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Attitude Competitor

Believing In Your Team

I know, I know. Easier said than done.

The truth of it is that there will always be reasons to doubt your abilities or your dog’s potential. You won’t always feel supported. You won’t always get back the effort you put in. You won’t always receive the validation that you feel you need. You won’t always feel that your team is “ready” for the opportunity before you.

Those feelings and thoughts are a part of everyone’s agility journey at some point in some way. To work through the discomfort of self-doubt and to give your best effort in the face of unknowable outcomes is part the journey. To survive those feelings and learn to thrive despite the odds you need to cultivate a sense of belief in yourself and your dog.

If you’re struggling to believe in your team, check out the daily drills below to help you change and strengthen your beliefs.

1. Write Out Your Reasons to Believe

⭐️ 5 reasons your dog is a great a teammate.

⭐️ 5 reason you’re a great teammate for your dog

⭐️ 5 reasons you and your dog are a great team

Go big, go small and list every reason in between. Often handlers struggle to see the “evidence” that they’ll be successful in reaching their goals, training this dog or being the type of handler their dog deserves. It’s much easier for your mind to focus on what you’re lacking, rather than acknowledging how far you’ve come and all you’ve gained so far.

This listing activity helps you build evidence that you, your dog and your team are worth believing in. This exercise should be done daily or weekly to gain the most benefit.

2. Set Process Goals

If you’re struggling to see your teams progress or don’t feel that you’re getting results you want, this drill is for you. A goal can be “results oriented” or “process oriented”. Results are often out of our control; someone else can have a better performance, the judge makes a bad call or the weather just fucks up everything. For this reason of uncontrollability, results oriented goals can cause more frustration than inspiration.

A process goal focuses on actions or tasks within your control that you can always succeed at completing as long as you put in the effort. A process goal is trackable task that you do daily or at every competition that benefits your performance and your dogs performance.

For example…

⭐️ “This week I will reward my dog’s sit stay behavior 5x per day.”

⭐️ “I will play with my dog for 5 minutes after every run regardless of how the run went.”

⭐️ “This week I will train and reward my dog’s weaves in three different locations.”

Now, actually check off that you complete this goal each week, day or every run of the weekend.

Attitude Competitor

Handling Your Emotions

Introduction to Emotional Agility

Emotions are a part of the journey for every handler. From moments in the ring that thrill you to training conundrums that leave you confused, the emotions you feel in any given moment inform your mind and body of what to do next.

Being aware of your emotional reactions can help you better navigate your emotional experience and help you do the next best thing possible, whatever that may be in the present moment.

In psychology, your ability to experience and process emotions in a way that allows you to meet your needs and adapt to the situation is known as “Emotional Agility”.

When people are driven by their emotions they react to a situation.
For example, when someone cracks a joke, you’re amused and react with laughter. The appropriate emotional response to the situation is followed with beneficial behavior, in this case, laughing. Yay, the brain did a good job responding.

Unfortunately, your mind isn’t always the best at pairing an appropriate or beneficial response to every situation, sensation or thought you have. When cut off in traffic an angry driver can quickly feel intense emotions of rage, the thoughts and actions that follow are likely impaired by this intense emotional reaction.

This emotional reaction does not help meet the needs of this individual OR help them adapt to the situation. In fact, this driver’s likely thinking or acting in a way that intensifies their unpleasant emotions further, such as verbalizing that they “hate” the other driver or screaming profanities.

However, the feelings that well up inside of you do not have to dictate your thoughts and actions. By becoming aware of your emotional experience you’ll be better able to respond to a situation, sensation or thought appropriately. A momentarily pissed off driver that’s practiced emotional awareness can shift their emotional response from enraged to calm, thankful, relieved or any pleasant feeling that would best support them in that moment.

The same is true for handlers in training, competition and beyond. The ability to respond rather than react enhances resilience after mistakes, reduces stress, improves decision making and a host of other benefits for your performance in the ring and personal life.

Becoming Aware of Your Emotions

While it can be easy to lump your emotional experience under broad terms like happy, sad or angry, these base level emotions don’t provide enough depth to articulate your experience. By exploring and using different sub-categories of emotions to describe your feelings in the moment, you’ll be better able to choose actions and thoughts that shift your emotional response.

Your emotions may vary in their complexity, such as experiencing the combination of excitement and anxiousness on your first trip to nationals. Your emotions can also range in their intensity. A vague feeling of annoyance after overhearing a comment from the crowd is a different experience than feeling animosity towards someone for making a blatantly offensive statement about your dog.

The complexity and intensity of your emotional experience can make it difficult in the moment to manage your response to what is happening. Consistently drawing awareness to these aspects allows you to reassess if the complexity of your emotions and the intensity of your emotions are beneficial for you in the moment.

Additionally, you’ll want to pay attention to non-feeling words that can be used to make sense of a situation, sensation or thought that are not representative of your emotional response. 

For example, a handler may say they feel bad after their handling performance in the ring. While you can phrase this as “I feel bad” this is an evaluation of your performance, rather than an accurate description of your emotions. 

Often people assess a situation by evaluating or judging their behaviors or the behavior of those around them, rather than assessing how those behaviors made them feel. This can often be a barrier when trying to shift out of one emotional state to another, as the evaluation is likely not amendable to change. You can’t make a “bad” performance “good”. However, you can take actions or use certain thought processes to change your emotions from stressed to curious OR heartbroken to grateful in response to that experience.

