Kiri jumping

5 things to think about training

Do you actually think about why you do something? Are you critically evaluating why you do what you do? Because I personally really think you should. I know thinking is hard. Do it anyway. Cake helps.

I’m an over-thinker, just as a disclaimer from the start. A perfectionist, cautious over-thinker. You may not like all these thoughts, or you may love all of them, or you may in general just not like thinking. I also hate thinking on several occasions, like Monday mornings, long tired afternoons, rainy days, and when hungry. I love thinking about training though, to the frustration of many of my trainers. Here’s five of my favorite thoughts to think when thinking of training. Pick the ones that you like. That’s the entire point of this blog, really.

1. Thinking

Yes, I managed to say the word one more time! Really though.

When presented with a new training idea, give it some space, taking a step away from your preconceptions. Then: think. I don’t believe half the things people tell me about dog training as gospel truth for one simple reason: they can’t explain it. I love learning new things, don’t get me wrong! The purpose isn’t to reject ideas that don’t fit your ideas outright, on the contrary! However, not all good ideas fit together or fit you and your dog. You should be who knows your dog best. What kind of treats work, what kind of training, how your dog feels about this or that. If you’re unsure or don’t understand a particular training idea, ask why.

Pubi listening
Pubi has this great method: he stares at me happily, then does what he wants. Don’t be Pubi. Photo by Mervi Leppäkorpi.

A good trainer can always explain why they think how they do. Why they give that particular advice. And if the trainer is stumped for a while (some things are pretty reflexive), they should still feel comfortable discussing the idea with you so that you both can learn. I love that! Sometimes I’ve lost my entire turn in a training just discussing why this style works like it does. Remember though: you also need to examine why you think the way you do and change it when needed.  I’ve learnt so much from asking why – and all of that I can take home.

I can pick the stuff from all the varied tips, tricks and techniques that fit my overall plan. Sometimes change my overall plan completely. All the things I learn I can apply to new situations, expand on, build the bigger picture. Agility is about having and giving the dog a set of tools to apply to course problems, rather than about building a strict set of movements that always repeats.

When you’re thinking, you know you’re being fair to your dog.

You know what your criteria is for rewarding, you know what comes next. It not only avoids your confusion, but also the dog’s! I am also completely and utterly incapable of running an agility course and thinking at the same time. I must do the thinking first. Trust me, the doing is so much easier after the thinking.

2. Training

You walk into a training. There’s a course, you run until you make a mistake, start from the beginning. Run until the next mistake, start from the beginning. Eventually finish feeling a bit confused, a lot overwhelmed, and feeling like you should’ve trained more before the training. Sound familiar?

The purpose of training is to learn.

Running agility
All over the place. Rarely a good place to be (but makes for good laughs!) Photo by Rasmus Rissanen.

You don’t have to go and showcase your existing skills by running a perfect course on your first try. If that happens, isn’t the training just too easy? This is extremely difficult for me to remember; I stick to safe zones a lot. But think a little bit (again, sorry) about how you would approach a problem. When learning to drive, you don’t get behind the wheel and drive until you crash the first time, right? Or after that, just pull the car back where you started, get past that bend and crash on the other side of the road? No. You learn how to turn.

I look at an agility course or any other training problem and try to find the parts I can’t do. The parts I can learn from, the parts I need help with. I ask about those and work on them separately (often multiple times). Then, I start from the beginning. That spares the dog some frustration, at least Kiri isn’t great about doing the same thing repeatedly. Saving physical strain is another benefit, especially if it’s contacts or weaves. When I do run into an unforeseen problem on the course though, I never go back all the way to the beginning. I fix the part that went wrong, reward the dog, then go on. If it isn’t fixed by one repetition, I stay there to solve the problem or list it as a piece of foundations I need to go back and build.

Competitions are for run-throughs. Training is for learning.

3. Cake

Who doesn’t want to think about cake? Right? Since I brought it up, you might as well go get some now that you want to, and then come back to this blog… Ready?

