Dog Agility and Performance Insights

I compete in dog agility with our rat terrier Ike.  In fact, I do more than compete—it’s my favorite pastime.  So it’s only natural that I’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, it’s the world’s fastest growing canine sport.  It involves the handler and dog working as a team to negotiate a course in a specific order while following specific obstacle requirements.  So a team might have to cover twenty obstacles over 150 yards in 60 seconds without mistakes.  The obstacles usually involve some tricks, the human is usually sprinting almost the entire run and the dog is typically going even faster.  It’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.  But you didn’t check into this blog to read about dog agility—so here’s the connection I see to performance analysis.

As a handler, I continually come across challenges where my dog doesn’t handle a particular obstacle or sequence well so I need to go back and retrain a skill.  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.  The way he originally manifested this stress was by running out of control.  And I did a terrible job of diagnosing what was going on.

In the performance field, we preach the importance of cause analysis—if figuring out why the performance gap exists.  If you don’t know why than you can’t figure out the appropriate fix.  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.  So we went back and worked on focus.  No progress.  Then someone else told me it was about control—Ike was being allowed to have too much fun on the course and that’s why he wasn’t paying attention to me.  So taking that approach we worked on that—and our performance got worse!  I tried altering toys and treats, going with different food, changing warmup strategies, taking him for a one mile jog before the trial started—no tangible results from any of it.  Taking the approach that it’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.  I was getting frustrated.  But what I didn’t get was how even more frustrated he was getting.  Only after a lot of work and time did it really dawn on me that the issue was that he was stressing at trials—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.  Prior to this, we’d had an abysmal 15% “Q” (or qualification) rate in our novice runs.  After we resumed trialing, our “Q” rate was 71% over our next 14 runs (which is an amazing qualification rate).  More importantly, the zoomies had stopped—Ike was clearly stressing less at trials.

For me, there were a couple of really big performance lessons I gained from this agility experience.  First, be clear about the cause(s) before you try to fix the problem.  In agility (as with organizations), people had lots of potential answers and fixes I could try.  But they don’t work unless they address the factors that produce the problem.  Second, get data.  I was experiencing frustration but figured that was a function of being a novice handler in a challenging sport.  But when I looked at our “Q” rate I got an eye-opener.  It was clear from our extremely low qualification rate that something wasn’t right.  And by comparing data pre and post “trial stress” work, it was relatively easy to gauge if something was making a difference.  Third, never underestimate the power of observation.  I tried videotaping some of our practice and trial runs.  Watching the video (especially with a veteran handler or coach) allowed me to finally see some of the stress signs I’d been missing during competition.  Finally, you can be in such a hurry to try and fix a problem that you actually take longer to solve it.  Ike and I probably spent a full year mishandling his stress issues.  If I’d done a better job diagnosing what was going on and been in less of a rush to fix things, we’d have saved a lot of time and aggravation.

Joe Willmore, President

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About Joe Willmore

Joe Willmore is the President and founder of the Willmore Consulting Group. With over two decades of experience as a consultant, facilitator and trainer, he has worked with a wide range of public and private sector organizations within the United States as well as internationally. Joe Willmore is highly regarded by his peers and is a leader in his field of human performance. Specifically, he has authored four books in the field. He has been a leader within the profession, serving on the Board of Directors for the American Society for Training and Development. He was one of the first facilitators certified by ASTD to lead their Human Performance Improvement workshop series. He has been selected as a presenter or workshop facilitator for conferences by over 14 different professional societies.

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