I can totally relate. Even though I started playing flyball in 2000 and have trained a bunch of dogs since then, I still fall into the analysis paralysis trap all the time. In fact, I'm probably more worried about doing something wrong now than when I was a newbie. I worry about disappointing the breeders who entrusted me with a puppy, I worry about screwing the dog up so they don't reach their full potential, I worry about letting down my team, I worry about giving people who don't like me one more reason to talk shit about me.
It's a fact of life that in flyball people are going to watch your dogs and judge you, whether they're literally judging you as the line judge or box judge or standing on the sidelines with the express purpose of watching your dog run. Sometimes they're watching because they're stuck in the chair, sometimes they're just curious, sometimes they're on a rival team and looking for something to criticize or laugh at. This happens in all kinds of sports, not just flyball.
Recently a competitor was watching me warm up Kraken (aka The Spitter) and asked one of my teammates if I had sent him away to Aaron Robbins for training. The insinuation being that I couldn't have possibly trained a dog whose turn looked that good by myself, I guess. (Although I'm betting if Aaron had trained Kraken, he'd already be running by now and he wouldn't be spitting his ball! ;)).
You just have to make the decision that you don't care what other people think (especially if it's a rival -- they aren't going to be happy for you no matter what you do). Then you have to back it up with the best training you can. Take action -- any action -- right now. If you're not sure how you want to train the box yet, at least focus on your recall or targeting or something instead. Just do something. Action leads to more action.
Don't be shy about asking others for help
There are so many really gifted trainers who are more than happy to advise you if you just ask. Start taking video of your training sessions (I use my daughter's digital camera -- it takes great little short videos and they're easy to upload to You Tube). You could start by asking your pup's breeder and the folks who have its littermates what they think. You can also post a link to your videos on Facebook and ask for input.
Try not to let anybody's comments hurt your feelings. We all have to start somewhere, and they're just trying to help. I'd rather hear that I'm not being exciting enough or that my arm position is totally wrong, versus having somebody just say "That looks great" and not really mean it. Remember there are 10 different ways to train everything in flyball (and they've all worked for somebody -- every dog needs different things), so pick what you feel will work best for you and your puppy.
Resist the urge to send your dog away for training
Although your dog might end up faster if you send him to an expert, you won't have the same feeling of accomplishment and pride that you get when you do it yourself. Plus, as I mentioned in an earlier post, you won't know what the other trainer did in terms of drills, rewards, motivation, etc., so it'll be hard for you to duplicate that when you get your dog back. If their turn starts to go bad or something, you won't know what to do to fix it.
Build a great foundation, the sooner the better
It is so much easier to create a good flyball foundation in a puppy versus a dog that is a year or two old, so don't let analysis paralysis mess things up.
I have made the mistake of waiting too long with several of my dogs and paid for it dearly, ending up with chasers, dogs who don't focus on me, dogs who don't like balls, etc. I actually have a 4-year-old Jack Russell at home who has been able to run the entire course since 2008, as long as there are no other dogs or people (or squirrels, or food) in his line of sight. I taught him flyball skills but didn't do enough basic focus and distraction work. He's in serious need of some "Control Unleashed."
Play chase games at home. Build up that crazy tug drive in your puppy early. Teach them to get a ball and exchange it for the tug. Make the tug (or other reward) the best thing in the universe.
Teach them to target a pointer stick so that you can use it when you're ready to put them on the wall/ramp/box.
Teach them to come to you when they're called -- work on building up a really great recall in the face of distractions. Socialize your pup out in the world, take them to practices and tournaments to get them used to the traveling, noise, and tournament chaos.
Do lots of recalls with them at practice. Borrow the practice drill from the Slammers, where you run a pup side by side next to an experienced dog to head off chasing very early on.
Speaking of Slammers, I hear they put on a good seminar. I've been to seminars by Rocket Relay (3 times) and Spring Loaded, and I learned a lot. Touch N Go's is supposed to be great as well. If you can find a seminar to attend in your area, try to make the trip, it's worth it.
Try to get your dog into a warm-up slot as soon as you can
I don't mean you need to have them up and running as soon as they turn a year old -- I just mean get them to the point where they can do recalls and a little box work (hit-its or turns with a prop in front) during warm-ups, that way you can start desensitizing them to the tournament environment early. It's hard to recreate that cranked-up tourney atmosphere at practice.
Take advantage of single-dog racing
NAFA and U-FLI both offer it, although NAFA's is usually more laid back (and cheaper) because it's not sanctioned and the rules are determined by the host club. In NAFA you can usually put a prop in front of the box, run your dog unopposed, etc., which is a little more green-dog friendly (U-FLI's singles and pairs are geared more towards dogs who are practically ready to compete or are gunning for a fast time in the U-FLI database).
If you aren't happy with your dog's turn, DON'T COMPETE YET
Do as I say, not as I've done -- I've made this mistake three times already.
Once your dog is racing and repeating their less-than-perfect turn with no prop heat after heat after heat, they're developing the wrong muscle memory and it's really hard to fix.
Think about it. How many practice turns do you do with your dog in between tournaments? Maybe 10 or 15 each practice? Plus a few sessions at home? (Note that these usually aren't full runs, either, they're usually partial runs or close-up box work.) Then you get to a tournament and run them 30 heats or so, plus warmups and re-runs. So you could get in 30-40 bad turns in one weekend.
There's a book called "Motor Learning and Performance" by Dr. Richard Schmidt that many people quote from when discussing human muscle memory retention. In it, Dr. Schmidt says, "it takes 300-500 poor movement patterns to create a faulty motor engram and takes 3,000-5,000 good quality movements to unwind it.” So if you translate that to box turns: it'll take about 300-500 reps for a bad box turn to become muscle memory, and 3,000-5,000 good box turns to fix it. Blah! So do it right the first time!
Don't be intimidated by the rockstars
Not all dogs debut at 3.7. You will hear about the ones that do on Facebook, and it will probably freak you out (especially if they are related to your pup :)), but remember that:
- These people are probably great trainers (often professional ones whose life revolves around dogs) on 15-second teams who practice several times a week
- These people have more to prove than you do
- In some cases, these people refuse to race their dog publicly until they know it's going to be a sub-4, because they think it will reflect badly on them as trainers. They probably timed that dog with a stopwatch every practice for months until they knew it was sub-4, then "debuted" it.
- These people are going to censor what they post publicly (they aren't going brag about their 4.3 dog's debut). Sometimes they will quietly place a dog elsewhere if it looks like they won't pan out. You won't hear about those on Facebook.
Dogs don't have to debut at 3.7 to end up fast in the long run. Sometimes it takes a dog a year or so to really get into the groove.
My border collie Sky started racing at age 2 and at her first tournament we put her in start position. She ran consistent 4.5's. She was my first border collie and it was 7 years ago, so I was really happy with that.
Every tournament after that she dropped a tenth, until she leveled out at 3.9. She ran 3.9-4.0 consistently for years and still runs 4.0-4.1 now at age 9.
Just be patient, have faith in yourself, do your best, and don't worry about what everybody else thinks. And start training that puppy, right now.