A Balancing Act: Trust & Connection

(Original post March 4, 2016)

Several years ago, I wrote a Training Thought titled “Dogs Are Our Teammates, Not Our Subordinates” (re-posted October 26, 2015), in which I highlight that one of the characteristics of an effective team is the presence of trust. I quote:
“Finally, effective teams have a high level of trust. In the past, I’ve done research on trust between humans, and while there are many bases of trust (predictability, knowledge of the other person, certified credentials), one thing is very clear, once violated, it is hard to get back. Dogs don’t care if we have a certificate on the wall, or what successes we’ve had with other dogs in the past. They don’t even care if another dog trusts us. What matters to them is how we treat them directly. To this end, the methods which we choose to use in training our dogs will have the greatest impact on the level of trust the dog feels with us. If we are abusive to the dog (and for some, that can entail a stern verbal reprimand), then we eat away at the trust, and limit our ability to become an effective team with our dog. Similarly, if we don’t trust our dog, then we will also limit our ability to become an effective team. I see this sometimes when the human isn’t willing to “let go of the reigns” and relinquish some of the control to the animal. This can be shown… [by] letting the dog attempt to do the contact on its own….”
In agility, trusting your dog to perform the task it has been trained to do, and to complete his/her part of the course while you do your part of the course is often a big challenge for agility handlers. Lack of trust is illustrated with over-handling, “babysitting” jumps or obstacles to ensure the dog completes them, yelling at the dog on lead-outs (“STAY!! STAY!!!! AHHHH STAY!”), not allowing them to work away from you at a distance, or my favorite watching your dog to see if Newton’s Law of Gravity applies to the dog. (Carolyn Dockrill often teased me in the past that “Trust me, your dog will land… Gravity applies to them too. What goes up, will come down.”)
So trainers often encourage their students to TRUST YOUR DOG… MOVE… STOP BABYSITTING… GET GOING! This is a critical skill for the team to be effective on course. The handler must trust the dog to complete the obstacle once obstacle commitment has been achieved. The reason why trust is critical is that the handler needs to refocus to their own path, get “down the line” and accurately drive the dog’s path around the course, instead of sticking at the dog’s current obstacle to ensure it is done correctly.
However, there can be too much “trust.” What?!? Now, what I mean by that is that handlers can go too far in the releasing of the reigns under the name of “trust.” I personally don’t think there could be a thing of too much trust; however, there can be too much in the way of disconnecting from the dog under the guise of “trusting the dog.”
When the reigns are released too much, we actually see the dropping of what I call the invisible leash. When handlers drive too far down the line with no connection to the dog and assume the dog will drive the line of obstacles, then we see an equally ineffective team. When the leash is dropped, I see the following common behaviors:
  • The dog drives after the human to catch up, ignoring the obstacles along the way (usually because the actual path indicated by the handler excludes the obstacles);
  • The dog drives after the human, in a mad-like state, to catch up, and destroys jumps or ignores performance criteria along the way (the dog obviously moved into an over-arousal, stressed state);
  • The dog crosses the handler’s path and takes off-course obstacles;
  • The dog slows down and starts sniffing the ground (again, the dog is indicating stress).
All of these behaviours occur without the handler’s knowledge. When the handler finally does check in with the dog, they are surprised to see what’s going on with their teammate.
Thus, while it is important to trust your dog, it is also equally important to connect with your dog. The key is to know when you should trust and when you should connect. So here are some general guidelines to consider. It is a good idea to trust your dog on the following aspects (and not babysit them):
  • Lead out – lack of trust here makes them stress out. Train it, then enjoy it.
  • Obstacle performance as soon as commitment has been achieved – dogs vary on commitment points, but once a dog is committed to the obstacle, trust them to do the obstacle properly. Train it, then enjoy it. Greater trust is needed when those obstacles are done at a distance, but you still need to support to the point of commitment.
Times to connect are:
  • After you lead out, and before you start your run.
  • Whenever you can’t see your dog and then they re-emerge into your view (e.g., out of a tunnel, around the wing of a jump, immediately after a blind cross).
  • Points of collection – when a dog needs to collect, they need to receive this information from the handler, so this is a point of connection (e.g., during a front-cross).
  • At points in the course when you need the dog to have higher value for you and your reinforcement zone than nearby equipment (like Snookers, or upper level courses when you have to bypass an off course obstacle).
In my Course Analysis online course I talk about times when to connect and also zones that I strategically need to trust and peel away (I call them repel zones). Walking through the course, it is helpful to pick out the points of connection and the points of trust. This oscillation between trust and connection is a learned skill, and is best practiced in shorter sequences and then building to longer sequences. It is key to remember that it is not simply “Trust Your Dog,” nor is it simply “Connect to Your Dog”… it is the oscillation between trust and connection.
Becoming predictable in the oscillation between trust and connection will make you a more predictable team member for your dog, then they will be able to trust YOU more on course. They will be able to predict when they should be connecting with you on the course. The will be able to predict when they have a job to do regardless of what your body is doing (e.g., peeling off or having to be at a distance, or even falling on course). Achieving this balance makes running with your teammate a sweet joy.
Happy training and may you find that sweet oscillation between trust and connection!
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