In this post I want to talk about a couple of different things. Pressure in the agility world and letting our mistakes go.
For me these two topics go hand in hand. I have a very hard time letting things go, I hold on to the mistakes I have made and roll them around in my head, trying to figure out ways I could have done things differently and what I need to do or not do in the future.
We all feel pressure in the agility world, from our instructors, from our friends, from ourselves. Most of the time our friends and instructors do not mean to pressure us,but we feel it all the same. We also pressure ourselves, to do the best we can for our dogs, to be a better handler, and a multitude of other things.
With that pressure, mistakes can happen, and when those mistakes happen the pressure increases making us more stressed.
For me I feel intense pressure to always do right by my dogs, to give them the best care I can, feed them the best food I can and so on.
Sometimes to our better judgment, we can let others influence us as to what we should be doing, or we feel pressure to do something because “everyone else is doing it”. I have let that happen to myself, you cave to the pressure and do something that your gut is saying you shouldn’t.
It can be anything, from how to teach your dog a contact to the food you are feeding, to if you should do a front cross. Anything that makes you feel stressed or pressured puts a kink in the relationship between you and your dog. Because you are feeling uneasy about what is happening or you would just rather teach something a different way, all of these things can hinder the game between you and your dog.
My saying in life is “Do what makes you shiny”, I say this because I love to be happy, (who doesn’t? 😀 ) And I love shiny things, shiny things make me very happy. So I want everything to be shiny between me and my dog, because that makes me happy and when I am happy my dog is happy right along with me.
I say this a lot at seminars, think about the way you are training your dog, does it make you happy? Are you excited to teach it this way? Do you look forward to your training sessions with your dogs? If you are teaching something to your dog and you aren’t shiny about it, I would think about a way to teach it that makes you happy! Because if you are happy, you will become a better teacher and your dog will learn the skill faster and with enthusiasm.
So this leads me to letting go of our mistakes, I have been in this boat; I felt pressured to do something, I made a mistake and I couldn’t let it go.
I wouldn’t let the mistake go because I kept telling myself the mistake wouldn’t have happened if I had just went with my gut, it became a vicious circle, I couldn’t fix my mistake because I couldn’t let it go and my dog didn’t understand what was going on.
I have also made mistakes in my training, try something new or different and then look at it down the road and say “uh-oh” to myself, I wouldn’t let this go either, saying things to myself like “why didn’t I see this before?” , ” How did I not see she was doing that during the exercise” etc, etc.
So I have worked hard this year to let things go, to make a mistake and to learn from it, to always follow my gut and do what makes me happy and is what I feel is best for my dogs.
The dog’s don’t know we made a mistake and we can easily teach them something new to help fix the mistake and they never know the difference.
Each person has a different way of letting things go, and it is something that I think everyone has to learn for themselves. I had many friends and family talk to me and explain about letting things go but I had to work it out myself.
One of the first things I did was tell myself that each mistake was an opportunity to learn from, to make me a better trainer. And to know that my dogs don’t know its a mistake, and it can be fixed.
I never realized how much not letting things go and giving in to pressure affected my training and trialing with my dogs, now that I know it, I can see the impact it had on me and how I can fix it.
So my advice to anyone who feels like they are letting their mistakes bog them down or feel pressured.
Think about all the things you are currently teaching your dog, do you like how you are training the behavior? (for example, do you like teaching your dog 2o2o or would you rather do a running?) Are you happy with how things are going between you and your dog while training? If you hesitate or say no, then think of different ways to teach a behavior that you enjoy doing.
I LOVE training with a clicker, so I will always try to train things with a clicker, because I truly enjoy doing it that way.
Getting over pressure is harder to do, but I try my best to find my “happy place”, find the good things and know that sticking to my gut feelings is what I should do, it is best for me and it is best for my dog.
I use treats for almost all of my training sessions, most all dogs are food motivated, and you can provide a wide variety of exciting treats for your dog.
So why treats over toys?
I am not against toys, and I use them sometimes in my training sessions depending on the needs of my dog. The main issue I see with using tugs, or toys for 100% of the training session is that sometimes (especially the high drive dogs) can become so focused on the toy that they lose sight of what the training session is about.
I have used toys with dogs that need that drive and need to be turned on, but if I have a dog who is already “on” and has great drive, I want that dog to be thinking and learning during their training session. I have seen many a dog so lost in chasing their toy after a set of weave poles, after a contact etc, etc, that they can hurt themselves, and the handler won’t even know it until their adrenaline slows down.
