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Dog Sports Essentials: A Conversation with Lynne Stephens and Karen Mielke

Editor’s note:
Learning, or excelling, in a dog sport is a mixture of science and art. Understanding how learning happens and building a solid foundation are the keys to a lifelong partnership in and out of the ring. Through Karen Pryor Academy’s (KPA) new online course, Dog Sports Essentials, instructors Lynne Stephens and Karen Mielke offer a comprehensive foundation for anyone wishing to enjoy dog sports—whether in the ring or playing in the backyard. In this interview they talk about some of the basic skills and concepts that humans and canines need to launch or improve a dog-sports career.

Q: At KPA we are excited to have launched the Dog Sports Essentials course! Who is the course intended for and what can students expect to learn?

Our aim was to make the Dog Sports Essentials course a true foundation—forever and for every sport—and to make it fun.

This course is geared toward current and aspiring working dog-sport teams—canine and human together. The games are lessons that provide a knowledge base on which to build future sport-specific skills. Through a mixture of theory, practice, and games, students can expect to learn vital skills and concepts that will enable the humans to teach, and their dogs to learn, any behavior(s) needed in any dog sport. Our aim was to make the Dog Sports Essentials course a true foundation—forever and for every sport—and to make it fun.

Q: What was the impetus behind developing the Dog Sports Essentials course?

Our training business, DogLogic, has been using positive reinforcement techniques to train our clients and their dogs since we opened in 2004. Somewhere along our journey as trainers and coaches, it became apparent how much more eager and prepared to learn sports-specific skills our own dogs and those of our clients seemed to be when compared to those that came to us after starting elsewhere. Dog sports are all about the relationship and trust between dog and handler. All too often what holds competing teams back from excelling in the ring is a lack of confidence, in both dog and handler, that stems from a lack of preparedness. The insufficient preparedness is not from the lack of training sport-specific skills, but from the absence of a firm foundation where interspecies communication is honed through training a comprehensive and reliable reinforcement system.

Our goal, in our business and now with the KPA Dog Sports Essentials course, is to have students participate in novel and fun experiences together in a safe environment, while training the elements of fluency and stimulus control in such a way that the dogs and their handlers remain engaged and enjoying “the game.”

Many people we meet feel that early tricks and clicker training with their puppies is just that—fun to have with puppies that you leave behind once the “real work” of training for competition begins. Our mission is to show them how vital fun training is and continues to be throughout their dogs’ lives. We wanted to provide the link that we often saw as missing; we wanted students to see the relevance of teaching putting a hand touch on cue, for example, to their later sport-related activities.

Q: What prevents some people from learning a new dog sport?

We have met students/potential students who would like to take up a sport (agility or Treibball, for example) but believe that they must complete conformation titles or obedience first. Our belief is that the real foundation for all of this learning is the same. The foundation skills and concepts that dogs and handlers need to grasp will build a framework to pursue and excel in any sport of their choosing in the future. The bedrock of this course is our belief that a comprehensive foundation of many skills will ready a human/dog team both for a great life together and for participation in any sport.

Q: What are some examples of foundation skills that transfer from one dog sport to the next?

To excel in any dog sport requires
that dog and handler communicate
with one another fluently.

The Dog Sports Essentials course provides an avenue for teams to travel among multiple sporting venues. Success in a sport requires confidence on both ends of the leash, whether it is a physical leash or an invisible connection between dog and handler (as with any off-leash pursuit). To excel in any dog sport requires that dog and handler communicate with each other fluently. They must interpret verbal or body cues from each other accurately. The handlers must know how to set up themselves and their dogs for success every step of the way; this is accomplished most easily by splitting complex behaviors into a series of small achievable goals.

Games such as get on, go under, over, round, and through, as well as many variations of circle games and games designed to teach distance and distraction, are examples of the fun activities in this course. Each one helps to build the confidence and understanding between handler and dog that are needed for all dog sports.

Q: What about people who are already competing in or teaching dog sports? What can this course offer to them?

Dog Sports Essentials allows instructors and veteran dog-sports competitors alike an opportunity to polish their skills.

This course is excellent preparation for anyone wishing to increase his/her enjoyment of dog sports—no matter what prior experience in dog sports exists. Many sport foundation courses are sport-specific. We feel that this may deter some from taking these courses, as they may believe the content would not be relevant to them. Others may feel that they do not have the skills to teach a foundation for other sports. Dog Sports Essentials allows instructors and veteran dog-sports competitors alike an opportunity to polish their skills. For instance, the course looks at teaching behaviors like stay, release, pick up an object, and release an object. Dog Sports Essentials explains the importance of teaching control and the difference between achieving calm and anticipatory control. These skills are integral to all dog sports, but are not always fully explained in other foundation courses.

