how to start shaping

Welcome to another episode of Agility tips & tricks.

One of the first things I get my students to do, and one of the staple elements of my Foundations class is shaping. This is, using the clicker to mark an action of the dog in order to build a behaviour. To do this, we ‘shape’ approximate steps toward the final product and reward those steps and jackpot the steps which are closest to what we’re looking for.

Sometimes starting this with a dog who isn’t familiar with clicker-training can be a little frustrating because you don’t see anything ‘happening’. Sometimes starting this with an owner who isn’t familiar with clicker-training can be interesting because they feel they have to show or tell the dog what to do all the time, rather than letting the dog work it out. What we want in shaping is for our dogs to give us a bunch of different behaviours, without a cue or a prompt, and for us to say, “YES! That was what I was looking for!” (which is what the click does), or, for us to say nothing much at all if we need to wait for what we want.

When we start shaping, we want our dogs to feel like anything they do is awesome and that they are the smartest dog in the world. I’ve found that the best way to begin shaping is with an object or even a few objects on the ground. You can shape without any props but I think it’s easiest to start with something them for interact with.

I usually sit on the floor with my dogs for my shaping session. It helps shift their focus to lower which is usually where the objects are. Obviously if I want them to stand on my feet or jump on me, or on the couch or something, I’ll change my body position. One of the best objects to start with is a simple cardboard box.You’ll need this, your clicker, and a bowl of food.

Sit on the floor, have the bowl of food behind or beside you (if your dog wants to mug the bowl, we can work on this later, but usually the ‘game’ is much more fun, and they love working for their food.), have your clicker in hand, and get your dog in front of you. Drop the box on the floor in front of you. Usually this will cause the dog to look at the box so BE READY! When the dog looks at the box, click and reward (C&R). Sometimes it helps to drop the food in the box at this early stage. Then wait. If the dog glances at the box, sniffs the box, moves toward the box, C&R. If the dog does anything purposeful in regards to the box (sticks their face or feet in, nudges it with their nose), have a huge reward party. Continue like this. If you continually click the one behaviour (eg. glancing at the box), then this is the only behaviour you will get. So, sometimes you need to wait. If your dog is glancing at the box, start waiting him out, he’ll probably glance, glance, glance, glance… pause and look at you quizzically, and then hopefully, lower his head to the box, or step toward the box. Have a big party for this new behaviour.

Eventually you want your dog to start trying lots of things. It’s  fantastic game for rainy days – 101 things with a box. With this game, you shape as above but you only C&R the same behaviour 3 times. Dogs have to get super creative, be resilient to ‘failure’, solve problems, use their whole bodies, and it’s a huge mental workout.

Here’s a nice Aussie playing 101 things with a box:

So how does this all help with agility? Let me count the ways!

  1. Teaches problem solving. When we say “oops, not quite right”, or don’t reward our dog in agility, we don’t want them to shut down because it’s too hard. We want them to go: “No worries, I’ll try something different!!”
  2. Teaches them about their bodies – feet, legs, noses, back-legs, front legs, twisting, curling in half, mouths… Agility dogs need to know how they move in space (I think this is called Proprioception) and how to use their bodies in small and intricate ways.
  3. Teaches creativity (similar to point 1). We want them to have 50 ways to solve a problem, not just 1 and for that to be “give up” or “wait for further instructions”.
  4. Teaches independence & confidence- Your dog doesn’t have to wait for you to tell it what to do, it can make its own decisions in order to get rewards, and this makes those behaviours even stronger.
  5. Builds the bond with you – I know, this seems weird since you’re not telling your dog what to do but trust me on this one. The time spent doing this with your dog is awesome. You’re celebrating his cleverness and his problem-solving, you’re a cheer-leader and a treat-dispenser, and a play-mate. You’re letting your dog use his mind and his brain and giving him a job. Once you let go of telling your dog what to do and start letting him just do stuff you’ll see that he’s so capable.
  6. Makes your dog better able to interact with ‘stuff’ (read: agility stuff). If your dog can slam a cupboard door, it can slam down a see-saw. If your dog can put its feet in a box, it can get control of its feet to hit a contact. If your dog can wrap a bollard, it can wrap a wing jump. If your dog recognises when a jackpot is a jackpot and when a non-reward is a non-reward, it will learn stuff heaps quicker.

