Monday, April 30, 2012

When Pigs Fly

Parker and I finished Obstacle Skills 2 in December 2011 and started Beginning Handling on January 5th.  Between those two dates Parker, my Labrador, started refusing the dog walk.  Being new to this sport I was baffled that Parker was looking at the dog walk like he had never seen it. I tried click-treat, click-treat to get him to put his front feet on the ramp. That’s as far as I could get. Parker would start panting, his eyes bulging and legs shaking. What the heck was going on?  I received lots of advice from my LCDA friends. “He thinks it’s the teeter and doesn’t understand why it won’t go down.” “He can’t see the other side and is afraid of heights.” “Try having him go down instead of up.”  All this made sense to me, after all, they all had a lot of experience and members always have really good suggestions. But, nothing helped.

I read that Jane Killion would be here March 10th and would work on “issues” so I signed up for the Saturday morning Introduction class, the Saturday afternoon session on Issues, and the Sunday morning Handling class. I didn’t take the Sunday afternoon Course Analysis session because I didn’t feel that we were far enough along to justify $50 for that class.  I wrote in my registration the Parker wouldn’t go over the dog walk.  Saturday morning Jane said “We’ll get your dog over the dog walk.”

On Saturday, I got to handle Jane Killian’s cattle dog over the dog walk with the instruction “click, throw the treat off the dog walk to give the dog relief from stress, and repeat.” Jane Killian asked the group if they wanted to address our issues on Sunday since we didn’t get to them on Saturday. The group said a resounding “NO.”  I kept my mouth shut. Sunday morning I got to run Parker over the dog walk when it was flat on the ground. Then we left because our time was up.

On the drive home I though about the money I‘d spent on this seminar and was disappointed that Parker still wouldn’t go over the dog walk. BUT (and this is a very big BUT) I had learned to “free shape” a dog. No collar, no leash, no correction, just click and reward when you get an approximation of what you’re trying to teach. What could I do with this new skill? I free shaped Parker to put his toys by name into his toy box. I free shaped him to sit in a rocking chair. Starting on March 12th, I went to the agility field at least four times a week, loaded with canned cheese and turkey hot dogs.  We’d do some skill sets and include the dog walk. If Parker got on the dog walk he got a hot dog thrown on the ground when he started shaking to “relive his stress.”  If he took a step forward he got a click and cheese. I e-mailed Jane Killian my frustration and she said “Keep trying.  He will do it.”

Day after day of get-on-the-dog-walk-get-a-hot-dog, and step-forward-click-get-cheese-step-forward-click-get-cheese, jump off, and repeat. Free Shaping--really??  There were days when I wanted to grab him by the scruff of his neck and throw him on the darn dogwalk.  Parker would get to the crest of the dog walk, freeze, and jump down. I wouldn’t let my frustration show.  Just a pleasant “What you gonna do?” and repeat the process over and over and over.  Before we left the field each day we always did something I knew he’d do well so we wouldn’t leave on a bad note. One month and one week later, April 18th, Parker walked to the top (click-cheese) and walked over and down like he’d never had a problem.  He went over starting at both ends, handled from both sides, and finished up doing it in a skill set.  Thanks Jane Killian!

Diane Rutledge and Parker


  1. Haha! What did I tell you? Just when you think none of this free shaping stuff is working and it will never happen for your dog, the dog just up and DOES it one day, and there's no turning back. GOOD JOB!!! You should be very proud of yourself!

    I was not joking when I said you will now have to deal with him running off course to do the dog walk. You'll need to set up sequences where the dog walk is NOT the next obstacle but it's a tempting off course. Remember the Zeros and Ones - ignore every time he takes the dog walk and click treat every time he takes the correct obstacle. Again, you'll think he's never going to get it and he's going to go off course to the dog walk for the rest of his life, but, trust me, all of a sudden he'll stop running off course to the dog walk :o).

    If you start running into trouble with him going off course to the dogwalk I can send you some quick sequences to train him not to do that.

    So great, thanks for sharing!


  2. Way to go, Diane and Parker! Free shaping is a great training tool :-)