Canine Performance


What is Performance?

Behavior is action and performance is carrying out sequences of behavior as required by specific circumstances in the most efficient manner possible to achieve the intended goal. Performance is best achieved with confidence. Performance as it relates to dogs might be anything from going on a walk in your neighborhood to running for the win in the World Dog Agility Championships.

All great performances are the result of effort and training. Training behavior, training relationships, perfecting the skills required through a variety of methods and most importantly, mental preparation and cognitive skills.  Often it seems this aspect of our relationship with our dogs and our performance with them is overlooked. Most people look at behavior quite differently from myself. Most will tell me their dog can do something, even brag about what their dog can do after it has done it once, or maybe after just a few repetitions.

I, on the other hand, will say my dog knows a behavior when it can perform it anywhere and everywhere it is requested or required, under any and all circumstances, all of the time. This is a pretty high level to achieve and likely means we are never done developing skills we wish to be perfect.  Performance stems from the need to do what you know; that is, to perform the specific behaviors in your repertoire that you have learned and practiced. Performance is every time you leave the house with your dog and anything you do when not training them, if there really is such a time, including any social & physical activity. When your dog truly needs to be what you want it to be.  In some cases, the failure to perform can be extremely costly, as is the case with dog bites and other more serious incidents.

Performance is basically the sum of a quality relationship and the accuracy of the behavior trained along with cognitive functions like attention and focus, how they handle stress and excitement when added.  Specific circumstances and environments can significantly impact the performance of behavior.  Stress is everywhere and it goes unseen by you if you are not aware of the signs that occur in your dog along with it.

Successful performance with your dogs is about the combination of the environment, the cognitive skills of you and your dog, learned and instinctive behavior of you and your dog, and your relationship with your dog. The combination of these factors will determine how well you and your dog can perform together in whatever you are doing as a team. There is so much more to performance than simply learning a few obstacles and handling maneuvers.

We should always see the desired behavior in performance; “perfect practice makes perfect” (Vince Lombardi). I have to wonder why so many people think that out-of-control excitement in their dog is something to be desired, rewarded and repeated? To me this is a sign of stress and is really just a response that goes over the limit of maximum excitement.

It is always my goal to practice performance with cognitive control always. I want my dogs to get very good at being highly excited while still having precise control of their actions. This is where you get to the point which is control with maximum excitement and drive which is the goal. Perfect practice makes perfect and “you must first finish to finish first” (unknown) come time mind for me when it comes to performance.  There is no such thing as speed without control.

Practicing, rehearsing and reinforcing unwanted behavior, which is absolutely true for over-excited variable and imprecise behavior, creates sensory motor functions that are not well defined and not very precise, as in merely, “practice makes perfect.” Practice does not make perfect. Only reinforcing desired behavior and precisely executed behavior will create sensory motor pathways that are defined by more neurons and more synapses in a precise manner, providing fine tuned control from mind to muscle.

I think you can build precise behavior with plenty of success, patience and lots of reward if you have a great relationship with your dog that allows you to pump them up or calm them as necessary.  You will always get better performance with more desire and greater determination and effort if their attention is on you when necessary and their focus is on what they are doing and they are thinking clearly always. Drive is about why and relevance, but speed is the application of controlled drive and being very good at something. This is not achieved without full cooperation of the mind.

And although it may seem as though I have been referring solely about dogs, in fact if I was coaching handlers I would speak of exactly the same concepts to achieve the best performance.  People in any role, dog agility handlers, employees, children; all of us are influenced in the same way by the concepts presented here regarding performance and how to achieve your best.

Cognitive Considerations For Performance

-social activity and exposure
-control in their own world

Stress, Anxiety and Fear

-positive versus negative experience
-prevention of traumatic experience
-teaching ability to manage stress
-positive and varied experience in their environment
-control in their environment
-managing anxiety is a part of performance, but fear should not be
-opportunity for success maximized
-conditions for failure minimized
-consequences of making a choice


-clarity and consistency
-communication is bidirectional
-message received as intend is important
-importance of observation
-importance of non-verbal communication
-understanding methods of communications
-dogs as behavior analysts
-responsibility for failure is mine

Attention and Focus

-thinking exercises
-role of anxiety and stress

Self-Control – Excitement and Calm

-learning is best when excitement is high enough, but not too much
-experience with both calm and excited
-quality of relationship
-my attention & focus
-my behavior, exciting or calming
-skills and experience to become calm
-reducing stress
-managed anxiety is a part of performance, but fear should not be

Confidence and Trust

-antecedent conditions for success
-clear path to success
-clear understanding of what is required
-opportunity to succeed and do better
-practicing success
-frequency of success
-consequences of making a choice
-consequences of success
-consequences of failure
-clarity and consistency

Desire, Drive, Determination


Thinking and Decision Making

-decision making
-making it easy for them to make decisions (clarity, ease)
-making correct choices
-thinking quickly

Other Factors


Having a System is important

-preparation, focus, warmup, preforming, cooling down…
-repeating and refining all behavior you need
-defining and repeating, train familiarity & lower anxiety
-understanding stress & how having a system allows you to manage it
-anxiety is a part of performance, but fear should not be, a system helps

Relaxation in performance comes from confidence and familiarity and in the case of team sports, trust in ones team mate(s).  Trust is built with success together and positive experience together.  There is no blame in team sports if you intend to achieve your best.  Worry and fear do not contribute to better performances.

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