Last year Miles and I had a big year of agility. We progressed so much in such a short period of time that the ricochet of exhaustion and plateau that followed near the end of the action-packed year caught me off guard. In two posts, here and here, I talked about what I learned from the experience. One of the big things I realized was that my unstructured approach to our strongest skill set was beginning to work against us in competitions.
By the end of last year, Miles was so excited to do what we are both so good at, Gambling (definition here), that not only was he going too wild in every other run hoping each would be a Gamble, he was also starting to be too wild in Gamble, causing us to fail not only at the runs we find very difficult, but also, at our best class! Some of my friends began to say, “well maybe you shouldn’t enter Gambles next year.” Something about that didn’t seem right with me. I thought about it, and realized that this is a specific issue that comes up a lot in my training help for other people’s Welsh Terriers.
There is a great urge among many trainers, especially those who don’t understand terriers, to stop dogs from doing what they love to do — which with terriers, always involves some level of wildness. It is often thought that control can and should come from stopping wildness all together. Miles’ Gambling was entering that frantic zone, the one I see in so many of my new clients’ Welsh Terriers. So, I thought to myself, “what do I do with them?” Through careful customized training strategies, I like to use the drive the dog has for the games that they love to our advantage. An emphasis on stopping a dog’s behaviors can lead to a lessened interest on the dog’s part in learning in general. I prefer instead to focus on channeling the dog’s natural excitement over the behaviors that they find rewarding and fun to create drive towards learning both modified and new behaviors.
This year, I stepped out onto Gamble courses with Miles, and instead of just thinking “Miles loves this, I love this, we’ve got this, lets go crazy!” I decided to try to carefully structure the wildness in the most motivating way possible for my teammate. I’ve been running faster and with intent, and when Miles has swung too far to unplanned obstacles, instead of wildly continuing on with no plan, or stopping (therein showing a “problem” to Miles), I’ve been showing him my own confidence in my plan. To do that, I have been using movement and excitement, paired with my own confidence and strong focus on my plan, to get him back on track.
So far this year, I have been avoiding mini Gambles if I think they’ll elicit unintentional wildness — even if I know that unplanned wildness could result in immediate Q’s. It has been hard for me! Mini gambles rack up double points, and are impressive little feats. Instead, I have been focusing on my own self-prescribed homework — structured wildness!
This approach has paid off, and landed us back on track in a way I didn’t even think was so immediately possible. It is funny how it can be difficult to identify and consider the benefits of your own advice. Now, not only are Miles and I back on our Gambling game… Miles nailed both Gambles a few weekends ago, one of which had a less than 7% success rate.
Even more exciting, those two Q’s completed the 10 required for an Expert agility title — Miles is now a Bronze Expert Gambler! Miles is the first Welsh Terrier in AAC history to earn the title.
Don’t forgo the wild pleasure of living with a high drive terrier. Channel it!
As we’ve gotten better at agility, so many new challenges have arisen. Miles is running agility faster than ever, the courses are harder than ever, and I am working harder than ever to learn good handling. It wasn’t until I started from the core of our strengths, reevaluated and re-approached it, that I could really see my own advice in action on a high level.
Channeling the wildness is all about unlocking your dog’s drive, and putting yourself outside your comfort zone to get there. Miles and I kicked off the year both with our own frustrations, clear indicators that there were things I could do that I hadn’t yet, which were holding us back. It can be so easy to blame the dog for these frustrations — as if the dog isn’t experiencing them too.
My new strategy in Gambles gives me so many ideas of how to use my general philosophy of terrier/human training towards other really hard agility classes. With a terrier, you can’t do really well and plateau, and expect your wild man to stay in one place while you try improve your own skills elsewhere. If you stop too long in an area of strength, they’ll get wilder and wilder, frantic even, wanting to achieve that rush you got together when you last outdid yourselves. If the human teammate doesn’t adapt, things will collapse. In my experience of being a teammate to a Welsh Terrier in agility, sure, they have “their moments,” but they are just as addicted to the rush that comes in the moments of true connection between teammates as we humans are. Quite simply, Miles craves the same thing I do, but it is up to me to help both of us keep the carefully planned terrier-positive structure going. Talk about rubbing your belly while you pat your head.
All I know for sure going forward is, we’ll never stop Gambling! 😉