Finally, if you’ve read all this and you’re like me and a visual learner, do a quick youtube search for “puppy free shaping” and you’ll see plenty of videos of people shaping their dogs to do something using this method.

Next episode, I’ll discuss some tricks that are really useful for agility, and how you can go from “clicking any random thing” to “building the behaviour you want.”

If you found this helpful (or not helpful!) or have an idea for a new post, comment below! I’d love to hear from you.

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A few FAQs about agility

For today’s post, I thought I would try and answer a few quick questions that people might have about agility.

What is agility?

Agility is a sport involving a dog and his handler. The handler directs the dog to perform obstacles in a sequence as laid out by a judge. The obstacles must be performed correctly and in the set order in order to receive a qualifying score. Here is an example of a Novice agility course:

Le Hamer novice jumping

Number 1, for example, is a jump. 2 is a tunnel, 3 is a ‘broad jump’ – planks of wood that make for a long jump that the dog must jump over, not on, 7 is a chute tunnel – a normal tunnel entrance with a material chute they must push through in order to exit the tunnel and 10 is a tyre jump. In this course, handlers must guide their dog from jump #1 to jump #15 in order without touching their dog. In order to qualify (gain a pass in order to move to the next class/level) dogs must finish faster than a time specified by the judge (eg. this course may have had a ‘set course time’ of 45 seconds), most not knock down any bars, must do the tunnels from the correct entry, and so on. If a dog makes a fault, they either earn fault points and are unable to qualify (but can still complete their run and possibly win a ribbon), or they earn a disqualification (but can still finish their run but cannot win any ribbons). You want your dog to get through “clear”, and with the fastest time, so your job as a handler is to make sure you’re telling and showing the dog where to go to make its path efficient and fast.  I’m sure if you’ve come to this blog that you’ve seen videos or people running agility but if not, jump on YouTube and type in “Silvia Trkman” or “Justine Davenport” or “Lisa Frick”.

Sounds great! How to I find a club or classes?

Well, in Victoria at present, this is a little tricky. Over on the Eastern side of the city, the agility-specific clubs are closed to new members. The writer of this blog has been waiting 2 years to get into one or the other of the clubs. There are a few clubs in other parts of the city, and probably your best bet is to have a look at this site which is an absolutely fantastic resource with the rules, trials you can enter (once your dog is trained, of course), a list of clubs, and plenty of other information. There are also a couple of people running their own classes – Mountain Agility Dogs being one of them. Some obedience clubs in Victoria require your dog to be at a certain level of obedience before being able to start agility, so you may not find this suits you. If you’re here visiting from Interstate you can probably type in “agility trials (state)” and find a site similar to the one I referenced above to help find clubs in your area.

I have a young puppy, when can I start agility?
There is a LOT of debate over this one and I don’t necessarily think anybody knows for sure, however everyone is pretty convinced that their view is the correct one! Personally, I think you can start training puppies from the day you bring them home. Does this mean jumping them? No. It means doing tricks with them to teach them how to learn and how to use their bodies. It means doing tricks that later, begin to look a lot like agility… I start jumping my puppies at 6-8 months on a very low height. I don’t do hundreds of reps, and I don’t train every day. I think that using a bar helps teach them to respect the bar and to start thinking about the process of jumping. I keep my dogs fit and lean, and I work on their core, legs and back muscles through tricks and stability exercises. I think it could be worse for a dog if they are left to do nothing until they’re a year old and then suddenly forced to jump their full height. Interestingly, a lot of European trainers would be jumping their dogs on full height by 18 months (as we do here), keeping in mind that their heights are much higher than in Australia. A dog Lumen or Loki’s size would be jumping 650mm in Europe, where they only jump 500mm here, so I would assume those dogs would be working through our heights quicker than our dogs do. There is plenty you can do with a puppy that will get him ready for agility. The more socialization you do with strange surfaces, being on, in or going through something, the better equipped he’ll be when faced with his first chute tunnel.

