The Release Word – the first step toward impulse control

This is the first in a series of posts that explore the “little” things that lead to big improvements in agility AND your relationship with your dog.

In this post, I’m going to make the case that teaching a verbal release word is one of the first things you should teach your puppy and is critical to building impulse control and therefore teaching stationary behaviors like a sit-stay or independent stop on a contact.

When do I start?

Right away! When I bring a puppy home and know its comfortable in its new environment, we play games that include a lot of physical play and tons of reinforcement with food, toys and interaction with me. During these play sessions I introduce my release word. Usually it goes like this…play, play, play…PAUSE. Wait for a behavior….Often the puppy will sit but it’s ok if the puppy just pauses too. I then immediately say the word (without moving) and immediately re-engage with the puppy. As I build on those experiences and get the puppy to offer stationary behaviors like sit, down, stand, stay in crate, wait at door, etc., I consistently use my release word. I choose a word that I don’t use often in everyday life. For a while now, I’ve used the word “Break” and it seems to work well. But any word that isn’t used often in everyday speech and doesn’t sound like your other planned verbal skills will work.

For a very young puppy, the “wait for release” might be just a second or two. But the experience of and reinforcement for choosing to wait until the verbal cue is given is HUGE! Once the word is given and the puppy “breaks”, it is immediately reinforced with a cookie, a chase game, engagement with the toy or other fun activity. That’s right…the puppy is rewarded for “breaking” but ONLY when it hears the magic word! This is great practice for building impulse control!

The release word is a verbal cue

Verbal cues are all the rage in agility these days. Do you think of your release word as a verbal cue? You should! A release word is the first verbal cue I teach my puppies and as with other verbal cues, I work toward building an understanding of the cue independent of my motion or other physical cues. After all, on an agility course I need to be moving while the dog is stationary as I lead out or run past the dog who has stopped at the end of the contact. I can make a case that if you are going to teach – and proof – just one verbal cue, the release word should be it. Other than the dog’s name of course!

Why is teaching verbal cues so hard? Dogs are naturally way more tuned into physical cues and motion than they are to verbal cues. Without a clear understanding of the verbal release cue, the dog will be looking for ANY physical cue to end the stationary behavior. You might imagine the dog guessing…Do I leave when she takes a step? Can I leave when she flicks her hand? When she leans away? When she stops and then starts again? The tension builds the longer this guessing game goes on until the dog is shifting around or breaking his stay. It is **very** important that you do not consistently pair physical motion with your verbal release cue. At first, isolate the release word from any motion, then add “nonsense” motion to help the dog understand that the release is on the WORD, not the motion. It is a good idea to video some of your training sessions so you can verify that you have isolated the verbal cue.

Not having a well understood verbal release cue makes it very difficult to put any kind of duration or independence on stationary behaviors like a sit-stay or target behavior on contacts, no matter how often you reward in place. For some high-drive dogs, it makes it almost impossible. For softer dogs, the confusion of not knowing when to leave takes a little bit of their spark away.

What about rewarding in place?

When building duration in stationary behaviors I will reward in place but I’m careful to maintain the understanding that the behavior ends when I give the verbal release cue, not when I stop delivering cookies.

More than one release cue?

You can definitely have more than one release cue. My release word means – end the current behavior and come to me OR do the next behavior that I’ve cued. As I add other well trained verbal cues, I can use them as release cues. “Get it” – to release to a toy; or “Down” from a “Sit”. Or cue an obstacle like a jump (“Hup”) or “Tunnel” from the start line or a stopped contact.

Keep the game going

I like playing little games with my dogs into their adulthood that incorporate foundation skills. These games are engaging, low impact and reinforce necessary skills. I’ve included a short session with Nick at the link below. Here, I apply a mental model I call the “Even When” game. Can Nick maintain his sit or down stay and wait for the verbal release even when I am flapping my arms? Even when I stop and start again in my lead-out? Even when I give a different word? Even when I run hard? Even when I throw a ball in front of his face? As a mature dog, Nick is pretty good at this game. For a puppy, the “even when” criteria are introduced gradually, allowing the pup to be “mostly” successful. A little failure is necessary to learning, after all!

Fun with the Release Cue

I’d love to hear your thoughts on this topic! Does it make sense? Do you think this approach could help your dog develop impulse control more easily and streamline your training?

Happy Training!

Little things make big things happen

Over the many years I’ve been living with and training my dogs for the sport of agility, I’ve learned by experience and from instructors the concept conveyed by legendary coach John Wooden…”It’s the little details that are vital. Little things make big things happen.”