The course provides a series of progressive exercises/games with complete details of how to train a send away or a retrieve, plus many more behaviors. People who are already competing in the ring but are wondering how to add some sparkle into their partnership would be well served to play the course’s games with their dogs, increasing confidence and enhancing communication. The games adapt for classroom use easily should professional trainers opt to start a Dog Sports Essentials class themselves. Learning through games will help instructors make those vital links for their own students and, in some cases, for themselves.

Completing KPA’s Dog Sports Essentials course helps instructors feel confident and ready to help students prepare for any kind of sports arena. Graduates of the course will be able to offer foundation skills for any sport that they, or their students, wish to pursue; they will also understand and be able to explain the relevance of each skill for each sport.

Q: What are some of the common skills that you see dog-sports enthusiasts/competitors struggling with?

Sheltie waiting on start line

One of the struggles that we see is understanding the transition from training to the ring. Dog Sports Essentials provides ideas about how to desensitize a dog to the potentially scary show-ring environment. We also see dog-sport enthusiasts struggling with how to take their dogs into the ring without treats and toys. The course explains how to use the Premack Principle successfully, as well as conditioned secondary reinforcers (reinforcers you can use in the ring).

Many competitors struggle with start-line stays, and stays in general. This struggle relates to impulse control. KPA’s Dog Sports Essentials course offers games specifically designed to help a dog enjoy working at a distance, and distraction is added methodically and carefully to ensure success.

Another struggle is with understanding that the entire sporting performance is a chain, and how chains work. The course breaks down the elements of how to chain behaviors successfully. It also explains how to enhance focus as the fun games strengthen the human/canine relationship. The sports cues you teach can become reinforcing to your dog.

Cue timing is often cited as a problem. It is essential to know how the cue, properly taught and then inserted into a chain, works as a secondary reinforcer in the sporting arena. The course contains suggestions that help people work toward better timing with skills and cues.

Q: There is an entire lesson in the course devoted to control. What is meant by control, and why is it important in dog sports?

In order for dog-sport fun to be a two-sided affair with both handler and dog enjoying every training moment together safely and enthusiastically, control is essential. Control does not infer any type of forceful coercion. Instead, control means teaching a dog how to exercise self-control in order to gain access to things he wants. It also refers to calm, relaxed control.

There are two kinds of control. In every dog sport Calm Control is necessary. A dog must be able to relax properly between exercises, for example. Other situations requiring calm control include relaxing in a crate while waiting to compete, focusing when the environment around the dogs is a state of high arousal, and recovering from a highly aroused state in order to be able to concentrate enough to compete. Within the Dog Sports Essentials course are instructions for how to teach a dog to relax on cue. This behavior is worth its weight in gold! It helps the human and the dog take a breath amid the exciting trial atmosphere.

Border collie exercising self-control

The second type of control is Self Control. This is anticipatory control and it comes into play in situations like these:

  • Wanting the dog to come rapidly on an obedience recall from a stay
  • Wanting the dog to stay on an agility start line/table/end of contact
  • Wanting the dog to wait for the cue to apprehend a running suspect in Schutzhund
  • Wanting the dog to wait to be cued to push a ball in Treibball

Q: You also offer a coaching package with this course. Can you tell us more about that? Who is the coaching package intended for, and how can it help?

It can be daunting to stay on task and remain committed to completing the many exercises and games in an online course like the KPA Dog Sports Essentials course. Since all dogs (and people!) are individuals, personalized attention to a team’s individual concerns through the coaching package can make a positive difference in someone’s course experience. By offering a coaching package, we hope to make ourselves available via e-mail and video review to assist online students who select the package just as we would with the clients we see daily at DogLogic.

A student who has selected the coaching option can inform us where in the course there is a challenge. We can access and explain that materials, talking the student through any problems. We can look at videos of the student training specific skills and offer coaching to increase success. We follow up via e-mail (preferred) or by phone to discuss a student’s particular areas of challenge, offering a package that is highly individualized.

Q: How has participating in dog sports enhanced your own relationships with your dogs?

Lynne Stephens playing with her Border collie

There is nothing quite like the feeling that you are actually communicating with another species. To see your dog’s eyes light up at the opportunity to play with you. To see your dog spring four feet in the air at the mention of dedicated training time (to my dogs this means dedicated toy, food, chase, and play time). Wow!

Our dogs know that when we go out together, life is about to get really exciting and fun.

