Saturday, January 28, 2012

Motivating a Low-Drive Dog

I think most of my friends at LCDA have seen my Boykin, Rusty, leave the ring many times. I had seen people with high drive dogs who would bark continuously until their handler would let them run the course and I just assumed that my dog would be naturally excited about agility like these dogs.  For months I thought that my dog was leaving the ring because he was stubborn or he just didn't like agility. Finally I realized that I shouldn't be blaming my dog and I realized that the real problem was actually me! I wasn't giving him any reason to be excited or to enjoy agility. I would simply walk out to the field, let him off his leash, and expect him to run like a pro. At the end of the run I would tell him he was a good boy, put him back on his leash, and we were done. I wasn't rewarding him as much as I should have been, nor was I playing with him or interacting with him enough. 

Once I realized that I needed to train my dog with a more fun and excited attitude, I went back to the basics. I spent a couple nights a week retraining all of the obstacles with more speed and excitement. Once I had retrained all the obstacles, I started running courses with him without correcting him or using any negative words. If he missed an obstacle, it was no big deal and we kept running. Everything we did was upbeat and happy, which allowed him to enjoy himself on the field.
I think that the best advice I can give to a handler with a disinterested dog is to keep moving! You don't want to get too far ahead of your dog or you won't be able to handle him as well, but you can't just stop or your dog will stop too. The number one reason why my dog has left the ring is because I stopped suddenly to wait for him to finish an obstacle, or I'd make him repeat an obstacle he missed. Since most dogs who are not high drive (at least in agility) run slower than their handlers, it can be tough to keep moving without leaving your dog behind. 

If you run faster than your dog, then you can take smaller strides instead of full-on running. This way you won't get too far ahead of your dog, but he will still see you moving. While your dog is in a tunnel or the chute, pause for a second and then start running again once you see him getting to the end of the tunnel. Every dog runs differently so you have to figure out little tricks to keep yourself moving without getting too far ahead of your dog.

However, what you do before the run is just as important as what you do during the run. If your dog would rather smell the grass than play with you, then it is best to get him out just a couple of minutes before his run. Give him just enough time to go to the bathroom and stretch his legs. Most dogs are very excited to see and play with their owner when they first get out of their crate. The idea is to get him to the start line with the same excitement he had when you first opened the crate door. As you are walking to the gate, keep your energy up. Talk to your dog excitedly and walk quickly to keep him happy and interested in you. If your dog senses that you are excited, then he is going to share the same excitement. I like to do a couple of quick tricks with my dog before we enter the ring, like hand touches, spin, and speak. If your dog likes to play tug with his leash, this is another great way to keep your dog interested in you before a run.

I am happy to say that the dog I run today is a much happier and excited dog than the one I ran 5 months ago. He still occasionally leaves the ring or stops to smell the ground, but he is nothing near as bad as he used to be.  The most important thing to me is that he now runs with me because he thinks it is fun and knows that he is going to get lots of praise and not because I chased him down 3 or 4 times and carried him back into the ring.

Christine Vinciguerra

Sunday, January 22, 2012

The Trials of Trialing

DISCLAIMER: This advice is to newbies trialing from a newbie!! I have less than no expertise or great accomplishments in agility, so take it for what it's worth!

My dog Muggle and I just competed in our 7th agility trial. We've only been competing for a year. Although we're both new to the sport, we now have seven trials worth of experience, and loads of lessons learned on both what to do, and what not to do in preparing for your first few agility trials.

In the days before our first trial, I calmed my frazzled nerves by assuring myself we were ready. Muggle knew all the obstacles (sort of, mostly) and I'd been working on my handling skills. The trial would be just like the many run-thrus we'd gone to; we’d sit around and wait for our turn, run around the field doing what we'd done dozens of times in practice, and then wait for our next turn. It would be a fun, relaxing weekend.


I quickly learned why they call agility competitions TRIALS. If you've never experienced an agility trial, it's very similar to a swim meet: long periods of waiting around for a brief race, followed by more waiting, then another short race, etc. Considering you only actually compete for a total of maybe 10 minutes over the course of the whole weekend, it's exhausting!

It's not only exhausting for the handler, but maybe even more so on the poor, first-time dogs who've never experienced anything like this before. They've spent the past months learning that going to the agility field means "It's time to play!". Instead, they get stuffed into crates from where they watch other dogs play. New and different people and dogs are walking by, whistles are blowing, buzzers are sounding, and dogs are barking. At our first few trials, by the time it was Muggle's turn, he was either so ramped up that he got the "zoomies," or he just didn't care anymore. The whole ordeal was so stressful that he had diarrhea for days after his first two trials!

Lesson learned! An important part of training a new-to-agility dog for trialing should include getting them comfortable with the trials of trialing: long waits in the crate or car, lots of activity going on around them, dogs running (and often barking) on the field, and a few minutes when mom or dad hope they're perfect. No pressure there.

