The only thing I love more than watching my own dogs progress in their training is watching my students progress.
This past Wednesday night I saw the best example of progress in agility training that I have ever seen. I have a student who has a dog who has not been the easiest first agility dog at all. He was reactive to other dogs which was very difficult for both of them. She was an excellent student and she did all of the "right" things and she went to the resources I gave her and they both gradually showed improvement. They were able to handle small group classes outside well. It was a huge challenge for her to learn about agility handling while working with a dog that was easily distracted by his environment. After she made some mistakes in his training with other people she asked me for some help from a behaviorist. I recommended she try to get in with Patricia McConnell or her disciples. She found that many of the techniques they had her do there were ones she had used early on but had lost touch with in all of the subsequent training and information. She got the confidence to stick with these techniques and after a few weeks of working on his overall behavior around other dogs and in distracting places they had the best class ever. They both nailed every sequence in the class on the first try. It was absolutely wonderful. Her dog was fast and focused and she was able to work on handling him. It gave me goose bumps to see it.
That is what really makes teaching agility so much fun. I have other students who have also made a lot of progress with their dogs. The biggest compliments come from other students who remark how well a particular team is doing and how far they have come in a short amount of time.
I've learned so much about working with reactive dogs from many people who have come into my life over the last several years and it is wonderful to be able to pass those techniques on to others. These are students and dogs who probably would have struggled in other classes or may not have been able to be in other classes. Most of these dogs are not truly aggressive but they tend to get overly stimulated by being around other dogs and are distracted by it. It is also good to know that the resources I have available to me have been able to help a lot of students. These dogs really take a lot of patience and a lot of time and when students spend the time with them and make progress like this - it is really a joy to see!
Spending time in small group classes and private lessons building on basic foundation skills such as loose leash walking, mat exercises, stays, recalls and games that build attention make a big difference. I used to avoid teaching these things by requiring obedience classes before allowing dogs into agility. However I have found that most traditional obedience classes do not really prepare dogs and handlers for off-leash training of agility. The dogs need to have a lot of respect and a good relationship with their handler in order to do well in agility training. Traditional obedience classes don't necessarily achieve this with all dogs.
Our small group classes are not chaotic and everyone knows how to work with their dogs and how to prevent dog to dog interactions from happening. When steps are taken to induce calming behaviors in a dog it can really help calm the dog and handler which helps with the behavior problem. A lot of the successful techniques may seem counter-intuitive but they have been proven effective in many cases. I've seen the "click to calm" or the "look at that" exercises work very well with many dogs who are reactive to their environment where it actually does teach an "auto check-in" behavior. Having dogs lick peanut-butter when they are aroused does actually serve to calm them down because of the licking behavior. It doesn't reward the dog for being aroused as some would suggest. It gives the dog an alternative mental state and behavior to do when in that situation.
Anyway, I'm very proud of Heidi and Gromit and the progress they have made and how much work she has done with him. The last class was a huge milestone for them and I'm so glad I was there to see it.