But my biggest gripe with tug toys is the tugging itself, from a massage and bodywork standpoint I have worked on so many dogs who have neck and back issues from the swinging and jerking that tugging involves. And I will make a disclaimer here, tugging is also great for dogs if done correctly, let the dog do the tugging, let them be in control of their body and determine the speed and “roughness” of the tug.
When I tug with my dogs i keep my arm lowered, so their head and neck are in line with their spine, I don’t jerk the toy back and forth, I let the dog choose if they want to jerk their head.
I also don’t pull back on the toy, I will hold it for them and let them control on much they want to tug.
I think tugging is a great tool in agility, and I play tug with my dogs to help build strength as well as build drive if I need it. But I let the dog choose how to use their body with the toy, I don’t like to jerk them back and forth or raise them up in the air.
I also don’t believe that in order to have a high drive agility dog they have to play with toys or tug, I believe you should use what works for you and your dog; as a team. Some dogs need toys to build drive, and I am all for that, but I don’t believe it should be a “must” for every single dog.
Using food for training
The most common thing I hear when I talk about using food for training is that it will teach my dog to stare at me. Some of the most amazing Superstakes dogs I know are trained with 100% food, it is all in how you use it.
When I am first starting out training a behavior the food will almost always come from me, depending on what I am asking the dog to do as the behavior progresses i will then start targeting the dog.
I use a clicker and a target in all of my training, with targets; I do not put food down on the plate I teach my dogs to touch the target. Sometimes after touching the target they will come back to me, and sometimes they will go on to another target or to an obstacle.
My secret weapon in my training is the moving wait. (Click here for the Moving Wait blog post)
A moving wait is where I will ask the dog while running, either between obstacles or target to stop or wait. I am not asking for a certain position such as laying down or sitting, I am just asking them to stop.
So for example; lets say I am working on a pinwheel, and my dog just performed it beautifully, and I want to reward them for it, i will tell the dog “wait” and I will run out to them to treat them, after i have given them the treat i will then return to my original position and ask them to continue on if there is more to the sequence or just finish over the last jump etc.
This accomplishes many things at the same time, I can give the reward to the dog while they are out away from me, not having to always bring them to me for a treat which can lead them to focusing on me. This is also the first step in building confidence for distance work, most all handlers ask their dogs to come into them for a reward, tugs and treats both. So everything that is fun always happens right next to you, I want my dog to know that if they do something great I will run out to them to give them a treat, they don’t always have to come to me. This is an amazing confidence booster and the very first step to having a great distance dog.
The moving wait also helps me with the delivery of my food, because the dog never views the moving wait as a negative (the dog sees it as “here she comes! I must be awesome!) i can ask the dog to wait after they have done something I want to reward them for, contacts, weaves, a great sequence etc, etc.
I also use a lot of targets in my training sessions, using the clicker i teach my dogs to touch the target with either their nose or with their feet. I will then do some basic target work asking them to move farther away from me to touch the target. I will then start bringing the moving wait into my targeting sessions. For example the target is 15 feet away from me, I send the dog to the target once they touch it i ask them to wait, I will then run out to them with their reward and treat them, I will then go back to my original position and call them to me or re-send them to the next target.
I want to create a thinking dog right from the very beginning of my training, by using the clicker and targets i am letting the dog work problems out for themselves. What this will translate into is a dog who can make decisions on the course without needing me to help them, which in turn can create a very successful distance dog.
Where and when to feed your dog
Another important key to training with food is to not always feed the dog in front of you, you want to vary feeding the dog on your side (both left and right) and feeding in front of you, this way you won’t create a dog who is always trying to get in front of your legs to get their treat.
If I am treating my dog to the side (they are either on my left or right side) i will use the hand closest to them, this way I am not reaching across my body to give them the treat.
When I am first starting out with a young dog they will get treats very often, as they start learning the behavior I will start to vary when they get the treats.
So for instance, my dog does a set of weave poles, she does them all but not at a real fast speed. Instead of giving her the treat I will pet her and tell her how good she is but no treat. The next time when she goes through she will probably weave faster because she wants the treat she knows I have, this time I will give her the treat.
By not giving them the treat for every performance, even though it was correct, you create more drive; because the dog will want to put in 110% instead of the 85% they put in before.
So in summary i love using treats with my dog, they are versatile and most dogs are food motivated. I am also not “anti toy” i do use toys, when I feel that my dog needs it, and if it works for us as a team.
