Rewarding effort and changing tactics

The motto at class today was ”When all else fails, reward effort.” Without effort, you have nothing. Even if your dog is going through the motions and staying in position, it can be (in my opinion) lacking in joy and teamwork, and who wants that?!?

People get too hung up on everything being perfect. You can work with any dog who gives you effort. Help them, show them, encourage them. But if you have a dog who does not love to work with you and simply goes through the mechanical motions, what fun is that? I want bright eyes, a naughty grin and a dog pushing me to work. So, when things start to fall apart (and they will), go back to simply requiring effort. Forget perfection for the moment and do whatever you need to do to pull the desire and joy out of your dog. And, if I require effort from the dog, you better bet I require effort from the two-legged half of the team too. You only get what you put into it.

To clarify, just because I sometimes isolate the “give me effort” part, it does not mean my criteria is loosened. For example, if I am working effort on signals, I do not allow my dog to take a step forward in the stand as I am walking away. Or, if I am working speed on the drop on recall, I do not allow my dog to break his sit stay before I call him. If I allow my criteria to change, it creates grey area for the dog…something I never want in training.

Training’s today brought some unexpected challenges, which required a change in training plans. Like most young dogs, Kazee got confused on a basic skill….a come front signal. We had started the session with directed jumping, so the jumps were in the ring, and we had actually done a couple of quick drop drills in our earlier warmup before I had taught a class. Watching the video, I think he was getting confused more with the hand signal than the actual “come” portion of the exercise. He loves the drop on recall exercise (done primarily with a right hand signal), we had just done directed jumping (right and left hand) and my come signal is also with my right hand. So, to him, he was seeing hand motion and not differentiating between the different commands.

Some people may have simply made the decision to correct a failure to come directly, but when you watch the video, this is clearly NOT what is going on. Kazee is giving me effort…actually too much effort. He is just not making the correct decision. So, I changed tactics and helped him figure it out. I paired my verbal with my signal and I did not put as much distance between us, in some cases taking the jumps out of the picture entirely. But, once he started to figure it out, I set him up for directed jumping to my right. Why would I do this when he clearly was confused on the right hand motion? Because I wanted to show him the difference between the jump signal and the come signal. I wanted to clarify his understanding that “THIS is the difference!” And, he nailed it. Train your dogs for understanding!! Had I simply worked the come command only, I am pattern training, not training for understanding. He would not have to differentiate between commands, he would simply say “okay, now we are working fronts”. While he may get his front command, he is doing it without thinking of the actual command and/or signal.

The next training session of the day brought another couple of training opportunities. We started with articles and, after all of our problems working through this exercise over the last year, I am very happy with where Kazee is currently at. He is working the pile extremely well on a consistent basis, going quickly to and from the pile, continuously working, and (though he sometimes will make a mistake) is reliably finding the correct article. Because I am more concerned with his attitude and confidence on this exercise, I am not asking for pivots before the exercise and I am just now getting to the point where I occasionally ask for a front on the return. However, it was clear on the last article that the added energy brought along some undesirable mouthing. Something to work more often, OUTSIDE the context of the article pile.

Then, when working on the return to heel from a stand position, it was obvious Kazee did not want to give me the behavior I was asking for. This may have been the result of him being tired, who knows. So, I again changed my tactics and went back to just requiring effort to get into heel position. Normally, I ask him for a little bit of a bounce/hand touch when he is coming around to heel position. If I don’t, Kazee has a tendency to not go far enough behind me before trying to turn (something you will see at about 5:30 on the below video). I was happy with where we were when we stopped training, but the entire hour drive home involved me thinking through my problem. So, when I got home, I pulled him out of the car and we went back to work. Instead of asking him to physically come up towards my hand, I decided to let him power through the return to me, going directly to his tug toy. I will need to thoroughly shape and condition this drive on the return, so this skill needs solidifying before attempting to pull everything together. However, this does not mean I will stop the requirement of him coming “up” to my hand in other situations. This is a great way to require (and reinforce) effort from your dog.

