Active vs. Reactive Agility Dog Handler

Dog-Agility-Training-Pause-TableThere is a lot of talk on the subject of barking dogs on or near the agility field and while the outdoors competitions aren’t so bad, a noisy dog indoors can be quite distracting.  You can type in “barking on dog agility course” in your search bar and come up with a load of ideas on helping your dog to learn to be quiet on and off the field.  But I want to follow one trainers thoughts and go a bit deeper into the issue.  It very well may be that barking is merely a symptom of a much deeper issue between dog and handler.  Whenever two souls occupy a common space, working together, they become partners.  One partner is active and one partner is reactive and ideally the handler should be the active half.  The role you take will have a direct impact on all your training.

As long as we are talking about barking we will use it as an example of how this works.  First we will look at the reactive handler.  You pack your dog into the crate, put him in the car and travel to a trial.  Once there your dog sees the commotion and starts barking.  Not wanting to be embarrassed you scold your dog for barking.  Every time you scold your dog you are ‘behind’ them because you are reacting to what the dog has already done.  You have just given leadership and the active role over to your dog and you will always be one step behind your dog.

The active handler will have worked on crate games and proofed them at home, at the park and trial set ups.  They will have set up small achievable goals each step of the way for their dog.  When arriving at a trial they will pay close attention to their dog’s pre-cues and have settling exercises in place to use.  In other words, the handler is constantly asking the dog to do tasks, staying a step ahead of the dog and the dog learns to stay focused on the handler.

Let’s get right to it, do you know if you are a reactive or active partner?  Check the list below and see what applies to you and your relationship with your dog.

The active handler:

  • The handler establishes control/focus off the course before you step onto a course.
  • The handler has a positive approach to handling and training your dog giving lots of rewards, resting periods and petting and is rarely seen scolding or punishing their dog.
  • The dog’s attention is toward the handler looking to the handler for the next request and the dog’s attention span gets longer. The handler practices asking more things in succession which teaches the dog to focus longer.
  • The handler is many times unaware of the surroundings because their focus is on the dog.  Concentration is completely on the dog and what is being taught at the time. The dog mirrors this attitude.
  • The handler is consistent in giving cues. Every move and cue has a purpose and the handler is looking for a specific response from the cue.
  • When the dog is not performing as expected, the handler finds fault with himself, not the dog.
  • The handler has an open mind to learn from others.
  • The handler takes time to plan training sessions with reasonable goals and time limits.
  • The handler is in a good mood.  When things go wrong, the handler doesn’t take it personally.  He just tries to solve the problem.
  • The handler is always one second ahead of the dog having the ability to anticipate unwanted actions from the dog and keep the dog busy and focused on a task.
  • The handler uses the replacement concept. Replace unwanted behavior with wanted behavior.
  • The active person recognizes that improvement comes in small increments and tries to avoid creating bad habits.
  • The handler realizes that he isn’t perfect so the dog can not be perfect.
  • The dog willing accepts the handler as his leader. Your partnership is apparent to others.

Or are you more reactive?

  • The handler punishes the dog often.  Whenever you scold you have become reactive.
  • The handler has a negative style of training. (don’t do this, don’t do that)
  • The handler is usually behind the dog, reacting to what the dog initiates.
  • The dog gets adamant or demanding about getting his own way and as a result the handler seems to always be struggling with the dog.
  • The dog’s attention is on the outside world, not the handler and if you look the handler too is easily distracted and makes excuses for their dog being distracted.
  • The dog’s attention span seems to be getting shorter.
  • The handler is inconsistent with cues.  If they stop to talk to another handler or the trainer they ignore the dog instead of letting the dog know they are ‘taking a break.’
  • The handler complains about the dog’s “bad attitude.”
  • The handler makes excuses for the dog’s actions instead of working on replacing them with appropriate actions.
  • The handler is stingy with their praise leaving the dog to guess when he gives the correct response.
  • The handler takes things personally sounding as the the dog owes it to them to do what they ask.
  • The handler expects the dog to be perfect 100% of the time and does not want to accept responsibility for what they cannot teach the dog.
  • There is no apparent partnership between dog and handler. The handler does not build a relationship with the dog and it appears that they are just tolerating each other.

If you found yourself checking only the Active Handler list, that is awesome and keep up the great work!  If you found you could identify with the Reactive Handler list then we have some help if you would like to make some changes.

  1. Make the decision to start being a more active partner.  Be fair to yourself, it will not happen over night, it will be a work in progress.  Start on your quest when you are most under control.
  2. Make your goal to establish control at home and at practice before you consider trials.
  3. You need to have a well thought out and organized lesson plan and you need to stick to it.
  4. Work with your dog where you know you will be in control.
  5. Start small by asking for simple things you know you and your dog can perform and get a “yes” answer from your dog.
  6. Keep in your mind what you are working on and unless the house is burning down, stay focused on you and your dog.
  7. Stay one second ahead of your dog, ready to ask your dog to “DO” something instead of being one second behind telling your dog “NOT” to do something.
  8. In your lessons keep thinking forward to the next request even if it just to repeat the current request.
  9. Yes, there are times when a dog needs to be scolded, know when it is appropriate to do so.  Make up your mind to never scold or react to what has already taken place.  Use replacement training and think to the future.  Know the possible “incorrect” responses your dog may give and how to redirect them.  Try to eliminate punishment from your training as a method of feedback.
  10. Always keep in the forefront of your mind that if you are not having fun, you can rest assured your dog isn’t either.

Always be looking for a reason to praise your dog while working and if you are taking on the task of becoming a more Active Partner, look for small improvements in yourself and you will also see them in your dog.  Have fun and remember dog agility is about building a rewarding partnership between you and your dog.