Published in two parts, November & December 2000
LM: You have been at the top of this sport for many years and have been successful with many different dogs. Can you tell us how your training methods have evolved over time and why? (Why did you change?)
NJG: It really seems we never stop evolving, I try always to remain open minded and willing to try new and different training & handling concepts to use with my dogs and my students dogs. My handling has changed over the years to refine & speed up performances on the contacts, and to get smoother and more accurate course running skills. I have developed a much more systematic and incremental approach to how I train agility with my own dogs and instruct our clients. I spend a lot more time working on the basics, taking things slowly, one step at a time until the dog is ready for competition, and being willing to go back to the basics when I have a problem. For me evolving in agility means finding better techniques to increase speed and maintain accuracy throughout the entire course. I started teaching agility to my dogs and my obedience students almost ten years ago, only a few months after my introduction to the sport. My focus then was primarily on performance of the obstacles, and trying to figure out how to slow our dogs down so they would hit the contacts. The focus obviously has shifted. I am primarily interested in having my competition performances look exactly like my training, and my training to mirror the excitement and intensity of competition. Duplicating exactly what I do in training makes for enthusiastic & accurate competition performances at speed, and I’m able to predict my dogs responses to course challenges while showing. Trying to really drive my dogs while training lets me feel exactly how they will handle at full speed in competition. Training and competing with this focus is less likely to create a ringwise dog who performs in one fashion in the backyard, and a different fashion in a trial situation. Also, while I don’t consider myself a “clicker trainer”, I have added the clicker, and those concepts of training to my own dogs and our students dogs’ training methods. I feel like it has added a new form of communication with my dogs, and there are skills such as targeting, that are made so much simpler and fun with it’s use.
LM: You have been successful with all heights of dogs. Do your training & handling methods differ depending on the size of the dog? Can you give an example?
NJG: My handling & training methods don’t differ that much from one dog to the next. But some of the techniques definitely do. I have taught Toast recently to do running A-frames, not something I am going to teach “yet” to my border collies. While their A-frames may look at times as if the dog is not required to stop & wait, they actually are coming to a quick touch down, two feet on two feet off on the DW & Aframe before being released. I have the speed to be with Toast at the bottom of the Aframe, and still be able to keep him on course. I don’t have the speed to beat my bc’s to the bottom of the contact if they weren’t taught to put the brakes on.
I probably handle the dogs differently more from their speed than their size. The speed of the dog determines what kinds of changes of side I make throughout the course. The slower the dog the more blind or front crosses I can accomplish seamlessly. The faster the dog the more rear crosses I end up doing. I tend to handle a fast mini-dog in exactly the same fashion as a large fast dog. Very often the mini dogs are achieving the same course times as the large dogs, they just put in double the amount of strides to get the job done.
LM: You mentioned to me that you might be looking for another dog. What will you look for in your new prospect and why?
NJG: I have made the decision to add another collie to our family this next year if I find the right dog. (Actually I don’t want just the right dog, I want the perfect dog!) I already luckily own some of those “perfect dogs” but if I could write out the shopping list of the parents of my next puppy, these are some of the most important qualities I would put on that list:
1. High drive with an off switch.
Lot’s of collies have high drive, but after living with quite a few, I know I really want another one with an offswitch. Riot is the perfect example. Incredible energy & speed, but happy to lay calmly and watch while I teach for hours.
2. Jumping ability.
I wouldn’t buy a dog without getting to see the parents jump first. I don’t think really GREAT jumping can be taught. An average jumper can be taught to be good, but great jumpers are born not devised.
3. Flexibility: I’d like to see parents of my prospective new pup have a bit of wiggliness to their bodies, not stiffness. I think in some cases a flatter, straighter jumping dog may also have some stiffness through their midsection. That may be as much a product of other parts of their anatomy creating the straightness, but the end result can be the same.
4. A bit of bounce in the hind end. Or a great rear end with nice but not severe angulation & muscling. Strong mechanics to lift the dog lightly over the jumps.
5. Power. When I look at the parents, in at least one of them I would like to have the feeling I see some power.
6. Quick twitch, no stalkiness. Some border collies use their “eye” when they do agility and it presents itself as stalkiness on the contacts, or in taking slow positions on the table. I know collies with great herding ability that DON’T use their eye during agility at all, and other collies with less instinct on sheep who do use their eye a lot while doing agility work. Herding ability in a border collie for me is a “given”, but I would look for parents that use their eye on sheep not contacts.
