Winning is contact with the handler

At the end of the agility course the dog has scurried and climbed, weaved and tunnelled, jumped and run all the way back to the handler. The excitement of hunting down the handler needs absorbing into contact of some sort. Initially, the enthusiasm to run and chase culminates in biting the prey. Being prey-like draws the hunter in, creates the challenge to chase and bite. Our movements around the course build that thrill, directing the hunt in and around the obstacles, hopefully in the right order, demanding and frustrating the hunter with increasing complexity as they become more proficient. But the hunt ends, the prey can no longer escape, and the win is not found in a rosette or shield. Winning is in the connection with the prey, contact with the handler.

Many years ago, at Cranleigh Agility Show I ran my super-fast super-sharp dog “Boo”. It was one of his first ever shows, and he was a liability in public. He came to me instead of going to the vet for “the last visit”. He had a police record for biting too many people: kids on bikes, postal workers, anything that moved quickly. His owners were lost, not knowing how to proceed. He was too fast, too sharp, too much trouble. Puppy classes and clicker training failed them, he would still bite in a panic. So I thought I’d save him, and took him home instead of letting him go anywhere else. He was a collie, and I’d had collies before. How hard could it be?

At the time, before discovering Natural Dog Training, I channelled his enthusiasm into plenty of crazy work. Chasing games, agility, clicker training, super quick obedience. I thought he needed to be trained better, more effectively, I needed more control. But he would still bite the wrong thing at the wrong time. I didn’t realise I was creating more of a charge, electrically fizzing energy that needed to find a lightning rod. I failed to soften and soothe his nerves, failed to create a magnetic feel and continued to super-charge his sparkiness. It wasn’t that I wanted a bite hazard, I just didn’t know any better. I worked hard at everything people tell you to do but was pushing the wrong boulder up the wrong hill. People still get it hopelessly wrong, they still give all the same advice, and there are plenty of dogs like Boo who suffer. Dogs that find the lightning rod when it’s not expected, that bite “out of the blue”, a culmination of stress piled on through well-intentioned training.

At Cranleigh Agility Show I knew I needed to keep Boo safe, to save him from the excitement of everyone milling around. Therefore we’d been working on a recall, a super fast recall, one that would work anywhere. I’d also seen how other people often lose their dogs to other distractions even though they had taught a recall, failing to fasten a lead in time, and in agility the dog couldn’t wear a collar. So we took our recall to another level, super safe control, a jumping recall, safe into my arms. Boo had practised this, and we were ready. A round of nerve-wracking agility, guiding the little exocet around the course, then super safe control, jumping up to be caught, whisked away from biting the judge (which apparently doesn’t help your chances). Everything was planned and under control.

Except the excitement was over-whelming. The show was like practice sessions with the volume turned up, and Boo could feel the thrill. I don’t really remember the agility. It was probably fast and accurate, in fact we might still have a trophy to pick up, one that’s gathering dust unclaimed in the Cranleigh club vault. All I remember is him jumping up into my arms and biting me. It wasn’t a serious bite, just a bite. He was excited and he bit me. Of course he did. And of course it should have made me stop doing what I was doing, but we carried on, back to the training, back to what everyone else was doing. I didn’t figure it out for many years. Sorry Boo. But I remembered.

The challenge as I see it now, is to be able to soften the dogs after they get super excited. Channelling into a bite, but not directly. The game to be enjoyed is one of “stay with me, play with me” on the finish line. Pushing in for contact, softened with food and touch. How much can the dog handle? How much energy can this connection carry before it is then taken to a toy? The final grab is then projected to a bite toy which can be paraded around and applauded. Winning is contact with the handler.

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