Happy New Year!

img_2595The New Year is often a time for self-reflection and resolutions. One of my resolutions is inspired by observing my dogs in Agility. They are always ready to play, they always try hard, and they always seem to have fun. “Be playful, try hard and have fun!” It’s a mantra I’ll try to live by in my 2017 agility life.
For any resolution we set, there has to be a plan to go with it! After some self-reflection in 2016, here are some guidelines I put together for every training session and trial:

  • Be relaxed and don’t feeling rushed.
  • Don’t worry about making mistakes…if they happen, we just got a lesson!
  • Be totally engaged with my dog – we are connected, respectful and playful.
  • Be mentally engaged with the handling or training challenges that are before me.
  • Have a specific goal and a plan in that training session or trial, appropriate for the learning stage my dog is in at that time.

Agility is a GAME that we PLAY with our dogs…be playful, try hard and have FUN! That sums up the attitude of my canine partners and I want to emulate it.
I hope you will consider adopting that attitude everyday in this New Year. You will be happier and so will your pups! If you’d like to explore this topic further, check out this blog post from March 2016.

Agility – Be playful, try hard and have fun!

Why You Should Play With Your Dog

There is an inherent nature of dog that we tap into when playing agility and this is it: DOGS ARE PLAYFUL.  Picture two puppies playing well together. They chase each other, wrestle and playfully bite. There are frequent role reversals.  The puppy being chased becomes the chaser.  The puppy on the bottom of the rough and tumble play becomes the one on top.  They periodically pause in their play, taking a physical and emotional breather with relaxed, happy looks on their faces.IMG_0039

In fact, play is a big part of the development process for dogs as it is for all mammals. But unlike most mammals, dogs continue to play throughout their lives. Just like us humans!  And, dogs are wired to play the agility game because they are cursorial predators – they are built to run as they chase prey.

Dog play follows these patterns:

  • An invitation to play…with tails wagging, side to side and curvilinear body posture that leads to the ultimate invitation…the play bow.
  • Turn and run…chase me!
  • Oh…you caught me! Let’s do some wrestling! Or play tug of war with a toy/stick.
  • Pause….catch a breath.
  • Now I’ll chase you!

The dog’s facial expression is relaxed, eyes are soft, the mouth is open and the dogs are obviously happy!

What can we learn from these observations?

100_1654- Tai and NyaFirst, during initiation of play, dogs greet each other in a non-threatening way and give an obvious invitation to play.

Second, dogs play with sincere joy.  They enjoy the physical aspect of the game and the unpredictability of what their play partner may do next as they wrestle or cut and run around the play area.  They also practice self-restraint while wrestling and biting.

Third, dogs come to us knowing the basic rules of agility handling that can be boiled down to a refined version of a chase game: “I run, you run; I turn, you turn; I stop, you stop”. The adolescent dogs in the series of pictures below had just met and they naturally played by the rules. Our handling is just a refinement of this joyful chase game.

Tai and Lab Playing


Fourth, most dogs play for short periods then pause and take a break. Pauses are naturally built into healthy play to allow the dogs to catch their breath and regulate emotions.IMG_9994

Fifth, if a dog gets too rough during play, the other dog will respond by stopping and turning away.  Essentially saying…I don’t like how you are playing and giving the other dog a “time-out”. Clever dogs will modulate the style of play depending on the dog he’s playing with. There may be size, age or temperament differences that the initiator observes and responds to. I’m running too fast? I’ll slow down. Am I chasing you with too much power? Ok, I’ll be gentler. You’d rather be on top when wrestling?  Ok, no problem. Did I bite too hard?  Ok, I’ll go easier.  Need a break? Ok.  In other words, the initiator…if he wants a playmate needs to find a way to make it fun for the other dog.

How do these observations help us play with our dogs?

Invite your dog to play

Photo Nov 18, 11 58 49 PMWhat is your version of a play bow, that invitation to your dog to play the agility game? Know what your dog responds to, what your dog sees as fun. Is it a quick game of chase? An invitation to tug? A bit of body play? A quick bit of retrieving? An excited, happy voice? A body posture that says, “game on!”? A nose to hand touch? Quick, snappy heeling?