7. Some brains would be nice. Some dogs are brighter than others, training is fun for these dogs, and for their owners if they can stay a step ahead. (I am putting on my Nike’s!)
And all the obvious stuff as well. Parents with OFA’s, CERF’s, and long working careers in some sport with sound bills of health!
It’s a big wish list. It’s the stuff I spend hours thinking and talking about, but when it comes right down to it, if the right rescue walked through the door …I’d be happy to give them a run!
LM: Do you teach your students’ dogs using the same techniques that you use with your own? Why or why not?
NJG: The short answer is “I try”. Not everyone is receptive to the detailed & incremental way I like to train. And maybe not all dogs need to be trained this way. The faster the dog, the more detail I like to put into the training. Jim and I teach almost all of our students through group classes. The handlers are all different, and we have so very many different breeds of dogs in the classes. We demonstrate and try to teach each technique we use with our own dogs but for some beginner agility handlers the more complex details are harder to grasp until they are well immersed in the sport and competition. They just don’t see the need for some of the “tricks” I like to teach. I like to train all the little skills associated with agility, and I enjoy training time with my dogs. Some people like to run agility, but don’t really seem to enjoy or understand how to practice or train on their own. Anyone can have the skills we teach if they are willing to spend the time training.
LM: What about small dogs? Do you have any special techniques for them?
NJG: The mini-dogs are treated in most ways in our classes just like the big dogs. We are however starting to wake up to the challenge that mini-dogs need to be treated differently on the contacts. We believe most of them now can learn to have running A-frames, some of the smaller ones even running dogwalks, and we are trying to develop techniques to assist them, or point them towards some new training techniques. The training for the teeter and sometimes the weaves are also different for small dogs. Tiny dogs need to be taught to run to the end of the teeter and ride the board down like an elevator. Where we normally teach weaves to average size dogs without aid of wires, we sometimes recommend the use of wires for small dogs because it is difficult to get the same performance from a tiny dog in the poles when the handler is bending over them, and using too many physical aids. But the major handling differences lie with the athletic ability of the owners and the speed of the dogs. Handlers who can really run with their little dogs and can always get ahead of them have a lot more handling options than the average handler with a large or fast dog. This year we are holding our second annual mini-dog camp. where we will again focus on the handling issues specific to what some of our students refer to as the “wee-dogs”, or in the case of papilions like Debbie Stoners’ Moose, the “WHEE!-dogs”.
LM: If a new student comes to you and says “I have a bar problem”. What do you do?
NJG: The first task with any agility “problem” is to assess the reason why the team is making mistakes. Is it just the dog, or is it a team or training problem. The goal is to discover whether the dog has not been trained thoroughly through all the basic jumping drills; has handler induced jumping issues; or the dog has a physical ailment or structure problem which prevents him from jumping cleanly. Before we try to pick our way through the training issues I often refer owners first to my favorite orthopedist Dr. Jim Roush, and then they head off for a visit to Dr. Lynda Wells, veterinarian, acupuncturist, & chiropractor extraordinaire. If these two experts can’t find a health problem, it possibly doesn’t exist. If the dog comes out with a clean bill of health we can begin to treat it as a training problem.
Very often handlers create the bar knocking problem by a variety of handling mistakes. Typical handling issues that MAY result in a bar down are:
1. Giving loud or strong calls, or big hand signals while the dog is jumping
2. putting pressure on the dog while he jumps. Jim calls this “T-boning” when the handler steps directly into the jump path or landing path of the dog, and puts pressure on the dog to move off the handler, if it occurs while the dog is in mid jump, many dogs will take down the bar.
3. The handler who doesn’t move forward with his dog. Constant, smooth forward motion is always my goal for a handler, whether it is at a walk, trot, or run. The constant motion needs to be smooth and deliberate to aid the dog in moving cleanly over the jumps. Even physically challenged handlers who cannot run well with their dogs can learn to move forward constantly. The less well they can move forward though, the better distance skills they will have to teach and acquire with their dogs so that the dog is not running forward and then turning back constantly to the handler, spinning or taking down bars as they do so.