Now not every event, experience or thought will elicit an emotional response from you. Watching your dog sniff a blade of grass or the sensation of taking a gulp of water probably won’t leave you feeling one way or another. Reading a thread of comments online about border collie breeders, that’s another whole story.

You may feel irritated or frustrated by one comment. In the same thread, comments about your breeder’s lines may leave you feeling secure in your decisions or curious to learn more. 

Awareness of your emotions is not only about knowing what emotion you’re experiencing in the moment, but also why that emotion arose in that moment and whether it is beneficial to your wellbeing and your goals.

Awareness of your emotions requires you to practice non-judgement towards your emotional experience. Often, we start making judgements or having feelings about our feelings (also known as, meta emotions).

That was a total disaster, I am so embarrassed. Ugh. It is stupid to be sad about it, it’s just a game with my dog. But, I feel totally humiliated and uncomfortable going back to the building. What’s wrong with me? I should just get over it and be happy. 

In an instant, the judgement placed on oneself for feeling the “wrong” emotion digs the hole much, much deeper than it needed to be.

Experiencing an unpleasant emotion is not wrong, stupid, bad or anything else.

All of your emotions, pleasant and unpleasant, are an important part of your journey in this sport and in life. The goal isn’t to eliminate unpleasant emotions or to only feel pleasant emotions, but to have compassion for your everchanging emotional experience. 

Shaming yourself for feeling a certain way leads to suppression of your emotions OR avoidance of situations that make you feel unpleasant emotions. Unpleasant emotions, like anxiousness, frustration, discomfort, or confusion, are necessary for you to learn, grow and develop. You can’t reach your goals without them! 

To start developing your own emotional agility, practice awareness of your emotions and begin making choices that help you feel or think in ways that support your goals and uphold your personal values.

Attitude Competitor

Motivation is Magic

The rush of motivation that comes with taking on a new goal can inspire us to tackle something grand.

But, what happens when the daily grind drains that initial motivation? Leaving you feeling burdened by your goals as you simultaneously “will” yourself to complete tasks or simply procrastinate until time runs out. 

The truth is that the pep talk you think you need isn’t what you need to get motivated.

Filling your pinterest board with motivational quotes isn’t getting you any closer to where you want to be. You’re not wrong to crave motivation; it’s exactly what we need to do hard things.

Motivation is the direction and intensity with which you tackle goals. Motivation is what takes people from the couch to the top of Mt Fuji, it is what pushes people to take control of their health, careers, and dreams.

Motivation is the magic you need

Instead of looking for the magic, let’s create the magic. 

Here are three ways you can create sustainable motivation to use every day. 

1. Actually use micro-goals.

You probably already know breaking our goals into manageable chunks is helpful for achieving goals. Motivation is increased when a task seems easier and more do-able. This helps us in the long run because it can create the consistency needed to accomplish the goals we set.

The problem is that what is “manageable” is different for each person, and can even vary (wildly) day-to-day for any individual.

For example, a micro-goal for me is to train my dogs every day. That doesn’t mean setting up and running a full international course every time… I don’t even have to use agility equipment. The micro-goal is accomplished when I pick up my clicker and treat bag.

I don’t have to run clean or teach a new skill to succeed, I can take pride in showing up as a dog-trainer. Depending on the day, we might sequence, work on ring-side behaviors or reinforce contact criteria. 

Now, that’s on a good day.
How do we stick to micro-goals on the bad days? 

Do what’s manageable. If stepping out the door to train, go to the gym or anything else feels truly overwhelming, don’t attach your pride, success, or self-worth to it.

Scale your micro-goal to something smaller.

For me this has been everything from doing my dog’s active stretches for 5 minutes to training a random pet trick for fun. These actions aren’t always propelling me warpspeed towards my goals, but they keep me in motion

Remember, the purpose of micro-goals is to create consistency. 

2. Don’t give 100% to your goals.

If you take off from the start line of a running race at 100% effort, you won’t make it very far before you’re winded and ready to quit. The same is true for your goals. 

You need to pace yourself. 

Knowing how much effort to give a task is important. You shouldn’t come back from the gym too sore to walk the next day or stay up until 4am working on a new project. This amount of effort is unsustainable.

The first step to pacing yourself is to become aware of your effort

Check in with yourself on how hard you (or your dog) are working and how you feel. Being more aware of your physical state and emotional state will help you gauge whether you’re overworking yourself (or your dog).

If you’ve bitten off more than you can chew for today, take a break. You can either scale down your micro-goal or continue working towards this goal tomorrow.

The second step is to set boundaries before you start working or training.

Boundaries for how long you’ll work, how many repetitions you’ll do or how much of a challenge you can take on today will help you set achievable micro-goals.

For example, I’m currently teaching turns for my sheltie’s running dog-walk. As you can imagine, this is a big, daunting project. So, before each training session, I set boundaries to keep me from over working my dog or myself. 

My boundaries include setting a time domain, such as “we will train dog walks for 15 minutes”. I set a limit for repetitions, “we will do no more than 12 full dog walks”. And, before I start training I decide how much of a challenge to train, such as deciding whether to put the skill in sequence and how hard of a sequence.

You can learn more about how we set training boundaries in our article, 4 Steps for Purposeful Practice.

