By Sally Silverman
Photos courtesy of Ian Watts, wattsphotography.co.uk
Greg Derrett has been rousing the crowds at the London International Horse Show competition at Olympia since he was 18. Twenty years and scores of smoking runs later, in December 2012, Derrett became the only competitor in history to place first in both the Grade 6-7 and Novice competitions at The Kennel Club Olympia Agility Finals. It was his sweetest victory ever.
Derrett traces his entire agility career back to Olympia, a prestigious equestrian competition at which the Kennel Club showcases an agility competition for its entertainment value. He wasn’t even 10 yet when his mother first took him to watch the horses, but it was the dogs that drew his attention. “I saw the agility and said ‘I want to do that.’” It was the early days of agility, and Derrett was hooked.
Pursuing the dream
When he was 12, one of his mother’s friends had a litter of puppies. Derrett was allowed to take one, with the promise that he would train the dog. He did, and hasn’t stopped training since.
In almost no time, Hettie, probably a Golden Retriever/Border collie mix, was winning everything in local obedience club competitions. His instructors encouraged young Derrett to pursue the new discipline of agility. “I was a 12-year-old kid who could run fast. I was an ideal candidate.” The pair started to rack up the wins and by 1991, at the age of 15, he was named Junior Handler of the Year. “Once you start winning, you get the bug. From the beginning, I wanted to go to Olympia and compete, to do what I had seen there, in front of 10,000 spectators.” The same year he turned “pro,” offering agility lessons to pay his way through college.
Developing a training philosophy
Derrett’s university studies were centered on companion animal behavior, earning him an advanced degree, which, in his native England, is comparable to the Bachelor of Science in the United States. “A lot of people tend to do different things on different days. Because I come from a more scientific background, dog training has to make theoretical sense. I take a more scientific approach, trying to keep things more mathematical.” That mathematical bent has informed all of his training ever since.
Borrowing from the mathematical, Derrett devised his own equation that is at the heart of all of his foundation work: cue=behavior=reward. This is the place where he sees the biggest holes in training, creating the most problems for handlers. “People don’t put enough effort into their reward structure, and therefore aren’t creating the right reinforcement. It’s important to make sure that the reinforcement you are offering is a real reward to the dog, as well as a practical to use in training. When we start training, I make sure that I have the million dollars that the dog wants.”
A good trainer, he says, will work on those reinforcement structures throughout the dog’s life. “It means not allowing bad things to become too rewarding—like fence running. And making sure that you are the number one thing the dog wants.” Take tugging, for example. Greg says that he and wife Laura, his partner in training and teaching, put massive amounts of time into tugging. “The interaction with me is the reward, not the toy. If I let go of the toy, my dog will try to put it back in my hand.” It’s really not magic, he says; it’s just putting the time and energy into the activity so that the dog loves it.
And that’s where it starts. “That is my real goal with young dogs. I want them to think that I am fantastic.” Once they do, he teaches the sits, hand touches, and downs. “Many people move on to this before they have the reinforcement established.” It’s the beginning of his goal to “teach brilliance on the ground. That way, by the time the dog gets to the equipment, he has all the skills he needs to win the world cup. The rest is just wood and metal!”
Time to train
Running UKI and UK agility trials, handling responsibilities with the World Agility Open (WAO)—the international agility venue that he created and manages with Monica Percival of Clean Run, conducting on-line training courses, and traveling three months a year worldwide to present seminars, Greg is a busy man. It’s imperative that he be thoughtful in using the limited time he has to train his own dogs.
“Training time for Detox is about a problem that I may have had at a trial, some weakness or fault that I will try to fix. With the younger dog, it will be about bringing her up the levels.” Winter training is a lot about tidying up the elements of the dog’s foundation. Training revolves mostly around drills.
For the 10 weeks before the FCI Agility World Championships, Detox ran courses designed by the judges who would be at Worlds. “Anything that I was uncomfortable with, I would break down into drills.”
He keeps a record of what went wrong, and skills he is not satisfied with. He discovered that Rehab, for example, had not been taught tunnel-contact discriminations so they have been working on that.
“I keep all of the drills in a folder so that I can reuse them on another dog, without creating a new one. At a seminar, I might come across a problem and create a drill for the students and then take that home. I have thousands of different drills in a folder on my desk in ‘Greg’ language. They are in code, but I can decipher it!”
He keeps the dogs fit by running them in the paddock for 20 minutes, going for good walks in the countryside, and letting them run around wooded areas near his home where they are able to jump trees and bend a lot.
