One of the lectures at CHATTcon 2019, given by Ann Bergeron,  was about creativity, and the take-home message for me was this: fluency and precision gives you freedom.

It was powerful for me because that's how I go about my own training and coaching. I hardly ever feel the need to claim ideas or concepts as my own in dog training. I'm always looking to learn something new from anyone that's willing to teach me, and I take it home and let those ideas seep into my brain. Then, I try those ideas out in my own training and in my teaching with my students. It's all an experiment, and continuously trying things, observing, and then making changes is how I define progress.

However, if I never became fluent at the basics, it would be incredibly difficult for me to modify them to specific dogs, or make changes as needed based on the handler/dog teams in front of me. Which is what leads me to this blog post.

Master the foundation concepts. Observe how those concepts work in real life training. Think about what needs to be changed to fit your specific needs. Apply modifications and repeat.

I think of training and handling in the way I think about my cooking: I find recipe ideas online & pick out a new one every now and then. I read about it. I study it a little bit. I purchase the ingredients and I follow the steps exactly. Then, about two weeks later, I'll probably make it again, but without following it step by step exactly; I'll make changes to make it “my own”. I don't go around thinking I invented a new dish/recipe, but I do take pride in my ability to take a known skill and make appropriate adaptations to suit my needs/resources at the time.

When you have a real understanding of the fundamentals, you have the freedom to make those adaptations. Here's how that applies to handling systems in agility.  It's no secret I'm a OneMind Dogs Coach, so obviously, I teach OMD Handling Techniques. What's bigger here is the fundamentals of that  system: viewing the course from the dog's perspective, understanding how the dog reacts to the handler's physical cues, and how to combine those physical cues into different techniques that the dog can easily understand.

When I first started learning the OneMind Dogs system, I had no room to deviate from exactly how I was instructed to perform the techniques. I didn't understand the important details yet. So, I practiced  a lot without my dog. Mastering each of the techniques so that I could perform them in the same way every single time. If I did make a mistake and use a handling element incorrectly, I studied my dog's reaction to my “correct” cue vs the “incorrect” cue. Understanding why my dog reacted to my physical cues the way that he did, gave me a more complete understanding of the system as a whole.

Now, I can take a technique, for example a front cross, and adjust the “ingredients” of that front cross in order to change my dog's reaction to the front cross slightly. I can use a front cross to cue straight lines, or very tight turns, and everything in between. It all started with a clear understanding of how the handling elements of a front cross works. Making adjustments to any of the handling elements effects the outcome, just like adjusting ingredients in a recipe!

If you change a handling element too dramatically, your front cross might start looking like something else altogether, the same way it might be in cooking if you subbed an ingredient for something less compatible. But, if you understand how the handling elements work, or how different foods/oils/spices work, you can still make something really worthwhile.