Are there different types of agility?

In Australia there are currently 3 ‘brands’ of agility: ANKC (Australian National Kennel Council) – is the main and most popular form. It consists of Jumping (jumps and tunnels) and Agility (jumps and tunnels, plus weave poles and contact obstacles) and the levels go from Novice, to Excellent, to Masters, and also includes ‘Open’, which is open to any competitor from any level and includes a distance challenge. There are also games which are offered less often, and these are Snooker, Gamblers and Strategic Pairs.

You can also find clubs which train and hold trials in NADAC. I’m not familiar with this form, however I understand they have some different kinds of competitions, for example ‘Tunnelers’ with just tunnels, and hoopers – where jumps are substituted by hoops.

There is also ADAA – Agility Dog Association of Australia – which currently only runs in NSW and QLD. I think it may be similar to ANKC but since we don’t have it in Victoria I haven’t really looked into the differences or learnt about it.

That’s enough questions for now. When I have some more, I’ll post part 2.

how to teach your dog to wrap (go around) an object

One of the fundamental skills for teaching agility is teaching your dog to wrap an object. I’ve mentioned it before, and I’m talking about it again. My little Loki-pup can run awesome sequences because I first taught him to go around a pole. We used poles at the park, a bollard at home, possibly the leg of our island bench at one point. Then I started sending him out to the object, then we started connecting wraps so he was doing figure-8s. Before I knew it, he could do this!

So how did we get there?

First, your dog needs to be a bit familiar with shaping. That means offering behaviours in order to get you to click & reward that behaviour. Hopefully you’ve done some shaping before, if not, do a quick google or youtube search – there’s heaps of info out there. If your dog is used to interacting with objects, then great! Read on.

Choose an object your dog can circle – I listed some ideas above, but also a traffic cone could work, or a PVC pole in the ground on a long nail, or a pool noodle on top of a long nail pushed into the ground!

Here is a video of me teaching Mallei how to do this. I haven’t done any shaping with him in a long time, and he wasn’t brought up with it the way Lu and Loki were so it usually takes him a while longer to ‘get’ things than it does with them. That being said he seemed to pick up the idea of this pretty quickly which makes me wonder if I haven’t done this trick with him before. The whole session went for 7 minutes, including when the other 2 dogs broke in and disrupted us for a few minutes. If it takes you more than one session, don’t despair. Sometimes it can take 3 or 4 before they’re fluently circling in one direction, and then you have to start all over with rewarding the other direction.

First, you want to click and reward your dog for any interaction with that object, though personally I would avoid clicking for them climbing on it or pawing it with their feet (I accidentally did this once and as a result got lots of pawing at it for the next few minutes). Reward placement is really important in making this easier for you and them, so try and give the dog the reward in such a place that will encourage them to take some more steps around or toward the object once they finish eating. And of course, you can use a favourite toy, or a handful of treats, or a fun game to jackpot any positive steps. It might take a few sessions but before long, you should be seeing your dog start to take steps around the pole. The hardest part for the dog is when it has to turn its back on you so again, reward placement is key! You can see this with Mallei in the video as he didn’t want to keep doing the circle and would often double-back so he could keep an eye on me. Don’t be tempted to lure the dog, but think strategically about where you can give the dog a reward in order to help it along and then, as I did with Mallei, push your dog a little by rewarding in a place that will mean he will have to have his back to you and move away from you in order to go around. If you always help your dog, they will have a harder time breaking through this point.

