Thursday, September 06, 2012

The value of a coach...

Due to some real-life work commitments, I'm a day late on the Blog-Action day topic about coaches and trainers. Better late than never goes the adage!

I started my competitive life on horseback. I had various trainers over my horse-show life, some were significantly better than others but they all taught me something valuable - if only that I didn't want to put my horse or my students in a position I'd been in or ask something of a student I wasn't willing to do myself. Believe it or not my very first riding instructor owned a string of lesson horses and was afraid to ride herself!
Erica and Barry (Beredsam)
1998 - Second Level Dressage

The parallel in dog sport is frankly upsetting - I see lots of people (particularly locally) who are training and taking lessons/classes from people who do not participate in the sport that they are teaching. We have limited options here in Northern Vermont - but really if you want to put a CDX or UD (hell even a rally novice title) on your dog, do you think that training with someone who has never earned a single Q in the sport is going to help you be successful? Choose your trainers and coaches wisely. It's not enough to like someone personally, liking your trainer is really nice - but you can like a lot of people in the dog community, value their insight on topics of the day, but if they aren't subject matter experts (in IT we call them "SME's {pronounced Smeeeeeeeeez} you are going to have an even harder time learning all that you need to be successful and competitive.

Erica and Mouse (Bastille)
1992 - Training Level
Coaching and training in the horse world is very different than coaching and training in the dog world. There is very little sugar coating. Many riding instructors do a lot of yelling! In part because the spaces in which you train is larger (indoor arenas) but also because there is less room for error. If you break your dog's heelwork you aren't going to the hospital with a broken pelvis. There is also a great deal of practicality in reinforcement - which is different than force. Riders by necessity communicate in a very physical manner with their horses while the trend with dogs is completely hands off - which I think is a mistake on the part of dog trainers. One doesn't have to be abusive to train a dog, but ignoring all of the stuff we don't like in order to reinforce the stuff we do like only gives the dog half the picture. I want my dogs to know when they are wrong and there are many ways we can communicate that without breaking spirit or inflicting pain. And when they're thinking and making really good choices I heavily reinforce that effort, both with food, toys and yes - my hands on the dog.

There are fewer horse show weekends on (in the Northeast) a limited season of shows. The season runs May through October and a heavily campaigned dressage horse might be out one weekend a month, the jumpers circuit is a bit more demanding but a heavily campaigned Jumper might be out 2 weekends a month with a 3 or 4 day show as one of the weekends. Competition is rigorous and it's pretty common for horses to have several days off in the pasture after a show weekend. Coaches and trainers go to shows with their students, watch their students warm-up, coach from the ground, watch performances and provide real-time feedback. Sometimes it's a drag to come out of the ring and get that feedback - but there is a HUGE  investment in student's success and improvement. Coaches and trainers are compensated for warming up their students and acting as eyes on the ground. This is all very common and normal.
Our Young-Rider teams (1996 I think) with our Coach and Trainer.

In the agility world, I've been disappointed with some trainers who don't support their students but especially their novice handlers.  I see way too many novice (and open) handlers who are at trials by themselves. There's no introduction to dog shows or introductions to friendly people in the community. There's no feedback (positive or negative) and there's no support to the newest fledglings of the sport. When I was teaching regular classes I was so careful to launch newbies successfully. They entered trials I was going to with my own dog (or dogs)  and I stayed to the end of the day to watch every single one of them run. It gave me an idea of what they needed to work on to improve and it gave me the chance to cheer them on, pick them up and in more than a few cases step back and see what a lovely team they had become. At a recent trial I watched a novice dog gallop out of the ring in three of it's four runs. Bystanders caught the dog, the handler was embarrassed (naturally). I know who their instructor was, they'd left hours before after NQ'ing in their morning run. There wasn't positive feedback, there wasn't any feedback at all and when the student says to the instructor later "He left the ring after jump five" that isn't going to provide any information to the coach about why that performance may have happened.

As a community I think we need to step up on what it means to be a coach and the responsibilities that go along with teaching newbies and novice handler. There's a level of responsibility we should take more seriously and yes, take a page from those horsey folks.


Anonymous said...

Great post, Erica, and I totally agree with you. I, too, would like to see a little bit more of that equestrian coaching style trickle down to agility - namely, instructors coaching their students at trials and supervising their runs.

Anonymous said...

Great post, Erica, and I completely agree with you! I too would like to see more of that equestrian-style coaching trickle down to dog agility, namely coaching at trials and instructors supervising their students' runs. There are a couple of instructors in this area that do this - Julie Daniels comes to mind - and I admire them for that.