Doing vs. Understanding

It’s a lot easier for dog and handler when faced with stressful situations if they have a solid understanding of what’s necessary to fall back on.

Building on my previous post involving Kyu’s (and my) lack of direction at our most recent freestyle event, I want to talk about something I value in dog training (inside and outside of sports though I’ll mostly use dog sports here): Understanding.

To me, it’s not enough if the dog can do the thing. Sure, it helps, but them actually understanding what they’re being asked because they’ve had many reinforced repetitions of the behavior is far better and more likely to stand up under stressful conditions.

When I first started taking agility lessons with Kyu, I had no idea what I was doing. I’d done some foundation agility stuff with Risa but most of the classes I’d taken focused on what the dog needed to know to navigate the course. Not what the human needed to do to properly direct them. While our instructor went over handling basics, it wasn’t sufficient for my needs being a complete agility newbie so I struggled once we got far enough along to sequence on a course.

I remember one class where the instructor told me to use a specific type of cross after the jump to send Kyu to the tunnel. On my first attempt, I did the wrong cross and had no idea that I had done it incorrectly until I was told so. I tried again and same problem. I did the same wrong cross again. My instructor took the time to show me what to do, had me practice it a couple times, and then try again with my dog. I was able to execute it that time so I could properly cue Kyu to take the tunnel and set us up right for the next obstacles. Even though I had finally done it right, I still didn’t really know how to do the cross. My body simply did not have enough practice doing it for it to feel natural. Add the stress of being in a class with all eyes on me and it was very challenging to execute. It wasn’t until a friend showed me how to do the cross and I took time to practice it every day that it finally made sense to me. I can now do it without much thought (though I’m still struggling to make sure I get the timing right so that it works to signal Kyu properly!). Instead of just my body going through the motions, I now understand how to do the thing!

The same thing can happen to our dogs and this is sometimes why they fail to perform in a trial at the same level they do in practice. It could be that they really don’t know how to do it; you’ve just been able to “make” them do it before so that it feels like they understand. I’m not implying that force is involved in making them do it. How I set up a session or move my body can absolutely influence my dog so that they do the proper behavior without actually understanding how to do it.

For example, Kyu does not understand “front” position in rally/obedience. Not formally anyway. I cannot cue “front” and have him respond by coming in front of me, lining up centered to my body, and sitting. He would just look at me quizzically and probably offer something else. However, he has his rally novice title and has demonstrated a front behavior in Rally-FrEe and freestyle despite not actually understanding the concept. How is that? It’s because I know how to set him up (within the competition rules) to execute the behavior even if he doesn’t understand it. This is easier to do at the novice level; as we move higher up it will be more challenging to fudge our way along. It is important that I recognize his lack of understanding, however, and not get upset with him when he fails to execute it when the stress and pressure of a trial is added. I cannot get angry with him for failing to execute a behavior he actually doesn’t know.

For me, it’s important that my dog understands the behaviors I’m asking them to do. It’s not enough that they can do it. I want them to truly understand what I’m asking. It’s very reinforcing to ME when my dog does the thing so it’s very easy for us to get hung up on seeing our dog doing what we want and not recognizing that they actually haven’t learned it. Following a cookie around in a circle might look like a spin but if you remove the cookie and the large hand signal, does the dog still do it? Being able to prompt the behavior doesn’t mean the dog is truly trained to do it–but it’s a good first step!

I find a lot of dog training classes fall into this trap. It ends up being more about practicing the behaviors rather than teaching the dog how to do the thing. This is not inherently bad! If your dog already knows how to manage the agility obstacles and you know how to handle your dog properly, practice is a great way to refine your skills and determine where the holes in your training are! However, if your dog doesn’t know how to navigate the course and neither do you, you run the risk of frustrating both of you. Even if you’re able to “make it happen” while you’re under instruction, it probably won’t hold up when you’re at the start line in a trial.

The best way to see and maintain success in your training is to make sure your dog truly understands what he’s being asked to do. Take the time to train the behavior; don’t just rely on your prompts or lures to fudge your way through. (FWIW, I am guilty of this and trying to do better!) Both you and your dog will have more confidence going in the ring when you know his understanding of the requirements is solid. In my experience, confidence is the #1 thing that determines how your run will go–both your confidence AND the dog’s!


About Jamie

I'm just a traditionally-trained artist with interests in dog training. I currently teach classes at the local obedience training club (tricks, freestyle, and Rally-FrEe) and I also teach classes professionally for an organization who helps veterans train their own service dogs.
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