Awareness of your effort and setting boundaries can be a huge help whether you’re working on an agility goal, trying to get fit or learn something new. Not only can this prevent burnout and the abandonment of goals, but it will help you create sustainable motivation. 

3. Remember Your Why

Your “why” is your purpose for setting a goal in the first place. This can be anything from being the best dog owner you can be to being healthy enough to play with your grandkids. The one thing your “why” has to be is meaningful to you.

Committing to a goal is often impossible without having a meaningful reason behind taking those actions. On the flipside, remembering your “why” can serve as instant motivation in the most challenging moments.

When Whimzy was still in novice, I would close my eyes every time the national anthem  played to start the day. I would hold my dog and picture standing on the podium at worlds. For those two minutes, Whimzy and I would be transported to a foreign country with our flag draped over us savoring the victory of a gold medal for Team USA. The honor of representing the USA overseas for agility was to me the culmination of being the best dog trainer, handler and competitor that I could be, it’s what motivates me to compete in agility.

When Whimzy broke her start line, I miscued a turn or lost her to an off course, I would remember why I was doing agility today. I’m doing my best to learn from today, so that someday my dream will be my reality. And, it did.

Keep your why close. Write it down. Say it out loud.

A fellow competitor recently asked me if I still dream like this. 

The answer?
Yes, all the time. 

I find that remembering my why is the most helpful when I’m doing what’s necessary, but not enjoyable.

Right now, that’s working on outside the ring behaviors with my young sheltie. While her ground speed on course is to die for, her over the top arousal level quite frankly makes agility unsafe. 

Unfortunately for me, behavior training is not my jam.

It’s not fun to go to the agility field and not train agility. It’s not fun to spend hours at a trial sitting a hundred yards away to keep her under threshold. It’s not fun to leave her home when I go to the agility field. But, when I remember my why, I am motivated to do what’s necessary for her to stand on a podium someday like her sister Whimzy. 

Believe in the power of your why, and use the magic of motivation to move you towards your wildest dreams.

Dog Training Team

For the Love of the Game

It’s heartbreaking to see your teammate stressed out, disconnected or shutdown mid-run. I’ve seen it happen with my own dogs and students’ dogs too. We want our dogs to love playing agility with us. This game is supposed to be fun for both of us. But, stress happens. Whether a team is training through chronic ring stress or a dog is suddenly insecure or unsure on course, there are many strategies we can use to support them. Being able to boost your dog’s confidence and help them cope with stress should be something every handler can do for their dog. So, here’s what I tell my students to do and how I set my own dogs up for success in even the most demanding trial environments.

Learn About Your Dog
Ask yourself when your dog loses confidence and struggles to focus on course. This is different for every dog, but there are a few common factors that contribute to ring stress. Possible factors range from your relationship with your teammate to the color of the judge’s mask. We’ll take a look at three common factors that are easy to recreate in training.

This starts off with the environment. The uncertainty of being in a new space around new dogs, smells and noises can create anxiety that shows up as our typical ring stress behaviors. My first suggestion for this is allowing time for your dog to sniff and explore the trial site. This is not an instantaneous fix. But, allowing your dog to become familiarized and comfortable in new environments can help them be more adaptable to new environments in the future. If your dog is fixated on the ring or nervous of certain areas move to a distance where they can focus on cues and physically relax. I recommend repeating this throughout the day to allow your dog multiple opportunities to understand their surroundings.

People are another factor I often see impacting a dog’s ability to stay connected on course. This can be people in or around the ring. The number of people and the proximity of a specific person, like ring crew, to your dog might impact their stress level and distractibility. If your dog always trains alone or with just one instructor in the practice field, stepping into a ring with half a dozen strangers might throw them off their game. A judge that follows your dog closely in the weaves or a crowd of people behind your dog on the start line can take up attention and energy that your dog needs to do agility . To help we can start including more people, new people and people in odd places when practicing. Our objective is not to overwhelm our dog, but to successfully complete a sequence or obstacle while a person is acting as a distraction.  At first, a person standing on the other side of the room might be distracting enough.  As your dog succeeds, you can begin adding multiple people and people in motion around the practice ring.

We often see ring stress occur before or during complicated obstacles, like weaves or the contacts, or during complex sequences. This is because these complex tasks require more concentration from the dog than they have to offer when over stressed. This type of issue is separate from obstacle specific issues; just because the stress appears before the weaves does not mean the weaves are the cause of the stress. For example, your dog pops the poles when the weaves are on the edge of the ring. The pop was due to a dog outside the ring walking by, but handlers will often focus their training solely on the obstacle. Believing their dog has poor weave poles, the handler never practices with moving spectators or distractor dogs. The popping issue persists. This is where failing to help our dogs appropriately cope with ring stress can intensify an obstacle specific issue. A dog that is continuously corrected for popping or continues to fail in the ring might develop stress specific to the weaves. Now, this is the exact spiral I want to prevent my students and all agility teams from experiencing. So, here’s what we do.  

