March 5th, 2008


Silvia Trkman Seminar, Part I, Philosophy

The first thing I have to say about this seminar and about Silvia herself is how refreshing it was to work with someone who is so natural and down-to-earth. No overinflated ego here, folks, just a nice person who happens to be a brilliant dog trainer and handler sharing what she knows without any reservations about videotaping her entire presentation. (So, I assume she wouldn't mind me blogging about it either.) 
In fact her entire philosophy about training seems to be that you experiment and then you do what works.
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In her opening remarks at the beginning of the Advanced day of the seminar she told us that she wasn't there to help us to train our dogs or to tell us how to handle the sequences but rather to help us see the most efficient line around the course. (In fact she did suggest ways to handle different parts of the sequences but only if what we were using was not getting us there or was confusing to our dogs. And she did say that her own style was to be ahead of the dog whenever possible to show them the way.)
That was a little uncomfortable for me because I'm used to the instructor or seminar presenter telling me how I should handle something. However, we all got out there and did our best even though the sequences weren't like anything we'd seen before. We'd be out there trying to find the next number of the sequence and would have to hunt for it only to find it in the most unlikely place possible.  Silvia doesn't say a whole lot and she's very soft spoken. Not to mention that English isn't her first language so for the first day or so I sometimes had trouble figuring out exactly what she meant to say. So, all of those things combined made me a uncomfortable that first day.
The first evening's lecture and demo was about tricks. I should say Tricks because it is the basis of all her agility training.
Since she lives in an apartment and doesn't have a yard, she uses tricks to train everything her dog needs to know about agility. She only trains on equipment 2 or 3 times a week and only for a short time so most of the time she's training tricks or conditioning her dogs by hiking and playing things like frisbee. She basically trained her first running contacts by using a fairly short board in her apartment and raising it by putting different sized books under it. She'd have to sit in the kitchen and send her dog through the bedroom to get on the board. She stressed, though, that the board was too short for any but the smallest dogs to get up enough speed.
Her trick repertoire is truly amazing. she believes that training tricks is important not only for developing the ability to learn but also developing strength in the right places and to keep the amount of time you spend on the equipment to a minimum. It's her belief that you shouldn't allow the dog too much time on equipment or the dog will lose some little bit (or more, in some cases) of enthusiasm and excitement for the game. She explained that in Europe they don't have any titles but National Champion and World Champion so for them, speed is the most important thing. And when speed is the most important thing, accuracy is going to suffer a little. Slvia feels that if a dog goes off course it's probably a good thing since it means the dog was running fast.
More on speed later; back to tricks.
She likes to start with her puppies the day she gets them using shaping and other games like chasing her. She also likes to take them out with her dogs and let them run around while her other dogs train on the equipment. She thinks it gets them excited about agility and at that point they're too slow to really get in the way of the other dogs. When they get old enough to interfere then she doesn't let them run loose although for dogs she feels might be a little lacking in drive, she will tie them to the fence and let them watch and bark.
On the subject of control Slvia doesn't think it's all that great an idea except for dogs who obviously have plenty of drive. She was fairly amused by the amount of control we Americans have over our dogs and the importance we place on startlines. She readily admits that none of her dogs have any manners and that when people who aren't used to her dogs come over she puts them in another room (the dogs, not the people :-).
On the other hand,she also says that her dogs go everywhere with her and that must mean that they aren't too bad. They also spend a lot of time in company with other dogs off leash. I get the impression that her dogs are so focused on her that teaching them manners isn't something she really needs to do. And she had La with her, even ran her during the Masters seminar, and La behaved just fine.
Another interesting difference between European agility and American is that they don't have many large dogs in training. Probably other than BCs and a few Belgians, the others are all medium sized dogs. So, when asked about training those types of dogs she admits to not really having any specific experience. She does say that she probably wouldn't ask a dog to do agility unless they enjoy running in their everyday life. So, a very easy going dog who likes to mostly sleep on the couch or go for rides in the car she wouldn't try to train for agility. If the dog loves chasing squirrels or frisbees or even birds in the sky (like her first dog, a Samoyed), she thinks you could actually do pretty well with by using the right tactics (covered in her Speed and Motivation Lecture).
Another interesting divergence of approach Slvia spoke about was that she trains several things at once. How many times have we heard that you only train one thing at a time? You only work on speed or you only work on understanding but not both? But because she spends relatively little time on equipment, Slvia tries to use the time efficiently and train for several things at once. She doesn't do any drill work and she never works her dogs on two or three jumps at a time--even the babies do at least 5 or 6 obstacles (although at a much lower height and easier sequence). She feels that the fun for the dog is all in the running, that they become blase about the equipment after a little while and that running is the thing they really love. So naturally she doesn't feel that it's fun for the dog to do 2 or 3 jumps over and over again--and of course not just one jump!
So, she sets up one course and runs it several different ways. And while she runs it she's training several things, like tunnel entrances and the ability to turn tight and sends. In other words, the reward for doing the correct tunnel entrance is to keep running, not to stop and reward with food. In fact, she feels that stopping to reward is rewarding stopping, not choosing the correct entrance to the that tunnel.
I think this gives you a fairly good idea of why I found her approach and style so refreshing. With her emphasis on speed and fun, lack of concern for control and manners, she doesn't sound like most of the presenters that I've heard lately. 
I'll try to post more about this extrodinary seminar as I have time, including sequences and  how they were handled, details of her lectures and some more about the differences in her approach to training.

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