Monday, December 27, 2010

How to make the best use of agility class time or why having an agility coach is helpful

Too often we want to run the entire agility course set up in class or at run-thrus because it is there and we want to see if we can "do it"! 

However we know what our own weaknesses are as a team and that there are specific things we really should focus on when in class.  This is especially important during Minnesota winters when we can't be outside to do our own training.  We have to make the best of the class or run-thru situation. 

I have attended group classes at a number of agility schools and I have always been allowed to do part of a course and reward my dog where I wanted to reward my dog.  I've also been allowed to continue on at that point or to repeat part of it and then continue on.  This is how our dogs will learn that we like what they are doing - when we spontaneously reinforce them for what we like.  This is also a time to use a positive reward marker/word.  It is also important for us to have positive reward markers like the word "yes!" that we can take into trial competition and use with our dogs. It means that the word/marker needs to have been paired with a primary reinforcer like food or toys many many times in training before using it in a trial. I use this with my dogs and invariably they will get faster and happier when they hear that word in a trial setting. I use it a lot with contact/tunnel discriminations to let my dogs know they got it right. 

Sadly we usually are more willing to correct our dogs for missed contacts, weave pole or jump in group classes and are less willing to reward our dogs when they do a contact perfectly the first time, or do a difficult weave entry the first time, or do a hard tight turn between obstacles, or send out away from us to do an obstacle on the first cue, or they stay at the start line the first time.  We tend to wait for the mistake to happen, correct it and then sometimes we reward it when they do it right after the correction and sometimes we don't.  It would be so much more effective to reward the dog when the dog does it right the FIRST time!  We all know when we walk a course what the hard parts are for us and for our dogs and so we really do know what we should reward when our dog does it brilliantly the first time! 

Coming back to using class time wisely... it is so important to positively mark the behaviors you like whenever you are training your dog. I very rarely do an entire course or even as many as 10 obstacles without stopping to reward my dog. When things are going well on a course or sequence that is the exact time to stop and reward. Far too often I see beautiful sequences go unrewarded (in spite of my loud pleadings to a student to stop and reward!) and then a bar goes down, a contact or weave is missed and negative reinforcement follows. Meanwhile the beautiful part goes unrecognized and that is the part we want the dog to remember to do again next time!

I feel it is my job as the agility instructor and coach to help students learn the proper time to reinforce their dogs as well as to correct their dogs.   Unfortunately people seem to be more quick to correct their dog than to reward them. This is as much a part of the class as helping them with handling strategies.  I feel strongly that learning proper timing of reinforcement is a huge key to successful agility training.  I try to verbally mark positively when students do things correctly (they don't always hear me but usually others in the class do and add to the cheers). 

Unfortunately I think it is human nature that we are much more comfortable with negative reinforcement than with positive reinforcement.  We are like this with each other, with our children and with our pets.  Even as humans we seem to want more negative reinforcement and are uncomfortable with the positive reinforcement.  This is a sad commentary on our own socialization. 

Think about the "terms of endearment" you have for your dogs when you are training them.  Do you refer to them as dumb, dufus, brainless, goofy, slow or other terms with negative connotations that refer to personality rather than behavior?  I try to use as many positive terms with my dogs when I'm training them and let them know that I think they are smart, brilliant, fast, cute and other descriptors that have a positive meaning.  This may seem like being picky but lots of studies have been done on how our bodies and minds respond to positive terms versus negative terms no matter how sarcastic or funny we think we mean them to be.  It becomes an overall reflection on how your feel about your dog and can affect your overall relationship with your dog.  Too often I hear people refer to their dogs in subtle negative ways which I feel can undermine the self-esteem of the relationship in the long run. 

It is clear that I am able to run entire courses will all of my dogs at trials even though I very rarely practice entire courses.  If the handler needs to practice doing all of the obstacles on a course they should do a lot of it without their dog and use the walk through time in class for that.  In some cases I have had students run their imaginary dog through a difficult sequence so they learn the sequence and handling without bothering the dog.  This is useful for students who get lost on courses.   The dogs when trained well will not have trouble putting an entire course together - it is the human who has trouble putting it all together.  Too often dogs lose motivation and drive while the human is struggling to do too many things on a course. 

I've watched many of the top agility trainers in the country train their own dogs and the most successful ones are the ones who reward what they like when they are training and don't try to get through an entire course without rewarding their dogs.  When rewarding only at the end of the course time after time it is saying that the last obstacle on the course is the one that matters most.  This is why I will often "make lemonade" out of a non-qualifying run by finding something good to mark and leave the ring immediately to reward.  For example with Feisty, if we ever NQ before the table and then she gets on the table and stays we leave the ring then to a jackpot right away to make the table associated with rewards in a trial setting.  If we have NQ'd due to my miscues or due to the dog being stressed I will often find a good note to leave on so I can find something positive for rewarding the dog. 

That isn't to say that I have times when my dogs are really wound up and they get so excited they are not paying close attention to me and do things I don't expect out there at trials on course.  So sometimes we leave early because my dog is too wired to be able to be a teammate and I'll leave early so we don't practice more of the lack of teamwork.  Sensitive dogs do not need much of this and I am usually just smiling and saying "you are naughty!" as we leave.  With a tougher dog who has more of  a tendency to be independent on a course then I will be firmer about taking them off the course to remind them that it is a team sport.  Every dog is different and I respond differently to each dog - treating them as individuals.  However even the toughest dog needs positive rewards on course and I don't let obstacles serve as rewards.  The best reward needs to come from me at all times.  I want to build value in agility obstacles but I will still have a higher value than the obstacles by using high value toys or treats as rewards.  This is really important for the teamwork.  If the obstacles have higher value than the teammate then why should the dog work with the teammate and the dog can just go and do whatever obstacles they want and will be self-rewarded.

Doing these things at a trial means we did a short course at a trial! So my dogs really never figure out that 20 obstacles is an entire course.  Whether we left for good reasons or not so good reasons my dogs only did part of the entire course. My dogs will have done a lot of short courses for one reason or another at trials as well as playing games like snooker which can force us to have short courses!  So I avoid the pitfalls of having a dog start out slow at the start line and finishing fast on obstacles 18-19-20.  I also keep the performance fresh on the various obstacles with the random reinforcement in both training and trialing.  This philosophy has been a huge part of Feisty's training and why now she is doing the table more reliably at trials when she used to avoid doing it at all in trials. 

Going to agility classes, remember it is your money for the class and it is up to you to get your money's worth from class and make your training as effective as possible for your canine teammate.  No one else knows your dog as well as you do.