2-minute dog trainer, composing music

Bud and I talk often about the idea of an agility team — dog and handler — developing a mutual language, a language understood and acted upon by both members of the team.

In beginners and intermediates classes we also refer to the dog’s “reference library,” or the historical data at their disposal to tell them what any particular handler cue means.

This all sounds very technical and “instructor-speak,” but it’s really a matter of conditioned response from the dog to handler cues which must be replicated as exactly as possible, time after time, to improve the odds the dog will recognize the cue and respond with a conditioned behavior.

At some point along the journey with nearly every dog, this mutual language becomes a sweet, sweet conversation.

The handler’s physical cues, interspersed with the occasional verbal cue, result in an immediate physical response from the dog.

The dog’s focus and movement result in an immediate physical response from the handler.

It’s a beautiful dance.  When you have your first agility “conversation” with your dog it is an event you never forget. It’s exhilarating and moving.

So, with young dogs, we begin by explaining individual words (ex: “Walk-up!”).  We build to small sentences (ex: “Jump, walk-up, bottom, tunnel!).

As the dog gets more experienced at our language, the sentences become longer (ex: “tunnel, jump, weave, jump, tunnel!, walk-up”). The conversation is often physical and not verbal.

This process is the same for children learning how to read and speak their native language. At first nothing means anything to them but, with constant repetition, they begin to put words into context and understand more and more complex sentence structure.

The experts at this language become writers of great prose or poetry or lyrics.  When the incredibly talented combine these word streams with music, we have great songs that touch our hearts and move us.

When an agility dog-and-handler team reach the pinnacle of their training, their agility runs are like a great song — a symphony — a work of art — and we’re often moved to tears to be part of that experience.

My goal with Tempest (now 14 months old) is to build his understanding of my movement and my words in order to build our mutual language. If I set any other goal before myself, it’s a single step on the journey toward “making music” with my little boy.

Right now we’re working on “See Spot Run,” and I must be very patient and consistent.

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