Dog sports help to keep our minds and bodies healthy—and enhance our dogs' daily lives as well. The time spent together is quality time, enjoyed by both human and animal. The partnership that develops between us and our dogs through training and competing is so much stronger than we could have imagined. We rely on each other in the sporting arena, and that feeling of working as a team is amazing. All of our dog sport competition opportunities are successful simply because we are together out there, always growing in our shared experiences. Our dogs know that when we go out together, life is about to get really exciting and fun. Learning and acquiring new skills is as rewarding for our dogs (who love having something to do) as it is for us. Doing it together is a bonus. Expanding the pleasure and strengthening the connection is the time we spend with our dogs planning new ways to play together. When we sit down to cuddle in the evening, our dogs are content to relax and settle nearby. Knowing that they have enjoyed enough physical and mental stimulation to be able to rest and feel comfortable makes us very happy and satisfied.

Q: Lynne, you have competed at the World Championship level in agility. What was that like? What were some of the highlights and what has this experience taught you?

World Championship participation is an amazing experience. Never in my wildest dreams did I ever imagine competing at anything for my country. I began the sport of agility somewhat reluctantly at first, but obviously became hooked fairly quickly. We tried out for the Worlds after realizing that we were competing pretty well against former World Team members at home; we were ecstatic when we were chosen for the team. For several weeks it didn’t really sink in—then the work began! Training to be the best team we could be, I was in the best shape of my life!

Once there, we were lucky to have the most amazing support around us. Were we nervous? You bet! Just watching teammates compete in the individual rounds before our team event was stomach-churning! When it came to actually running with my dog in that big arena with the cheers of my teammates and supporters, it was incredible.

There were many highlights from the World Championship experiences. It is hard to describe the wonderful feelings associated with finishing a round to the cheers and support of fans, competing with the best canine sports athletes in the world, and building camaraderie with my team. My husband and I were both on the team with the Cavalier King Charles spaniels we bred and trained—that was special, too. I was in the first-ever British Small Team and we placed 10th overall. My husband was part of the Medium Team that placed 5th overall.

I was asked to lead the team into the arena for the Opening Ceremony. I was so proud of that honor. The year we were on the team, our Large Team won gold. The excitement, adrenalin, and pride I felt hearing the National Anthem was indescribable.

My experience has been a tremendous help coaching students.

I found that pushing outside your comfort zone has great benefits. My confidence grew from knowing I had qualified for and participated on the team. Learning how to handle such a pressured situation has been very valuable to me. My experience has been a tremendous help coaching students. From the World Championship experience in my sport I learned about differences in equipment and handling across the world. I saw different course designs and weave entries that were more adventurous than we had seen previously. Coming home I was able to share this knowledge and new techniques with friends and training partners—and with the dog-sports competitors I train.

Finally, world competition was fun for my dog. He didn’t care if we were training, in local trials, or at the World Championships; he was always going to be my champion.

Q: Karen, you do a lot of work with reactive dogs and agility. How do you use a sport like agility to help reactive dogs?

I like to define reactivity as a tendency toward unpredictable behavior when faced with new and unexpected situations. A dog may show reactivity by exhibiting a range of behaviors, anywhere from hyper-vigilance and voracious barking to shutting down and melting into a non-responsive puddle of fur.

Dancing together on the agility course

Reactive dogs need a structure to rely on. I can work myself into quite a reactive state if I am forced into a situation that is unfamiliar or where I feel unsure. Thankfully, over the years I have taught myself many coping skills for those situations. Now if I have a clearly defined plan of action to draw upon, I am quite capable of excelling. The same holds true for the dogs I work with. My plan with reactivity and dog sports is to give dogs coping skills through dog-sport participation.

Agility is a sport that requires precision and concentration from both members of the training team, the handler and the dog. The dog learns a series of behaviors that have been split into small, achievable, non-stressful, and highly reinforced components. These behaviors are performed one after the other, forming a behavior chain—a chain that requires a high degree of focus with little opportunity for environmental concern. The handler also learns and performs a series of fluent behaviors: cues. Using cues often makes the handler more predictable to the dog than when the handler is laser-focused on the dog’s reactive tendencies.

Obstacles and other obvious equipment cues also help make agility a well-defined and more predictable environment for a dog that excels within a known structure. With a very clearly defined sequence of chained activities that includes obstacles and handling techniques, both handler and dog are able to get past some of the manifestations of reactivity and dance together on the agility course.

Thank you, Lynne and Karen, for sharing your passion and skill for dog sports in a unique format that encourages others to enjoy and excel in dog sports as well! See you in the ring!

About the author

Julie Gordon is the Content & Communications Manager at Karen Pryor Clicker Training. She oversees editorial development and content management for the company’s websites, and regularly contributes articles and blogs.

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