This article was previously published in Clean Run Magazine – October 2011
Amanda Nelson has been competing in agility for the past 18 years, she currently travels around the country teaching seminars and competing with her two Border Collies; Try and Nargles. She also runs Fluid Motion Agility which offers two different forums, the Training Forum and the Canine Natural Health Forum, you can visit her website at www.fluidmotionagility.com
I had posted a previous blog about how I use the Moving Wait as the core of my distance training as well as using it for impulse control, this post will expand on that concept. https://fmagility.wordpress.com/2012/02/02/and-wait/
So one of the first things my dog’s learn as puppies is to do a Moving Wait, it is the base on which I build their Distance Skills, Directional Skills, Confidence Building, Start Lines, and Life Skills.
How is a Moving Wait different then teaching a normal stay (or wait)?
When I teach a MW (Moving Wait) I teach the dog how to move, stop their feet and then move again. The difference between teaching a MW to teaching your dog to do a sit stay etc, is that most dogs don’t know how to apply the stay while moving.
So for example, you have taught a stay at the start line, but you have taught it with the dog in front of you already in a stopped position. So the dog learns how to stay, but not to stop while moving.
So I want my dogs to learn to feel their feet moving, stop, and move again.
I don’t ask for a position for their wait, I just want them to stop, Nargles most often lays down and Try will stand, either position is fine with me as long as their feet stop moving when I say wait.
You can see the beginning stages of teaching a MW with baby Nargles on the previous MW post here: https://fmagility.wordpress.com/2012/02/02/and-wait/
Using the Moving Wait in Agility
I will use a MW when I first begin teaching distance, asking the dog to wait when they are out in the middle of a course to go out and treat and reward them.
Why do I do this?
When you want to reward your dog where do you do it? Most handlers bring their dogs back to them, but what you really want to reward is that distance, so I want to reward them out there, this helps build their confidence, and confidence is the key to any distance training.
A lot of the times I will ask the dog to wait after they just did an awesome sequence at a big distance, for example; Nargles just did a pinwheel at 20 feet and she has never done anything at that great of a distance, I will ask her to wait after the pinwheel, I stay where I am, but i say “YES! Good girl! So Good!” , I will then redirect her back on course again. And sometimes I will go out to her to reward with a treat or a pet, I vary between going out to them or staying where I am and telling them how good they are.
By doing this I am building her confidence away from me at a distance, one of the keys is to continue working, if you go out to the dog to treat them you need to return back to your original handling position and continue on with the sequence. Same with if you stay where you are and verbally praise them, you need to praise them and then continue on with the sequence, that is all part of the MW.
I use the MW for life skills as well, waiting before going out the door, waiting in the car while I unload things. I have also used it when walking or at agility trials if I need them to stop right away. Because I have done so much work with the MW both of my dogs understand how to stop their feet even with an adrenaline rush and how to control that adrenaline through the Impulse Control games we have done. The MW has saved me a time or two in emergency situations when I need my dogs to stop and stay there until released.
I use the MW to teach impulse control as well, in the previous blog post I posted a Youtube video showing my dogs working with the Wait Game. I use this game a lot to teach impulse control, this game can also be used to increase motivation, increasing that drive to want to get the toy or food tube.
This Youtube video clip shows the beginning steps of teaching a MW, using the MW as a reward during training and it also shows myself with Nargles and Try playing the Wait Game outside with more room.
People who know me, also know that i LOVE moving waits! Both my dogs Nargles and Try are taught moving waits right at the beginning of their agility career. I use them almost all the time, training and trialing both.
A moving wait is great for building confidence in dogs as well as working on impulse control for dogs who need that as well.
I play the wait game with both Nargles and Try all the time, when i first started it i train them alone first and then start working them together.
Before i start playing this game with them i want to make sure they both fully understand what “wait” means.
You will also see in the clip that i release both of the dogs with their names, i do this so that i don’t end up with both the dogs releasing when i say “Okay”. They know to go get the toy when they hear their name.
I started teaching a moving wait to both Nargles and Try when they were puppies, along with the other TEAM training games, it started teaching them confidence skills as well as impulse control.
Currently in the works at Fluid Motion Agility is a mini series covering how i teach the moving wait, the mini series will be available to everyone through the Fluid Motion Youtube channel.
In the meantime i have uploaded a clip talking about a game that i use in my TEAM Training program and is also one of the ways i use my moving wait to teach impulse control.