There is no single formula. Observe what your dog responds to and find several games that you can use…interactions with you that are pleasurable for the dog and that serve to get your dog into a state of arousal suitable for playing agility. For dogs that like to play with toys and are easily aroused, this is an ideal time to insert some specific rules into the play session. Ask for a quick sit before tugging or teach control games like taking and releasing the toy on cue. For dogs that love food, be sure to get the dog in the right frame of mind for agility by playing games of motion – like fast heeling — before rewarding with food. For dogs that tend to quickly get flat after this initial play session, try to transition smoothly and quickly from the invitation to play to the chase game of agility. Know your dog’s style of play and what is motivating.

Play with joy.

Agility is a team sport. Smile at your dog and laugh out loud while playing the agility game.  Stay connected.  Agility is a physical sport.  Give your dog your energy and he will respond in kind.  100_4004Keep your dog engaged. Be unpredictable.  When running sequences, sometimes start with a sit-stay; sometimes a down-stay; sometimes run with your dog.  Reward in the middle of a sequence.  If you make a handling error, cut the sequence short but try not to let the dog know a mistake was made. Be careful not to dampen the dog’s enthusiasm by giving mixed signals.  If you need a break to re-think, don’t just stop and ignore your dog (giving him a time-out).   Instead, praise your dog and ask him to relax for a minute.  Celebrate each and every effort.  Bring the same playfulness to agility as you might to casual play.

Tap into the chase game

100_3099Dogs vary in their inherent desire to play chase games, run and jump but they all have it to some degree. Inserting playfulness and building value for those games can start with your puppies.  Away from agility obstacles, teach your dog the basic agility chase game. As discussed above, dogs love to play this game and come knowing the basic rules. “I run, you run; I turn, you turn; I stop, you stop”.  The refinements of the chase game will vary depending on the handling system you are using – like teaching the dog not to cross behind you — but these will always include variations of “chase me!”.    If I turn, you turn. If I stop/slow down, then a turn is coming…adjust your stride. If I run hard, take the line I’ve set and run! Tap into your dog’s natural chase drive and teach these rules away from equipment using games such as:

  • Hide and seek…it teaches the puppy: Find me and we’ll play!
  • Restrained recalls and all its variations teaches the dog: Chase me and the fun will begin!
  • Get that toy!  Running together toward a thrown or static toy or food tube and letting the dog win teaches the dog that it’s fun for you to chase him!
  • Heeling on both sides teaches the dog to turn in response to your shoulder turns. Start this game from a stationary position, then turn in place and work up to fast heeling and then to running in circles with your dog at your side.

Keep sessions short

Remember how puppies and older dogs play. Their play sessions are broken up with frequent pauses. This is natural for our dogs and it is wise to keep our sessions very short and to build in breaks to keep our dogs fresh mentally and physically. Your sessions may be too long if your dog goes a little flat, walks away or sniffs.  Try to keep your dog fully engaged throughout the short training session and end each session with a playful reward. Put the dog in his crate or ask him to relax in a down stay while you plan the next bit of training. Then start the next short session with an invitation to play. If you have trouble limiting your sessions, using a timer or carrying a small number of treats can help.

Keeping a playful state of mind

IMG_8588Play is more of a state of mind than an activity. Human Play expert, Dr. Stuart Brown defines play as “an absorbing, apparently purposeless activity that provides enjoyment and a suspension of self-consciousness and sense of time. It is also self-motivating and makes you want to do it again”. Anyone who qualifies for “agility addict’ will appreciate this definition!

While it is common to describe agility as a game or to describe our intent to train as “playing agility”, we play at agility because it’s challenging and absorbing. We get a rush when things go well but it can be frustrating when things go wrong, especially if we don’t know why! We enjoy the challenge of figuring out the handling required to successfully negotiate a course. On competition day we are given an “agility test score”, “qualifying points”, “faults”, “wrong courses”, “refusals”, etc. It is natural and expected that we want to be right, run clean and achieve double qualifying scores, minimum yards per second or placements.

But remember that agility is a team sport and one member of the team — our dog — could care less if we qualify or not, if the sequence is run correctly or not – especially since it’s nearly always the handler’s fault anyway – or if we place first or last. Dogs love the game because they want to be with us, they love to run and jump and to play chase games. It is up to us to ensure that the playfulness of agility is not lost on our dogs as we get wrapped up in being “right”.

