If I must choose between striving for precision and maximizing my dog's enjoyment of an activity, I am going to choose to maximize enjoyment every single time! This may be somewhat offensive to those who value precision very highly, but really . . . it just is what it is. It really comes down to what I personally value most in a canine performance partner.
However, this is something of a complex matter, and I would like to expound upon it further.
Not Always a Conflict
Let me begin by acknowledging the fact that there is not always a conflict between striving for precision and maximizing a dog's enjoyment of a particular activity. Some dogs literally eat up precision training and share in a handler's passion for precision.
Dean is a highly precise dog and he adores precision work. When he is "on", he can maintain a heel position that is absolutely stunning. His pivots are gorgeous. He can spend training session after training session on bits of precision and he will love every second of it.
Unfortunately, when his anxiety kicks in, a lot of that precision goes right out the window. In those cases, my priority shifts from showcasing the beautiful precise work he can do normally to working to help him get back into a frame of mind where he will be enjoying himself instead of dealing with a mental condition that neither of us chose, but both of us have to work together to overcome.
But if he and I are working on video titling, or an activity in a context where his anxiety is not in play, there is absolutely no conflict between striving, as a team, for precision, and Dean enjoying himself. In those circumstances, he will naturally enjoy himself in the work of giving a precise performance.
I am hopeful that Bandit is going to be that sort of dog. He shows great promise in that regard, without the severe anxiety disorder. I anticipate many years of enjoyable work on precision skills in our future together.
Variation in Aptitude
Just as with people, there is great variety in particular aptitudes between different dogs. Some dogs excel at learning to respond to verbal cues and other dogs struggle to master even the simplest verbal cue skills. Some dogs are highly precise and have a strong aptitude for learning any number of skills.
Others are not.
And while it is always possible for a dog to improve in just about any area where natural aptitude is lacking, it can be a steep uphill climb, and it can become something of a chore for the dog, even when the training is being done with a high rate of reinforcement.
For some dogs in some circumstances, too much focus on precision can result in the dog losing interest and enjoyment in the activity.
Precision vs. Enjoyment
While it does not always happen, if the choice comes down to precision vs. enjoyment for my dog, I will choose to dial down my focus on precision.
Tessa is not a precision dog. She never has been, and, now that she is officially "about seven", I have accepted the fact that she most likely never will be!
The sport of Rally FrEe, as much as we loved it at first, quickly became a source of constant frustration to us as we moved up to the higher levels. The bottom line is that Rally FrEe is a sport that has been created expressly for the purpose of building a very high level of precision. And that is awesome for teams that have an aptitude for a high level of precision. It's not so great for teams that do not.
Tessa and I dropped out of Rally FrEe altogether for a while. I let Bandit take her spot in class, and Tessa and I focused on Agility. This worked out very well for both of us. Granted, there is precision required in Agility, but the precision needed in Agility is much more in line with Tessa's natural aptitudes. Tessa became much happier when I stopped trying to build high precision skills like moving in a particular position, moving into a position solidly, carrying out trained behaviors on verbal cue alone, etc.
Yesterday, Tessa participated in a Rally FrEe video event for the first time in quite a while. I chose to put her in it because I wanted to participate, and I have retired Dean from Rally FrEe completely, and Bandit is nowhere near ready to compete.
But I made up my mind that compliance with the rules would be secondary to Tessa's enjoyment on the course. To that end, I entered her in Alternate Intermediate, instead of Advanced (Regular). In the Alternative division, only 100 points are needed, not 125, so there is much more leeway for use of hand cues, and for those times when Tessa doesn't respond promptly with the correct behavior but puts in a bit of her own innovation first . . .
Lo and behold, Tessa did the nicest work that she has done in Rally FrEe in a very, very long time. Yes, I used some hand cues. Yes, Tessa got creative on a few exercises where creativity was really not called for! No, her heeling was not picture perfect.
But . . . Tessa did quite a lot either on verbal or on very minimal physical cues. She fluctuated on her heeling between a bit forged (which is new!), a tiny bit lagged, and . . . perfect!! This is a major improvement from almost constant lagging! And, she responded correctly right away on a good many of the behaviors, only "guessing" first on a couple of them. And when she did "guess", she never stopped working with me to get to the correct behavior. Good girl!!
Best of all, her tail was wagging the whole time, she was fully engaged with me, and she was really putting her whole heart into working with me out on that course.
I haven't seen THAT Tessa in a Rally FrEe ring in a very, very long time!
And for me that's what matters most.
We will get picked apart on our scoresheet, but I fully accept that and have no problem with it. I know that her working with that great attitude was a bigger success for Tessa than precision in itself would be for a dog like Dean!
It's not that I don't understand or respect the rules of Rally FrEe . . . it's that my personal goals are just different from the officially published aim of the sport.
And that's OK. There is room for all kinds of teams with all sorts of goals in competitive dog sports, even if not all goals are always readily apparent.
I am looking forward to filming another Rally FrEe run with Tessa very soon.
Being able to say that means that Tessa and I are doing exactly what we should be doing.
Our Northeast Regional submission. Enjoy!