibly also having a close encounter with an obstacle. (BTW I am still working on that and falling down is still my thing). I somehow got better with experience, but the one time that really made a difference was after a dance lesson (that I hate but had to do at the university) where I learned that head movement really helps the body to rotate. It just hit me – when going for a front cross, I used to keep my eyes on the dog at all times. Of course that totally messed up my orientation in space so no wonder my FC were quite lousy. If I want my head to help my body turn I have to turn my head first and look for the obstacle my dog needs to take next. When you do that, your body will just gravitate in that same direction and you will always end up in the right spot. So just try it and keep in mind – it is your job to look for where the next obstacle is, and the dog’s job to look at you and read your cue.
Luckily, I am at least not a person that has difficulty handling stress. Although I am very well aware of what a handicap it can be for some people. I am not trained to help you with that, but there are people who can! Don’t let the stress take the fun out of such a great great activity!
And finally – as much as I feel young at heart, my body does get older. I always loved sports, but I was never really doing anything regularly and it started to show. You would be surprised how much your speed can be improved, not to mention your coordination and reaction time. And you don’t really need to start going to the gym for that. I do most of my training while walking my dogs. And all those bosu balls, balance disks, peanuts and yoga balls – just standing on those is a good training your ankles will really appreciate! I am happy to say this site will soon offer more ideas on how you can improve your physical abilities so stay tuned!
Just writing all that down inspired me to try even harder to be the best handler my dogs could wish for. After all they are the best, so they definitely deserve that!