We keep training and reinforcing your dog’s agility skills beyond what you’ll need in a trial. An increase in ability and consistently rewarding criteria can increase your dog’s competence with a specific task and boost their confidence in the ring. This type of progress takes time, and we can support our dogs by keeping it simple and keeping them successful in the ring. Skip the challenges you know they can’t do, we don’t want to set our dogs up for failure.  Don’t try to fix mistakes over and over, if your dog is distracted and stressed the best thing you can do is keep moving and find an obstacle they can complete successfully! If you are looking to train a certain issue, like avoiding an obstacle or start lines, in the ring you better be prepared to reward big. Choose your dog’s favorite toy and opt for FEO (For Exhibition Only) or NFC (Not For Competition) at your next trial. If your dog succeeds, party like 2020 is finally over. If your dog doesn’t succeed, find an obstacle or behavior that they can succeed at. Then, you guessed it, party.

Note: I don’t recommend parties for dogs with over arousal issues. Flash, a rehabilitated(ish) arousal junky, gets pets and quiet praise as a reward. Once she’s relaxed, we release her extra energy with tugging.  Arousal issues in agility really are their own topic for another day.

If you can recreate these confidence issues easily in practice, you may want to discontinue trialing for a period of time to stay in a more controllable environment. We want to practice agility in environments where our dog can still be successful.

Sniff Worries Away
No more “No, sniff!”. Sniffing is one of the main ways our dog’s gain information about their environment. If your dog is stressed due to noise, people, other dogs or whatever else, correcting and preventing sniffing can further increase their anxiety. Nothing makes stress more stressful than adding uncertainty to the situation. Sniffing provides our dog’s with useful information and can make an environment feel more familiar. Our goal shouldn’t be to eliminate sniffing, rather give your dog adequate time for sniffing before you need them to focus on agility.

Take time to let your dog explore and sniff their way around the trial site. You can even encourage sniffing by putting it on a verbal cue, we say “Go Sniff, Sniff”, or doing a small treat scatter (far, far away from the ring). The scents around the ring are similar to what smells will be on the agility course too.  This helps desensitize our dogs to smells in the environment that might be distracting upon first sniff, sniff.

Build a Connection Behavior
What will you do if everything goes wrong? Your dog yawns on the start line or starts sniffing at the weaves and you need a way to reconnect with them. Asking them to “Come” or calling their name doesn’t create enough motivation or instruction for your dog to re-engage with you. Typically, this is because verbal cues like “Come” and “Fido” lack specific criteria and the strong reward history we need. We might say our dog’s names three dozen times a day with no reward or purpose. When we get to the trial, our dogs simply don’t understand the behavior you expect when calling their name. Instead we need to choose and use cues that are specific, easy and always rewarded. These should be behaviors that are enjoyable for our dogs. Using a hand touch, spin, or asking for your dog’s favorite trick can give your dog an easy win and help them re-engage with the game of agility.

Here’s the deal – you need to practice using your connection cue. Whether you’re at agility class or at home, whenever your dog makes a mistake or disconnects use your connection cue and reward it. Jackpot it, have a party about it. Use the best cookies and their favorite toy. Work your tail off to make this connection behavior an utter joy for your dog to complete.  This is the only way for a connection cue to make a meaningful difference in a trial environment. Quite simply, you gotta train it if you wanna use it!

Be a Proactive Handler
When you know you’re going to encounter a distraction, craft your handling plan to support your dog best throughout the run. This is different for every team – here are some examples of proactive handling might help you and your dog.

1) You may find staying closer to your dog boosts their confidence. You can choose to avoid long lead outs and distance on course. You can also use yourself as a buffer between your dog and a distraction. If the weaves are along the fence with teams waiting to run, pick a handling plan that puts you between the weaves and the fence. You’ll add support by being close to your dog and provide a visual barrier between your dog and the other teams watching.

2) Change how you use your voice on course. Mostly, this means managing your tone. High pitched or squeaky noises from you can trigger anxiety in your dog. Yes, they can hear the panic in your voice. To help, keep your voice deep and clear. You can also increase verbal support by using clear reward markers, like “Good” and “Yes”, throughout your run. However, we do want to avoid useless chatter, “Good dog, let’s go, hurry. Okay, Fido, here we go, tunnel.” Adding extra words without intention can distract your dog from information they actually need, like what obstacle to take next!

3) Plan to use your connect cue before your dog disconnects. If your dog consistently runs around the weaves on the first attempt, as you approach the weaves you should use your connection cue to keep them on task. While this might not guarantee a perfect set of poles, you’ll start to interrupt the run-by behavior. A connection cue with strong reward history (i.e. always rewarded) should help you alter your dog’s association with the weaves and give your dog the best chance at success in the ring.

To those of you on this training journey, it’s a process. It will take time. You will make a mistake, or two, or three. Please, be gracious with yourself and your dog. In the end you’ll be a better dog trainer and you’ll strengthen your relationship with your dog. We can teach them how to love this sport as much as we do.

Team

What I know about Recovery

S’more lost her nail last Monday.

Once we had a game plan for helping S’more’s nail grow back, I shifted my focus to the other ouches. Ripping off a nail probably requires a good deal of force, meaning she yanked her whole front, left leg pretty hard. And, sure enough, her shoulder, bicep and chest were giving off heat. I do know this means more blood flow being directed to those muscles to help repair damaged tissue. I don’t know the specific muscles, tendons or ligaments that would have been impacted by such a yank. I also don’t know what direction she yanked. Pulling the leg back or yanking away while the leg is in front; these different positions change how the muscles and connective tissues were impacted.

