Thursday, May 26, 2011

Accumulation of Failure

I heard an interesting interview on NPR the other day with a man called Salman Kahn. He's an educator who uses You Tube to tutor students in subjects as diverse as arithmetic and the French Revolution. In explaining why he started this service, he mentioned that since everyone learns at his or her own rate, in a typical classroom setting that could mean that one person misses out on learning, say, 5% of the material and another may miss out on 20% because he or she doesn't learn at the same rate as the rest of the class. So, as those people start their next class they already have a 5% or 20% gap in learning which means they'll probably increase that learning gap as they go along and most likely drop out of class. He called that "an accumulation of failure" and thought it happened in almost every classroom.

This made me wonder about agility group classes and how they're taught. As instructors, are we losing people from the sport because they don't learn at the same rate as the majority of students? I would hate to think that anyone in my classes is dropping out because I can't accommodate their style of learning and yet I know how common it is to have a group class where every team has a different foundation and a different level of experience in dog training. It can be extremely challenging to design a class that will meet everyone's needs.

I also think that it's up to the student to make sure the instructor knows that they feel they're being left behind in some way. Sometimes I'm so focused on getting my point across that I may miss the non-verbal signals the student is sending and I hope all of my students know that my primary interest is in helping them learn the most they can in my classes. And even though I'd want to know if they were having any kind of trouble with my presentation of the material, I also know how hard it is to feel like you're the only one in class somehow "not getting it".

I used to feel that way quite a lot in my college organic chemistry class and when I approached the professor to tell him I was feeling lost, he told me that if I felt that way I probably shouldn't be in the class. At the time I was a returning university student so I was older than most of my classmates and I already felt at a disadvantage due to the lapse of time between my high school chemistry classes and the one I was currently taking. I also knew, because I had had quite a few years in the work force by then, that what he was saying was almost certainly a bunch of bullsh*t :-) I had already learned by that point in my life that if there's something you want to learn, you can learn it given the right teacher.

My next step was to attend the common tutorial sessions offered free of charge by the university. They were some help but there were many students and only one teaching assistant. It really wasn't much help. So I scraped together enough money to hire a tutor and she really tried her best to help me but I still just wasn't getting it so she referred me to another tutor and I will always be grateful she did.

The new tutor was so good at explaining things to me that I actually started to enjoy the class and looked forward to the homework. After several sessions with this tutor I had my second exam of the semester and got a B rather than the D I'd gotten on the first exam. With continued tutoring by this young woman, I was able to start solving problems on my own and I think ended up with an overall B in the class. Of course, what I really got was much more than that. What I really got was the belief that I could learn anything if it was explained in the right way.

That self-confidence has been very useful over the years and I attribute my eventual career in clinical laboratory science to learning that it's all about finding the right teacher. Sometimes you might have to go through several teachers to find the one who can break things down into understandable bits for you and not everyone has the option of choosing between instructors but I'm convinced that the right one is out there if you can just find her.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Agility Handling Class/Turning Cues

Last night my awesome Agility 101 class knocked out a bunch of sequences designed to teach them how to figure out the timing and execution of turning cues. I found these sequences in the April 2010 issue of Clean Run but I first saw them many years ago in a seminar given by Stuart and Pati Mah.

First we talked about the various ways to signal your dog that you're turning and then we discussed the timing of the cues and how it would depend on when the dog was committing to the obstacle (in this case the jump) before the turn itself.

Here are the first two sequences we practiced:

First we did the white numbered sequence which was designed to allow the dog to move in a mostly straight line and then we did the black numbered sequence designed to start to teach the handlers and dogs the differences in handling between running straight ahead and turning. In between doing some of the other sequences we occasionally ran the white numbers to give the dogs an easy sequence to keep them from thinking that every sequence was going to be about turning.

All the handlers did a great job of cuing their dogs by either moving laterally toward #4 as the dog committed to #3 or they used a deceleration cue combined with the dog's name to let their dog know something was different from the previous sequence when they charged down the line to the tunnel.

I love this set up for teaching turning cues because it can be used to alternate between running straight and turning which allows both handler and dog to identify the differences in when they should charge straight ahead and when they should ease of the gas and prepare for a turn.

We also did the mirror image of the black numbered sequence so that both handlers and dogs could practice turning in either direction. Often either the dog or the handler (or both) will have more trouble turning in one direction and it can be really helpful to know which is the "weaker" side so that you can practice a little more on that side.