And, maybe someday, I’ll learn how to set up my camera so I don’t cut off my head!

Setups are one area where it is easy for you to work effort. I want my dog driving quickly into heel position, setting up straight, with head up and eyes bright…ready to work. This “ready to work” attitude will then carry over into my exercise. But, if I allow my dog to wander around, call him multiple times to get into heel position and watch him numbly get into heel position, you can bet that attitude will carry over into the exercise also. If your dog has a problem with setups, they are super easy to work with a food lure. Let him chase the cookie in your left hand for a second, then ask him to quickly set up. As soon as he is in heel position, mark and reward. In the beginning, I don’t even care if my dogs sits in heel position, I will reward the drive and speed trying to get there. Later, I will lose the cookie and do the same game with a hand touch requirement. If your dog prefers a toy, you can play the same game with a toy. Use it as a lure in the beginning, but quickly turn it into a reward.

Because there is always the comment of “there may be an underlying physical issue”, I feel obligated to add that I absolutely agree. Make sure there is not a reason your dog CAN’T give you the effort you want. But, there are plenty of people who cite “he must not be feeling well”, to excuse a lack of effort. A lack of effort is then inadvertently trained and reinforced. Yes, everyone (two and four legged) have bad days and sometimes things just go south in a hurry. On those days, put your dog away and try again later. But, learn to recognize the differences in your dog and address the areas where your dog chooses not to give you effort. Key indicators are when your dog will happily work for the cookie in your hand or when the training is all done in a playful manner, but stops working as soon as the cookie goes away or you take training in a little more formal direction (which has to be done to make it ring ready).

Train hard, but play harder!



Killing drive

You stand in the ring with your dog, waiting for someone else to take a turn in class…or worse yet, waiting for multiple people to take their turn. Meanwhile, your dog is wandering around at the end of their lead, sniffing the ground or trying to reach the dog next to them. You are watching the team working, so you are ignoring your dog until the instructor calls your name. You hasten to the starting point and tell your dog to “heel”. But, instead, your dog starts off lagging, giving you minimal effort. You give your dog a quick pop, telling him to “Get up here!”

Who is at fault? Your dog isn’t tired, he’s been standing around for 10 minutes waiting his turn! Unfortunately, even if your dog had been adequately warmed up prior to class starting, you have let him become completely disengaged and disinterested in training. This is one of the main reasons I dislike group obedience classes.

Every time you train your dog when he is not completely engaged and in drive, you are telling him it is acceptable to not give you 100% effort. YOU are telling him it is okay.

Say, for example, the group class is doing dumbbell retrieves. You throw your dumbbell and the dog trots out to get it, picks it up and trots a little slower coming back. “He’s stressed” the instructor says, “give him a cookie for trying so hard”. Really? You are going to reward a slow retrieve? Remember, what you reward, you reinforce. If your dog was not ready to do a FAST, CONFIDENT retrieve in a group environment, you should not have done the retrieve in the first place.

So, what do you do, if you need a group class for your dog. Research how the instructor handles their class. Are all dogs handled the same? Are you allowed to put your dog in his crate between exercises? At minimum, train your dog how to relax on a mat and how to reengage with you coming OFF of his mat. This is a skill taught in practice, not in class. Be ready and get your dog engaged with you before it is your turn. Pay attention! Do not start an exercise until your dog is completely engaged with you. If an exercise is too difficult for your dog to do it in drive, modify the exercise for your dog. In the dumbbell example, maybe instead of doing a full length retrieve, you will do a short dumbbell recall instead. Or, maybe a very short pickup, allowing the dog to jump up on you to receive their reward.

Always keep the end picture of the exercise in your mind. Stop making excuses for your dog’s performance. Because, really, you are making excuses for your training. Advocate for your dog to help him be successful. Classes can be wonderful for proofing, but done correctly, this should bring a dog’s confidence UP, not down. Errors are fine, lack of engagement and effort are not.

So, again, every time you train your dog when he is not completely engaged and in drive, you are telling him it is acceptable to not give you 100% effort. YOU are telling him it is okay.

Train hard. Play harder.