Passion and Performance
Disc dog enthusiasts have a problem. We all want to play this game so darned much that it’s hard to remain consequent and focused on the component skills that build our game.
Once a dogs start to approach the realm of performance potential, it becomes hard to balance the success of the dog with the expectations and performance requirements of the game. Performance requirements overwhelm the handler. This is classic putting the cart before the horse behavior and can be very detrimental to a team’s long term potential.
This problem really shows itself with Type A people – goal setters, achievers, overachievers, highly competitive folk… Process — “How is it happening? What do I need to do to make it better?” — often gets overwhelmed by performance, “It’s Happening! It’s Happening! More! What’s next?”
Performance does not mean understanding. Skills can be performed without the dog or handler understanding them. Most behaviors in dog sports happen this way. It isn’t until the limits of the dog and handler’s understanding are pushed that the weak links of the behavior chain reveal themselves.
False Security of Plan B
Many handler’s try to smooth this lack of foundational understanding over with a Plan B or a stop gap measure. It happened this weekend with a super awesome disc dogger who was working with us during a B&B Day Pass. He was experiencing some problems with the juggle behavior (it’s an amazing juggle sequence – sheesh!) and was getting very frustrated.
It was pretty obvious to me that he and the dog performed the skill historically, but the dog and the team didn’t really understand it. The dog refused to drop. A couple of poorly performed reps with visible frustration and the handler changed tack and cued, sharply, “Waiting on cue and situationally is extremely important for disc dog freestyle training. The competition field might not see too much waiting going on as everything is supposed to be!” between the catches and it worked. “Done Deal,” is what his body language and demeanor said . He muscled the skill. Mission accomplished.
The performance of the juggling skill happened. Performance requirements were met. But the success and understanding, and future success and understanding of the dog was hampered. The desired behavior was performed, but at what degree of competence and at what expense?
The Wait cue was damaged by using it as a band-aid for the problem of a dog not complying with a Drop or The Give is a retrieve to the hand. A cued Give is a foundational skill that is not super useful in the actual performance of disc dog freestyle, and has cue. The whole operation was about muscling the behavior to hit competitive performance requirements. This leaves the dog and the team not really understanding the skill and leaves the skill looking shaky and sets up a history of struggle and frustration.
To the experienced judges eye, the dog didn’t know the Drop cue, so the whole sequence suffers. In the eyes of the experienced trainer it’s obvious that the skill is likely to deteriorate and be difficult to maintain.
A Slippery Slope
This capitulation to performance requirements creates a slippery slope. What happens when the Wait stops working? What behavior will be sacrificed next to hit performance requirements? This happens all the time in dogs sports, disc especially.
Dog sport handlers need to put the dog’s success and understanding above the performance requirements of the competitive game and the performance requirements of the handler. Professional athletes do much more than scrimmage.
It’s much better to learn and apply this lesson early when the handler is dialing a new dog in or climbing up the competitive ranks than it is to try to learn and apply it when the team are a threat to win it all. Speaking from experience; it’s a painful lesson.
Toss and Fetch: A Typical Example
Tell someone to practice toss and fetch with 2 discs and the immediate refutation is that “But Toss and Fetch is only done with 1 disc.” Tell them to wait and freeshape a drop (allow the dog to drop it on their own without a cue) and the response will be,”But We only have 1 Minute!” Tell them to cue a drop on the way back and they really have problems,”But the dog has to bring it to me.” Tell someone to do a live drill using 30 discs and they say,”But I can only use 10 in my routine!”. And on and on.
Each of these suggestions are about setting up your dog for success and creating understanding and they work — well. But they are frequently written off as nonsense or “too risky” because they do not fit the performance requirements of the actual contest or the final version of the behavior being worked.
A Successful Dog Is the Solution
The performance requirements of the end product and the finalized behavior are often distractions. Tear the behavior apart. Find out where the problem is. Figure out a way to isolate the trouble and make the dog achieve the criteria successfully. Great performances cannot happen reliably without a history of success and solid understanding.
When having trouble teaching a skill or working on a new trick or sequence, or when the solid performance of a skill is shaky and you don’t know why, reduce the criteria or isolate the problem and make the dog successful.
Ride that wave of success to the behavior you want instead of settling or struggling for whatever behavior you can get.