The next sequence was the one with the white numbers (and its mirror image):

Now the turn is quite different and the cues are different, too. The dog is running much closer to the tunnel for one thing and for another the turn is only about 45 degrees off the dogs straight path. How do you balance needing to turn, being near the tunnel entrance and only needing to bend the line slightly? Well, that takes practice. Every team is different and you need to do these kinds of drills many times with your dog until the moves are automatic and need hardly any thought.

Make sure to balance the sequences when you turn your dog with a sequence where the dog gets to blast straight into the tunnel to keep it fun and to make the handling differences very clear to the dog. When I run fast and hard for the tunnel and give the commands in an excited way, then go as fast as you can. When I decelerate, turn into you a little as we approach the turning jump or move laterally, pay attention and jump round so you can be ready to move in the new direction.

The class was doing so well on all of these (I feel a little like a proud parent when I see how far they've all come in just a few months), we moved on to the last two sequences which were far more challenging due to the wraps and the number of obstacles that the handlers had to remember.

The black numbered sequence came first and didn't pose much of a problem for any of the dogs. the handlers did a great job of showing deceleration between #5 and #6 so the dogs had no trouble wrapping #6 and following the handler over #7 and #8.

Our final sequence was the white numbered one and the handlers all chose to lead out and do a front cross between #3 and #4 followed by another front cross after the tunnel so they could put the dog over #6 and #7, wrapping #7 and then setting a nice line over #8 and then into the tunnel.

I think everyone left feeling like they had a better idea of the differences between how to communicate that a turn was coming and how to tell their dogs to charge ahead at full speed. I thoroughly enjoy teaching this class because everyone in it is so motivated to learn to be a better handler and trainer and that motivates me to be a better teacher.

Thanks, guys!

Monday, May 2, 2011

Thinking About Stress

Seems like lately I'm reading stuff about how hard it is for some dogs to keep their focus and motivation in agility while trialing or in other high distraction situations. Sometimes the dog is just young and so hasn't learned about how much fun agility trials can be but many times it takes some time and effort to get the dog to really love the game. If you think about it, that's not so different from what we experience when we start entering agility trials.

I remember how nervous I was for the first several years after I started trialing. I hadn't had a lot of experience in any kind of competitions (when I was in school the only sport offered for girls was cheerleading and it wasn't the gymnastic sport that it is now, it was quite literally just cheering for the boys' teams. This was before Title 9 and schools weren't required to offer sports for girls.)so I would get so nervous that I couldn't work up enough saliva to swallow and my legs felt like rubber. Although I've been trialing now for 17 years I still get nervous at even small local trials and I doubt that I'll ever be much different.

It makes sense to me that dogs are much like us in that some dogs rarely get nervous while trialing while others get nervous every time they step in the ring. And some dogs are good at hiding it, like me, even though inside they're unfocused and jittery. Unfortunately, we'll never really know for sure how our dogs feel so it seems like it would be wise to assume that they may be more nervous than they appear and give them lots of opportunities to just have fun without any pressure to perform.

But even after they're seasoned agility dogs and have been to lots of big trials, how do we know that they won't develop some stress along the way just because performance is stressful no matter how careful we are to make it fun? It's really hard to deal with all the mental and physical challenges as the handler much less keep your focus on how your dog is feeling.

And then there's the stress of travel which some dogs never get to like no matter how long they do it. I like to travel, I like staying in motels and going to new trials but I have to admit that it's not without some stress. Especially when I'm going to new trial and I'm not sure where it is or what I'll find when I get there. I'm distracted by wondering where I'm going to be able to park or set up. Will I be late? Miss my walk through? Do I have the right clothes for the weather I'll encounter? All these things really detract from my ability to focus on running the course well.

When you really think about it, it's amazing that our dogs are able to focus as well as they do. We aren't aware of all the things our dogs are noticing as we engage in this sport of ours because we aren't walking in their--er--paws. We don't even seen things from the same vantage point or in the same colors. We also don't know what those other dogs are comunicating to our dogs. Maybe our dogs are picking up on the stress of other dogs and other handlers.

I think I'm going to try to be a lot more understanding of my dogs' performances. Not just at trials but also in class and at practice. I think I'll try to cut them as much slack and be as understanding of their mental state as I hope they are of mine :-)