Long story short, I don’t know how she did it or when she did it. I know two things: 1) that probably hurt and still hurts & 2) we’re now in recovery mode.

Now, it’s important to note that at no point did S’more limp and she was not in excessive pain. If so, we would have taken additional steps to see if there was any damage to the bones or tendons above the nail.

When we encounter a minor injury, like a ripped pad, broken nail or are really sore – like after a big weekend of hiking, our dog’s need extra recovery time. But, recovery doesn’t just take time. I do my best to use that time intentionally to help my dogs (or, myself) heal properly and regain normal functioning. The following activities are what I have been including to help S’more recover and get back to agility. Every injury is unique; the structure of the dog, the accident, the chronic wear n’ tear, and so, so many other factors come into play. These are the general guidelines I follow for my own dog’s recovery and, to some extent, my own recovery as an athlete.  I am always learning more, reflecting on past mistakes and trying to do my best. If you need help with your own dog or want to learn more, I encourage you to work with a physical therapist or veterinarian that specializes in dog sports and sports rehabilitation.

Recovery Guidelines

1. I don’t ice.

Ice restricts blood flow from reaching damaged tissue. Blood flow brings in necessary materials for repairing damaged tissue and takes away by products of the recovery process. Icing can kill red blood cells as they arrive and those damaged cells pool in the injured area. This can increase the time to recovery. I would only ice under special circumstances when prescribed by an expert that specializes in dog sports rehabilitation.

2. I use active recovery methods.

Active recovery means using movement to encourage blood flow to and through damaged tissues. Typically for my dogs this includes active stretching (i.e. dog moves themselves into different stretch positions) and walking. For people, light strength training, biking and swimming can also be great choices. These are a bit harder for a dog and we need to manage the dog’s intensity. Active recovery activities should be low intensity; no fetch, no spinning quickly, no jumping, no landing, no sprinting, and no pulling.

I keep all our activities low intensity until our initial injury is healed.
For example: A lose leash walk is a very different physical stimulus than pulling the owner down the street or breaking into a run. Pulling in particular should be avoided – always. Not only is your dog likely pulling significantly more than their body weight, they’re likely pulling from a non-advantageous position depending on your collar or harness choice. Overtime, this can add strain to already sore and damaged muscles and cause muscular imbalances.  I always bring treats on walks to encourage my dogs to keep a loose leash, and reward my dogs for continuing forward rather than tugging them forward. With lots of squirrels in the neighborhood and a bored border collie, this is a challenge. But, it is worth every cookie to keep S’more walking calmly and at an appropriate pace.

I incorporate active stretching multiple times a day during recovery. Using treats I ask my dog to move into different positions to extend and stretch certain muscles. Overtime, active stretching can increase mobility – the ability of my dog’s joints to move through a full range of motion. This involves moving slowly into different positions relying on the body’s ability to move safely into a position. This means the dog is actively using muscles to stay balanced and maintain coordination while expressing flexibility. This can help increase range of motion and prepare the body to use those muscles and joints in activity.
Yes – I do active stretching before agility for myself and my dog.

3. I use passive recovery methods.

Passive recovery means an outside force (aka: you or another human) are manipulating the dog’s body. This can be massage or stretching which also brings blood flow to and through the damaged tissue. 

When I massage my dogs I use a very light pressure on their muscles and watch for signs of distress (i.e. fussing, licking or staring at me). I try my best to massage in the direction of the muscle fibers – you wouldn’t massage your calf muscle left to right, you massage up and down. Also, I never “dig in” with my fingers.

When I passive stretch my dogs I use a very light pressure to move their limbs and watch for signs of distress (i.e. fussing, pulling the leg away or staring at me). My objective is to work my dogs’ legs through their current range of motion. This means moving into extension, flexion, abduction and adduction for different muscles. I focus on the shoulder joint and hips; which involves dozens of muscles moving into all these positions.

This may not always be what you consider as “full” range of motion – if injured or tight, your dog’s tissues may not stretch to their normal abilities. Just like my ability to touch the floor often depends on the tightness of my hamstring muscles. Someone else forcing my body into over extension or flexion risks tearing or straining the tissues around my hip joint – not good for humans or dogs. Moving the leg into a position that my dog is comfortable with is the goal during passive stretching. This can sometimes be a farther range of motion than they can reach on their own with self stretching. Overtime, I can increase and/or maintain flexibility of my dog’s muscles and connective tissue.

I do not use passive stretching before activity or agility – but I do use passive stretching directly after exercise and always after an agility day. After massage or passive stretching, I always offer my dogs lots of water or give them a hydrating snack (like watermelon). Extra fluids will help their body process any of the damaged cells that are moving away from injured areas.

4. I look for indications of improved well-being.

This might include self stretching through improved range of motion, relaxing during massage or passive stretching, or more mobility in active stretches. While I wait for the nail to grow back, I also want to see some of the additional soreness or tightness to dissipate. This took approximately 7-8 days for S’more. If I don’t think it was “that bad” or that she wasn’t in “that much pain”, why would it take over a week for her to feel better?