5. Running without looking at the jumps AND the dog while he takes the jumps. If you have taken your focus off a jump, and only hear the bar drop behind you, not see the actual bar drop, you may be turning your attention away from the job, and in so doing turning your shoulders away from the dogs path over the jump. If you aren’t thinking about the jump, and you are already signaling the next obstacle, the dog may respond by dropping the bar and beginning his move to the next object prematurely. You can learn to be ahead of the dog and still pay attention to the jumps.
6. Lack of handling skills, and behaviors taught to the dog which will aid in jumping, and lack of practice on basic jumping drills. Some dogs need to be well educated in skills such as front & rear crosses, and teaching the dog to turn away from the handler with the aid of a specific command, and handlers need to learn how to time jumping commands appropriately.
Jumping problems can often be solved through training of dog & handler, and are one of those issues I would apply to the rule “train out your weakness, compete to your strengths”. If you understand that your dog knocks bars when you signal, call strongly, or make changes of side at jumps you will need to refrain from some of these techniques until you can “train out the weakness” meaning practicing such things as calling the dog strongly while he is over the top of a jump, etc or practicing severe cross behinds until the dog learns to keep the bars up even though you might apply the behavior that once caused them to drop the bar.
LM: If a new student comes to you and says “I have a missed contact problem”. What do you do?
NJG: I will usually watch the dog perform the contact obstacle in question a multitude of times, or even ask to see a video of competition. Very often it is that the handler is doing something radically different in practice, that they are not doing in competition. If I think the technique they are already using is valid and effective, and the dog absolutely understands his job, we proof the existing technique, and analyze what the handler is doing differently in competition. If they have no techniques at all, or the ones they are using don’t have an emphasis on speed, we go back and start at the beginning, sometimes choosing three different techniques for all three contacts.
I just came from an hour lesson with a student who said their dog knew his contact job absolutely, positively, but was blowing her off in competition. I took the dogs favorite toy and placed it 15 feet beyond the end of the contact, and the dog could not go to his target position (we tried many times) even when we eventually resorted to a visible target, food in our hand, and had the dog on leash. The dog needs to be able to do his job without a target, without food present, and of course off leash long before she will be able to get reliable contacts in a charged ring atmosphere. She needs to go back to back-chaining and targeting, and then fade the targets, move to random and delayed rewards, begin to add distraction & temptation like tunnels & toys while helping the dog get it all right, etc etc. Once the dog really understands his job during training, accurate contacts in competition will be just like in training.
LM: If a new student comes to you and says “I have a missed weave pole entry problem”. What do you do?
NJG: Analysis of the weave inconsistency usually involves asking the handler how they originally began training for the weaves. Sometimes I can find a hole in the beginning training, and when we fill in the missing parts it all falls together. For example if the handler practices the weaves over and over again without speed or distance to the entry, the dog will not understand how to load in the poles at speed. If they were taught with wires, they may have been alternately weaned from the wires too soon, or left too long on the huge visual aid the use of weaving wires affords. Often I make the handler go back to step one in weave training for a month or two to re-teach the entries. To me that means back on leash, and using only 2 or three weave poles to teach the entry just like we do in beginning class. If it is a tiny dog, I might suggest the handler try the use of wires, or at the very least a “cheat string” attached to the first pole or two depending on the specific entry the dog is missing. I have a variety of weave pole entry drills to deal with specific entry problems once we diagnosed why the dog is unable to get the entry. I also usually assign “homework” of 10 sets of poles every morning, 10 sets every evening for almost every weaving problem. The 10 sets can be actually 10 sets of 3 poles at speed helping the dog find the entry over & over again.
LM: What determines your show schedule?
NJG: I normally do all local USDAA & AKC shows within 3 hours driving time. I am competing an average of 36 weekends a year. If I am home for a weekend we have lessons, seminars, or private group training sessions scheduled. In the last four years AKC has taken slight precedence because of trying out for World Team, and the constant challenge of collecting all the necessary scores to make the Team. This year since I am not trying out for the Team and I have finished Scud’s MACh,so I may cut back on traveling for AKC shows a bit until the end of this year, trying to concentrate on USDAA & getting ready for the USDAA & AKC Nationals.