Next time you go out to train or to compete, take a sense of playfulness onto the field. Invite your dog to play, play with energy and joy, tap into the chase game, keep your sessions short and celebrate each and every effort!

Note: This is a revision of an article originally published in Clean Run Sept 2012

First Principles Thinking – Reinforcement Builds Behavior

IMG_9273Somehow or another, I can often relate interesting ideas from my general reading to dog training.  Recently, I read an article that mentioned the term “First Principles Thinking”.  It was defined with a quote by successful entrepreneur Elon Musk (Tesla, PayPal, Space X) :  “First principles is kind of a physics way of looking at the world. You boil things down to the most fundamental truths and say, “What are we sure is true?” … and then reason up from there.”

In dog training, a fundamental truth is this: Reinforcement Builds Behavior.  In other words, behaviors that my dog finds reinforcing will be repeated.  Without getting too theoretical, this is the basic model:

Stimulus (change in environment)–> Behavior –>  Reinforcement

Scenario 1: Squirrel runs –> Dog chases squirrel –> Dog’s prey instinct is satisfied

Scenario 2: Dog bowls clatter as dinner is prepared–> Dog comes running to kitchen –>Dog’s hunger is satisfied.

None of us have to teach our dogs the behavior of coming to eat dinner or chasing squirrels!  Why?  Because those behaviors are inherently reinforcing for the dog.  Spend some time thinking of the behaviors your dog exhibits and then ask yourself why?  Why does he run to the back door and bark?  Why does he jump on people?  Why does he drink out of the toilet bowl?  It has to do with what he finds reinforcing.

Here is a starter list of things my dogs find reinforcing: access to food and water, sniffing, stalking, marking, chasing, chewing, barking, access to the outdoors, access to indoors, access to toys, access to ME, social interactions with people and other dogs, a comfy place to sleep, activities such as hiking, swimming, retrieving, tugging, possessing, fence running, snapping at flies.  I’m sure you can add others.  The important point is that dogs like these things and their behaviors are pretty much always about seeking those reinforcements.

What we are after as dog trainers is to build the behaviors we need for everyday life and dog sports.  That means we have to use reinforcements (rewards) that our dogs love and that we can control.  Remember, reinforcement builds behavior.  Knowing WHAT is reinforcing to my dog is critical if I want to harness this truth for practical application. Trying to build behavior with something that my dog does NOT find reinforcing won’t get me very far.  Just because my friend’s dog loves to chase a tennis ball, does not mean my dog will.  Just because another dog will do anything for kibble, does not mean my dog will.

So the list of reinforcers (rewards) my dog loves and that I can control gets much shorter: Food in various forms that is easy to deliver, toys that allow interaction with me (e.g. tugging), praise and social interaction (petting).

IMG_2595-cropIt’s worth the effort to build a repertoire of reinforcers that you can control and some rules around those rewards – like no grabbing at my hands for food or toys, like bringing the toy back to me, like playing with the toy I’m offering and ignoring the ones on the ground, like simply helping the dog learn that he must earn his rewards.  But first be a good observer of your dog’s response to what you are offering as a reward.  Only use what your dog wants when building behaviors.   How do you know?  One simple way is to watch your dog…after receiving the reward you offer, did the dog stay engaged?   Or did the dog immediately make the choice to leave you for other reinforcement or – even momentarily – start to look around for something better?  Or lose a little enthusiasm for his work?

The relative value of a reward can vary depending on the environment.  Your dog may love to tug at home but has difficulty focusing on the toy in agility class with lots of distractions.   A better choice would be to use high-value food in class and keep working on building value for other rewards like toys in less distracting environments.  Your dog may do flips for kibble at home, but in a highly distracting environment, a higher value food reward like tuna fudge or a tug toy may get better results.

Carefully observing your dog’s responses to the rewards you offer can help guide your training sessions.  The fundamental truth is reinforcement builds behavior, so be sure to use something your dog perceives as reinforcing and you can control. It’s part of being a practical dog trainer.

Agility – Be playful, try hard and have fun!

As part of the Dog Agility Blogger Action Day, I’m taking a stab at defining how I have FUN with dog agility.

