I’ve been horribly neglectful of the blog but in my defense the winter here has been pretty crappy for skijoring so there hasn’t been THAT much to write about. The temperatures, amount of snow (or lack thereof), and my work schedule have conspired to converge in truly awful ways to largely keep me from skijoring this winter. I did get out a few times with Toast and Maisy locally, and took a trip up to Gunflint Lake with them in January which was amazing. Toast and I have kept busy learning how to play disc. And I promise that I will post pictures and videos of all of that soon.
But this post is really to brag about Squash. It seems like it’s about agility but it’s mostly about our relationship and trying to communicate with him effectively, which really translates to any sport.
Squash is a perfect first agility dog for me because he’s very forgiving when my handling is clumsy (which is often) but amazing when it’s not. The biggest thing I struggle with is giving him the information he needs WHEN he needs it. He’s not lightning fast, but he’s a tall guy with long legs and a long stride so he really needs to know as soon as he is taking one obstacle which one will be next. And sometimes I get so absorbed in what cross I need to do or how we’re going to wrap that jump or even just not getting lost on the course that I forget to tell him in time.
The next two videos show Squash and me doing the same sequence with vastly different handling and vastly different results.*
In this video, I’m not communicating to Squash what I want him to do next pretty much throughout the entire sequence. As a result, we look awful. He’s getting frustrated with me for it, too; if you turn up the volume you can hear him roaring at me (some dogs bark when they’re frustrated, polar bears roar) before he starts goofing off. It would be easy to get annoyed with him and blame him for being stubborn or naughty, but what he’s really doing is saying WHAT IN THE EVER LOVING F$%! DO YOU WANT FROM ME LADY? FINE, I GIVE UP! and who can blame him?
In this video, I am connecting better with him out of the tunnel and for the most part remembering to verbally cue the next jump while he’s still taking the current jump. That wrap could have gone better, but it was because I didn’t do my cross in a timely manner. And I missed the tunnel the second time, but the rest is so much better I don’t even care.
It’s easy to blame the dog when things aren’t going as planned. And sure, sometimes it is their “fault.” But time and time again I realize that a lot of my problems would be solved if I would just be sure my dogs have actually learned what I’m asking them to do, then actually tell them what the heck I want them to do in a timely manner. And not just in agility; when we’re mushing, my team’s GEEs and HAWs are much sharper, smoother, and more enthusiastic when I give them plenty of lead time to the turn. When I cue properly, I can actually feel the moment they stop hesitating and kick in some speed going into the turn. When I don’t give them enough notice, it’s often choppy and hesitant. And why wouldn’t it be? They’re reacting on the fly instead of being prepared. Do you like it when you are driving and your navigator yells “turn left HERE!” as you are half passing the turn? Neither do I. There’s no reason the dogs should, either.
Running this sequence the second time so much more effectively after the dismal first performance makes my heart grow three sizes and appreciate this dog so much. He doesn’t give up on me; no matter how frustrated he gets, he gives me another chance and comes back with a stellar effort and so much heart. Our dogs put up with so much from us, let’s all try to be the handlers they deserve.
*I really suggest getting video of any training you do, by the way. It’s embarrassing to see how ridiculous you look when you run an agility course, or realize that you talk WAY too much to your dogs when you’re on the scooter, or wonder wtf you just clicked when you’re training a trick. But it also gives you a lot of insight into how and why things go wrong and what you can do better.