Saturday, November 21, 2009

What is drive and how does it relate to ring stress?

This past week at the ASCA National Specialty I spent a lot of time thinking and talking about "drive." I'm planning to breed Sinco to a dog who has not competed in any official performance event. I was asked "does he have drive?" and "does he play with toys?" and "is he fast?" I had to think about all of this quite a bit.

How does one assess "drive" in an adult dog that hasn't been trained or reinforced for doing things fast? or for playing with toys? For that matter, how does one assess "drive" in an 8 week old puppy?

I first gave a lot of thought to the puppies I've personally had under my roof. I've had puppies I picked because they were cute and the "last one", because the breeder said it was the "pick" of the litter, because they were really outgoing and fearless, because they were the best choice out of two and because the puppy picked me. I've had experienced breeders, experienced agility competitors and experienced dog people help me pick puppies for agility and I've made inexperienced choices too. I've looked at dozens of litters of puppies over the years and I've been asked to help pick puppies for various people. I reflected a lot this past week on what are the most important qualities for both parents and puppies to have. I've been reading some articles and discussions about puppy raising and breeding since I've decided to breed Sinco last spring.

First of all what are the qualities of the temperament that we as agility competitors are really looking for in a dog?

1. Self-confidence: this can represent itself as fearlessness, outgoingness and resilience.

2. Sociability with people: desires to interact with people and seeks out people.

3. Biddability: ease with with the dog can be taught and willingness to be a teammate.
4. Quickness: quick to learn and assimilate information, quick to move and body awareness and agileness.

5.  Determination: whether it is determination to go faster, determination to be right or determination to do the job.  This requires focus.

After a lot of thought about this I really believe that "drive" boils down to these five aspects. "Drive" is not just about speed in my mind. When we think of humans who are driven they are goal oriented and determined to do something, so determination is a part of it. This requires intelligence and self-confidence. The quickness is both in mental and physical aspects. If a puppy is missing any one of these five aspects I think their success in agility with a human teammate could require more work to develop it in the puppy.

I've had or worked with puppies who were missing one or more of these qualities. A puppy who lacks self-confidence is a fairly obvious one with regard to agility because these puppies may be more fearful of agility obstacles and/or fearful of new places like trial sites.  However agility training in and of itself can increase a dog's confidence when done properly.

The puppy missing sociability with people is a very hard one to develop a good working relationship with even though it may play with toys like crazy.  I've had a puppy who was very toy motivated but really had very little interest in me and in working with me as a teammate.  This puppy was in it for himself and not really as a team.  He was extremely easy to distract.

Biddability is really important for agility.  A dog has to want to be trained, want to work with people and want to follow instructions in order to be a good teammate in agility.  There is not a lot of room for independent thinking in agility.

The puppy who is lacking quickness in learning may have trouble generalizing to new environments, may take longer to learn complex behaviors and/or may have trouble thinking independently when necessary. Lastly a puppy who is not quick will have a hard time keeping up with the fast pace of agility.

Determination is something that is seen in hunting dogs when hunting, herding dogs when working stock and any dog doing something they really love to do.  This is an important aspect of drive in agility dogs.  Agility is a man-made dog sport so there is not an instinctual desire to do it, dogs have to develop positive associations with it.  Some dogs discover early on that it is a sport they love.

These are all characteristics that can be present in an older dog and can be present without the need for specific "toy drive."  I saw all of these qualities in the dog I plan to breed to Sinco.  I also saw that he did these things in a novel environment and with people he had just met.  What is an unknown to some extent is how would this dog do in a high intensity performance environment such as a large agility trial.  He has done well at smaller 4-H trials.  I have yet to figure out what are predictors of success in a trial setting.  There are the handler considerations - their stress level, experience level and confidence level.  But if those are removed from the equation or made equal such as the case with my dogs then how do you determine which puppies will excel in the competitive arena?

Out of these characteristics I think self-confidence, biddability and determination are the most important aspects. I look at Sinco. She was a very confident puppy - she exhibited all four of these characteristics before she came to live with me. She knew she wanted my attention and she figured out how to escape out of ex-pens to come look for me, she would scream loudly when I left in order to get my attention, she would seek out interactions with people, especially me and she had a lot of confidence in doing things. As she grew her confidence changed. She wants to be right and has a strong determination to be "right." This desire to be right is about biddability.  She wants to be a team player.  When she is not sure how to be "right" she will lose some self-confidence however it is very easy to get it back. The more confident she becomes in herself the better she performs. I saw that at a young age when she would sit faster and better each time when she truly understood what I wanted her to do. That determination is a large component of drive but the underlying aspect is confidence. She was confident when she knew she was right.  From the very beginning many experienced trainers described Sinco as "high drive."  It is interesting because she is not what I would call an "operant" dog - she does not like "trial and error" learning at all.  She wants me to show her what I want and then she will do it.  Luring works well for her.  So how a dog learns is not correlated with their speed in agility.  Sinco has determination, she likes to "do stuff" and she likes to do it well whether that means doing it fast, doing it accurately or doing it well.