5. I recognize that compensation and in-activity lengthen recovery time.

Compensation means your dog is putting more load on other muscles to complete activities, like shifting your weight from one leg to the other when standing. This is fairly clear when your dog is limping; the uninjured legs are doing WAY more work and these dysfunctional movement patterns are costly. So, when I put a sock on S’mores foot I am forcing her to compensate because socks are evil and she doesn’t walk normally. While this is necessary to keep her toe clean, it also means I need to limit her activity as much as possible. The same goes for a cone or other instruments you’re attaching to the dog to aid in the healing process. If it changes how your dog holds their head or moves their legs you’re likely going to see additional soreness in places other than the initial injury site due to compensation.

To minimize in-activity I focus on activities throughout the day that drive blood flow to the injured area – like the passive and active recovery methods mentioned above.

6. I spend equal amount of time recovering as I do coming back to sport.

 For S’more, I anticipate we’ll have a full nail by the end of the week. That’s about 15 days in recovery, and we’ll spend 15 days coming back to agility. This means that she will not be on full height equipment or running courses until then. For now, we’ll keep “agility sessions” short focusing mostly on foundational movements; working technique at a slow speed and no jumping. I’ll be spending time passively stretching and massaging her foot to help any muscles or connective tissue that were impacted by the nail being ripped or yanked off.  And we’ll be focusing on mobility (using active stretches) and strength training (using our core work exercise – you can find experts for that too!) to get back to agility safely.

I know that S’more has not lost her ability to do agility. She is plenty fit, and two weeks of rest doesn’t deteriorate that much muscle. But, gradually coming back to sport decreases the likelihood of reinjuring the toe or another part of her body.

For major injuries, surgery or a longer break from agility, more time is needed to bring the dog back to sport safely.

Now, here’s the real secret. These recovery techniques aren’t just for recovering from minor or major injuries. Using recovery techniques every day can help your dog improve their fitness, reduce risk of future injury and may increase their longevity in the sport.

Attitude Competitor

Leash Your Focus

“Tunnel! Go tunnel!” You’ve sent your dog into the last tunnel and are well ahead for the four jump end line. As your perfect run becomes three jumps and then just two, you begin enthusiastically waving to your friends sitting ringside and then crack a joke to the judge. Sound truly outlandish? Absolutely! You would never focus on friends or the judge while your dog is running on course. You know how important it is to keep your focus on your dog.

What do you focus on right before your run, during the walk through, or while you were driving to the trial?

As a competitor, your thoughts are important and how you use your attention matters. You do not want to waste time and energy focusing on things outside of your control. Every weekend we see our students spend their time and energy on things they cannot control like the running order, course design, weather, trial schedule and results. 

Now, you might feel like some of these challenges warrant your attention and you’re not wrong as long as you use your attention responsibly. Attention is one of your most valuable resources. During a trial day, attention is a combination of your time and energy; mental, emotional, and physical.

Many handlers spend their attention on the uncontrollable – panicking about being first in the running order, fussing about potential ring conflicts, complaining about the course design, or stressing over the results. When your reactions and thoughts are not managed, you are using your attention frivolously. Stress, complaining and focusing on problems that don’t have solutions is costly and will leave you feeling mentally and physically drained. You need to save your attentional resources so you can focus on your teammate and your runs.

To use our attention responsibly, we need to be response-able. This means focusing on the problems that are within our control and for which we can create solutions

For instance, when you’re first in the running order, you can control your time by warming up your dog before the walk-through. When the course design is unappealing or seems dangerous, you have choices within your handling plan or you can talk directly to the judge about a change or you can make it a training run. When you feel stressed over the results, how many points you earned (or didn’t) or where you placed in a round (or didn’t), you can control your attitude and can create new training goals to work through frustrating results. 

All of these examples and many more are positive responses to events and thoughts. Focusing on what you can control ensures the time with your dog will be rewarding and fun. 

Dog Training Team

Training Principles for Success

I believe that how you train is just as, if not more, important than what you train. How we communicate, support and reward our dogs throughout a training session has an impact on what our dogs learn and how they perform. These are the three principles I follow in my own training to ensure I create a positive learning environment for my dogs.

Always Train in a Good Mood
Your dog is going to need your full support on course to understand their job, and if your dog is still in training your support is critical for their success. Coming to a training session in a bad mood or training while distracted by other problems does your dog a disservice. You should always bring your best self to training; and I know, this can be easier said than done.  Taking a moment to clear your head, plan and set expectations for an upcoming training session is a good step to set yourself and your dog up for success.

Never Fail More Than Twice
When challenging a concept I want to see my dog make mistakes and think through each new challenge. This is how their understanding of a behavior grows. However, I do not want to see my dog frustrated or discouraged. Failing over and over again does just that for most dogs. After the second failure of a skill, I always add more support (e.g., moving closer during a distance drill, luring with your hand, slowing down) and reduce the difficulty back to our last successful attempt.

End with Playtime
Dogs have been shown to retain information better from training sessions when they also engage in a short play session (approx: 5 minutes). This is a bonus for training new skills, and there are huge benefits for our team development. Through play you can learn more about your dog. Consider what toys they like, what noises they find funny or scary, and how they reaction to motion? All of this information will be important throughout your agility career. We’ll gain useful insights about how to better communicate and support our dogs on and off the course from engaging in thoughtful play. We are also reinforcing ourselves to keep training sessions positive and fun; remember we always train in a good mood.