LM: What made you decide not to try out for the World Team this year? (2000)
NJG: Scud is 9 and a half years old now, and even though I have been competing with him regularly and he is doing great, I couldn’t imagine subjecting him to the rigors of getting ready for another World Competition & flying him around like I would have to if I tried out for the team. Riot has only shown 3 times on carpet, and has only been competing regularly at 26 inches since January this year. I have gone to all the past Worlds feeling very confident in Scud’s abilities the last four years. He is totally charged but reliable in that kind of atmosphere, is a good jumper on carpet, and I can push him without feeling like I might cause a fault even though I am asking him to really put on the gas. I guess I am spoiled. I want to go to the Worlds with a dog I have 100% confidence that is ready for 26 inches at MACh speed on carpet. I just didn’t feel like I could promise that this year to my teammates had I been chosen. Wicked is a working Sheepdog and is not eligible for World Team competition. Next year I am going to make every effort with both Riot to make the Team. And I must say it is sort of a relief to have the emotional rest from trying out this year. I can go to a show and enjoy myself while competing, not be stressed about coming up with scores.
LM: Do you purposely use your hands in a certain way to communicate with the dog? How?
NJG: I use my hands to signal obstacles, and to cue my dog to come to one hand or the other (one side or the other) for a change of sides. I use them close to my body, with my hand extending in a straight line from my arm. If I am asking for the dog to move away from me laterally or directing them from a distance I might use them in a larger fashion, or with my palm facing the dog, with my hand at a right angle to my arm.
What some might call “change of sides” I refer to as a “change of hands”. I teach the dog to come directly to my side (my hand) on a “come” command, or for signaling front or blind cross change of hands. I try to give minimal arm motion when signaling. I don’t want, even on a turn signal, for the dog to head too far away from me. Normally my hands when signaling point directly to the obstacle I want the dog to take. I used to try to signal every obstacle with my hands, but nowadays I am too busy running and moving my arms naturally to aid forward motion, that I don’t signal nearly as many obstacles as I did in the past. Signals when given are with the hand closest to the dog unless the dog is directly beside me, then I might use my offside hand to signal a turn command. But the hand signal is still low at my waist, and points directly to the obstacle I want the dog to take, not out “flying” like an airplane wing.
LM: Do you purposely use your body in a certain way to communicate with the dog? How?
NJG: I try to stand up very straight throughout the course, almost always moving my shoulders parallel with the path I wish the dog to take. Leaning over causes wide turns, not turning your shoulders in the direction you want the dog to move causes off courses or confuses a dog who wants to move “with” the handler, not against them. I don’t exaggerate my shoulder motions to get tighter turns though. I call the dogs name to get their attention, and then begin moving in the correct direction once I know the dog is on the correct path. I can also use my shoulders to signal a turn away from me, or to put in a change of leads between obstacles if I feel that one is called for. I can “half halt” with my body, meaning almost coming to a halt to steady a dog up a bit for a fast weave entry, or to make an up contact. If I am moving forward my dogs are moving forward, if I stop my dogs do so as well unless they are responding to a command to do some distance work such as in gamblers, or a place on the course where I need to push the dogs out.
Handler: Nancy Gyes
Home: San Jose, California
Occupation: Agility Instructor,
Club affiliation: The Bay Team
Dogs:Kira & Madeline German Hovawarts, ages 13.5 & 11, ADCh, MACh Scud, CDX,Border collie, 9.5 years, ADCh Winston, Borderwart, 5.5 years, ADCh Toast, 6 years, ADCh Riot, 5 years, ADCh Wicked, 3 years
Your next dog: A border collie
First agility show: Haute Dawgs, Placerville CA, Fall of 1991
First clean run: Haute Dawgs, Spring of 1992 (second show), one clean standard leg & qualified for the USDAA Nationals
Biggest agility moment: winning the 1998 USDAA 30 inch Championship with Scud
Biggest influence: Jim Basic!! I don’t need to travel to far parts of the world to find the best to compete against, I live with him!
Favorite show or venue: The World Championships are absolutely the ultimate show in the Agility world. If agility is your sport you owe it to yourself to make the trip at least once
Favorite class: Masters standard!
Reprinted with permission of Clean Run Productions.