When Roast Chicken is Not Enough…

In recent days, I have had conversations with a few friends who seemed to be all saying the same thing – "My dog and I just don't seem to be having quite as much fun anymore." 

These are great trainers, who adore their dogs, and have always had great relationships with them! Bitten by the dog sports bug, they have been very committed to growing their own knowledge and taking extra classes, going to private trainers – having fun doing All The Things! 

Only now…..there is this.

Why Our Dogs Disengage: Is It As Obvious As It Seems?

Suddenly, in spite of the promise of roast chicken, the dog who always loved the game is taking sniff breaks, or breaking start line stays when they never used to, or skipping weaves and jumps, or false alerting, or getting frustrated and gripping the stock, or looking around and starting to lag in what was once joyful heeling. 

So what's going on here? 

The coaches and instructors are very experienced and are doing the same things that have worked for plenty of other teams for years now! So that can't be it, right? 

Well, mostly right. 

But some things in dog sports are changing, and one of those things is how accessible dog sports now are for any and all dogs and handlers. This is fabulous news! But it is also still a little bit new.

New handlers with new sports dogs of non-traditional breeds or more sensitive-types of dogs tend to do their basic training in ways that are fun and motivating for the dog – the dogs are all in, we all have a great time, and progress is amazing! The personal relationship that already existed from all the fun time spent together in the dog's life is enhanced by the training, building up a brand new working relationship and related 'trust fund.' The communication is now deeper and broader, and both dog and handler  understand each other even better than before!

Tips to Keep Engagement High As You Transition to Higher Level Training

However with the plunge into competition comes goals, and a stronger focus on specific outcomes, which in turn tends to cause our training to zero in on those specific things. 

We might seek out a private instructor, who specializes in the sport we have fallen in love with. And they will push us as handlers to grow, to learn new ways of handling and training, to pinpoint the details that need to be worked on in order to improve the team's performance. Awesome! For more traditional working type dogs, their innate drive to work and their love of the sport and/or the reward will allow the repetitions needed for us handlers to get the hang of these new things – but what if that's not your dog? 

What if your dog starts losing energy when you start drilling stuff to get your handling right, or when you have a split focus listening to your instructor and training at the same time?

Here are some ideas that might help if this is you!

  • Be quite deliberate and structured in your lessons and training sessions, so it is 100% clear to your dog when he needs to be 'on.' When you need to shift focus off him, even for a moment, either station him or crate him or whatever suits you both, so that he can take a brain break. Remember to train this separately and not on the day that you'll need it.
  • Plan for each rep….BEFORE you start it! Not only what you want the dog to do, but also what you are going to do, how, where, and when you will reward, and how you will close that loop and get ready to reset for the next rep.
  • Have a way of asking your dog if he is still good to go! There are many FDSA classes that look at this from a variety of angles, including Denise Fenzi's self study Engagement class, Shade Whitesel's Ready To Work protocol, and Sarah Stremming's start button work.
  • Make time to just do fun things as well, the same way you always have! You don't want the relationship account to get drained because you are putting all your money in to the training account 😊

And for all the instructors and coaches out there, thank you! Thank you for sharing your knowledge and experienced eyes with us all. Thank you for being aware that our dogs might not be like your dogs. And please remind all of us as trainers to stay playful even in our work, and to check in with our dog to see how things are for them.

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