When I look at Tay I see something a bit different. She learns very rapidly and she loves to do things with me and she can move very quickly. She can offer behaviors in very rapid sequence and she can be very aware of what behavior is being clicked and when.  She is very quick mentally and physically.  She can come across as appearing to be high drive but she doesn't have the focus and determination that helps to maintain that.  Her energy level is very high.  Self-control is very difficult for her and even though she is very outgoing and very fearless she seems to have low self-esteem. She is anxious when left alone and she has trouble sitting still which interferes with her ability to be a good team player. The breeder selected her for me because she was one of the tougher puppies in the litter. She is very resilient and she is not a soft dog in the usual sense. She needs a firm hand in training because she can lose focus.  However she is prone to stressing in trial environments which makes competition very difficult for her.  She learned agility very quickly and she loves doing it.  However in trial settings she has trouble doing those behaviors which require self-control and she can freeze or shut down when asked to do those in competition. 

Then there is Feisty.  She is a very quick dog both mentally and physically, she is very biddable when she is in the mood, she is very self-confident and she has a lot of determination.   She is very willing to work with the few people that she trusts.  Overall she likes people as long as they have a postive attitude.  She has a lot of speed out there on agility courses which do not include the table.  She likes to make people laugh and she likes to turn negative energy into positive energy.  The way in which she does this is not always the way I would like her to do it.  Is she a team player 100% of the time, no she is not, but when she is then she is really fun.  If she has a different agenda then there is no changing her mind.  In her mind she does answer to a higher power. 

When I evaluated all three of these dogs as puppies I knew they had all of the individual characteristics of my idea of "drive."   However what I have not yet figured out how to evaluate as young puppies is how well they will handle stress like that of a trial environment which contains a lot of negative energy.  Many dogs are very sensitive to negative energy.  Now Sinco is very soft and I just look at her and she will melt and yet she is very able to tune out the negative energy of a trial and tune in to the fun.  Tay and Feisty are more resilient and it can take a stronger correction for things to get them to respond and neither of them ever melt or submit the way Sinco does.  So that response is not an indicator. 

I've seen a number of dogs do things on course that do not make sense at the time however it garners a laugh from the handler, the judge and/or the audience.  Don't underestimate the power of that transformation of energy.  There are a lot of dogs out there like Feisty who will do things because it gets a positive response from others at the trial.  That can be very reinforcing to dogs who are sensitive to energy levels and energy types.  I truly believe this is at the heart of the table problems I have with Feisty.  Judges often smile or laugh when they see her stop and dance around avoiding the table by staying 3-4 feet away from it.  She is about transforming their energy and not about mine.  I know this because I was able to turn the energy around a bit at a small trial when Feisty was doing all kinds of odd things one day.  At the end of the day I asked people around the ring to be totally quiet and not respond emotionally to anything she did except for a perfectly clean run.  After a couple of runs like that she was running clean runs by the next day.  Now if I could influence all judges and exhibitors at trials like that it would be great.  I also think this is what allows her to be a great obedience dog.  Obedience judges just light up when they see her and how cute she is.  Feisty thrives on this.  The one time where our run was just awful was the one time the judge did not smile at us and the worse the run got the more disgusted the judge got with us and Feisty just shut down totally.  So I really believe she responds more to how everyone else around us responds than to me.  I have to work hard to break into that mood of hers. 

I have yet to figure out what it is about crossing over the line between the warm-up area and the ring that causes Tay to totally check-out.  At this point if I try to ask for a stay at the start line I can't even get through to her to make her sit.  If I don't run with her from the start line she can't function.  However this stress affects her ability to do weave entries and dogwalk contacts because they involve self control which she totally loses when we enter the ring.  At the warm-up jump she can sit and stay and I can run around her and jump up and down and she doesn't leave.  So I'm in the process of trying to figure out how to bridge the gap from the warm-up jump to the start line.  I have finally been able to teach her a stay and to do proofing of it to the point where I feel confident she understands the concept.  Until recently I was not sure she really understood the concept.

So I would really like to figure out a predictor in 8 week old puppies for which ones will stress in a trial environment and which ones won't.  I'm not sure that taking them to novel environments is an indicator.  The first time I met Feisty was in a brand new place and she ran around like she owned the place.  Tay very quickly adapted to her new home and did well on the plane ride home in a sherpa bag. 

All of these dogs came to trials from about 10-12 weeks of age onward so they were all very familiar with the environment from a very early age.  All of these puppies were well socialized before 8 - 10 weeks of age.  All of these puppies were viewed as performance prospects by their respective breeders. 

If anyone out there has ideas on how to evaluate how a puppy will handle stress at trials as an adult please let me know.  I continue to ponder this question as I plan to breed Sinco and wonder how those puppies will turn out.