This post is written having trained a less motivated, less drivey dog. It is written having now trained a high drive dog, and being conscious of how precious that confidence is in order to keep up his speed and motivation. I felt for some reason that I needed a disclaimer here, but I’m not sure why.
The other weekend I was at a seminar. The seminar was great, and Loki was amazing. Sometimes I wasn’t so amazing, sometimes Loki didn’t know what I was asking, sometimes I asked him to do the wrong thing, or I was ambiguous in what I was asking. Pretty much every time we ground to a halt (and it was often) I rewarded him.
I remember last year at a OneMind Dogs seminar, the presenter, Noora, was very big on people rewarding their dogs. I found my notes from the seminar where I wrote: “There are no wrong obstacles. She should be able to take the first obstacle she sees & that’s right. Saying otherwise will diminish speed. Need to do another obstacle (after the one she did wrong) and then reward.” I think I picked up her mantra in a way, and the philosophy that pretty much nothing is the dog’s fault – it is either your fault for not handling quite right, or because you haven’t trained something. The dog doesn’t set out to do the wrong thing – why would he? He’s not malicious, or hoping to humiliate you, or wanting to NOT get his toy or food! Silvia has a very similar philosophy: train for full speed first, fix mistakes later.
And yet… whenever I train in a group situation, I am very quietly wondering why people don’t reward their dogs.
Today I went to a local training club and watched a woman run a whippet. My understanding is that whippets need motivation to work – they’re not like BCs that just live to work. Loki & his brothers would probably be just as happy to do agility and, as a reward, get to do MORE AGILITY!! This woman ran around with her whippet and then cued the wrong turn, so the whippet took the wrong jump. She sort of sighed at herself, went back a few obstacles and tried again. Once again, she did the wrong cue and the whippet followed her instructions and didn’t do what she wanted it to do. She knew that she had done the wrong cue, but sighed again and said something like: “I’m all messed up. I give up.” and walked off. The whippet trotted happily at her side with a big grin and I thought how lucky she was that that was his reaction. If I’d done that to Lu, you can bet she would have gone and found something to sniff, a dog to meet, or would have been slow the next run, and it would have added one more “agility is not fun” notch to her little belt.
Even at the seminar on the weekend, people would mess up, get tangled in their feet, forget what cue they were meant to be doing and just stop. The dog is bouncing around at their feet going: “did I do good!? Did I!? Hello?!” and they’re talking to the instructor.
If I fail, or if Loki fails, or hey, if we both fail (it happens) – he gets his toy. I play tug and either listen to the instructor while he pulls my arms off, or he takes his ball to the edge of the area while I talk or re-walk that section to focus on my cues, then we have another go.
So, aren’t you rewarding mistakes?
Well, yes. But I’m not worried about it. I’m not worried because in Loki’s eyes, he rarely does ‘wrong’. This lets him feel like he’s so smart and can make no mistakes and therefore, he can go as fast as he can. I’m not worried because when he gets it right, we either have a big party right then (which looks and sounds WAY different than “here’s your ball cos we stopped”) or we get to keep going – both are good options for Loki. I’m not worried because I know that he’s (generally) doing exactly what I’m telling him and therefore, he’s a very good boy.
Sometimes I can tell he’s patterned to a sequence – for people new to agility, this means he’s done the course a couple of times and could basically run it regardless of what I’m doing with my body. He starts to ignore me. If he makes mistakes because he’s patterned to doing it the ‘wrong’ way (maybe I cued him wrong 3 times in a row now he thinks it’s that way) then I have to break it down into small pieces for him so he can succeed, and I reward those successes. Loki is never out to be wrong, and I don’t let him think he is wrong.
Similarly with any obstacle training (weaves, dogwalk, seesaw), I will try and keep the rate of success high, or I will change the setup so he can succeed. Depending on what the obstacle is, I may change or lower my criteria until he has a better understanding and then jackpot the best attempts (for example, with a running A-frame – I may reward high hits in the contact area and/or continue with the course, but will stop to jackpot nice deep hits that he finds challenging. I don’t expect those hits every time, but my expectations are realistic enough that he can succeed almost every time. Sometimes he doesn’t hit – it’s ok for him to fail in this circumstance so he can learn what does and doesn’t work, and here I won’t reward him – instead, I might use a non-reward marker like “oops!” and go back to that obstacle and try again. If he gets it right – reward!).
I love how much Loki loves to work. It’s a precious gift after a hard-to-motivate-dog like Lumen, and I am VERY conscious not to squander it. I recognise that most of the mistakes we make on a course are mine (though bars down can be an exception (though still sometimes my fault!)) and will either ignore the mistake & keep going, or stop, give him his toy, and start again.
How do you reward your dog? Is it often enough? Have you thought about it before? What do you do when you mess up and need to talk to the instructor? How do you keep your dog feeling confident and happy even when everything falls apart?
Feel free to comment below, or on my Facebook post. I’d love to hear your thoughts. 🙂