I compete in dog agility with our rat terrier Ike. Â In fact, I do more than competeâ€”itâ€™s my favorite pastime. Â So itâ€™s only natural that Iâ€™d manage to see a lot of application of my profession (performance improvement) to my pastime (agility).
For those of you not familiar with agility, itâ€™s the worldâ€™s fastest growing canine sport. Â It involves the handler and dog working as a team to negotiate a course in a specific order while following specific obstacle requirements. Â So a team might have to cover twenty obstacles over 150 yards in 60 seconds without mistakes. Â The obstacles usually involve some tricks, the human is usually sprinting almost the entire run and the dog is typically going even faster. Â Itâ€™s an fun, healthy, addictive sport that builds the relationship you have with your dog and also provides your critter with a great job to focus on and train for. Â But you didnâ€™t check into this blog to read about dog agilityâ€”so hereâ€™s the connection I see to performance analysis.
As a handler, I continually come across challenges where my dog doesnâ€™t handle a particular obstacle or sequence well so I need to go back and retrain a skill. Â One of the areas that has typically been a challenge for us as a team is that Ike used to stress very badly at agility trials. Â The way he originally manifested this stress was by running out of control. Â And I did a terrible job of diagnosing what was going on.
In the performance field, we preach the importance of cause analysisâ€”if figuring out why the performance gap exists. Â If you donâ€™t know why than you canâ€™t figure out the appropriate fix. Â And this was really driven home to me with Ike and the stress at trials issue.
I originally assumed this problem (Ike getting the zoomies) was a lack of focus on his part. Â So we went back and worked on focus. Â No progress. Â Then someone else told me it was about controlâ€”Ike was being allowed to have too much fun on the course and thatâ€™s why he wasnâ€™t paying attention to me. Â So taking that approach we worked on thatâ€”and our performance got worse! Â I tried altering toys and treats, going with different food, changing warmup strategies, taking him for a one mile jog before the trial startedâ€”no tangible results from any of it. Â Taking the approach that itâ€™s almost always the fault of the handler, I worked on giving clearer signals only to continue to see Ike ignore some very clear and obvious cues by me. Â I was getting frustrated. Â But what I didnâ€™t get was how even more frustrated he was getting. Â Only after a lot of work and time did it really dawn on me that the issue was that he was stressing at trialsâ€”and when I got him to relax and calm down he performed better.
We took a break from trialing and did some specific work on managing stress. Â Prior to this, weâ€™d had an abysmal 15% â€œQâ€ (or qualification) rate in our novice runs. Â After we resumed trialing, our â€œQâ€ rate was 71% over our next 14 runs (which is an amazing qualification rate). Â More importantly, the zoomies had stoppedâ€”Ike was clearly stressing less at trials.
For me, there were a couple of really big performance lessons I gained from this agility experience. Â First, be clear about the cause(s) before you try to fix the problem. Â In agility (as with organizations), people had lots of potential answers and fixes I could try. Â But they donâ€™t work unless they address the factors that produce the problem. Â Second, get data. Â I was experiencing frustration but figured that was a function of being a novice handler in a challenging sport. Â But when I looked at our â€œQâ€ rate I got an eye-opener. Â It was clear from our extremely low qualification rate that something wasnâ€™t right. Â And by comparing data pre and post â€œtrial stressâ€ work, it was relatively easy to gauge if something was making a difference. Â Third, never underestimate the power of observation. Â I tried videotaping some of our practice and trial runs. Â Watching the video (especially with a veteran handler or coach) allowed me to finally see some of the stress signs Iâ€™d been missing during competition. Â Finally, you can be in such a hurry to try and fix a problem that you actually take longer to solve it. Â Ike and I probably spent a full year mishandling his stress issues. Â If Iâ€™d done a better job diagnosing what was going on and been in less of a rush to fix things, weâ€™d have saved a lot of time and aggravation.
Joe Willmore, President