Athlete

Debunking Handler Fitness Myths

By Kathleen Oswald & Adam Whisler, C.S.C.S

As an agility handler your job is to run alongside your teammate while using body language and verbal cues to give directions. Being fitter and faster can make it easier to handle your dog on course and increase the number of handling options that are available to you. For this very reason, fitness is becoming a priority for many handlers. But, getting fit for agility isn’t as simple as it sounds. Finding workouts online or even hiring a personal trainer can be a great start to improving your health, but these resources may lack the understanding of dog agility needed to really take your fitness to the next level. In this article, we’re going to break down three myths about fitness for agility to help you better understand exercises that will actually be beneficial for your fitness goals!  

Myth #1: You have to “be a runner” to get faster 

Most people define “being a runner” as doing a 5k or farther. Running a 5k or longer distance doesn’t provide the body with a similar physical stimulus as a handler will find when running an agility course. Running far requires the body to develop slow-twitch aerobic muscle fibers, whereas the speed and change of direction seen when handling in agility requires the development of fast twitch anaerobic muscle fibers. So, what does this mean? By running long distances you’re developing the opposite muscle composition of what you need to be quick on course. This is not to say that running would not improve handler speed due to increased lean muscle mass, weight-loss or improved overall health. Running for distance is simply not the best or most necessary exercise to improve your handling abilities. 

Myth #2: Agility ladders increase your speed and agility 

The agility ladder as an athletic training tool does not improve agility or speed. Agility, as an athletic skill, combines your ability to accelerate, decelerate and change direction. Throughout ladder drills both speed and direction are constant; there is no acceleration, deceleration or change of direction. By design this tool does not improve your ability to run fast and change direction quickly; it does improve your ability to learn footwork through a ladder drill. By practicing a variety of ladder drills at increasing speeds you will get faster and increase coordination, but this doesn’t transfer well to dog agility. Ladder drills simply do not represent the physical components that dog agility requires. A handler needs to be able to accelerate quickly, decelerate quickly and move through multiple planes of motion – in other words, not just run in a straight line, but move forward, backward and diagonally. Best to leave the ladder out of your workouts if your real fitness goal is to beat your dog down the line for that blind or improve your footwork through front crosses. 

Myth #3 Strength training hurts running performance. 

The common misconception is that strength training will cause you to bulk up and get weighed down by all that extra muscle. This is not the case as weight gain and loss is determined mostly by your caloric intake, not by what exercise you do. Rather, with strength training your body will undergo recomposition where you lose body fat and gain lean muscle mass. Strength training increases your ability to produce force – your ability to produce force in a short period of time is exactly what will make you quicker on course. It does this by increasing the strength of your muscles, tendons, ligaments and joints through loading compound exercises that emphasize full ranges of motion. Handling puts a large strain on our tendons, ligaments and joints due to the quick change of direction, acceleration and deceleration required of handlers. We’ve likely all seen more than one of our fellow agility competitors injured due to the high physical demand of our sport. Strength training can minimize your risk of injury and increase your handling performance on course by enhancing your overall health and ability to change direction and run faster while staying balanced. 

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Here’s a workout with drills that will help you improve your strength, speed and agility.

Sample Workout for Agility Handlers*

Warm Up : A) Start with a 5 minute walk
B) 3 Rounds of jog 10 feet forward, 3 air squats, walk 10 feet backwards, 3 half lunges on each leg
C1) 1 Round of jogging 10 meters forward, 5 meters backward, & 10 meters forward

Workout: C2) 6 to 10 Sets
Sprint 10 meters forward, 5 meters backward, & 10 meters forward with 60-90 seconds of rest between sets

D) 3 to 5 Rounds For Time of
– 25 Meter Odd Object Carry, like a sand bag or water jug, down & back
– 10 Single Leg Romanian Dead Lifts
– 25 Meter Odd Object Carry – down & back
– 10 Pistol Squats each leg – to a chair

Cool down with 10 minutes of static stretching focusing on quadriceps, hamstrings, calves and hip flexors.

 *You should consult your physician or other health care professional before trying this workout or any other fitness program to determine if it is appropriate for your needs. If you experience faintness, dizziness, pain or shortness of breath at any time while exercising you should stop immediately.

Dog Training Team

Jumping Into Plyometrics

My goal for agility is to train to a competitive level while minimizing the number of injuries my dog sustains throughout their career. This year I retire my 10 year old, former world team dog and simultaneously have begun training my 18 month old in agility. Whimzy had a highly competitive career at 16” and never had a major injury. Competing a dog often over multiple years and staying healthy can be quite the challenge as agility is a high impact sport. Our dogs run hard and their bodies absorb a lot of impact on landing. By incorporating core workouts and cross-training, like hiking, we can increase our dog’s overall fitness and reduce their risk for injury. Handlers around the world have embraced the concept of additional fitness training for our canine athletes. But, this isn’t the only fitness concept we should be bringing into our agility training. What we train, how much we train and how often we train has a direct impact on our dog’s overall health and performance in agility. It is up to us, the handlers and trainers, to structure training sessions that positively benefit our dog’s health and subsequently improve our dog’s performance in agility. The following article outlines what I consider when planning for agility training and recovery. 