Most of the time when i ask people “how long do you train for?” i get lots of different answers, some may have short training sessions that only last 5-10 mins once a day and others may have longer training sessions that last 30 minutes with short breaks during the session. The length of a training session depends greatly on the dog and the handler both. I have seen some dogs do better with longer sessions and i have also seen some people do better with short sessions, so the amount of time that you spend training each day depends on both handler and dog.
The one thing i have found that works well for most all dogs (and handlers) is short burst training sessions.
A short burst training session is a certain amount of time spent training, followed by that same amount of time spent playing. In most cases i spend between 1-2 minutes training and then i spend 1-2 minutes playing with my dog. I do this for pretty much all of my training sessions, doesn’t matter what i am working on. I will do about 3 reps of this; so 1-2 mins of work, 1-2 mins of play, and repeat that series twice. So the dog ends up doing a working session 3 times and a play session three times.
For what i have seen with my dogs and students dogs is that it keeps the dog’s (and the handler’s for that matter) mind fresh, a lot of times during training the dog works really well in the beginning of the session but towards the end you sometimes either end up with a dog who seems to be going through the motions but not really engaged or a dog who starts to lose motivation and drive. This can happen even with a short 5 min session, but when breaking up you training session into 1-2 minute intervals with play in-between it gives your dog’s brain a chance to reset and not start to shut down or go into auto pilot.
The play time spent with your dog can be anything that your dog likes doing, but don’t make it into another “fun” training session, like asking your dog to do tricks etc etc. It needs to be actual play, something that your dog can just have fun doing and not have to think about.
I do all of my training this way and i have noticed a huge difference in not only my dogs attitude but also in how well they retain the exercise i am teaching. I have also noticed that i train much better with the shorter intervals as well.
First lets define “success”, everyone has a different idea of what success means to them. For some it may be earning a title, winning a championship, running a course clean or just getting past obstacle two. Just because one’s person’s idea of success may be to win the championships doesn’t mean that the other person’s “successful” run of getting past obstacle four is any less of an achievement.
Sometimes in agility we lost sight of what this sport is, having fun with our dogs. But lets get real, its nice to win, its fun to Q. That doesn’t mean that we should all go hardcore and push our dog past their limits for the sake of a qualifying run. In my perfect world people would have fun with their dogs in every run and Q every now and then too.
Sometimes it seems in the agility world there are two groups of people those who “just want to have fun with their dogs” and “those who what X, Y or Z title”
The “i just wanna have fun group” will at times attack the “title group”, and then the “title group” will come back at the “fun” group.
Why can’t we all just get along?!
I just wanna have fun, and I would like to Q every now and then as well. I think we should combine the groups, I don’t think there is anything wrong with someone wanting to Q, and i think the whole point of this sport is to have fun. So i say, let get together people!
So then the other side of this is if we wanna have fun with each run then we need to Q with each run. As awesome as this sounds, i honestly think it would get pretty boring, for me part of the fun of training dogs for agility is fine tuning our skills. If i got a Q every time i ran then i would have nothing to work on at home, i like going to a trial and seeing a couple things that i need to work on either for myself or with my dog, then testing out that skill in the next trial.
A criteria has to be in place in order to set goals for yourself, and yes sometimes that criteria can be difficult and some handlers and dogs may have a harder time then others reaching it.
My dog Mardi was a fun dog to run and to train, she was born with one eye so there were things i did differently with her then what i did with my other dogs. Mardi had a terrible time with weave poles, she wasn’t to bad as long as she could see me, but if i was on her blind side more then likely she would pop out and then go really slow the second time through. So some courses were very hard for us if there wasn’t a nice way for me to switch sides for her in the weave poles.
My goal with Mardi was to earn her NATCH, we earned that and i set my next goal of a Versatility NATCH. That meant having to do Weavers, lots of Weavers….. And it was a long road and a hard one, but i didn’t want the criteria for Weavers to change, Was it difficult? Yes. Was it an amazing accomplishment when she finally earned it? Oh heck yes.
During my time trying to earn Mardi’s Versatility NATCH, i did realize that we may not get it. Did it make my runs with Mardi any less special or fun? Nope. I would keep plugging away at it and maybe modify my goals to earning 50 points in Weavers instead of the Versatility NATCH and when she got that; then adjust my goals again.
So i didn’t set goals for Mardi i knew she had no hope of meeting, I didn’t set out to earn Top Weavers Dog of the Year, could i set my goal for Top Tunnelers Dog or maybe Jumpers? Sure! We were pretty good at those two classes!
To me it is no different then the high school track star, just because they are awesome in high school doesn’t mean they will be able to win the Olympics.
