Archive for November, 2011
Tips for zeroing in on where the issues are:
After a recent lesson where a group was having some trouble with a rear cross sequence, I realized that many of my students are getting distracted by the big picture when they are trying to problem solve. In this case, my students assumed that the rear cross was the problem, and therefore the solution was to practice more rear crosses. Seems simple enough right? They thought so, until I told them that the issues their dogs were having, in my opinion, weren’t actually with the rear cross itself.
This got me thinking about how people approach problem solving and why my solutions are often different from my students’ solutions. Most often our focus is one larger idea such as the dog turning the wrong way on a rear cross, jumping long on a front cross, or turning back into the same entrance of the tunnel on a threadle. These results are easy to see, finding the actual problems and solving them, however, is much more complex.
Problem solving is a huge part of agility, especially since many of us train on our own at some point. Without an instructor to watch our every move, we each have to play the role of our instructor in deciding where the issues are and how to fix them. More often than not, we focus on the larger parts when mistakes are happening, such as the sequence of obstacles or the handling manoeuvre that we are performing. The problem with this strategy is that each of these areas can be broken down into much smaller pieces where the issue in the dog’s understanding actually resides.
Take a simple rear cross for example. The easiest part for a dog to understand is to change direction when you change sides behind them. The dog’s natural tendency will be to see what side you are on and continue in that direction. This is very rarely the part that causes problems with a rear cross and yet it is most often the thing people rehearse when something goes wrong. Here’s a tip to help start deconstructing handling issues. Look at what happened BEFORE the obstacle where something went wrong. Did the dog hesitate before they jumped? Did the dog launch and land long in the wrong direction? Did they curve to the wrong side of the bar for the rear cross? These are the questions that will show you which area to zero in on for your problem solving.
- If the dog hesitated, you were likely struggling to get them ahead of you and therefore showing deceleration and uncertainty before they jumped. They knew something was happening, but weren’t sure what so they jump short but in the wrong direction for the rear cross
- Solution: do the jump without the rear cross, rewarding ahead until the dog will drive ahead of you with no hesitation
- If the dog launched over the jump, they were likely too far ahead of you to see you cross so when they left the ground they were thinking they should go straight ahead
- Solution: practice being more aggressive with the rear cross so that your dog can feel you moving behind them. Set yourself up so you aren’t so far behind or use a verbal cue to turn the dog
- If the dog is strongly curving to the wrong side of the jump, they are most likely hesitating as well and in response you are pulling to that side so they don’t turn off before the jump from the pressure on their line
- Solution: do the jump without the rear cross and put pressure into their line as you do a post turn instead. This will teach the dog to resist pressure and make it easier for you to get behind them without them turning off of the jump
These are just a few common examples of things I typically see during rear cross drills. Notice that all of the problem solving deals with the approach to the obstacle and not what happens on landing. If you fix the cause (inconsistent information), the effect (turning the wrong way) disappears as well. If you focus on the effect, you can’t see the cause.
While I was teaching a recent seminar, I noticed that dogs were questioning some of the information that the handlers were giving. This in itself is normal of course since there were some technical sequences and handling in the drills I gave them.
As I watched the dogs and handlers over the course of the seminar, I realized that many of our dogs do not completely trust the directions we are giving them. This leads them to question our handling and usually check back with the handler before making decisions as to where to go next. This can lead to many frustrating problems such as spinning, barking, curling off of jumps in their line, or choosing off course obstacles. So why don’t they trust that we are giving them the right directions?
Have you ever called your dog off an obstacle they were heading for, or given a late front cross that changed their direction after they were obviously heading straight? How about accidentally pointed your body in a direction that you didn’t want the dog to go then changed it last minute? These are situations where we show our dog that they shouldn’t completely trust the directions we give. This typically results in the dogs checking back to make sure the handler isn’t going to change their mind and causes late commitment points.
So how do we get the dog to trust our directions? In a perfect world, all of our crosses would be on time; our decels would be clear, and our footwork precise. Realistically, this isn’t always going to be the case. I am NOT a perfect handler, nor do I always give my dogs the best direction on course. My dogs do however trust my direction the majority of the time and very rarely look back at me for more direction. So I started thinking about how my training sessions differ from what I’m seeing from my students and I think I came to a very important conclusion.
In my training, I never try to “save” my dog from going off course. I don’t attempt to call them off of the wrong tunnel entrance they are heading to or get them to go to the next jump if they check back with me. I simply stop the exercise, reconnect with my dog, and make sure that my directions I gave to the dog were correct. If they weren’t, then I immediately break down the exercise into the piece that my dog questioned and make sure I am in the correct position to give them the direction they need. This may mean that you break a tough exercise into pieces and take a lead out to be able to get to a front cross on time or show a proper deceleration cue. The important part is that my dog learns to have confidence that I will tell them where to go next.
