Julie Flanery, my friend and fellow instructor at Fenzi Dog Sports Academy, wrote a short article on this topic, and I’m sharing it here with you. Thank you, Julie, for your generosity! If you’d like to work with Julie directly, she is teaching a class this term that will help you develop exactly the skill discussed in this article- training excellence via Handler Mechanics.
Handler mechanics by Julie Flanery:
This is by far the single most important thing you can change to make an impact in your dog’s learning. Training is about communication. And communication is about clarity and comprehension on the dog’s part. That is on us. How we convey information matters. Think of your handler mechanics as tools for communication. Your communication should be on a continuum, a linear path, horizontal rather than vertical. In a line, rather than stacked on top of each other.
Have you ever tried to listen to 2 people talking at once? It’s difficult to understand one of them, let alone both of them.
The only 2 things that should happen at the same time is the behavior and your marker. They are one. Everything else, food, your lure or hand signal, reaching for your reward, feeding, should come one after the other, never overlapping. This matters more than you know. Working in a linear fashion allows the dog to take information from each piece and not miss any of the ways we are communicating to him. Providing the information is our responsibility. Once we do that it becomes very clear for the dog and you will see the speed of learning increase.
If you mark at the same time you reach for your treat, then you block your marker and your dog isn’t thinking about why he is getting the treat, only that it’s coming. If you give your verbal cue at the same time as your physical cue, your verbal cue loses both meaning and value. All of the information is in the signal, so there is no reason for the dog to even consider your verbal cue. If you hold food in your hand or your hand in your bait bag, it can distract the dog from how to get that food. If you feed from across your body your dog will lose position. These are all things you have control over. These are all things that can either help or hinder the learning process. All the props in the world won’t fix ambiguity from the handler.
Know this won’t come easy. Habits are hard to break. Our bodies act without consciousness. Whether it’s a habit you want to break or a habit you want to create, we have to work at it, concentrate on it, be aware of it. This is the key to becoming a great handler. We tend to look outward at what our dogs can do to indicate our skill as a handler. If our dogs are doing well there is no need for change. We never consider how much better our dogs could do if we became really good at communicating through clean handler mechanics.
The most important thing you can do if you want to see changes in your dog’s understanding and skill is to concentrate on your handler mechanics in communicating as clearly as you can.