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Let's Communicate!

On Training Thursday, Lynne Stephens looks at communicating more effectively with our dogs.

by Lynne Stephens

Much has been said and written about handling systems in dog agility.

Mention a particular "system" and you can often evoke a thoroughly heartfelt response. Handlers who grew up learning one set of rules for how to read and run an agility course find it more difficult than most to even entertain the idea that there may be more than one way to communicate with their dogs.

This is also true in other sports and areas of life in general. Think of trying to convince an educator from the 1960's that teaching techniques today are better than they used to be. Or a successful traditional obedience trainer that she might get even greater success if she tried some of the less traditional methods of training.

Why in fact should either one of these people make changes?

In some cases, maybe they should not. However, in my experience, the only thing you can be sure of in life is that it will change and those able to adapt to that change will thrive more easily.

In dog agility, one sure thing is that the challenges are continually changing and stretching our ability to communicate with our dogs at speed. And so, a foray into the world of change may be necessary for some - including those of us from a by-gone age! Even for the most willing, this journey forward and full of changed perceptions can be extremely challenging.

So, what of the new handler?

Surely it is easier for him or her to navigate all that is new in our sport today? For those lucky enough to have found the right, knowledgeable instructor or coach, this may be so. But life can be very confusing for those newcomers who receive excellent instruction but from a variety of different sources. It is often the case that with each new learning experience comes a slightly different set of rules very convincingly taught by brilliant people with genuine conviction.

What is a handler to do?

First we must recognize that any successfully competing team is using some form of consistent handling 'system.' However, that system does not necessarily have to have a label or a name attached to it. I like to think of it as a communication system - a language that the team shares.

In our daily lives each of us uses a variety of communication systems. We each successfully (or not so successfully on occasion!) communicate with husbands, wives, partners, children, colleagues, intimate or casual friends and acquaintances. Each of these communications is different but has much in common. In other countries, communication systems sound very different from ours. We may not understand them, but they are consistent and efficient forms of communication nonetheless.

What do all these systems have in common?

Words! They all have words.

If we are lucky enough to have experienced theater and travel and if we enjoy reading, we are likely to have acquired a larger vocabulary - one that we can manipulate for a variety of scenarios and situations.

If we talk to our children and give them similar experiences, they too will acquire a similar vocabulary and the ability to manipulate words in a variety of ways to fit purpose.

Single word utterances will become short sentences, followed by longer sentences, paragraphs and eventually, the most accomplished may go on to write books and make speeches.

What does all this have to do with agility handling?

I find it helpful to think of the elements of handling in much the same way as the words in our own human communication system. The more we have and the more we understand their use and effect, the better we can use them to make meaning for our dogs. The more skilled we become in this language, the more precise and effective communication with our dogs will become.

So, what do all our handling systems have in common?

A variety of elements (words) which, when combined in certain ways, help us to communicate with our dogs. These elements are well documented and can be found in any of the great handling "systems" that exist today. They include such things as motion, direction of eyes, use of hands, feet, chest and, though less important to our dogs than to us, some verbal.

The better we understand these elements and their effect on our own dogs, the more accurately we will be able to interpret and use all the wonderful advice that we receive from great instructors and coaches. We will be able to tailor our own personal communication system for our own unique team.

That is not to say that we should not follow a "named" communication system. We should listen to those whose communication "systems" successfully and consistently get excellent results for unbelievable handler/dog teams. Those who created these systems are extremely talented and have worked hard to make life easier for the rest of us.

However, we should also learn more about the elements that make up those systems and which make them so successful. We should understand the vocabulary (the elements) that make up the cues to run fast straight ahead or achieve varying degrees of turn, so that we can combine them ourselves to make them meaningful for our four legged partners in much the same way as we make words meaningful for each other in our many and varied human to human interactions.

This understanding will allow us the freedom to consistently guide our dogs through the ever-evolving challenges that we call dog agility with much more flexibility than we could "in the olden days."

We should learn the words (elements). Put them together in our own short phrases (sequences). Experiment and put them together in different ways to make new sentences (challenges) and gradually combine them to make longer sentences (courses).

As you become more accomplished and understand the nuances of this language called dog agility, who knows you could soon be writing your own book or giving your own speech or standing on the podium at your next trial.

Lynne Stephens is co-owner and trainer at DogLogic Training near Statesville in North Carolina. She was an educator in England for 26 years and has more than 30 years experience in a variety of dog sports. Lynne has taken her own dogs to the highest levels of competition both in the USA and abroad.

In 1987 she won the prestigious Working Trials competition, ASPADS (Associated Sheep, Police and Army Dogs) Patrol Dog of the Year with a Belgian Tervueren. She was a member of the British World Agility team in 2003 and 2004 with her Cavalier King Charles Spaniel and has taken both Cavaliers and Border Collies to AKC and USDAA agility Nationals in the USA.

Lynne now combines her passion for teaching, learning and dogs in her role as agility specialist, instructor and seminar presenter at DogLogic. At first a crossover trainer, Lynne now fully embraces positive reinforcement, marker based training and graduated with honors from the Karen Pryor Academy as a Certified Training Partner in December 2013.

In the last couple of years, she has co-authored an online course for the Karen Pryor Academy, "Dog Sports Essentials" and has produced a DVD of her popular seminar, "But I can't take the Treats and Toys in the ring" - available on the Karen Pryor and Tawzer Dog websites. These days she considers that some of her greatest teachers are the dogs with which she and her husband share their home. Her greatest piece of advice to students and to herself is, "Love your dogs, keep an open mind and never stop learning!" Website: E mail:

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