Here are some of the things that have helped minimize the trial of agility trials for Muggle (and me), and that might help other new-to-agility dogs and handlers adapt to the trial environment. 
  • For your first trial or two, only enter 1 or 2 events per day. If your dog is very uncomfortable around new people, dogs, or situations, only enter them on one day. 
  • Choose consecutive events to minimize the time you spend at the field on any one day. If your dog has never been at the field for longer than an hour in class or two hours at run-thrus, just enter the first two events so you can arrive, get measured, run, and go home by noon. Even that will be a long day for a dog that is used to agility in one hour increments.
  • Get them used to their trial's crate. Take that crate to run-thrus, on vacations, day-trips, everywhere! If possible, keep a crate at your home field so the dog becomes comfortable in it. 
  •  Slowly increase the number of events per day, days per trial, trials per year as your dog gets comfortable with the trial environment.
This past weekend's trial marks Muggle and my first complete, from start until finish attendance at a two-day trial. We only ran six events, but we stayed all day both days. Muggle was pretty content hanging out and napping in his crate or socializing for that whole time.
We still come home from each day of a trial exhausted, but not stressed out, and not with diarrhea. Muggle can now relax and even sleep between events. He isn't alert and on guard the whole time. We still have a lot to learn about agility, but we've gotten over the frustration and stress of all that waiting. And sometimes, the off-the-field and on-the-field work all comes together for us. When we're at that point, it's magical. And that's what keeps us coming back again and again, despite the trials of agility trials.

Lynne Hinkey

Sunday, January 15, 2012

What Does It All Mean?!

Many times, you will hear the instructors refer to "criteria" or "independent obstacle performance" or "obstacle vs. handler focus". We often use the words in classes and sometimes we may not have explained this completely. Here is my attempt to explain further.

This is the ideal performance of an obstacle that you have chosen to train for your dog. For example, with a 2-on/2-off (2o2o) position on the contact equipment, is your criteria for the dog to go down creeping slowly or running fast into the 2o2o? Does it matter if they peel off to one side, but still keep their position? Do you want them to stay straight on the plank and wait there until you release? Do you want the dog to go into a 2o2o and nose touch? Do you want the dog to hold his position until released? These are individual questions that you must answer for your own dog. When the instructors ask, "What is your criteria for this obstacle?" this is what we are referring to. With contacts, your criteria may be a running contact. That is fine, but you must be willing to do the work to get a reliable running contact, or suffer the consequences of perfect performance part of the time and not so perfect the other part. (Trust me!)

Independent Obstacle Performance  
This is the performance of the obstacle no matter where you are at in relation to the dogs position. You should be able to send to an obstacle, call over an obstacle, have distance (15-20 ft) from the obstacle and still have your dog perform it correctly. This includes all obstacles - even the weaves. This is taught with proofing, and trust in your dog of course! Proofing is a never ending cycle in your dogs training. Training is a process, and with time you will be able to have independent obstacle performance. Think of how great this would be to have on course!

Obstacle vs Handler Focus
You will learn much of this from Mike Adams, but we have implemented this in our intro classes as well.

In obstacle focus the dog should be able to drive to the obstacle. Your body will tell the dog that this is what you want; you will be running, using a stronger voice, and telling them where to go far in advance of getting there. This is nice for a long line of jumps to a tunnel, or a nice flowing circular sequence.

Handler focus means that the dog must direct his attention to you for further direction. You also use your body by slowing down, using a softer voice, and bringing out a hand signal. Handler focus is great for turns on course or discriminations between different obstacles.

The goal is to be able to walk a sequence and determine whether obstacle or handler focus is better for you at the time. Stuart Mah has taught us a world of information on this topic, and we continue to learn each time we have him for a seminar, go for a private lesson, or even watch him run his dogs.  Think about it from this perspective: highway vs. city driving. When you are on I-26 going to Asheville from Charleston, you can usually set cruise control and just motor away. What if your friend says "I have to go to the bathroom" right when you are about to pass the rest stop exit? You would have to slam on brakes and not be very happy. What if they would have told you that when you were 1 mile back? You could have turned on you blinker, gotten in the right lane, and merged over easily, slowing to make the exit safely. You would be much happier. The same is true for your dog. Early information means everything. With city driving, you must be much more aware - handler focus. (The driving scenario is courtesy of Lynn Weatherall.)

I will also add in
proofing since I mentioned it earlier and did not fully explain it - imagine that. Proofing is training the dog to hold its position no matter what happens. We do this with stays very frequently as well as contact obstacles. There is a popular title "But will he do it if I swing a dead cat". This is the idea. Once in a stay, the dog should hold it no matter what happens. Proofing is trying to find ways for the dog to break the stay or criteria so that you can train for that. What if I run away from the start? What if a whistle blows? What if I throw my arms up in the air? What if I throw the favorite toy? Oooohhhh that may be hard. Exactly! I love proofing because you can see the wheels turning in the dogs brain trying to figure things out. It’s fun! You can think of a zillion different ways to proof. Wanda, Courtney and I have proofed the word "OK" so that the dog will only release on our "OK" This is important in a trial setting when you have all sorts of people yelling and talking. Also, I try to sit Meg in a stay and say "This is Meg”. I usually do this in a trial for the scribe so they can make sure they are scoring the right dog. I am still in the process of proofing my Meg.

Training is a never ending process.  Learn as much as you can to be the best handler you can be

Kathy Price
Meg, WeBe Jammin', Jackson, Mr. Fix, Echo, Blaze, Bongo