Is What You Are Feeding in the Agility Ring Hurting Your Team?
An Emotional Sport
What are you feeding your agility dog in the ring?
"Wait!" you say. "You can't take treats into the agility ring!"
Very true, but I am not talking about food. What emotion are you feeding your agility dog in the ring? If you are feeding your dog the wrong emotion in competition and practice, it will hurt not only your performance, but your relationship too. Understanding the precise emotion your dog wants from you may be a key to unlocking the hidden potential in your team, and it can increase the bond between you and your dog.
While I generally avoid long "storytelling" sections in my articles, this concept may be best explored with a bit of a tale, so let me step back and tell you what I mean by this airy-fairy concept of "feeding emotion" to my dog.
A Story of Three Dogs
My first agility dog was Aslan, a tiny sheltie. When he ran agility, he sparkled with joy. His love of the sport was infectious, and spectators often commented on how he oozed joy when he ran. As a new handler, I was quickly pulled into his joy, and when we ran as a team in practice and at trials, I "fed" that joy back to him. He gave me his joy, and I gave him my joy back.
When I added in my second agility dog, Asher, the joy thing wasn't there. Asher didn't find "joy" in agility. Don't get me wrong. He LOVES agility. In fact he lives for it, but Asher isn't a joyous kind of dog. He's an intense, powerful worker who thrives on hitting the course hard and taking no prisoners.
When we first started competing in agility, I naturally fed him what agility had become to mean to me from running Aslan, my first dog. I fed my second dog joy, which worked not at all. Asher didn't want joy from me. Because of this, we struggled for some time until I realized Asher did best when I was fighting, on my toes and even a bit angry. Asher LOVED to run for me when I was willing to fight for every inch of that course. We became like teammates on a football team, growling and ready to get smashed up.
Asher needed me to be INTENSE. He fed me intensity and power, and I fed him intensity back. It turns out that intensity fits my personality better than joy did. I love the intensity of my runs with Asher. It suits me.
My third agility dog is Aenon. He is a two year old sheltie who is quite different than Asher. Because "intensity" fits my personality so well, when Aenon was old enough to begin competition, I found myself easily slipping into the "let's go fight 'em!" emotion when we would step into the ring. Aenon would run for me, and sometimes even well, but we never seemed to really connect. As time progressed, I realized we weren't "building relationship" as I felt we should. I started doing more play and spending more one-on-one time with him. Still, the emotion I felt when leaving the ring was flat.
He wasn't feeding me the emotion I had learned to thrive upon. In turn, I wasn't feeding him the emotion he needed.
Finally I sat down to really think. I had begun to realize I wasn't giving Aenon what he needed, but after thinking for some time, I couldn't decide what emotion he did need from me. Happiness maybe? When talking to a friend, she mentioned that Aenon needed approval.
That rang a bell. After thinking about it further, I decided that Aenon needs something akin to "happy approval" from me. I started training with that in mind, feeding him happiness and approval at every turn. The results were immediate. His confidence soared. At our next trial, running Aenon was like running in old shoes. We felt like a team - not two separate entities working against each other. I left the ring filled with - you guessed it - happiness. Aenon left feeling the same thing, his eyes sparkling.
Asher and the author feeding each other intensity.
Don't Force Feed Your Emotions
I have watched agility teams over the years, and the best teams leave the spectators feeling an emotion. Thrill. Joy. Peace. Love. Eagerness. Humor. Respect. Each team scintillates with a different emotion that spreads into the crowd. These teams are not always the fastest or the most accurate, but they are the most fun to watch because they leave their audience with the same emotion the dog and handler are feeding each other.
The handler in these great teams hasn't forced the dog to play by the emotion the handler gets when running agility. Instead the handler has taken the time to learn the specific dog's emotional enjoyment received from agility and fed it back to the dog. The dog then blossoms from this emotional feedback, and the team develops their own unique agility "high."
What I have also seen time and time again are handlers who have gotten their second (third, fourth, fifth, etc.) agility dog and have force fed that second agility dog the emotion they developed with their first agility dog. So a handler may have had great success learning agility with dog "A," and when she and dog "A" did agility, the handler left the ring feeling exuberance. The handler then equated agility with this great feeling of exuberance. When dog "B" came along, the handler ran agility with exuberance, expecting dog "B" to love that exuberance too. Unfortunately, dog "B" felt agility differently. Dog "B" felt "energy" when running agility. The disconnect between the two emotions left both team members a bit confused. If this confusion isn't rectified, dog "B" may begin to run more slowly, lose interest, or act out by running amok. Dog "B" may continue to run agility, and may even earn championships, but the team never truly connects and develops that deep, emoting bond.
Ideally, the handler with dogs "A" and "B" should have looked for the emotional needs of dog "B." After finding what dog "B" was needing agility to feel like, the handler should have fed dog "B" energy. Energy is a completely different emotion than exuberance. Making such a profound emotional switch from dog to dog is hard, but it is necessary. It would have allowed dog "B" to develop the confidence to really shine in the sport.
