Today I worked both Lyra and Brito through a series of simple behaviors. All of the exercises involved skills that they know well, like circle a cone or pivot on a disc, but I had to read exactly how each one was to be performed off of a piece of paper.   I had food and toys available to me and I was working in my home training area.

And it was a bit of a disaster.

Even with my dogs on a stay while I read, the lack of leadership on my part was obvious and as a result, each time I started a new behavior I could feel how we had lost our working connection. I didn’t have a clear plan for our working time, and they knew it.

This got me thinking about novice handlers; the ones who enter the competition ring without sufficient confidence in what is going to happen.  Or who train haphazardly and without a plan, losing energy as they move equipment or contemplate what to do next.

Leadership is critical.  Your dog has to believe that you know exactly what is going on, and that you’ll maintain the flow of training.  This doesn’t necessarily mean being energetic, but it does mean being connected and confident.

Regardless of sport – obedience, agility, rally or any others, you MUST handle with confidence and a plan, even if you’re not feeling it inside.  If you are training, then you must have a clear idea of what you want to do in the session, and a plan for getting there smoothly and with minimal down time. If you are in competition, you must know the order of exercises and where you are going.  And if you don’t – you get lost or confused – then fake it!  It’s better to go wrong and have your dog oblivious than it is to wander around like a lost puppy while your dog loses confidence in you.

Your dog is counting on you.

Try it and see what you think.  Plan out a series of activities, and work hard to maintain flow and connection at all times.  If something goes wrong and you’re not sure what to do, hand your dog a cookie and move on; figure it out later.  Keep the session short; rarely should good training go over fifteen minutes.  Keep you energy level even and work to project leadership and confidence in your plan.

And just for fun, arrange another session where you write out the exercises on pieces of paper, place them in a hat, and after completing one – go to the hat and pull out an exercise at random.  Read it, set it up, and then get your dog.  Try it out.  Repeat until you have completed your series of behaviors.

At the end of each session, evaluate how you felt and how your dog performed. Better yet, videotape and compare.

To be honest, I was shocked at how hard this was for both me and my dogs.  Later on I tried again, but this time I memorized the first several exercises.  It went well.

What did I change?  I added leadership.