Thursday, March 24, 2011

Building drive and building self control

These are not mutually exclusive concepts.  Having a lot of young dogs in class right now I am thinking a lot about which dogs need more drive building, which dogs need more self control and which handlers need more drive building and which handlers need more self control (to slow down their training goals).  I frequently get questions about concern about whether a puppy has enough drive or enough control. 

I know from experience it is much easier to train a dog to do agility slowly than it is train it to go fast and I am very careful to monitor every step in a student's training to ensure that speed is being encouraged and reinforced.  Some dogs are naturally speedy and so much so that they are not really thinking but just going.  Dogs need to be able to think and that usually means go slowly to learn something.  Most of us did not go fast the first time riding a bike, driving a car, walking or any sport or physical activity.  We need to go slowly to process new information.  As we get confident we get faster, especially with encouragement.  Even doing this it is still hard sometimes for newer students to be able to encourage speed in their dogs.  There is a small percentage of dogs who naturally want to do everything fast and are very reactive to motion and these dogs need more self control training. 

Some of the things I want to see early on in a young dog's training long before agility equipment is introduced is that they can send away from the handler to a target and a toy with speed.  If there is no speed here it will be even harder to get them to send to a jump with speed.  If the dog learns to go ahead of the handler with speed then it will be much easier to get speed in agility as well as to get distance.  I also want dogs who are thinking.  Thinking dogs are much better at problem solving, much better at generalizing to different types of equipment and to different environments, much better and body awareness and have an easier time of having sustained focus.  If we are always luring (not that all luring is bad mind you), always showing them what we want and not ever letting them learn on their own and make mistakes then we will have dogs who are very dependent on their handlers to be able to do obstacles.  This lack of independent thinking makes training independent obstacle performance and distance very difficult.  Dogs need to be willing to go out and make mistakes in order to do well with distance in agility.

Using shaping to teach various tricks that use their bodies differently, that involve making noise, that cause movement of objects and that are complex can make agility training so much easier. 

The things I want to see in my own dog and in my student's dogs before we introduce obstacle training (aka what is taught in our sports foundations classes - pre-agility foundations)

1.  Student and dog's ability to learn new behaviors with shaping including tricks that make noise and/or use various body parts - especially rear legs.
2.  Ability to send to a mat, target and a toy with speed.
3.  Self control - demonstrated in numerous ways with various games we play in pre-agility foundations classes.
4.  Dog is comfortable walking on different surfaces including ones that move.
5.  Student understands dog management skills and can use them effectively.
6.  Student is working on loose leash walking.
7.  A good (not expected to be perfect in young dogs) recall with distractions.
8.  Able to be quiet in a crate during class time.

I have found these skills are the most useful for agility training and overall success in the hectic agility class environment as well as in other performance sports.

It is not good for herding to have your dog pull you into the arena - the sheep will read that the dog is in control and be very unsettled and not trust the dog or handler and it will be a wild ride.  When dogs walk in under control the sheep are settled and more trusting of the situation so they will be calmer which will help the run be more successful.  The same is true in agility, when a dog pulls you into the ring very often the dog is in charge on the course and the handler appears to be going along for the ride.

In the over 20 years I have been doing agility I have seen lots of dogs with different personalities.  From my perspective the most difficult dogs to work with in agility are the ones who have high reactivity to motion, noise and/or dogs.  These dogs have the most difficult time developing the sustained focus needed for performance sports and they are prone to having high adrenaline levels which interferes with the brain's ability to think clearly.

Sometimes highly reactive dogs also come in high energy packages and sometimes in low or moderate energy packages.  Sometimes highly reactive dogs can be high drive dogs in very quiet and calm settings but they have a difficult time being high drive in distracting environments.  In my mind "high drive" refers to a high desire to work with a human and a high desire to do what is asked/taught.  There are high energy dogs and/or highly reactive dogs who are not high drive, in my opinion because they are in it for their own reasons and have little use for humans in their lives.  These dogs require a lot of work to develop a good working relationship with a human. However very often high energy and/or highly reactive dogs are considered high drive without regard to how they interact with people.

I think it is important in the early pre-agility training to get to know your dog/puppy and determine whether you will need to work more on self-control exercises, more on drive/speed building exercises or an equal amount of both.  This assessment is important for channeling the handler/student's training time and resources.

These are three traits which can come in any combination in your agility dog (do the permutations and there are a lot of combinations possible here):

low, moderate or high energy
low, moderate or high drive
low, moderate or high reactivity

Personally I like moderate to high energy, high drive, and low to moderate reactivity for the ideal agility/performance dog.  These dogs tend to need an equal balance of all the exercises - if I find a dog is able to learn stays and general self control exercises very easily and has a harder time putting speed/energy into other types of exercises then I will focus more on drive/speed exercises and less on self-control.  The opposite also applies. 