So what happens when we aren’t in position during a run that isn’t in training? We can’t possibly be perfect all the time and we typically aren’t going to break things down in a trial situation. This is very true, but if we build up the confidence through our training, our dogs are more likely to continue to trust us after we have been wrong on course. If there is more history of giving good direction than bad, the dog will easily gain back any trust that they have lost from a bad run. They will run with confidence, and that is a crucial part of creating a fast, consistent agility dog.
Agility is all about teamwork between you and your dog. Remember that if you want your dog to drive, you have to give them the right directions
This is my story of how I accidentally trained Dice NOT to tug while I was trying to train the opposite…
“Get your dog to tug,” for some of us these are the dreaded words we hear from our agility instructors. We worry that the dog won’t tug and that people are watching. We try to make ourselves seem fun and exciting to the dog by running back and forth while inwardly hoping that they latch on for just a few seconds as the dog looks more and more stressed. Are you getting anxious just thinking about it? I know I am. One of the most common problems I find myself addressing in regards to agility training is dogs that don’t naturally want to tug. Can you train them to tug? Absolutely. But you can also teach them to show anxiety when you show them a tug toy, which is what I inadvertently taught Dice to do. So what’s the difference? I’ve found it has a great deal to do with our body language.
It’s no secret that dogs read body language. This is their main form of communication between one another and with us as well. It makes sense that if we are feeling anxious towards what we are trying to train (eg. tugging) that our dogs will pick up on that stress to some extent. In this way we can transfer that anxiety onto the act of tugging while we are actually trying to encourage it. Many of us unknowingly do this and then get increasingly more anxious as the dog refuses more often. Eventually it becomes both a stress trigger for the handler as well as the dog. Sometimes this can start from another stress trigger. With Dice, it began as general stress when she was in a new environment. Because she was worried about her surroundings, she was reluctant to tug. The more I tried to “be fun” while inwardly being worried that she wouldn’t tug, the more she would shut down. The more often this happened, the greater the anxiety became for both of us. It progressed to the point where if I brought out a toy that I had previously tried to get her to tug with while she was stressed she would shut down immediately. I decided I could either buy a brand new toy every time I wanted to train, or I had to get to the root of this tugging problem. I chose the latter J
There were certain things that Dice was almost always comfortable tugging with at that time: my fabric watch band, and the sleeve of my sweater. I realized that any time I would ask myself “is she going to tug?” I would get an instant stress response from her and she would shut down and look worried. I decided to hold off on doing any specific agility training and just work on my relationship with her. I now realize there was never any stress associated with my watch band or my sweater since I didn’t use them in specific training. I only used them when I was just playing with my dog around the house or absentmindedly in between exercises. I decided to use a few toys at home in the same manner and not worry if she didn’t tug with them right away.
The results were obvious. As we both started seeing tugging as a game and less as a requirement, we both started to enjoy it more. I still wasn’t doing any agility training at the time since I knew that she would easily pattern that all agility must be rewarded with food which is higher value for her (she is a sheltie after all!). We then transitioned the toy into very short crate game sessions that lasted about 10 seconds. I would release her out of the crate, tug for 2-3 seconds, pull the toy out of her mouth, and send her back to the crate. We would only do this 2-3 times and then end the session. If we were trying a new environment, she could usually only do one repetition before noticing her surroundings so I didn’t push her to do more than that.
You’re probably thinking, “wow! that must have taken forever!” It didn’t take that long before I started to see more successes than failures and knew I was on the right track. I had learned from my previous agility dogs that learning the equipment wasn’t as important as having the drive I wanted. I wasn’t doing any equipment at that time, but I was training lots of foundation drills that I could keep fun and exciting for her. If I wasn’t getting the drive I wanted I would simply give her a break for a few seconds and try again. This also gave me a moment to stop myself from getting frustrated. As my attitude towards tugging lightened, she became more confidence and started to be able to tug in different environments. Even to this day, I still have to be careful using toys in stressful environments. I have had people make comments to me about my dog tugging on my shirt sleeve instead of my leash or a toy. What they don’t realize is that tugging on a leash is a huge stressor for my dog because it was one of the things I tried to “force” her to tug on early on. Because of this I never attempt to get my dog to tug on her leash unless she offers it. Tugging on my sleeve, however, is something we both enjoy and my way to keep her confident and happy in environments that would normally overwhelm her. So next time you feel stressed about your dog’s tug drive. Stop. Relax. And remember that it’s all just a game.