What's Your Handling Style?
Are you a "glass half-full", "glass half-empty", or "glass is always full" kind of person? When it comes to training your dog in Schutzhund, do you find the good in your sessions, or only focus on what didn't go well? Or are you able to take a balanced approach, acknowledging both the good parts and the areas that need improvement?
What's your emotional state and mental mindset when training? When your dog doesn't perform an exercise correctly in training, how do you respond? When you handle your dog on the field, are you cool, calm, comfortable, collected? Happy, energetic, upbeat, enthusiastic? Stiff, formal, militant, controlling? Or stressed out, nervous, twitchy, hypersensitive? All of these aspects combine to influence the dog's performance either positively or negatively! So which style of handling do you have?
Last blog, we discussed the roles of the handler, and how the handler doubles as trainer of the dog. Thus, when we look at handling styles, we are also discussing training styles: how does a person approach the training, handle the dog, and instruct/guide them in the exercises?
Fortunately, there are many different handling/training styles out there that work! Each handler is going to have their own particular approach to training the different phases, as well as their own approach for handling the dog on trial day (Ideally, this should be a consistent picture, with little difference between training and trial handling.). However, there is a general spectrum along which all handlers fall. On one side, you have handlers who are too lenient and permissive. On the other side, you have handlers who are too harsh and controlling. Every handler has a tendency to be on one side or the other of the spectrum below:
You will change and grow as a handler as time goes on, but it will help you to know where you fall on the spectrum above and how this impacts your particular dog. Then you can make corrections to your behavior and handling as needed to gain a better balance for the team.
The most important question we must ask, however, is: "Does this particular style work for my dog?" As handlers and trainers, we must achieve the right balance for our particular dogs. This balance will vary from dog to dog. What works for one handler with their particular dog may be too harsh or too lenient for yours!
So how do you know if your handling is just right? Look at the dog. The dog will tell you through behavior and body language if you are being too harsh, too soft, or well-balanced. It may help to film a few of your training sessions, and then review them to so you can watch yourself and watch your dog. Pay close attention to the dog’s body language and behavior throughout the session. Is the dog happy, engaged, focused, driven, and in harmony with you? Or is the dog ignoring you, avoiding you, leaking drive, or showing so much enthusiasm that it overloads the exercise?
The right balance: happy, focused, engaged, in harmony with the handler. Teresa Cowart with Chaos. Photo: Tamandra Michaels.
Most importantly, does your handling style stress out your dog or cause confusion and conflict? If so, it's probably not the best style for your dog, and you may need to make small adjustments. Ideally, we want the dog working with just the right level of engagement, attitude, energy, and discipline. It will take time to figure out how to get there with our dogs; that's the "journey" of training! In the meantime, be aware of signs that the dog is experiencing stress and conflict, and listen to what your dog is telling you about your handling and training.
Stress and Conflict in Your Handling
What are the signs of stress and conflict? There can be an increase in activity, with the dog becoming increasingly agitated and unclear, and displaying behaviors in the midst of training such as:
Nipping at the handler or handler aggression
Zooming during training
Signs of stress and conflict can also include a decrease in activity, with the dog becoming slower, moving into avoidance, and displaying behaviors such as:
Sniffing the ground
Slowing down movements
Lagging behind or lagging on the way back to handler
Moving off and lying down away from handler
Other signs of stress, conflict, and avoidance include:
Tucking tail, head, or body
Ears dropped back against the head
Dog tries to leave or does not return to the handler
If you are reviewing your training videos and see your dog displaying any of these signs (or see them happening in the moment while training), then it's time to reflect on what happened in your session:
What did you ask for?
How did you ask for it? What your body language was like, your tone like?
How did you set up the exercise?
What is the environment like? Is the dog near a distraction or stressor?
What were you using as a reward (or correction)? When and how did you reward (or correct), and what was the behavior like afterward?
Was your dog able to work through the stress successfully, with improvement in attitude and engagement?
Did the dog became more comfortable and more successful with the next repetition?
Does the dog's behavior improve or decrease as the training goes on?
The key is not to "explain it away" and make excuses for the dog (or for your handling), but to figure out what went wrong so you can fix it. In the majority of cases, it's not the dog; it's the handling/training! If your dog makes a mistake in training, you can also apply these questions to problem-solve the behavior.
A mild momentary or fleeting stress signal may show the dog is feeling a little pressure, but quickly overcomes it; perhaps you gave the cue a little too forcefully, or with too much body language. But does the dog show the same signal the next time you ask for the same behavior? Or does he start showing more frequent or more serious stress behaviors? Then your handling needs to change!
Developing self-awareness is valuable as a handler, because having a better understanding of yourself will help you control yourself and your emotions in training and trialing. This will make for a better training session for both you and your dog, as well as for a more successful trial experience. Take some time to reflect on who you are and what you do!
Are you patient and understanding, or impatient and short-tempered?
Do you have a tendency to be too lenient and permissive with behaviors, or to be too harsh and controlling?
Are you a pessimist, or an optimist? Do you focus on all the bad things your dog does, or only on the good things, or can you find balance?
Do you get angry or emotional in training? If so, what triggers it?
Are you persistent, or are you tempted to give up quickly and move on?
Do you know when to stop training, or do you keep going well beyond when you should stop?
Are you calm, or are you easily excited?
Are you a worrier? Are you nervous and anxious on the field and around your dog?
Do you tend to make excuses to avoid dealing with problems? Or ignore them with hopes that they go away?
When your dog’s energy gets too high, how to you respond?
If your dog’s energy is too low, how do you respond?
Are you relaxed and fluid, or stiff and rigid in your motions and body language?
Do you get nervous on trial day, and does this affect your posture, tone of voice, and overall handling?
How do you deliver your commands? Pleadingly? Hesitantly? Confidently and calmly? Harshly and angrily? High-pitched? Low-pitched? Neutral?
Is what you're doing working for your dog?
We must become the handler our dogs need. An easily excited or anxious dog needs a calm, collected handler who does not respond emotionally nor gets worried. The sensitive dog needs a handler who is very aware of body cues, tone and inflection, and even facial expression. The harder dog needs a handler who is strong, confident, and clear in setting boundaries. All dogs need a handler who is fair, consistent, and in control of themselves and their emotions.
Next blog will cover the characteristics of great handlers; be sure to check back soon!
Photo credits in order of appearance: Tamandra Michaels, Tamandra Michaels, Brian Aghajani, Donna Haynes.