Whether you call it “foundation” skills or “the basics”, the little things in agility and everyday life not only determine success in the sport but influence our relationship with our dogs. Some people think foundation skills are just something to “get through” so they can go onto more exciting things. Or through inexperience simply don’t know what to work on! That is understandable and expected.

I’m going to say it…agility is hard! And as the sport grows and changes, and dogs get faster, it seems like the list of highly honed skills required to do agility is ever growing. Fortunately, leaders in our sport are exploring new and better training methods so it never gets boring! And I will add, each dog is an individual and while one dog learns a skill easily and for life, another challenges us our skills at teaching one or more of those little things.

Personally, I find embracing the little things a lot of fun! The bonus is that it builds a positive relationship with my dogs because they know when I find joy in that perfect toy retrieve or that perfect one jump performance or super long lead out in class. My joy builds their confidence and love of the game. Ignoring the little things and expecting success without them can lead to frustration, blaming the dog or simply quitting.

Coming up in a series of blog posts, I’m going to explore some of these “little things”. I plan on organizing the topics in roughly the order that I introduce them to my puppies. But there won’t be a single “little thing” that isn’t revisited as the puppy matures into a young dog, a competition dog and a champion. My goal is to give you some new ideas to chew on and to inspire you to find the joy and satisfaction in teaching the little things well and to keep coming back to them. Stay tuned and if you like, subscribe to this blog to be notified of each post by email.

Taking the long view

Needless to say, like all of us, my September 2020 is different than I had planned for, hoped for, or expected. Summer vacations, family get-togethers, agility events, agility workshops, social gatherings with friends…all canceled or strictly limited due to the pandemic. While it would be easy to get depressed, pessimistic, grouchy or super stressed (and all of those emotions have visited me in short bursts), I’ve been largely successful in nurturing a positive attitude and a growth mindset as I wait for the new normal to kick in.

Maintaining gratitude hasn’t been as hard as you might think as my family is healthy, my income is secure, my community is responsible in following the “pandemic” rules and I’m hopeful that this will all be over at some point relatively soon due to the brilliant work of our medical researchers.

I’ve taken this gift of time to get better at photography, build a new website for an environmental non-profit Genesee RiverWatch (I’m a board member), start a vegetable garden, explore and commit to an online workout program (12 weeks and counting!), and unearth my bicycle to take advantage of the wonderful biking/hiking trail that is just minutes from my home.

Through all this, my dogs have both kept me sane and produced heartache. We said good-bye to our beloved Sheltie Breeze on July 15th. At 16-1/2 yrs old, he had lived a long good life. While his last year was a little tough, mostly he had a great quality of life, spreading joy to anyone he met – who said shelties are shy and reserved? Because of Breeze’s talent for agility, he provided me with all kinds of adventures, long-lasting friendships and travel to places I would probably never had visited. Czech Republic anyone?

Border collie Nick and I were having fun doing agility as the weather improved after a late spring but recurrent front-end lameness starting in mid-June brought all that to a halt by early July, just as he turned 5 yrs old. After a mid-August trip to Veterinary Orthopedic & Sports Medicine (VOSM), I knew we were in for a new, unwanted and unexpected adventure. At the end of September, Nick will have PRP/Stem cell injections in his left carpus and both shoulders along with left shoulder arthroscopy. He’ll be in hobbles for 12 weeks (!) and then rehab will follow. I don’t know of an acute injury that caused the issue, but the diagnostics indicate that the carpus had been sore for a while and the shoulder was secondary. Perhaps I would have picked up on that if I had done my regular rehab vet checks that were canceled due to the pandemic. Nick was certainly good at hiding his discomfort. It’s so sad to think of a young dog missing out on 6+ months of “action”. And yet, and yet – a big lesson to learn here – he remains a very happy guy!

Which brings me to Tai. Tai is 10-3/4 yrs old, retired from agility at age 9, and we are trying new things. We are working on Nosework skills with awesome instructor Julie Symons and he has had a few herding lessons. He’s very good at scent work but I’m not sure about herding :-). He has a long history of “don’t chase things” and I worry about him getting hurt. We’ll stick with it for a while and see what happens.  Just being able to do things with him at this age is a gift.

So what is next?  I’m taking the long view. I’m hoping to dip my toe into teaching again soon, so stay tuned for that news.  Surely, Nick’s rehab will nearly be a full time job and I’m hoping with the great team of Dr. Canapps at VOSM and Thera-vet that we’ll get where we need to be for an active lifestyle early in 2021. I’ll enjoy Tai’s elder years and who knows, maybe a puppy will be in our future. We’ll keep on plugging along with the conviction that 2021 will be a better new normal.