Those of you that have problems understanding (or outright deny it’s application)  “energy” as it applies to dog training and behavior are about to have your “Eureka!” moment…IF You’ll just keep reading…It’s not “magic”, it’s not mumbo-jumbo, and yes…It’s Scientific from a neurobiological studies viewpoint.

Agility training and the Communicative Approach are symbiotic.  Or, at least, they can be.  They have, in fact, been together for some considerable time.  The most successful trainers/competitors in Agility have been practicing the concept without putting a name on it, in conjunction with a variety of  training methods.  This is very exciting…

It is my decided opinion that, in the world of Dog Training, Agility Trainers/Handlers are well ahead of the curve in cutting edge dog Psychology / Behavior and Training.  They are “Thinking in Doggish, and Observing what their dogs are communicating” while working together.

For the last two months, I have been observing several different classes of Agility dogs and their handlers in progress.  Just listening, and observing.  Nothing more than an occasional question to the instructor or student after the class is finished. More understanding comes from shutting up and absorbing what you observe than imposing yourself in the process.  Bottom line of my observation?   These people Get It“.  They understand and utulize real communication in their training!  I’ve also been reading the books and blogs of some of the more astute trainers, and I have found a group of experienced people that are encouraging student handlers to   “…feel and feed the dogs energy.” 

One particular Saturday afternoon, I was invited to sit in on a class as an observer.  The class was made up of a group of  wonderful  4-H youth, all 12 to 16 years old.  A couple of them are “experienced” at Agility competition, and one of them is a National Level Winner.  At 13 years old, this young man has dog-handling skills that most adults would envy.  His big red Visla, “Rex”, and he work as a single unit, a team that knows what the other wants before it’s wanted.  The young mans name is Jesse, and he’s been involved with  Agility for 4 years.  He was raised with a dog, and he speaks fluent “Doggish”… I’ll put it plainly. After meeting Jesse, I’m finished teaching Search & Rescue people how to handle a Canine.  From this point on, I’ll recruit young people that know dogs like he does.  It’s easier to teach emergency protocols to Dog people than vice-versa…This young man could handle a canine in any discipline he decides to pursue.  Hopefully it will be my team that earns his service. 

I want to tell you more about Jesse and his thoughts on canine training, and I shall.  But it behooves me to first tell you where his thoughts originate…I want you to meet Greg Smithreid.  (Greg would rather I not post photo’s of him, and I’ll respect that.  He’s embarrassed enough that I’m writing about him.)

Greg is a middle-aged gentleman that loves dogs.  Simply loves dogs.  He is soft spoken, but has a quick wit.  He has been training and coaching Agility and Rally-O dogsports for several years.  He is now part owner of a training facility, (Which I’ll profile here in time) and running a successful business.  I first observed Greg teaching a Beginners course in Agility at his school.  Greg is a very positively styled trainer, with vast pockets of doggy-treats at the ready.  But he is not a “one-trick pony” in his training.  He is very adept at teaching people to “read and understand the dog as it works.”  Greg takes notice of each human students mood as they practice, qualify, and perform in competition.  Before a class begins, he encourages all the students to run and play with their dog in the arena, take jumps, run tunnels, and just generally “motivate their energy” (His words!!)  The pep-talk he gave at the conclusion of this class was the hook that said, “I need to work with this Trainer…He KNOWS!”

It went like this:

“Okay class!  Gather ’round and let’s take this session apart together.  First, I want to give commendation to you all for your Enthusiasm, and Energy today!  I know you worked today, or went to school, and you’re tired.  But you showed up with your dog tonight, and you were HAPPY about it!!  Always remember…Your mood, your energy, is what will really fire up your dog.  The dog “feels” the same way you do…if you act tired and dopey, your dog will pick that up and share it!  You need to communicate with your four-legged friend, and give him what he needs to perform well! “

  That was enough for me to stay put until he was done.  He went on to ask each and every student what they had learned in this session.  He wanted the answer to be more than a simple oft heard phrase, and he prodded each to really come up with something constructive.  This guy is a Teacher… He then went into the best part.

“I want all of you to think about something new for next time.  We’re going to talk about “The Zone” that you and your dog are in when you work together.  Are you focusing together?  Is one member of your team distracted?  The Zone affects you and your dog on the training ground and in competition.  You must be in the “Zone!”  Good Work tonight and Thank you!”

It was time to meet this gentleman for myself.  I had just finished a blog-post I had called, “Be In The Moment: The Communicative Approach.” and here he was beginning to describe it for his class!

Our methods and philosophy are very similar, and our thought process comes from the same source.  The desire to build drive and motivation in our dogs using natural methods, without the artificiality of clickers, collars, and constant treats.  “Scientific methods are fine.” says Greg,”But only if they allow the dogs desire to be used as well.  That’s not science, that’s communication.”  There is hope for this world!

We discussed my post and his thoughts. We come from very different disciplines, his Agility, and my Tracking/Trailing Scentwork.  But we agree that “Being in the Moment” or “Being in the Zone” are essentially the same thing.  The focus of the handler is extremely important, your distraction is the dogs distraction.

While doing any sort of bite work, the handler, for his own safety, had best be focused on the dog, and be in the moment!  One distraction might cause serious injury.  There are those trainers that have lost their concentration, and they have large FACIAL keloid (scars) welts to show for it.  Not to mention broken occipital bones, noses, and missing teeth.  These are Handler problems, not the dogs.  So the reasons here are easily understood.  Watching Agility handlers work, this is also easily observed.  The dog takes his cues from his handler, sometimes vocal, sometimes gestural.  Some of the better dogs seem to read the handler’s mind as they run courses!  Mistakes usually happen when the handler gives miscues, or fails to think ahead of the dog.   If you enter practice or competition with half of your mind and emotions focused on something else, so will your four-legged partner, and mistakes will happen.

I want to say this, as so many say they do Agility “Just for fun.”  ” Our scores don’t matter, as long as we enjoy the sport, and have a tired dog…”   That’s terrific, and if that’s your goal, great.  But think how happy your dog will be if you practice being “in his moment” in whatever you are doing!  THAT’S Communication with your dog!!!  By honing your skills with the dog, you may even find a few ribbons and trophies gathering in your home!

I’m going to post this now as a pre-amble (or Ramble”) to the strategy behind “Being In the Moment”.  Thanks for reading and stay tuned!!!

Army dog handler Sergeant David Heyhoe and army explosives search dog Treo, from 104 Military Working Dogs.

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