Is your dog getting what he wants?

100_3604- tai at windowLately, I’ve been thinking about Motivation and Rewards and whether our dogs are getting what they want.  So, what makes our dogs – or us humans – motivated to engage in an activity? I don’t mean that we just do it, but that we develop a passion for it, so that dog or human approaches the activity with joy and enthusiasm.  Well, the answer must be that we get something we want so that we want to do it again and again.  On the human side of the equation, we enjoy building a working and playful relationship with our dog.  We enjoy the process of teaching our dog’s new skills, motivating the dog to want to do this sport with us and striving to be successful dog trainers.  We are proud of our dog’s skills, and may enjoy the admiration of others, the titles, the ribbons, etc.  We enjoy the challenge of sorting out the handling strategies and execution to master courses or the act of competing itself….the game of agility.  Maybe it’s the social aspects of the sport.  Everyone’s list would be a little different, if not in content, in priority.  Since this is a totally optional activity for most or all of us, we must be getting things we value from the act of training and competing with our dogs that makes it worth all the sacrifices in terms of time, money and lost opportunity to do other things

Now, lets pose the same questions for our dogs.  What motivates them to want to do agility with us?  Same answer.   A history of receiving something they want for the effort put in.  Call it a reward or a reinforcer for the behavior offered… but to build enthusiasm and passion, the reward must have great value for the dog. Every dog will be a little different!  Some love the chase factor, some love to tug, some like to win the tug from us, some get excited over food, some love to retrieve balls, splash in or run down a jet of water, wrestle with us, some love a vigorous body rub, some like soft petting, a happy voice, or all of the above!

Our job is to figure out what our dog finds rewarding and under what circumstances.  Evaluate but don’t judge.  Your dog is as unique as you are.  Find out what he loves and use those rewards to create a history of action-reaction (behavior – reward) that motivates your dog to want to do more.  A virtuous cycle.  Just because your friend’s dog is a tugging fiend,  don’t try to reward your dog with tug if he doesn’t like to tug (yet).  Instead use a reward your dog loves now and work on building a reward system for your dog that includes toys/tugging play separately, which of course, is a very useful tool to have in agility.

Rewards as an Event

I listened to a great interview with Michael Ellis recently on the Bad Dog Agility site. Michael works dogs in Schutzhund. The topic of the podcast was tugging and was full of great information including a discussion of dog’s preferences around tugging, illustrating the point that even dogs who love to tug have particular preferences that should be respected and used to create a reward that is right for that dog.  I also loved the way he described rewarding the dog as an Event…whatever the reward.  For example, not simply rewarding the dog for the correct behavior by placing a treat in front of the dog’s mouth but making the delivery of the reward something more meaningful with chase and praise as the food is delivered.  Or instead of one prolonged tugging session, execute a series of tug-release-tug.   Then the delivery of the reward becomes an Event –  more interactive, building the relationship between handler and dog.  It reminds me of how I made up a “Let’s chase the squirrel” game with my Sheltie Lacey. Chasing squirrels was her FAVORITE thing to do, and our yard was full of them. So, I would ask her to sit, get in “game-on” position and ask her “do ya think there are any squirrels out there?” Then release her and we would run together from tree to tree and look up for squirrels with her barking and running.  After the game was established, I would use the anticipation of that reward event as motivation for her agility performance in training, with the goal of building speed say – across the dogwalk;  and would even sometimes lead out in competition, crouching in game-on position, saying “ooh, do you think there are any squirrels out there?”, just before releasing her.

Here is the link to the interview with Michael Ellis… definitely worth the listen.

 http://baddogagility.com/episode-39-interview-with-michael-ellis-on-tugging-part-1/

So, give some thought to what your unique dog finds reinforcing, use ways to make the delivery of the reward interactive – an Event! — and your training sessions will not only be more fun but will serve to motivate your dog to want to do more!

Tim(ing) and Patience

Breeze at EOWhat an amazing agility spring and summer Breeze and I have had.  It started with intense preparation for International Team Tryouts, held in May and culminated in the 2013 European Open in July.  Held in Belgium, nearly 800 competitors from all over Europe and elsewhere indulged their passion for our sport.  I loved the whole experience. From the preparation  – studying courses and trying out new skills – to Tryouts  – always one of my favorite weekends of the year;  to team practice in California, to the trip to Europe.  What could be better than traveling with my best buddy Breeze and spending time with 30+ teammates,  coaches, supporters and 750 other competitors for a week of agility immersion?   Oh, and how about the little stopover in Paris with travel partners Denise, Kim and Brian.  With our three gorgeous sable shelties, we got a lot of attention!

Facing the challenges put before us, was fun and motivating.  Along the way, my  admiration for Breeze grows and grows.  My teammate for many years, we were in sync, trusted each others signals and could operate on a natural “feel”.  Not that we were perfect – no one was, by the way–but we conquered most of the challenges put before us.

 Here is a highlight video of our experience.  Enjoy!

