What Makes Great Handlers 'Great'?
For some people, handling for Schutzhund/IPO seems to come easily. They learn quickly, progress quickly, easily adapt their training to fit the dog, and have a happy and enthusiastic canine partner. Everything is smooth and effortless, and they never seem to bumble, fumble, or stumble.
Then there’s the rest of us. We drop food at the wrong time, struggle to manage leash and food and ball and dog all at once, forget to mark the desired behavior before rewarding, correct the dog for looking up at us instead of when they looked away, and trip over our own two feet when heeling down the field. Will our handling ever be as great as those we admire?
14 CHARACTERISTICS OF GREAT HANDLERS
So what makes those great handlers so different? Is it experience? Impeccable timing? Born with the gift of natural intuition? Great handlers tend to share a number of characteristics, such as these 14 traits mentioned below (and no doubt there are more!).
1. Have a good relationship and good rapport with their dogs. It’s clear that the dogs like them and want to be with them. The handlers have taken the time to cultivate a good working relationship with their dogs, one that is built on trust and respect. As a result, the team shows a natural harmony on the field.
2. Are consistent. Great handlers are consistent with their rewards, their corrections, their commands, and their expectations. They make everything very clear and well-defined for their dogs, which leaves little room for ambiguity. Dogs thrive in this type of consistent, clear environment, which ultimately builds trust. Conversely, nothing destroys a relationship and training program faster than inconsistency.
3. Are always ready and present in the moment. Great handlers are ready to train and are present with their dogs when doing so. They are ready to reward or correct behavior based on the dog's response. Their equipment and rewards are ready, and they are mentally ready with a clear picture of what behaviors they want. Great handlers are also present in the moment, focused on their dogs and not on anything else. They don’t allow themselves to be distracted. They don’t sit there and have conversations with people while the dog loses focus and drive (something many handlers do on club days!). They’re not being rude for ignoring everyone else while training; they’re being focused. They know that if we expect our dogs to have total focus in training, then we should offer them the same.
4. Are observant students of their dogs. Great handlers pay attention to behaviors their dogs offer, and look for connections and patterns. “Every time I do this, I notice my dog does that.” They are aware of their dog’s moods and mindset, body language, etc. They observe their dogs and how their handling affects their canine partner, and listen to what the dog tells them.
5. Are patient and in control of their emotions. Great handlers understand that it takes time for a dog to learn an exercise, and that they will make mistakes. They do not get frustrated with their dogs easily, and if they do, they generally keep their cool and don’t let their emotions run amok. They work hard to keep negative emotions out of the training session.
6. Recover and learn from mistakes. Great handlers are resilient. They will make mistakes; all people do. But great handlers step back, pick up where they were last successful, and then move forward. And most importantly, they learn from that mistake, and try not to make it again. They don’t let handling or training errors paralyze them, nor dwell on them repeatedly. They take the lesson, and then move on.
7. Know the rules. Great handlers have read the rule book, and are well-acquainted with the rules for Schutzhund. This knowledge of the rules helps them train and trial their dogs properly. It also helps them evaluate where they will lose points, and helps with decisions about which ‘point sacrifices’ they might need to make to maintain the bigger picture or save an exercise (for example, showcasing the dog's power in guarding while taking a points hit for a little bumping of the sleeve).
8. Look at the big picture. Great handlers don’t get stuck on inconsequential details; they focus on the RIGHT details. They build small details that create the overall picture they desire into their foundation, and learn where to accept what the dog has given them and move on. They are mindful of the whole picture while training, and understand that the overall picture should be of harmony and enthusiasm. They do not sacrifice the overall harmony and spirit of the dog for a single exercise, and are aware of how their approach to training will influence the longevity of an exercise (how long the dog will be able to perform it under the current training style).
9. Have smooth handling with good timing. Great handlers’ use of the leash, toys, food rewards, corrections, etc. are all smooth, with no fumbling or lagging. There are few wasted motions; every movement in both training and trialing is purposeful. This smoothness comes not only from skillful, practiced coordination, but also from having confidence in themselves. Even more importantly, great handlers have excellent timing for marking, rewarding, and correcting behavior. This is built through experience and practice, but it certainly helps to have good coordination and a natural “feel”!
10. Know their training program and customize it. Great handlers have a good training program, a particular approach that is customized to themselves and their dogs. They do not try to simply “copy” the latest training guru or fad, but instead pick out the parts that will work for them, or file that information away for later in their toolbox. Their forward progress is steady, and while they don’t jump from program to program, they also do not remain stagnant (see #11).
11. Are not stagnant. Great handlers don’t ever stop growing. They continue to develop their program a little bit at a time, and look for better and more effective ways to train. Great handlers learn and grow with each trial, with each critique, with each dog they handle. They don’t remain stubborn and adamant that their way is the only way – such an attitude closes off growth. Rather, great handlers know good advice and good training when they see it, and are thoughtful about what they incorporate into their training program.
12. Have a plan and a goal. Great handlers have a clear goal for each training session, a plan for what they wish to achieve. They have a mental picture of what to accomplish, teach, and reward. They also set a goal for trialing, and train toward it. No training session is wasted.
13. Work with, not against, the dog. Great handlers work with the dog in front of them and with what that dog naturally brings to the table. They don’t try to “put” genetic drives and behaviors into the dog that aren’t there; rather, they seek to bring out the best in each dog, capitalize on its strengths, and give it tools to compensate for its weaknesses. Additionally, the best handlers minimize conflict with their dog; this conflict occurs when handlers are inconsistent, unclear, or work against their dog and his nature.
14. Make no excuses and maintain high expectations. They find and make the time to train at the level they need to be successful. They do not justify or explain away their dog’s performance or behavior, but decide what needs to be done to change it. There is none of this extensive “psychoanalyzing” of the dog that some handlers do to ‘explain’ the problem in great detail without ever taking steps to improve it. Great handlers keep it simple: they review what happened, take action, and fix the behavior. They maintain high expectations for themselves and for their dogs; when you have high expectations, there isn’t room for excuses.
What other characteristics have you seen in great handlers? Share them in the comments section below!
Join me for the next blog, which discusses how we can become better Schutzhund handlers.
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