So my idea of success is different for each dog i run. Some may not have the same “success” as other dogs, some may never earn the titles that other dogs of mine have earned. That doesn’t change my view of what the criteria should be and it doesn’t change how much i love running with my dogs and how special each and every Q i get is.
Mardi would never have been able to do the bonus line stuff that Try is doing. That doesn’t make Try a “better” dog, it doesn’t make the titles that Try earns any bigger or better then what Mardi earned. Try just has a different set of goals and different successes then what Mardi had.
My overall goal for all of my dogs each and every run is to walk in the ring and handle the best i can and go out there and defeat that course.
Oh, and to not tip and fall……. that would be my other goal………
Frustration. Its that dirty word in agility that no one wants to talk about. Trainers don’t get frustrated with dogs while training, if a dog isn’t learning something; then us as the patient beings that we are should help our dogs through their issues with a smile on our face. Well, that doesn’t happen for everyone. We are human! We get frustrated! The key to training a dog is knowing when to walk away.
Nargles is teaching me all kinds of new things about frustration. 😀 She is much different to train then Try and i am working through things that i never had to deal with when training Try. For example, my 17″ Border Collie takes a country mile to make a turn, this is something that i am currently training with her. And not only does she not want to turn but she likes to scream when i do make her turn, which i am not real fond of the ear piercing noise when trying to work her. So do i get frustrated? yes….. oh yes…….
So what do you do? Simple answer, walk away. Most people have a hard time keeping a calm look on their face and in their body language when they are frustrated, your mind may be telling you to be calm but your body will be doing otherwise.
So for example i was doing some pinwheel work with Nargles, and she was just not getting it, i know i need to walk away but she hasn’t ended on a good note, which is how i end every training session. So instead of trying to do the pinwheel again and hoping we can get it right, i took her over to a set of three hoops that i was working Try’s “Go” exercise on, i let her do three nice and easy hoops; told her how awesome she was and went in the house.
I gave her and myself some time to cool off, and we went back out to the pinwheel of doom later that evening, and what do ya know! She hammered it!
Sometimes dogs (just like people) will learn things faster if you just let them walk away and process it. I never let them end on a bad note, i always let them do something else and be successful and then i will let them stop.
Being frustrated isn’t bad, but sometimes it comes across in the agility world that if you are a “good” trainer you are never frustrated and you have the patience of a saint. Frustration becomes bad when trainers don’t know what is happening and continue to drill the dogs, my golden rule is if they get is wrong 3 times in a row, step away and took a look at yourself, your dog and the exercise, end on a good note and let everything cool off. Then when you come back that evening or the next day you and your dog both are coming at it with a fresh mind.
Just always remember when to walk away.
For the past few days I have been starting Nargles on her weave poles, i had trained Try using sets of four poles with wires on them, so that is how i started with Nargles. As i was watching my video clips of her weaving i wasn’t liking the way she kept following the panels instead of focusing on the poles, as i started to move the wires away i found she was getting frustrated and confused because she was more focused on the wires then the poles themselves.
So i spent the day staring at my set of weave poles, willing them to tell me what i should be doing with them. I love clicker work and love watching the dogs learn so i decided i want to free shape Nargles through the poles. I started her with just two poles and at this stage she is just running through two poles. As i progress i will bring in another two poles, what i am planning on doing will be a variation of Susan Garrett’s 2×2 method with my own spin that will work for my dogs.
I think i will also run Try through the steps with Nargles as well, she already has pretty decent poles but it never hurts for an older dog to run through the basics and have some fun. (and lots of treats!)
So after i finally made up my mind (which can be quite an event…) i thought to myself “is it okay to change your mind?” It seemed really hard for me to change mid stream so to speak, like it was against some unspoken rule. But i knew deep down that using the wires with Nargles was not going to work like i wanted it to, that doesn’t make the wires a bad training tool, just not the right one for her.
So even though i changed pretty early for her, she had only done the weave poles with the wires perhaps 3 times, what if it had been more? What if i had done it for months? Would it still be okay to change? Yes. absolutely, whole heartedly, beyond a shadow of a doubt. YES.
I see many dogs who struggle with a training method or a certain performance on equipment (like contacts) that would love to have their owners change mid stream. Not all training methods work for all dogs, and not the exact steps to a training method works for every dog. modify it, change it and make it yours, make it work for you and your dog as a team.
So i am off to do some more free shaping with Nargles and my mind now knows after many hours of talking to itself, it really is okay to change.