More info and lots of videos below the cut…

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Will my dog enjoy agility?

I get a lot of people contacting me saying their dog loves jumping on/over things, or climbing on things, or running really fast, or chasing other dogs around, so they think they’ll love agility.

Although this might be true, and those are useful things for a dog to enjoy doing in order to enjoy agility, I’d say that this doesn’t necessarily mean for sure that your dog will love agility.

I’d say that Lu loves most of those things, but she doesn’t love agility.

So how can you tell if your dog will love agility?! 

I actually think that most dogs, if trained well, will enjoy agility – it means playing with their favourite person, getting rewards, learning, eating and interacting with YOU! For most dogs, these are all awesome things to be doing, so they’re going to enjoy it. For some dogs, it means doing a job – for these dogs, they’re going to enjoy doing agility even more because they need to be doing that job. Loki is a perfect example of this kind of dog, and he feels personally responsible if he has trouble with something or isn’t doing what I’m asking of him. Dogs who love to work for something (some kind of reward) will probably love agility.

When I say “if trained well” above, what I mean is that they don’t have too much pressure put on them when training. I think this was a mistake I made with Lu early on and is something I’m still working on fixing. I expected too much of her, and for her to do things she didn’t enjoy doing. Because she ran around the backyard and loved chasing us, I expected her to love agility, and when she didn’t, I put more pressure on myself, and on her, to do it how I expected her to.

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Loving to run round doesn’t necessarily equal loving agility

What will really help a dog enjoy agility? If they chase balls and tug on toys- these aren’t necessary, but they sure are helpful! Life is made easier by a dog who has passions, whatever that may be. For Lu, it’s playing with the water coming out of the hose. For Loki, it’s anything, but I know that balls are #1, then tugs, then food. For Mal, food was always king!

I think any breed can play agility. There are some great pugs competing, some whippets, an Afghan hound, a Greyhound, some toy dogs, Wheaten Terriers, and of course a plethora of working dogs.

What dogs might not enjoy agility so much?

Dogs who are reactive or find being around other dogs stressful might not enjoy agility. This isn’t to say they can’t do it, or it’s impossible, but it would take some clever thinking and additional management to make sure that they, and the other dogs in the class are safe.

Dogs who are unfit and overweight would find agility hard. Again, this isn’t to say they can’t do it and won’t eventually enjoy it, but try running your fastest when you’re not feeling your best. It’s unfair of us to ask them to sprint, jump and turn when they’re carrying extra weight.

Old dogs probably won’t enjoy agility. Teach them tricks to use their brains, but maybe asking them to run fast, jump and turn isn’t good for their old bones.

Dogs who have low passions (or drive) present us with an interesting challenge, and although they may come to enjoy agility and may even love running competitions, they will require some clever thinking about how to make them find the game fun and interesting.

 

If you think your dog might enjoy agility, check out my blog-post on some ways to get started without even going to a class, or drop me a line to sign up for our Foundations class.

how do I get started in agility?

So, you have a dog, you think your dog would like to do some agility, but you’re not sure where to start (apart from signing up for one of our classes! 😉  ). Here’s 5 tips for getting your dog agility-ready.

