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It's a Team Sport

The importance of your relationship with your dog

Your dog is your friend, your partner, your defender.
You are his life, his love, his leader.
He will be yours, faithful and true, to the last beat of his heart.
You owe it to him to be worthy of such devotion.


Jo Sermon & YogiFor many of us, one of the reasons we enjoy competitive canine sports so much is due to this attachment we form with our dog(s). Reciprocally, to succeed in these sports, one must start with a good, solid relationship with the dog. Kathy Herzog began this article with the idea in mind of discussing forms of reinforcement and reward, and how these concepts relate to agility training.

As Kathy began her research, she realised that an exploration of one's relationship with one's dog is much more germane and basic to the ultimate goal of having a cohesive and successful agility team.

The deep and lasting bond that develops between humans and dogs is a fascinating phenomenon that has been researched and written about extensively. This bond is unique: different from Man's relationship with almost any other animal. You can't exactly have your horse or bird snuggle on the bed with you.

Understanding how dogs learn, and understanding the bond between you and your dog are very closely linked topics. Janet Lewis (1997) states, 'dogs that are trained by handlers who do not try to understand how their companions learn will never be able to quite master the rules of the game (p.10).' Similarly, the mutual trust and respect you help engender with your dog is key to later training.

Three steps to training
There are some basic building blocks to training any behaviour in your dog. We will use the example of teaching your dog to sit to illustrate these steps. First of all, one must create the desired behaviour, or cause it to happen. You might food lure your dog into a sitting position, and then reward this behaviour. Second, you need to define the behaviour, so the dog understands what he is asked to do. When the dog sits, you say 'good sit', and reward. Thirdly, you cue and reinforce the desired behaviour: 'sit'... and reward. Finally, you maintain the behaviour: ask the dog to sit at different times, in different places, etc. (Lewis, 1997).

Tony Butcher & Joshi While these steps are basic, it is important to have a conscious understanding of them as you teach your dog new things, and reinforce previously learned behaviours. Patti Hatfield, in her wonderful agility seminars with Stuart Mah, stresses that one should always take advantage of any training opportunity to reward one's dog. Yes, uninterrupted rounds are exciting, but the dog does not learn half so much as when you take your time to reward and reinforce throughout the running of the course. Even with an experienced dog, go back to basics often e.g.: rewarding for the perfect completion of one obstacle, and don't ever fade out food completely from one's training sessions.

Jo Rhodes & Kelbi Partnership
Hand in hand with this process, and hopefully starting as soon as you bring your dog home, you want to focus on the quality of the relationship you are building with your dog. Sheila Booth (1998) stresses that while you are the master, or leader of the pack, your dog is not a slave, but a willing partner in your activities together. She urges all dog owners to be worthy of their canine companions. 'The more you put in the more you get back... always keep your heart open to what your dog tries to give back. In the end, love will get you further than luck (p. 346).' Ultimately, it doesn't matter if you practice agility six times a week, or once a month. Your dog doesn't care about titles, ribbons, or trophies. He just wants to be with you.

Mary Ann Nester & Aslam Agility is a very fun way to spend time together, but don't under-estimate the power of merely hanging out, or playing games like tug, etc. You may be surprised that as you become more mindful of your relationship with your canine friend, your performance in the agility ring will improve.

Sheila Booth (1998). Purely Positive Training: Companion to Competition
Podium Publishing, Ridgefield, Connecticut (USA) Janet Lewis (1997), Smart Trainers/Brilliant Dogs.
Canine Sport Productions, Lutherville, Maryland (USA)

About the author...
Kathy Herzog, a clinical psychologist by day, lives in south-eastern Massachusetts (USA). She was born in England (Cambridge) and has a sister who lives in Oxford so she visits frequently. Although she grew up in America, she has entertained thoughts of returning here to live, but the quarantine laws put her off since she has three Pembroke Welsh Corgis. In addition to Agility, she shows Keri, her Corgi bitch.


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