In a Bad Dog Agility Podcast Denise Fenzi used a great example about negative reward markers by describing the of teaching of math to a little kid. If you are going through the multiplication tables and you get to the sixes and the child starts having a hard time with 6 X 3, do you say “NO that is wrong?” and make them repeat it 5 times? They probably aren’t going to get it right no matter how many times you do it. Better to go back to the basics, talk about 6 X 1 and 6 X 2, do the three’s, show a number line using sixes, etc. And praise the child when they are correct, even if it is a small piece. Those pieces add up over time! Would you want to work for someone who only told you when you were wrong? Or verbally pointed it out every time you made a mistake?
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!
As I continue to help people with their dogs, I do believe, as humans, we tend to LUMP and SKIP steps that our dogs are not ready to LUMP or SKIP.
The Dr. Karen Overall Relaxation Protocol is an awesome tool to help your dog deal with stressful and stimulating situations.
This “mat” behavior, as we call it, needs to be proofed beyond all doubts. Generalized, tested, etc. AND THEN YOU NEED TO USE IT! Please do not show up to any class, trial, training, etc without your mat. It is a tool. Your dog may need it for the rest of their life. And just when you think your dog “gets it”, they don’t. You need to proof more. You need to take it to a trial and see if your dog can do it within sight of the ring. You need to take it to class and use it instead of your start line, or as an obstacle. You need to take it to a busy, crowded area. You need to throw treats and toys around it. You need to do it at night, during the day, in the rain, and in the sun. And you need to do it with other dogs or kids or people working near it. And, and, and.
IF and WHEN you find that your dog is not coping or functioning you have over stepped your training. WE want to do agility. BUT what if our dogs aren’t ready? What is the point of being able to do 20 obstacles if your dog can’t function around other dogs or people?????? Is it better to train more agility at that point? Work handling? Or help your dog cope with different situations? I say that it is better to help your dog cope. Deal with stress. IT DOES NOT MATTER HOW FAST YOUR DOG IS OR HOW AWESOME YOUR HANDLING IS if your dog can’t function around other dogs, or step to the start line and stay focused.
Anecdote: I paid for and attended multiple sessions of an obedience class with Hunda when I lived in Little Rock, CA. The class cost was $20 per class for 1 session of 10 classes ($200 total) and was 1 hour away in Lancaster. I did multiple sessions. Hunda couldn’t function inside the fenced portion of the class. I think we went inside once or twice. Mostly we did short behavior chains outside of sight of the ring. He was so overly stimulated that we couldn’t go near the other dogs. I worked and worked and worked, and some days he was ready to go near the gate, loose leash waking all the way (don’t think your instructor doesn’t notice when clients let their dogs pull 😦 this is a VERY sad comment on our dog training skills and your relationship with your dog), and if Hunda could let me open the gate and step inside without spazzing out we would go in, do a behavior and leave. That’s it. Very rarely we actually worked on LLW or something more complicated within the ring. He just couldn’t do it. BUT it really helped him with self control and stress. And I learned to recognize when he could and couldn’t work. And I took that with me to the agility ring. If Hunda could bark on command and do a trick on the start line I had a dog, if he couldn’t he was too stressed and we would leave the ring. And even if he did bark on command and do a trick, we would do 2 – 3 obstacles and leave having fun, being happy, focused on me and not stressed and visiting the ring help or judge. It was very $$$$$$$$$$$$ and worth every penny to do 6 months of trials without actually running a full course. My first actual Q with Hunda, as well as his Novice titles, mean WAAAAAYYYY more to me than going to South Africa with Ho because I had to work so hard for them!
So sit back and think about your goals with your dogs. And keep their stress and your relationship in mind when you start choosing agility over calmness, agility over relaxation, agility over teamwork, etc. Which is more important? Agility or your relationship with your dog? The sad part is, I am seeing A LOT of clients choose agility because agility is fun for the human and dog training is hard.
I leave you with some quotes:
Someone once said to me, “It doesn’t matter how fast your dog is if your dog drops a bar”
I say, “It doesn’t matter how fast your dog is if you can’t function at an agility trial, do a start line stay, etc”
I love my Hunda Looney Tunes, he teaches me soooo much! Our teamwork together has taken us many places! Granted, my goals with him (like the AKC Invitational) had to CHANGE significantly as our training progressed (he will never be able to attend due to running in Performance at 8″) BUT that first agility title hangs on my wall, right next to our CD title, HUGE accomplishments that we both worked very hard for. And this year, Hunda placed 3rd in JWW at Westminster! You never know where your dog training journey will take you (and that’s why my business is called Journey Agility)!!! Hunda just turned 7, Happy Birthday Looney Tunes and here’s to many more journey’s together!
Making a goal, sticking to it and then accomplishing it feels good! Besides my goal of going to tryouts and having a clean run I also made the goal to not beat myself up no matter what happened. I am so proud that Ho and I had 2 clean runs! Really, we had 3 clean runs but 1 run had a popped weave that I didn’t fix, and the run that we had an off course was totally my fault, not a big surprise 🙂 LOL. I approached the line EVERY TIME with a huge smile on my face, holding and kissing my wonderful dog. I ran EVERY run with commitment to my chosen handling options and stayed focused until the end. I left EVERY run holding my and kissing my wonderful dog with a smile on my face. I felt good about EVERY run! Even the two runs that we E’d on! Those courses were HARD. But I was prepared!! And I made great handling choices! In the back of my mind “WWBD?”, “What would Bo do?”.
At times I was stressed, and un-decided, and I felt discouraged but I managed to re-focus EVERY time and that is what counts! The mental game is hard, it takes time and energy and calories and brain power to do it. It is hard but I feel so good after doing it! Like I accomplished something big! Those of you who knew me back when I ran Pickle might have seen the meltdowns and the crying, it felt bad and I made a decision to not do that anymore. And I went to a top level competition and kept my mental crap together! Yeah!
I really want to thank everyone who helped me reach my goal! Eric for so many discussions and support, Bo for putting up with my shit and being a great trainer and coach, Cheryl for helping support the journey, Debbie for setting up hard courses and helping me run them, my parents for inspiring me to be me and supporting me along the way, Julie and Daneen for giving me Ho, my brother for all our woot and mounding talks, GPOL for putting up with my PEPSING and everything else, all my Thursday night peeps who put up with running those crazy courses, all my students who inspire me to be the best agility instructor I can be, Ho for being the best Ho in the world, and myself for working really hard at something!
A woman who meant well offered me cardboard to “keep me warm” the last night I was camping at the agility trial. I was dirty and dressed in my awesome striped PJ’s pants and mismatched top. I thanked her gratefully and suggested she leave it by the dumpster for the next person who might need it. I also learned that Grasshopper Cookies ($2 at walmart) taste as good as or better than Girl Scout Thin Mints ($4 from your local girl scout). I know this sounds too good to be true but we did a genuine taste test around the campfire. It might have been the beers, but I swear the Grasshoppers won out. And you can buy them year round!!! Woot!
To top the weekend off I scored an AMAZING bottle of wine from some good friends, got to run a really cool dog (sorry about the ankle) and watched a cool MACH Run! More WOOT!
Check out these two courses by Dan Butcher from this weekend. Some neat challenges that kept people on their feet and caught a few of us off guard! My best advice to the worry warts: #wootyurlife It’s the only option when the doubt flies in, just kick it out with some heartfelt woot and even if you don’t Q you can still feel AWESOME!!! LOL!
Can’t wait for next weekend; I’m running for margaritas!!!!