A Dog’s Life -November/December 2011
by: Jan Jaeger
photography by: Nicole Harnishfeger
"I could talk dog all day," Joyce Jaskula admitted with a smile.
We were standing in her basement stairwell, its three walls covered from top to bottom and side to side with colorful ribbons, photos and plaques that attested to her long-term interest in, and her dogs' proficiency at, agility competition. Agility is a sport in which a handler, using only voice, body language and hand signals, directs her dog, off-leash, through a series of obstacles against the clock.
Jaskula has been actively involved in agility competitions for a number of years, but this is just one facet of her dog-centered life. She is a trainer, a student and a handler; she has been a breeder and a devoted attendee of dog camps: week-long gatherings with multiple activities for dogs and their owners. All her dogs are Certified Therapy Dogs and she is a certified evaluator for the AKC (American Kennel Club) Canine Good Citizen test.
Her interest in dogs started at an early age. Her first job, after eighth grade, was at a grooming shop where she did all the bathing, nail-clipping and blow-drying of every dog that came through the door. She then worked for a show breeder and a guard-dog trainer who gave her insight into each of these disciplines. She grew up with dogs, mostly sporting breeds or mixes, and she and her husband Ted Godfrey had Irish water spaniels for several years before downsizing to smaller sight hounds.
Jaskula converted her training method to positive reinforcement with their third Irish water spaniel Finn. "I saw that some of the more traditional training styles just weren't working and I decided there had to be another way. Positive reinforcement works with all dogs. The dogs are not afraid of being corrected or yelled at, so they give 100 percent," she said.
When she first heard about agility at a seminar over 20 years ago, she was too busy at that time to give it serious thought. Years later, at dog camp, Jaskula tried Finn, at age 5, on the agility courses and she was encouraged to begin competing with him.
"Finn was trained to hunt, so he was an active dog, but he needed something to do the rest of the year," Jaskula said. Now that she had more time, she acquired some equipment so she could train at home. Although Finn came to the sport late in life, he did earn his championship designation, after which he was retired from competition. In the meantime, Jaskula started working with her next dog, Pipp, a lurcher, meaning a sight hound crossed with a working breed, in Pipp's case, long-hair whippet and foxhound.
"With Pipp, I made the mistake a lot of other handlers make," she confessed. "I pushed him hard enough that he decided he didn't like agility. He has decided he'd much rather herd sheep, track and be a therapy dog, so now we do those things instead."
Then came Bing, a sleek and delicate female longand shorthair a whippet mix Jaskula referred to as an "agility maniac." She started working with her immediately, at 13 weeks of age, using all positive-reinforcement techniques.
"AsfarasIwasconcerned,Bingnever made a mistake. Because of the way I trained her, and because she has a lot of natural drive, she has turned into a great competition dog," Jaskula said.
Two years ago, Jaskula bred Bing, who proudly produced nine beautiful puppies. She kept one male, Gus, who has inherited his mother's enthusiasm and ability to excel at the sport of agility.
"I have evolved as a handler," Jaskula said. "As a new handler with Finn, I trained for accuracy in running the course and managing the obstacles. Going for accuracy had a cost, because we sacrificed speed. With Bing, I have emphasized speed more and accuracy less, which is a nice balance. With Gus, I am emphasizing speed. As he gets more experienced, the accuracy wil lcome.Whippetsare bred to be independent hunters, so with both these dogs I have to be a better handler. My goal is to have fun with my dogs, and I do have fun, but I have to admit it's really exhilarating to run a fast dog."
As with most island residents, Jaskula has more discretionary time in the off-season, and so this is when she schedules competitions. Also like most island residents, a trip to the mainland means trying to accommodate as many activities as possible in that precious time away, so she always tries to coordinate a private lesson with a competition.
Getting to a competition is not easy. There are limits on the number of participants, all paperwork has to be absolutely accurate or it is discarded, and there is always the issue of the weather and its impact on island transportation. Fortunately, there are more agility trials in the Northeast than anywhere else in the country, so almost every weekend offers possibilities.
When she is not away competing or working with her own dogs, Jaskula is often busy helping other pet owners learn how to be more effective with their pets. Her extremely popular group classes are available through the Nantucket Community School three times a year, and she offers private lessons as well. Her philosophy? "I believe, unwaveringly, in the power of positive training. I believe that punishment interferes with learning. I also believe that your relationship with your dog, and the trust that comes along with that relationship, is the most important tool for training that you will ever possess."
There is no magic age to begin training. Jaskula recommends starting with your dog the day you bring him or her home. Have an idea what level of behavior you want from your dog and then be consistent, by either reinforcing desirable behaviors or ignoring undesirable ones. You are in training with your dog all the time.
he says, "Dogs are great observers. When my dogs are young, I incorporate training into everything we do. I make it a game: Sit and stay before I open the door, when I put the food bowl down, sit and stay until I release you. I toss their food for them to find and when they run back to me I tell them that behavior is called 'come'."
Jaskula uses food and toy rewards to blur the line between work and play, but also recommends using a clicker or your voice to mark specific behaviors.
"Clicker," or positive-reinforcement training has become the most popular and widely-accepted method of dog-training, although it certainly is not new. Technically called operant conditioning, which associates a behavior with a consequence, it has been used by trainers for years with dolphins and zoo animals and it is successful with virtually every animal species, domestic or wild. In support of this training method, Jaskula likes to quote world-known animal behaviorist and former Sea World trainer Ted Turner: "If I can get a killer whale to jump out of a pool and pee in a bucket, then why do you dog trainers have to push your dog into a sit?"
One of the common misconceptions about "clicker" training is that the owner will be carrying clickers and treats around with them forever. "Wrong," Jaskula said. "Once you are confident your dog will give you the behavior you want about 90 percent of the time, you can use a verbal cue to get the behavior. When you get the behavior from the verbal cue, stop clicking, then stop rewarding, or reward randomly."
A committed advocate for positive-reinforcement training, Jaskula concluded, "I love working with my dogs in agility, and with agility-training you can't do negatives, you have to use positive reinforcement. But you don't have to be a competitor to get outstanding results with this method. It works for everyone, and anyone can do it. Even someone disabled or elderly can click and tosstreatswhilesitting.Yourdogislearning, your dog is mentally engaged, your dog is happy and your bond just gets stronger. You can't get any better than that."
To find out more about group class information or private lessons, contact Jaskula at
Jan Jaeger is the owner of Geronimo's, Nantucket's year-round pet-supply shop, and Cold Noses on Straight Wharf, and is a member of the Dog and Cat Writers Associations of America.