Teaching the teacher
The USA, Belgium, New Zealand, Australia... Greg travels the world teaching agility enthusiasts. Some come to argue, he confesses, while others come to learn. “That has helped me tremendously as an instructor. In North America, they ask a lot more questions, and they want you to have the answers. It’s a challenge to be able to justify why. It has really improved the presentation of our information. When students take what you have to say as gospel it doesn’t help you, as a teacher, to grow.” While the students range from novice to international competitors, he too often sees holes in foundation work. “It all goes back to the foundations and groundwork and basic dog training skills. Shadow handling, circle handling need to be looked at to solve a problem on a world-class course.
Go for the goal
Goal setting is a valuable part of training. While the average seminar participant that he works with is looking to be the best that they can be, they all too often haven’t set specific goals. Good goals are those that are realistic for the dog and handler partnership. “If someone wants to compete in the World Championships and this is their first dog, the goal might be too high. If you choose goals that are unrealistic, you are setting yourself up for frustration” On the other hand, he sees people stay at a stage too long in order to perfect something. “You need short-term goals as well as long-term goals.” It’s the short-term goals that help a handler achieve the long-term goals.
Quick-release contacts are an example. The time for quick-release contacts would be at Worlds, “but I have to win to get there. So I will do the quick-release contacts and then go back to training at trials. I have to make good dog training decisions.” Being a great competitor doesn’t necessarily come with being a great trainer, and vice versa. “The difficult part is finding that balance where you are both, without losing the skills.”
Reaching the top
For competitors aspiring to the highest levels of handling, he has this advice: understand what that involves. There is dog training and handling, of course. To that he adds the physical fitness of both the dog and the handler, and a fair measure of sports psychology. “I went to Olympia feeling as though I was going to win both classes, and that makes a big difference. I do the hard work that puts me in that position.” It means committing to a training strategy for three to four years. And it means doing what needs to be done outside of the formal training to prepare the dogs. He recommends taking young dogs to competitions when older dogs are competing, and making sure that they are well socialized. In preparing for Olympia, for example, he wanted Rehab ready; it was her first experience in that kind of setting. “I got into the arena early, and had her playing in the stands. I wanted her to hear the crowd cheering, the noise and the atmosphere.”
A successful competitor also needs a good support team: a chiropractor and massage therapist for the dogs, and a group of people with whom to train.
Getting to Olympia
In order to get to Olympia, a competitor has to compete at Olympia qualifiers through the year. From those qualifiers, there are two semifinals of 36 teams. The top 18 teams have the opportunity to compete in London. Those teams—the top 36 from the Novice Level and the Large Competition—run in the morning at Olympia, when spectators are few and the atmosphere is not as charged. It’s the winners of that heat, the top 10, that run in the final in the evening. And, says Derrett, it is electric. “While some of our qualifiers have FCI-type technical challenges, the finals at Olympia are more open, and less technical. The organizers want the speed for the crowd.” The competition course is set up rapidly, finished in 20 minutes, and the winner enjoys a victory lap to the cheers of a wild crowd. “It’s manic. It gives you a buzz. It’s the closest thing you can get to a football stadium atmosphere.” And, he says, “I wouldn’t swap an Olympia win for any international win.”
Bringing it home
Though Olympia is always a fast and furious run, Derrett has a strategy going in to the competition. Because the winner of round one runs last in the finals, he tries to time it so he just makes the finals cut, earning the first spot. “The reason to run early is that if I put in a really good run, the following teams are under pressure.” It’s a strategy that he has held for years: reach the finals with a nice, steady clear round, then blow the competition out of the water in the finals. “I have been in the finals more than anyone else, I think, and, whenever I’ve been there, I’ve finished in the top two. The tactic has always worked.”
Influencing the WAO
If Derrett serves as a role model for thousands of agility competitors worldwide, Olympia is serving as his model for the WAO event in Spain, May 18-20, 2013. A tunnel has been constructed so that the competitors will make a dramatic entrance into the arena, just like at Olympia. There will be ring decorations. “Olympia plays good music, to get the crowd going. That’s something we need to do more of at international events.” He envisions a big light show in the future, and the opportunity for the winner to have a victory lap in the spotlight.
“We also need to look after both the winners and the losers. At Olympia, if you are eliminated, the crowd still cheers.” They have engaged a professional DJ to bring upbeat music to the arena, even when a team is eliminated. “We want the agility competition to be more important than the crowd atmosphere, but that crowd atmosphere actually helps the competitor.” It’s his hope that the WAO will have the same excitement and electricity that Olympia has become known for, attracting huge, enthusiastic crowds; drawing the top international competitors; and inspiring others to dream of walking through the tunnel into the magic of the WAO arena.
Note: To see Greg’s winning Olympia runs from 2012, visit http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dnVb9ONy7Ng
Click here for courses from the event.