Cakes have layers, and so does training.

Yes. I did it. I put the picture. Now you want cake.

Make sure you’ve got the foundations you’re trying to build on. I don’t always remember to train every possible variable, though I do try (ad nauseam.. sometimes I should just go with what I’ve got). Kiri reminds me though: just the other week the course profile had a sharp turn on a wall. He has a vocal cue for a sharp turn, but I’d only ever done it on normal jumps. When we did it on a wall, he sent the soft pieces flying like they were nothing. Upon repetition, he tightened the turn (fixed his behavior, tried to perform better according to the vocal cue I’d taught), but pieces were yet again flying.

I realized I’d never taught him that a wall is like a jump and not for example like a tree trunk in the forest that you can bounce off of. I went back and did the wall as a part of jumping technique grids, then did my other vocal cues with the wall, then repeated the original sharp turn. Lo and behold, no pieces flying. He just didn’t know I was trying to correct and tried to do the best he could with the knowledge he’d been given.

If you can’t do something: think. Is it something the dog does know how to do? If yes, try again, stick to your criteria. Be brave. If you’re not sure, try to chop it into smaller pieces, and read your dog. Same with new ideas: is this something that fits to how I built our foundations? Or does it assume some skill (like hind leg target), that you must learn first?

Another thing cake and training have in common: both are pretty sweet when done right!


4. When

The sad thing is you can’t train every day. Consider the whole week, or better yet, the whole season. Has your dog had enough rest and recovery? Not just in terms of training that sport, but also general stuff. Have you had five children visiting over the weekend and your dog is mentally exhausted? Not the best time to train a new trick and expect your dog to offer new behaviors.

cuddly Kiri

Have you got enough time, or are you rushing through the whole thing? Have you had time to warm up, will you have time to cool down?  Sometimes it’s better not to train, than to train just because you happened to reserve this time slot three weeks ago. You and your dog both deserve those moments together. If you’re tired, or in a rush, consider switching agility for cuddling.

Then again, don’t expect to be running world championships if you haven’t put in the work. It takes repetition, consistency and just plain old hours to build new skills and fitness.

Find the balance of what your goals are and how much time and energy you can give.


5. Feelings

Last, but definitely not the least! You’ve got feelings. Your dog has feelings. Research shows you’re affecting each other’s feelings. Research also shows feelings affect learning and creativity – or, the ability to think outside the box. This means you and your dog will both learn more and be better if you’re in a good mood!

Photo by Mervi Leppäkorpi.

Think. Is training making you happy? Does your dog love it as much as you do? Hopefully yes! If not, think about why. Are you tired, or just taking something a bit too seriously? Could it maybe be fixed by sitting down, hugging your dog and breathing (my problems often can)? Will some help from your training friends or coach make it better? If something about training feels bad, in general or just that time, don’t do it. Find a different way. Finding a new way isn’t always easy, but it’s always worth it.

I’m firmly of the opinion that training should be fun.

At least in the long term, everyone has a few down days. O´-But overall you and your dog should both feel happy about training. It’s often the highlight of my entire week! Playing with the dog, learning new things, sometimes failing, but even then, life is simple for a couple hours. Same reason I like hiking. My biggest problems are small and solvable! Considering the state of the world, that’s wonderful!

Enjoy your time together with your dog. Enjoy learning, questioning, and curiosity. But also, be brave.

If you wait to understand everything and have all the possible pieces, you’ll be waiting forever. Sometimes it’s the time to just be brave and go as far as what you’ve got takes you.

Have fun. Look silly. Laugh. Have a friend (Mervi Leppäkorpi, she did it again), record it so you can smile at it later.


Go play! – Marjut

Writer is Marjut Köylijärvi: a dog enthusiast and a scientist with two Australian shepherds. Supported so, so much, especially in all the thinking and problem-solving (e.g. the wall example) by my lovely friend and trainer Laura Sutinen. Finally you guys also get to enjoy her teaching – so psyched for the new courses!

Live the life you love!

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