(Original Post on September 27, 2017)
Back in June, at Jenga’s first AAC-Sanctioned Trial, I received a compliment about how well I flow and recover when Jenga goes off course and does something unexpected. Then yesterday, I complimented a friend on a well-deserved win. In particular I noted how well she recovered from unexpected turn/choice of wing wrap. She had kept the dog on course and won the class! These two events got me thinking about the importance of recovery skills.
Some top competitors explicitly practice recovery skills in courses. For example, when they train for big events (like World’s) they run the first course as if they are at the World’s and need to recover. I also do this on occasion. However, I think there is more to it than simply practicing in courses, and I want to share my thoughts on this for your food for thought.
Agility is about training, planning, strategizing, connecting and then last but not least recovering!
As agility competitors and trainers, we spend a lot of time and effort into planning what skills our dogs need, training those skills. We also spend a lot of time strategizing, learning about faster lines for courses, what cross should go where and when. We spend a lot of time visualizing that perfect run and how we are executing it. We forge it to memory. We also spend a lot of time connecting with our dogs on and off the course. That connection is so important!
Yet, how many people spend time on developing the ability to recover?
Think of it this way, when you are driving your car to work, you know that path extremely well. You can go into auto-pilot for much of the “handling” of that “course” to work. But then suddenly, a moose or deer or someone steps unexpectedly onto the road in front of you, or your car suddenly starts to fishtail because of ice on the road. It’s not supposed to be there, it’s not supposed to do that. It’s not part of your plan on your course that day. But what do you do?
In driving, we learn certain defensive driving techniques to handle these scenarios, and as a seasoned driver, you have a set of tools and knowledge to allow you to handle it. For example, you put your eyes to where you need to be going to stay on course (safely). Your foot moves off the gas, and your hands start turning the steering wheel to accommodate the change of path.
We are taught, “LOOK TO WHERE YOU WANT TO GO, NOT AT WHAT YOU WANT TO AVOID.” If all goes well, the animal/person is avoided and safe, or the car stops fishtailing and you are still on the road.
It is the same thing with agility.
When I find I have to recover, I quickly put my eyes up to where I need to go then I get that CONNECTION with my dog while I am visualizing in my mind what handling maneuver is needed to keep us safely on the road. Is it an emergency rear cross? Is it a threadle-rear cross? Is it a pivot or serp? Is it a flick-away cue? And then I engage that maneuver with my dog. The time it takes to do this is instant just like a response to a car fishtailing is instant.
So how do you get good at recovery?
Just like defensive driving, you don’t get good at it by never thinking about it or never practicing it. There are some games that we play with handlers (without dogs), and some things that can be done with dogs. For example, a game I love for this skill development (which is from Dave Munnings and is also in my Handler-Only Mechanics Training Group), is to have a handler run back and forth between two pylons while someone else yells out what maneuver should be done at the next pylon (pivot, front cross, ketchker). The faster the handler runs and the closer the pylons, the more challenging the on-the-spot handling maneuvers become.
Once a month, I also do some short sequences (3-8 obstacles) in my backyard with my dog where I actually do not have a pre-made sequencing plan. Rather, my plan is to make up the sequences on the fly. I don’t recommend this be the backbone of all your training, but it is a great way to polish up your recovery skills while on the move. A key point to this game is that the dog wins a lot….. If you get stuck the dog wins!
Finally, there is the recovery on full courses outside of competition. This is a great tool, but if your dog is near perfect, you won’t get as many opportunities to polish this skill as if you have done the other two games. If you find your runs are entirely recovery-based, then that’s a sign you need more visualization and memorization for you and more consistency and training for your dog.