  1. Clicker train! Yep, not all our tips are going to be agility specific but they’re all going to be really useful. If you’re not sure what I’m talking about, do a quick google-search for clicker-training. Basically, you have a little ‘clicker’ that makes a noise. That noise marks the EXACT moment that your dog did something wonderful and that a reward is coming. The brilliant thing about clicker training is that you can be so much more precise. You’re saying THAT is the behaviour I want, rather than rewarding whatever happens between the dog doing the behaviour and getting to you for its reward (or you fumbling in your treat pouch to get a treat, etc). For example, when I train my dogs to do running contacts, I need to click them for their feet hitting the contact zone. If I didn’t clicker-train, how would I tell them which attempts were right, and which weren’t, and what part of their performance am I rewarding if they run down the plank and there’s no indication that they’ve done the right or wrong thing until they get back to me? By clicking, they are reinforced over and over again for striding in a particular way, for not leaping and for having their feet in a certain place, rather than being rewarded for fetching the ball after the dogwalk, or doing the tunnel, or any of the behaviours that come after that very split-second action. Clicker training is SO important to understand for agility, I can’t stress it enough.
  2. Play. Play with your dog, find out what motivates them. Some dogs are easier to motivate (Loki!) than others (Lumen). But most dogs love something. Maybe they love sausages, maybe they love tugging, maybe they love chasing a ball, maybe, like Lu, they love chasing water that comes out of a hose, or a broom! Whatever it is, find that thing and start using it. Ask for a sit, play. Ask for a drop, play. You want your dog to start working to play, and playing to work. For my border collie Loki, it’s all the same. Play is play and work is play and everything is awesome.

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    How could you not want to play with this cuteness?

  3. Socialize your dog. I know, you’re thinking: “but socialisation is for puppies” – well, yes, and that’s the very best time to do this, but you shouldn’t stop there. Whenever I’m near a playground (when there’s no children on it, of course), I get my dogs exploring. They put their feet on swings, they go through weird tunnels, they climb on platforms, they balance on beams. So much of agility is about confidence on and in obstacles, so why not start it in the real world and get your dog to LOVE interacting with different things.
  4. Teach your dog to wrap an object. I have a video of Lumen learning to do this with a stool here. She already knew how to wrap but hadn’t done it with this object before so you can kind of get a sense of what I’d be looking for when training it. This might seem like a bit of a strange one but hear me out. Once your dog can wrap an object, you can start sending it out to wrap trees. Then you can do little sequences and figure-8s with tree-trunks. This translates REALLY well to jumps and jump wings. I taught Loki how to do sequences just by wrapping trees (see a video below). Once he got to jumps he was already looking for obstacles so beautifully that I never had to try and get him to go over a jump – he just looked for an object and went and did it. This also helps later on with your dog turning tight and doing distance work independently of you. There are so many benefits to doing wraps.

    It's hard to take a photo while your dog is wrapping something & you're trying to run away and throw a toy at the same time!

    It’s hard to take a photo while your dog is wrapping something & you’re trying to run away and throw a toy at the same time!

  5. Play some running games with your dog. Have a toy- tug or tennis ball, whatever your dog enjoys, but toys are easier to use than food. Put your dog in a stay or have somebody hold the dog. Walk out a few meters, release the dog, and run! As the dog catches you, play a great game. You can do this but instead of playing straight away, throw the toy ahead of you and say “Go go go!”! This teaches the dog to run on without waiting around for you. Eventually, you could wrap your dog around a tree and run off, with your dog chasing you down. Agility is so much about chasing and running together that you can build that sense of playfulness in these games. Also you’re working on your stays, building that anticipation for the release, and that bond through playing.

Here is a video of Loki putting so much of this together- the wraps, the running, the playing.

6. Bonus tip. 😉 Getting your dog to learn tricks through clicker training will help them immeasurably in agility. Doing tricks helps them learn how to learn, and to love learning. Tricks that are particularly useful are those that help the dog learn about his body, so targeting with front and rear feet, lifting side legs, balancing on wobble boards, sitting pretty. If your dogs know how to use their hind-end, and how to move their bodies, they’ll be much better able to understand what you’re asking them to do when you want them to turn, or target something, or kick their feet over a bar!

 

Hopefully this has given you some ideas. The great thing about all these tips is that they’re easy to do with puppies or young dogs. If you’re looking to take a class with me or anywhere else, these are some easy, fun things you can do with your dog. Practise your stays and your recalls as well, and you’ll be all set not only to get into agility, but also you should have a stronger relationship with your dog, too. And that’s the coolest part!