Dog agility requires a unique blend of skill sets. Dog training, equipment execution, handling communication, course analysis and physical requirements just to name a few. I’ve had the pleasure of coaching & judging many successful agility teams over the years. Most of them come to me missing one key item. Clarity.
What is clarity in dog agility?
Almost everyone is familiar with goal setting. In agility, goal setting is the place that we’d ultimately like to end up at or the reward we’d like to earn to prove we’ve finally arrived. It could be as simple as completing the qualifications for a Novice agility title or as complex as earning a spot in a World Team event. However, goals are rarely achieved without clarity. Clarity on the how. Clarity on specific actions. Clarity on the steps that will get us from where we are now to where we’d like to be.
Clarity is the quality of being easily understood. In a team sport like dog agility, clarity is the required glue that solidifies and allows a dog and handler to work in unison. Clarity is what affords us the opportunity to work as a smooth, well-oiled and high functioning team.
Without clarity, our agility training and runs in competition are unintentionally downgraded from a goal to a hope. Without clarity, we hope they happen, but we aren’t confident they will.
What prevents clarity?
Vague agility skills. Wikipedia, AKC and USDAA all have different definitions of what dog agility is. Some focus on the dog’s capabilities and “..willingness to work with its handler…” or the handler’s “…skills in training and handling of dogs…” or that “…a handler directs a dog through an obstacle course…”. While all of these definitions are partially accurate, often when a spectator decides to become a participant, there is a huge gap between their singular expectation (do obstacles) and learning that there are additional skill sets needed to maneuver a dog through an agility course.
Unbalanced behavior training. Every owner I’ve ever worked with started their dog training journey based on either emotion or discipline. When transferring over to train in agility, emotion left the owner feeling misunderstood when their dog didn’t respond as desired, while discipline often depleted the fun they were in search of. Developing a training style that provides the handler with clarity on how to elicit, reward and maintain desired behaviors from our dog can separate the good from the great in agility.
Failure to engage dog. Engagement occurs when a dog’s needs, desires, expectations and motivations to act are addressed. Engagement fails most often in training when an agility handler is concurrently both the student learning new material and the trainer to their dog. It’s hard to train something that is not yet mastered. It can also happen when a handler is uncertain, lacks confidence or is distracted by outside influences like barking dogs ring-side, self-imposed pressure (I have to get this Qualifying run for my title) and unrelated personal events (guilt for missing a family event or a deadline).
Complexity. There are countless areas in dog agility that are often turned into exceedingly complex situations. Obstacle training. Handling. Analyzing agility courses. Deciphering why a dog did or didn’t do an action and so much more. Complexity often occurs when we attempt to tackle too large of a task at one time. It can also occur when we allow ourselves to get off point or pile unrelated details onto the situation at hand. I’ve seen countless handlers get stuck trying to answer ‘Why’ something occurred when it didn’t matter! The road toward the solution was always going to be the same outcome no matter what the reason was.
How Clarity Supports Your Goals
What I love about clarity is that it doesn’t matter who you’ve trained with, what level of competition you participate in or what handling system(s) you may incorporate. Everyone has areas of agility training that would benefit from additional insight, exercises and skills.
I consistently encourage agility handlers to drill down and get specific on the actual how-to-steps required to reach each of their goals. Knowing the actual steps in a goal will lead to clarity on what skill to train. Knowing what skill to train will lead to clarity in how to execute that skill consistently. Consistent desired behavior leads to success. Success leads to goal attainment.
Sometimes I find that the answer to a question is another question. That’s good! That tells me the handler is working their way though the drill down process. Ultimately, we always do get to a solution that supports their goals.