Jumping qualifies as a plyometric movement; this means it relies on generating a large amount of force in a short period of time. Within the realm of agility, these plyometric movements (i.e. jumping and contacts) require landing from a height which places a large eccentric strain on the dog’s muscles. Eccentric contractions cause more damage to the muscle than concentric contractions. Absorbing a large amount of force repeatedly within a training session causes significant damage to the dog’s muscles; more so than running, turning or weaving. These activities require less force to be produced by the muscles than jumping, which allows for a quicker recovery period. Now, let’s be clear. Muscle damage is necessary to produce muscle growth. Muscle damage does not result in injury unless we do too much of a movement too often. To regulate the amount of damage to the dog’s muscle fibers caused by plyometric movements, I track the volume and frequency of plyometric movements throughout our training week. 

When tracking volume for walking, we count miles. For plyometric we count the number of times the dog is required to land. For example, Flash, a novice dog, takes about 36 jumps per training session. When tracking volume we need to understand the minimum effective volumes and maximum recoverable volumes of a training session. In other words, a minimum number of jumps to stimulate a performance increase and a maximum number of jumps before overtraining occurs. The 36 jumps Flash does in practice meets the minimum amount of volume required as it closely represents the number of jumps Flash will see in competition. This stimulates a positive adaptation while not drastically exceeding the number of jumps required for competition that would result in overtraining. While 36 is not the magic number, we need to be intentional about how many jumps or repetitions over the contacts, particularly the teeter and a frame, our dog completes during training. 

Not only do we want to be mindful of the volume of plyometric movements within a single training session, we need to consider how often we train these movements. Due to the high amount of muscle damage that is caused by training plyometric movements our dogs need an adequate amount of rest before we train again. When we train our dogs their performance eventually decreases throughout the training session, we see this when our dogs get fatigued, slow down or make more mistakes than usual. With time for recovery they can train at the same level before that initial performance decrease. For example, at a show your dog may have three runs throughout the day. With a few hours of rest in between runs your dog can run at the same speed and perform just as well in the last run as in the first run. 

With time for recovery and time for adaptation, our dogs can train at a higher performance level than before. This is where we see technique, power and speed improve. To get these performance increases our dogs need longer than a few hours of recovery in between plyometric movements. Deciding how much recovery time is needed for your dog’s body to develop positive physical adaptations depends on how much volume, aka: how many jumps or contact repetitions, happened within the training session. For example, if Flash did 20 jumps – a low volume for what she is accustomed to and a low volume for what competition requires – a shorter recovery time, like 24 hours, would be appropriate. A larger training session, say 80 jumps or more,  might require 36 hours up to multiple days for recovery. This depends on your dog’s fitness level, what volumes your dog is used to, and the purpose of your training session. 

The volume and required recovery time help us determine how frequently we should train to best meet our dog’s physical needs. Training sessions with high jumping volume should be less frequent, while low jumping volume training sessions can happen more often. Training sessions without jumping or contacts, such as rewarding weave pole entries, flat work drills or other non-plyometric movements, can happen often due to the low recovery time required and can be used in between plyometric training sessions. Just as you tailor your training methods and handling style to meet your dog’s needs; how much and how often you train should be determined by what provides the best physical stimulus for your dog to stay healthy and perform better in agility.

Competitor

Trialing During COVID-19

We had a positive experience at our local AKC show, hosted by the Krusin’ Kanine Agility & Dog Sports Club. This was my first trial since COVID-19 hit the United States, and its a whole new way of doing dog shows. I’d like to thank the volunteers and club members that went the extra mile to organize and run a dog show while being as safe and health conscious as possible. This post is going to walk through what our trial day was like for anyone curious about how things have changed. Thankfully, running courses with our dogs was just as fun as ever. 

We gathered for the briefing outside the building, with everyone in masks and while practicing social distancing. The judges explained the new regulations, such as wearing your mask into the ring and the option to carry your leash. We had a contactless check-in with the gate, and a series of split walk through limited to about 10 people per group. While this took a while, the small groups made it exceptionally easy to social distance during the walk through. 

Volunteers wore masks and gloves to touch obstacles and the materials for score keeping. In between classes, volunteers sanitized the obstacles before the next group of volunteers entered the ring for bar setting and course building. A club member also took the time to set up a live stream on Facebook for us to watch our friends as no spectators were allowed in the building. 

Competitor lined up in a waiting box before their run.
Split walk-throughs to encourage
social distancing

Before our run, the gate steward lined up competitors five at a time. Each competitor progressively moved through pre-set waiting boxes to ensure social distancing as we approached the ring. When the dog before us left the start line, the previous dog and handler were invited to leave the building. And then, we were invited into the final staging box before our run. Here, we waited for the dog before us to leave the ring where they would wait in an exit area until we’d left the start line. While it sounds complicated, volunteers did an exceptional job directing traffic to ensure handlers kept their distance from one another. 

Example of Competitor flow around the ring
Green Path shows teams waiting to run, and
Red Path shows teams that have finished.

We were not required to wear our masks in the ring, but carried our masks with us during our runs. We had the option of wearing/carrying our leash or having the leash runner move it to the end. The leash runner used a grabber which was sanitized between runs to limit contact with leashes. 

After our run, we were invited to leave the exit area and collect our items (i.e. coats, treats, toys) before exiting the building. With two entrances to the building, the handlers leaving were directed out a separate entrance from where competitors were lined up for their turn.

In between runs we spent a lot of time chilling in our cars outside. While this made for a quiet and unique trial experience, it was an absolute pleasure to see familiar faces, even under masks, and run my girls in agility.