Each of my dogs has a unique approach to new things. I’m currently training both Seelie and Gryphon in agility; despite the fact that they’re both Shetland Sheepdogs (or perhaps a Sheltie mix in Seelie’s case), they are very different in their approaches to the sport.
If you say ‘jump,’ Seelie will not simply ask how high – he’ll do several jumps at breakneck speed, throw in a see saw for good measure (even though it’s up against the wall and has various objects sitting on top of it), and then bark impatiently to do more. He’s been known to fling himself off the top of an A-frame… more than once. He’s sure he knows what to do before I do; several months ago he would very happily design his own courses to run. He works much better with me now, reading my body language so well that I have to be very careful about my timing or I risk pulling him off the course.
There’s a game we played when I first started working with him in agility; it involves an empty cardboard box. The idea is to look at the box, and when the dog does the same, drop a treat in it. Then raise the bar… wait for the dog to offer a behavior, such as pawing the box, or touching it with his nose. Reward, repeat, raise the bar some more. The dog gains confidence and starts trying to think of different things to do with the box to get a treat; the dog is engaged in his own learning.
Seelie picked up on this very quickly. By the end of the first session with the box, he was stepping in it, flipping it, kicking it… even though we haven’t played the game in months, he will still try to punch a box out of my hands as I carry it through the house.
Gryphon is an entirely different sort of dog. He’s a thinker. He’s the dog who will sit back, observe the situation, worry that he won’t get it right, and walk out of the room. I didn’t know how to work with him, and had been told he likely wouldn’t be a good competition dog. He became my hiking dog instead. When I started working with my current trainer, I decided to see what she thought of him. We started with the box game in a private lesson. Gryphon looked at me, looked at the box, looked at me again, and turned to leave. The most I could get him to do was touch the box with his nose once by the end of the session.
My trainer was the one who could see Gryphon was afraid of making a mistake. Understanding that he needed confidence building helped tremendously. When we started agility training, he wouldn’t jump two jumps in a row. If there were three jumps set up, he’d jump the first, go around the second, then jump the third. I’m still not sure why he thought he couldn’t do it, but once he understood that he could, he stopped skipping jumps. He still checks in with me as we run a sequence, making sure he’s doing the right thing. If he’s not sure, he slows down, or leaves to visit someone else.
I’ve trained six of my dogs in agility, and every one of them has been a unique experience, every one needing something different from me in order to succeed. Even though I’ve lived with dogs since 1989, I’m consistently learning new things about them.