100_4535This is a topic close to me because I just came out of a period where agility wasn’t that much “Fun”, or at least where another “F” word better described my mindset and that was “Frustrated”.  Frustrated because over the course of a 2 yr period there always seemed to be something in the way of achieving my lofty competitive goals with my 5 yr old border collie, Tai. Goals that included qualifying for big events like nationals and world team tryouts and ultimately doing well at those events. The list includes dog injuries, human injuries, tough, long Northeast winters with little to no training, canceled winter trials, unsettling conditions at summer outdoor trials (mud, heavy rain, uneven ground) that led to errors or scratching, jumping the tough height of 26″, a couple of holes in our training and a couple of “kind of odd” training challenges provided by my quirky but brilliant border collie, Tai.

So, I stepped back and asked myself why I love this sport.  Answer was because it is “fun”.  So, wait a minute…didn’t I just say I wasn’t having fun anymore?  So, I thought about WHEN I consistently have fun with my dogs.

  • I am relaxed and don’t feel rushed.
  • I’m not worried about making mistakes…if they happen, we just got a lesson!
  • I’m totally engaged with my dog – we are connected, respectful and playful.
  • I am mentally engaged with the handling or training challenges that are before me.
  • I have a specific goal and a plan, appropriate for the learning stage my dog is in at that time.

Does that sound like a TRAINING session?  Yes.  But the answer to how I am making agility fun again, is to take that same attitude to every TRIAL.  Agility is a GAME that we PLAY with our dogs.  In a training session or at a trial…be playful, try hard and have FUN!  That sums up the attitude of my canine partners and I want to emulate it.

“Comparison is the thief of joy” – this quote is attributed to several famous people…including Theodore Roosevelt and Dwight Eisenhower.  It doesn’t matter who said it…there is a lot of truth in it.  In 2016, I’m playing my own game, with my own dog and celebrating my own victories – big or small.  I don’t have competitive goals as defined by qualifying for big events or obtaining that next DQ or MACH.  Instead my goal is to walk to the line with this attitude – be playful, try hard and have fun.  I’m not expecting improvements to happen by accident.  I have gotten input from coaches and training partners leading to a good training plan. I am strategically using trials to work through some of our training or handling challenges, being ready to take a lesson away and building to the point where I will step to the line totally confident in our skills – knowing things can go wrong but not anticipating that they might.  So far, that is working for us.  And I believe the rest will come, or it won’t.  Meanwhile, I will truly enjoy the sport with my canine partner who does not care one wit if we qualify or not, if we are at a trial or in the backyard playing the game.

I’ve been around agility competitions for many years and have participated in multiple venues.  I competed in an era when we were truly just figuring things out, long before “handling systems” came on the scene.  I have competed at many small local trials, Nationals and at the Agility World Championships.  I have observed that the “best competitors” have a few things in common and that includes truly enjoying the game they are playing with their dogs. Whether they win or lose…they respect their partner and can bounce back quickly from errors.  And I’m talking about people on the world stage and people who never leave home.  They just make me smile because of the joy they share with their dog and the recognition that in spite of a small error there was a lot of good stuff and they know their dog tried hard.  In the midst of the frustration I was feeling in the fall, I had several people I didn’t know come up to me and complement me on how nice I am to my dogs and enjoy watching me interact with them (I think they meant watching me be playful).  That made me feel great because I was struggling at the time with a string of non-qualifying runs and it was nice to know that I wasn’t being a complete douche bag about it.

That is my story…I hope it helps some of you who may be struggling…be playful, try hard and have fun!  Here is a recent video I put together to celebrate that attitude and remind myself how much fun I have doing this sport with my one of my best buddies.  One Step at a Time.

Read what others have written on this topic here: Dog Agility Bloggers Action Day – Fun.

Back again!

Hello again!  I started this blog when Tai – who is now 6 yrs old! – was a puppy and kept it up for several years and then for no particular reason, I stopped posting. But now, thanks to the help of my son, David, my website has been renewed and reorganized. Training materials are archived in the page titled “Training Resources”. Events are listed on the – you guessed it – the “Events page”. And, I have at least 4 draft blog posts floating around on my computer or in my head. So, stay tuned.

IMG_9718A wise person told me once that getting a puppy renews our training and so, with that in mind…here is a picture of my nearly 8 month old puppy Nick, who is doing just that.  Nick is a little gift that fell into my lap last September.  He is just what I didn’t know I was looking for 🙂 and we have already had lots of fun together.


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