Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Agility Blog Action Day: Volunteering At Trials

As someone who blogs about dog agility fairly often, I was recently invited to participate in a “Blog Action Day,” where bloggers all are asked to share their thoughts on a designated topic.

IMG_1004 The topic I was invited to write about today was volunteering at agility trials.  There has been much discussion on various agility lists lately about volunteerism at trials – how to encourage it, how to make it rewarding, why people choose to volunteer or not, whether participants should be required to help out, etc.  Trials couldn’t be held without the hard work of lots of volunteers, so it is an important topic for anyone who wants to be able to continue to come out and play with their dogs weekend after weekend.

We generally volunteer at the trials that we go to.  It often offers the best seat in the house to watch the action, and most local clubs offer nice incentives for helping.  However, as I reflected on volunteering at trials over the years, I was able to identify experiences that have impacted my volunteerism habits, both for better and for worse.  While my experiences have been largely fun and rewarding, I can identify some that haven’t been. 

I started to think about how clubs can create positive experiences for volunteers, to encourage participation and ensure that people will continue to sign up to help.  I realized that a lot of the principles that we use when training dogs with positive reinforcement actually apply in this scenario as well:

1) Set One Up For Success

When we train a dog a new behavior, we want to increase the likelihood that the dog will get it correct. We don’t place them in front of a set of weave poles and hope they figure it out – we use 2x2s, channel weaves, weave-a-matics, guide wires, etc. depending on our method of choice.  This increases the chances that the dog will be successful, earn reinforcement, and want to keep working.

Likewise, clubs could help newcomers understand what the volunteer tasks are and what is involved.  People don’t like to make mistakes, be embarrassed, or accidentally interfere with someone’s run.  Having information available that briefly describes the position, and offering a quick training or Q&A for prospective volunteers at the beginning of the day could help people feel better about signing up for a position that they might not have felt comfortable doing beforehand.

2)  Have Clear Criteria

Agility is always most successful in the long run, and less frustrating for the dog and handler, if we are clear in our criteria from the beginning, whether we want a two-on/two-off contact position, want them to hold their start line stay until a verbal release, etc.  When expectations aren’t clear at the onset, dogs can get stressed and frustrated, especially if a handler gets unfairly upset with him/her for violating rules that were not made clear.

Likewise, I always prefer to know beforehand what the preferences are for the task I will be volunteering for.  Is there a specific height that the lower bar should be set at for each jump height?  Are leash runners expected to walk around the outside of the ring gating, or can they cut through the inside?  Is there a chair or platform that the leashes are meant to be placed on?  If there is a detail to the job that is important, make sure the volunteers understand beforehand rather than correcting mid-field, because as we all know . . .

3)  Punishment Stops Behavior

My first experience volunteering at a trial was not a rewarding one.  The club was calling for someone to help as Timer, so I stepped up, with the caveat that I had not done it before.  I was shown how to work the stopwatch (the days before electronic timing systems) and that was it.  I sat down in the timer’s chair, and after a few runs was admonished that the chair was not lined up well with the start line, and that I should have moved it, and could not possibly have gotten accurate times on the first dogs.  This was not a detail I would have thought of as a first-time worker – in fact, I think I assumed I couldn’t move my chair.  Then, an exhibitor didn’t hear my whistle  indicating she should start her closing in a Gamblers class, and I was yelled at by the scribe and the exhibitor for my inappropriate whistling technique (I’m sure her barking Aussie had nothing to do with it . . .).  I switched to bar setting, and was given conflicting information about where to set the lower bar, then scolded by the alternate parties in turn for not doing it correctly.  My memories of the experience are of being told constantly that I was not doing anything right, and I didn’t volunteer again for a few trials.  To this day, I still won’t volunteer to time.  But, thankfully . . .

4)  Reinforcement Builds Behavior

Happily, the vast majority of my experiences volunteering have not been like that overwhelming first day.  And clubs now are doing a great job of rewarding volunteerism with worker raffles, food, dog toys, etc.  Trust me - when I am packing all the crates, ground mats, sun shades, dog treats, tug toys, leashes, dog beds, water bowls, rain gear, footwear, tent, video camera, log books, chairs, etc. that I bring to a typical summer trial, the knowledge that I can just enjoy a workers’ lunch rather than packing a cooler and having one more thing to tote along – that is incentive enough for me.

5)  Put the Time In Up Front

Anyone who hasn’t put in the time to proof things such as start line stays knows that it is far easier to work on fundamental skills early on than have to always compensate or manage later on because you haven’t developed the skill set you wish your dog had.

Not too long ago, a club was asking for someone to scribe.  I have never scribed (more fallout from my early corrections at that first trial), but after this many years I figured I could learn another skill.  I offered to do it if someone could just quickly show me what was involved since I hadn’t scribed before.  Instead, I was told to go trade places with someone who was bar-setting who already knew how to scribe.  It was all the same to me, but ultimately, had someone taken 30 seconds to walk me through the scribe sheet, they would probably have one more willing scribe volunteer today.

6)  Finally, Don’t Blame the Dog/Volunteer!

If we are honest with ourselves, we know that the mistakes made on course are not our dogs’ faults.  It is our bad timing, our mis-step on the course, or something missing in the training foundation we’ve provided.

Likewise, it isn’t the volunteers’ responsibility to know every dog in the trial’s name on sight and to be able to intuitively know when you’ve changed your running order.  It isn’t their fault if your Border Collie barks incessantly at you when you are running and you miss the timer’s whistle. 

Even if it is their fault – take a deep breath and relax.  The fate of the world is not hinging upon whether or not you Q.  I’ve NQ’ed due to people’s errors, and I’ve also been given Q’s.  Usually, if you politely raise the issue, judges and clubs are more than willing to try to make it up to you somehow if they can.

Have fun with your dogs and each other at your trials.  Remember that all animals learn the same way and try to incorporate the principles of positive reinforcement both when you train your canine partner and when you work with your volunteers and agility clubs.  And volunteer – it is a great way to meet people who may become close friends, and it is truly the best seat in the house!


hobnoblin said...

Like you, I've failed to learn to scribe in exactly the same way! Good point!Enjoyed you post-say hi to Red Dog!

hobnoblin said...

Imeant Django and Cadence