An Old Idea in New Clothes
This concept isn't new to agility. When an instructor tells a student not to show her dog she is disappointed with an error in the ring, the instructor is using this concept. The instructor is pushing the student to feed the dog the correct emotion to build the dog's confidence, Showing a dog who needs joy that you are unhappy with a performance may shut a soft dog down. This concept is behind a friend telling another to lighten her voice when running her dog to allow the dog to run with more enthusiasm and confidence. It's behind the "build relationship" buzzwords of years ago.
It's not a new idea. This is just a new way to look it.
Which Emotional Category Fits Your Dog?
Which emotional category best describes and fits your dog?
Emotions dogs might need fed to them could fall into three categories: Peaceful, Happy and Energy. "Peaceful" emotions could include feelings like serene, calm, lighthearted, safe, and content. Emotions under the "Happy" category could include joy, merry, jocular, euphoric, and chirpy. "Energy" emotions could include spirited, intense, dynamic, powerful, indefatigable and vibrant. These three categories will each include many, many more emotions than those few listed above, but it is a good starting point.
When choosing which emotion your dog needs from you, be as detailed as possible. For instance while I have categorized them both under "Energy," there is a difference between "energetic" and "powerful." One would include a more hyper attitude while the other would include more strength.
Want Verses Need
Be aware that your dog's emotional needs will possibly change over the dog's career or even across an agility course. A dog may start out wanting "power," but after a crash on a teeter, he may need you to start feeding him "calm" or "safe" either throughout the whole course or only around the teeter. Sometimes your dog will need you to feed him an emotion he does not emote on the course. For instance, a dog who is fearful will not need you to be feeding him fear back. Instead, you will probably choose one of the Peaceful or Happy emotions.. You may need to try to calm a dog dealing with aggression or speed up a dog who emotes too much "peace" on the course by choosing an emotion other than what you are getting from the dog when running agility.
Knowing when to feed the dog an emotion other than what the dog is feeding you requires not only understanding of the sport but of the dog as well. Feeding from the "Peaceful" category may slow your dog down. This may be a side effect you didn't anticipate. Likewise feeding from the "Energy" category may cause fearful dogs to become even more fearful. Knowing when to feed a dog what they need verses what they want or feel themselves when doing agility is a tricky business that needs careful exploration and discussion with those that know your team. Consult with your instructor or agility mentors, and discuss the possible side effects of feeding your dog an emotion they may need verses an emotion they reflect on the course.
A good rule of thumb is to evaluate what emotion the dog is giving when running agility. If it is an "unhealthy" emotion such as anger, fear, reactivity, frenetic energy or more, then you should not feed that emotion back to the dog. The dog will need an emotion to counteract and retrain their emotional response to agility. Again, pick the emotion you want to use to retrain the dog's thinking of agility wisely. When the dog's unhealthy emotion is trained away, you may then wish to revisit the idea of what emotion he is wanting or maybe still "needing" from you in the ring.
The emotions in these three categories are not going to fit every team. There will be dogs who will need a very different and rare agility emotion fed to them, but these three categories can get you thinking.
A Playlist Can Help You Switch Emotions for Different Dogs
Practicing Emotional Switches
When running multiple dogs, it can be difficult switching emotions on and off for each dog. Going from "powerful" to "calm" in five minutes is a challenge for any human, so practicing this switch will be necessary. You can do this easily in regular agility practices by training one dog and then switching to the other dog. You will have to then also switch your emotions to get the best out of each teammate.
You can also practice at home while doing daily tasks. Let us say you have two dogs. One requires calm while the other requires power. When cooking dinner, practice being calm, enjoying the slow rise and dissipation of the steam or the light sizzle of the meat. Then immediately switch to powerful and attack cooking that meal like a steam train. Work hard, work fast and work with intensity. Focus on getting that meal out with speed and efficiency. (Don't cut or burn yourself when practicing power though!) Then switch back to calm, enjoying the relaxing smells. You get the idea. By practicing, you can more easily switch those emotions in a trial setting, allowing each of your canine teammates to get the most of you on the course.
Feed Your Dog the Right Stuff
So what emotion are you feeding your dog? Do you feel the same running agility with all of your dogs? If so, then you possibly aren't taking into account the needs of your canine partner. Just as your handling should change with each dog, your emotions should as well.
Aenon and I are still working on nailing down what emotion he needs from me. "Happy acceptance" is in the ballpark, but not quite there. We are a young team yet, and I am certain Aenon will let me know as we progress exactly what he wants me to feed him in the agility ring. I hope I am open to listen to his preferences. It will make us stronger, better and more bonded. If done right, it will leave anyone watching us feeling something like "happy acceptance."
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