Now it’s time to switch gears….give more attention to the young boy, Tai.  Over time, and with patience, we are building that trust and timing thing.  Time is a funny thing.  Time is relentless, it marches forward through days, weeks, seasons and years…without permission or possibility of control.

Timing on the other hand is ...the choice, judgment, or control of when (and where) something should be done.

This is what I’m patiently learning with Tai, as we develop our teamwork.  Patience is the key word here.  I’m patiently waiting for that feel thing to kick in, when I’ll know more often where I’ll be relative to my long-strided boy and when he’ll need the information.

 “Patience is waiting…not passively waiting. That is laziness.  But to keep going when the going is hard and slow.  That is patience.” — LeoTolstoy

That perfect timing is not coming fast.  and why does it have to be perfect you might ask?  Well, Tai has speed and he has power which I love but leaves little room for error.  Here are some video clips to illustrate the point.

And another reason for patience is recovering from my recent injury – shin splits – an overuse injury, from trying to rush the process, I am now forced to wait for my body to heal.  But this pause is giving me time to work independent contacts and weaves, revisit jump grids and even write a blog post!  Happy training!

The Information Zone

Photo Mar 11, 10 36 11 PM (1)

Photo by Dianne Spring

A day or two after a weekend trial and once I’ve gained a little perspective,  I like to review my videos and extract the “learning” from the weekend.   This past weekend’s review has me thinking about time and space.  As handlers and competitors we think a lot about time.  We want the cleanest lines on course, the most efficient jumping, and the speediest contacts and weaves to get the fastest times from our dogs.   If we lose a class by half a second, we might agonize over where we lost time on course – a wide turn, an extra stride, etc.  We also think a lot about being “timely”.  Like the three bears story, we want to give information to our dog — not too early, not to late, but at just the right time.

Embedded in that notion of being timely is both a  “WHEN”, and a  “WHERE”.  I think of this as the “information zone” .  The information zone is the space between the obstacles where the dog receives cues from his handler as to where he is going next.   It has two components – a time and a place; a when and a where.  For a cue to be “timely”, the dog has to receive (and understand) the information given by the handler while he’s in that physical space between obstacles so that he can prepare for what is next.   In a jumping sequence it’s well before the dog takes off for the jump because once he is air-borne, physics takes over and there is little he can do to change where he lands.

The information zone is about the WHEN and WHERE for the DOG.  The WHERE of  the HANDLER matters to the extent that the handler’s position on course gives information to the dogs about where he is going next.  But what matters much more is WHEN the dog gets the information relative to his WHERE.  So, we can be ahead of our dogs, lateral from our dogs or behind our dogs as long as the dog is getting the information when he needs it.

One of the biggest challenges I’ve faced in learning to handle my powerful, long-strided boy, Tai, is appreciating how quickly the “information zone” can come and go.  Where little Breeze will put in 2 strides, Tai will put in one stride.  Where Breeze puts in an extended one stride, Tai put in a shortened stride or even a bounce.

Here is an analysis of a sequence from this past weekend.  The video marks the “information zones” between obstacles and what handling cues are used to direct Tai through the sequence.  I hope this helps get my point across and encourages you to look at your own video with these concepts in mind.    Enjoy and happy training!

AKC Nationals – Watching our sport grow

a2043796I just returned from the AKC National Championships with Breeze and I have to give huge kudos to the AKC for putting on another great event.  And kudos to the judges for GREAT courses.   From the Warm-up run to the Finals, the course challenges gave competitors lots to think about and held out multiple options for success.  It made for interesting running as well as watching.

Among the highlights for Breeze and I were the T2B run where he finished 6th out of 222 dogs.  We would have moved up a placement or two, if I had been willing to rip him off the teeter, like so many handlers did.  But I felt like that wasn’t a good tactical move so early in the weekend!    I was too conservative in Rd 1 JWW of the Nationals Championship…clean, but not a great placement.  Then, we had a smokin’ Rd 2 except for when I put him off course in a tricky part of the course.  Still, I felt proud of the run because it was a tough course and the rest of it was perfect and surely would have been in the top 6 or so!  And I learned a valuable lesson (again) about being more precise about where I will be versus my dog at any spot on course.  Then we put it all together in Rd 3, with a pretty perfect run and a 3rd place finish.   That placement put us in the Challenger Rd where Breeze and I had a great opening but after Breeze entered the weave poles he slipped on the packed dirt around pole 3 and lost his footing.  I think he would have recovered if I had just kept going, but I slowed up and he came out.  Bummer, bummer.    The rest of the run was good but I know probably not good enough to have won the class.  Congrats to Barb Davis and her awesome dog Sketcher, who went on to become the 2013 NAC for the 12″ class. Still, I was so proud of Breeze, who at 9 yrs. old still gives me so much.  This was Breeze’s 5th AKC Nationals.  At those events, we have made Finals 3 times and Challenger Rd the other 2 times, with many, many placements in classes along the way.  Here are Breeze’s T2B and 3rd place run in Rd 3 Hybrid Round. (Photo by Great Dane Photos)

