A while back I posted a question on facebook (I thought it was rhetorical) about dog training and agility. I got some pretty strange answers. Been thinking about it ever since…
Using rewards during agility training is very important in order to motivate your dog and to reinforce WHERE you want your dog to be. I am a dog trainer first and an agility handler second. All of my agility handling is TRAINED AND REWARDED with my dogs. I am not a fantastic handler; my dogs are well TRAINED to do what I want them to when cued by my handling.
Agility (as with most dog sports) is based on training a dog to do a behavior. When in doubt, stop and reward! I probably reward my dogs too often. I break sequences up into very small pieces; I reward a tight turn or a nice rear in the middle of a course (even with my Masters level dogs), I jackpot amazing weave pole performances and contacts and start lines and keeping the bars up and running fast and, and, and…….
A reward is defined as “a thing given in recognition of one’s effort”. Notice that in this definition the reward is “given”, it needs to come from you or be done with you and therefore should be controlled by you! If the reward is something the dog can just help themselves to (sniffing the ground, running around and doing equipment) then it is not a reward that is coming from the handler. I have used a “let’s go sniff” reward, where me and my dog get to go to a designated tree and the dog is allowed to sniff there, but it is not a “sniff anywhere you want” sort of behavior, it is a conscientious behavior that my dog and I go do together in a specific spot. Also, the dog needs to find whatever is being used to reward rewarding. The dog chooses what is rewarding, not the handler. To quote Suzanne Clotheir “A reward is always unexpected, unseen and comes after the appropriate behavior or response.” So when doing agility the reward needs to come from the handler after a good effort has been put in by the dog, it needs to be something the dog likes and needs to be done in appropriate timing (quickly) after the dog did the good effort.
You can also use WHERE the reward is placed to reinforce specific behavior. If I want my dog to turn tight around a jump, I will place the reward on the ground near the wing. If I want my dog to learn to go away from me, I will signal and toss the reward away. If I want my dog to learn to finish the weaves no matter what I am doing as a handler, I will toss the toy in the dog’s path as they finish the weaves as I continue to run. If I want my dog to love the table I will reward ON the table, not after they get off. The list goes on and on. WHERE you reward is important!!!! So, it is important to use a reward that your dog likes, that you control, and is easily placed where you want it.
Using a reward when training your dog allows you to control where, when and how much/how long the reward happens. Agility is just training your dog A LOT of behaviors and then chaining them all together! Frequently reinforcing those behaviors, in the correct location, with rewards will help your dog understand each piece so that when you string the behaviors together you get ROCK SOLID performances!