Right now in my household I have a myriad of combinations of energy level, drive level and reactivity level.

I have a moderate energy dog who is very high drive - she has a strong willingness to please, strong sustained focus on tasks at hand and if going fast is what I want she is very willing to do it and if going slowly is what I want she will try to do that too. As a young puppy she was very reactive to movement, however I worked very hard on it from when she was 8 weeks old.  She could not be inside where agility was going on for more than a few seconds for most of her puppyhood.  When she was about 18 months old she was able to sit next to an agility ring while dogs ran through the tunnel and she would look at them and look back at me without making a sound!  But that took lots and lots of gradual work on learning to focus around moving dogs.  We only stayed a minute and left but that was how long it took to get to that point working on it very hard all the time.  I then started to take her to group agility classes for the purpose of working on her focus on me while other dogs are running agility.  If I always trained her by myself I never would have been able to work on that. Now at almost 5 years of age she can be crated next to the ring and she only barks when I run another dog. 

I have a very high energy and high drive dog whose high energy can interfere with her ability to focus.  She is also highly sound and energy reactive which also interferes with her ability to focus.  I took her to many group agility classes when she was around 2 years old.  This helped a lot for her to learn to focus on me in loud and busy environments with lots of different types of energy around.  When she is able to focus she is very much there and able to sustain her focus and do tasks at hand fast and accurately.  She loves to learn new things.  She likes to think things are her idea most of the time so that is a challenge but at the same time she likes to be with me all the time so ultimately she really likes doing things with me (but don't tell her that!)

I have another dog who is very high energy but has a very hard time focusing on tasks at hand.  She seems to have an attention deficit disorder no matter how hard she tries to do a task at hand she is very easily distracted by her own busy mind and busy world.  Stays are almost impossible for her.  She can do things well that involve movement but she will rarely do the same thing exactly the same way twice.  She loves clicker training and is very operant but she can get into patterns very easily and not always pay attention to the correct verbal or physical cue.  She has trouble "filtering" her environment and sorting out things that are relevant from those that are not.  I consider her to be have moderate drive but she is capable of speed when she can focus. 

Then I have my youngest dog who is in many ways a very ideal combination of traits.  She is  very high energy - I have never seen her walk on her own - she has a stop and a 90mph button and nothing in between - yet.  She also has incredible sustained focus for a young dog.  She is not that easily distracted from her work (for a 9 month old puppy) - whatever it is when she understands what I want.  She is very high drive - she loves to learn new things and loves to do anything and is very much of a team player.  She is more of a team player than I ever thought she would be but it is because I learned early on that toys have much higher value to her than food so once I started using toys for recall rewards instead of food she started to pay closer attention to me.  She very much wants me in the picture and if I walk away she will even drop her toy and come with me - that is huge progress for her!  I did work hard on this from the start because I knew at 3 days old she could easily become a very independent dog and I didn't want her to do that and it may have helped her that I've been the central human in her life since she was born.  I can work on an equal balance of self control exercises with drive/speed exercises and she sees them all as fun and "work" and she likes work.  She likes to do stuff.  While being a team player in herding is a long ways off she is already becoming a team player in her early pre-agility training and pre-obedience training.  I have not had a successful high drive AND high energy stock dog before so that will be a new experience for me.  High drive and high energy agility and obedience dog I can handle and will enjoy the challenge!

My retired Border Collie was probably the worst combination of traits for a successful performance dog.  He was a fast agility dog but he was highly reactive to other dogs and to movement and his adrenaline levels could escalate quickly.  This interfered with his ability to focus in a trial environment.  These dogs are the hardest ones with whom to have success in agility.  They are a rush when they run well because they are fast and they can win their class.  Then they can be eliminated on the next run. They can be very inconsistent due to their adrenaline levels getting high and out of control from being so reactive to their environments.  These dogs need to work on self control and focus from the very beginning - as young as possible and the primary exercise for these dogs is self control/focus with distractions.  I would only work on that and until I could get that I would not do agility training with a dog like this.  Managing dogs like this outside the ring is exhausting and stressful for the handler.

So this is why I strive for my students to have a good balance between drive and control so they can find their trialing experiences enjoyable and successful.

1 comment:

  1. This is great information! I'm working with a distracted 4 year old Vizsla, and I have a 4month old border collie/cattle dog cross that has lots of focus. I'm thinking that he's got low reactivity, moderate speed and high drive. Thank you!