Improving your Agility Dog’s Performance
It is always easier to pass the blame when it comes to mistakes, but in dog agility you can rest assured that if your dog made a mistake, it was your fault. So in order to improve your dog’s performance, you need to improve your handling skills.
You may find that you and your dog do really well in practice, but under the gun of competition things seem to fall apart. Your dog is missing entries, popping out of the weaves, taking jump turns too wide or taking the incorrect obstacles. All of these are signs of handling errors, where your cues are too strong, unclear, or ill-timed.
Some common mistakes at competition you may not even be aware you are committing because you or your dog have become hypersensitive. Just like people, dogs will act and react differently with the stress of competition. Some thrive while others dive. You have to learn what happens to you and your dog and make changes to your handling accordingly.
If you are new to competition or you have a new young dog, you may be falling into the trap of over-handling them at competition. Choking up on them, babysitting, and nagging are all things that can cause tension for your dog and cause them to react differently by holding back or moving away from you. Some dogs, especially novice dogs, may need more handling as their confidence lowers and they are distracted by the sights and sounds of the trial.
Your cues may get bigger, louder, and more demanding than at home which is fine for some dogs while others may get stressed and confused. For the confident worker, you have to get out of the way and let your dog do his job. Or, you may get quieter, less confident in your cues causing your cues to be late or missed by your dog.
Pressure of being “judged” can cause handlers to try handling they haven’t used before. This is very common as you watch others handle your course and you begin to doubt your decisions. You can take notes and try different handling at home, but once you are at the trial, don’t throw new techniques at your dog in the ring.
Some lock up under the eye of a judge and send conflicting messages to their dogs, their body saying one thing and voice saying something else. You may think you directed your dog to the tunnel, but your shoulders told the dog to take the a-frame instead. Nine out of ten times a dog will go by your body cues over voice cues.
The value of a video of your runs makes fine tuning your handling much easier, but even a second set of eyes in invaluable. If you don’t have either, try to replay the run and see how you could have made it better. Then implement those changes on your next run until you find what works best for your team.