For me, one of the highlights of this year’s event was watching the 26” height class, since I KNOW that Tai and I will be there next year.  Wow, Wow, Wow.  There is so much talent among dogs and handlers in this height class.  It was inspiring and motivating and scary all at the same time.  The athleticism of the dogs is astounding and the teamwork between dogs and handlers left me awestruck.  To run clean on those courses was something to witness; but for those who won or placed in classes, it meant setting perfect lines throughout the course while the dogs just powered through.  And it made me wonder…certainly training and handling are huge factors BUT how much is the individual dog’s raw talent and athleticism contributing to the win?  How much is perfect understanding of handler cues?  Surely, these big dogs –  who spend very little time on the ground – much be absolutely sure of where they are going at each moment, in order to both produce the cleanest lines and use all their power and speed.

This seems to be a time in our sport of dog agility, where handlers are seeking new ways of handling, experimenting with handling cues that will produce the tightest turns and the perfect number of strides throughout the course.  Ketschker (sp?) turns and blind crosses abounded at this event.  Sometimes these maneuvers produced perfection, sometimes not so much.  But I guess you can say that about any handling cue.   It’s all about the understanding the dog has at that split second where he needs information about where he is going next.  No questions, just power and speed.

That’s why consistency makes so much sense to me.  In the “language” , I use with my dogs, if I am running hard, I want my dog to run hard too; if I decelerate– even just a bit, I want my dog to understand that we are turning.  If I decelerate to a stop – even for a split second, I want my dog to know that a big turn is coming.  If I’m doing a side change, I want my dog to have no doubt about which way we are turning.  It’s a series of split second bits of information given by me to my dog and his pure understanding of the cues that will hopefully produce the power, speed and accuracy.

I’m confident that my dogs do understand these cues…so, you will not see me experimenting with “K” turns anytime soon.  But it’s fun to watch other handlers get it done a different way!

As for blind crosses, some of what I saw this weekend has me thinking.  I saw blind crosses used after the A-frame (Rd 2 and Challenger) and tunnels (Challenger) that produced the needed side change while keeping the dog in full extension – that is, while dogs were going straight or making a very slight turn — and allowing the handler to get ahead in a critical part of the course.   On the other hand, I’ve watched enough at Nationals and other places, to be suspicious of  blind crosses where the dog is turning significantly on jumps –I can see how the dogs might lose their understanding of shoulder rotation and question what side to come to as their handler rotates her body.  I’m having fun watching and trying to figure out what cues the dogs are reading.  I’m sure there is a bit of that puzzle I haven’t figured out yet.  And for me – who, so far, can execute FC’s without risking knee injury – I see no need to make my dogs think that much.

It’s exciting to see our sport advance and inspiring to watch such great teams pull it all together.  Now, if only the snow and ice would leave, I could start my spring training!

My Agility Garden – Backyard Training

100_3942Today is Backyard Training blogging day and it got me thinking….What would I do without my Agility Garden?  It has adequate space, shade in summer, drains quickly in wet weather, it has grown a full slate of agility equipment over the years and most of all… it’s available whenever I feel the need or desire to train for that 10 minute stretch before dinner or breakfast.  Well, except when the snow flies.  Even then, I’ve been known to work on drills in the snow.

Added to those benefits, I am free to work on skills my own dogs need in short sessions.  I do coursework occasionally, work drills from Clean Run or other sources, or use simple setups to build skills.  It would be easy to just walk outside and fiddle around but I have learned to go out with a plan.  This week’s goals for Tai are to create a more exciting environment to practice contacts, to work weave entries with speed and to work on tough serpentines at 26″ height.

I set up a contact circle as in the diagram below, gathered up good treats, toys, Tai and Breeze.  Breeze was my helper to get Tai into a trial like arousal state.  Even though there are plenty of distractions in the form of neighbor dogs and wildlife in my yard, it’s not like a trial.  This is one disadvantage of backyard training…it can be too familiar for some dogs.  You know the one…my dog is perfect at home.  So, Breeze executed the contact circle in white letters at full speed with Tai watching from his bed.  Then, Tai came out and did the same circle.  Quick release on a couple of contacts and the speed was too much for him and he made a mistake by coming off early. Oops,  lose your turn and Breeze gets to go again. Then Tai is back out and this time he maintained his self-control and we had a party to celebrate and took a break so I could catch my breath!

In another session, I used the black circles to add some jump drills to the contact circle and get some work at a distance from the dogwalk.    This setup has morphed over the week, with the weave poles where the teeter is on the diagram to practice speed into the weaves from the straight tunnel and a line of three jumps between the A-frame and the dogwalk to practice serpentines and 180 degree front crosses after a contact.  The wing jumps have been used to practice “walking into serps” to take out some speed and help Tai master this difficult jumping skill.

I bet you can’t guess where Tai’s errors occurred in our last trial? LOL.  Looking for other approaches to backyard training?  Take a look at the other blog posts on this topic here.  Happy training in your own backyard!

Backyard training blog example

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