Finding the Joy in Agility

What do you see in this professional photo of Summer on an agility A-frame in a competition?

She’s so pretty in that photo, and running nicely, but you know what? She wasn’t happy.

Here are a couple more photos from that same trial.

Summer was not miserable. She was responsive and doing what I was asking her to do. (What a good girl!) But she was stressed. And she was not joyful. I can tell it from her face, which was drawn, even a bit grim. For some dogs, that particular look might just be focus. But for her, it shows unpleasant stress. Can you tell?

How Was She Trained?

Summer’s agility behaviors were trained with positive reinforcement. She was never forced onto the equipment, but was taught gradually and gently. She wasn’t scared of it. She was physically confident and generally enjoyed the activity. So why did she look grim in these trial photos? I can identify three reasons.

  • She was undertrained. She just didn’t have that much experience yet and wasn’t solid. The behaviors weren’t “can do it in her sleep” fluent.
  • She was stressed in the trial environment. It was outdoors, there were lots of dogs, it was muddy and rainy, and she didn’t have enough experience in challenging public situations.
  • This is actually the big one. I had trained her with positive reinforcement, but I had not sought out and used reinforcers that she was wildly crazy about.

Fixing the last one sent us well on our way to fixing all three.

Finding the Joy in Agility

At the time these photos were taken in 2008, I had recently found a new teacher. She helped me realize that even though Summer could perform most of the behaviors, and had even had some qualifying runs, I was trialing her too early.

So, we worked on Summer’s and my agility behaviors. We worked on her distractibility, especially her penchant for hunting turtles. We worked on my handling, so I could be consistent and clear. She showed me that almost anything Summer did (except to run after a turtle) was because I had cued it with my body. We cut down and practically eliminated the times when Summer might just run off after a bad cue of mine, both because my cues got better, and because Summer found it worthwhile to stick around even when I messed up.

At my teacher’s encouragement, I found very high-value treats that turned Summer’s attention on high. And we used a novel reinforcer—playing in the spray of a garden hose—as a reinforcer for a whole sequence.* The water play not only upped her excitement about agility in general, it was also great for proofing her performance. She learned that if she ran straight to the hose rather than following my signals, no water came out. But finish the sequence correctly, and there was a party with the hose. She loved it!

Transfer of Value

In my last blog post I described how I became a conditioned reinforcer to my dogs over the years through regular association with food and fun. The same thing happened with agility.  All those good feelings associated with the high-value goodies, the fun, and the hose bled right over into agility behaviors.

Three years later, we competed again. We had practiced going to new environments. The fun of agility was so strong, and our behaviors were that much more fluent, that this is how she now looked in competition.

sable dog jumping an agility jump with happy look on her face showing the joy in agility

sable dog exiting an agility chute with happy look on her face showing the joy in agility

Summer came to love agility. She sprang from the start line when released. She ran fast and happy. She was an unlikely agility dog with her penchant for turtles and other prey. But she not only got good at it, she loved it. And I loved doing it with her. Even after I got Zani, who was young, physically apt and very responsive—running with Summer was always like coming home.

I thought about calling this post “Going Beyond Positive Reinforcement,” but I decided that was inaccurate. I didn’t need to go beyond it. The difference was just better positive reinforcement training.  More thorough, more general, more thoughtful. And the result was joy.

If you want to see just how joyful, watch the following video. The first clip is from 2012, at a trial. Even though it was late in the day and I made some clumsy errors, she ran happy! The comparison in her demeanor from the previous competition is striking. It is followed by the best example of her speed I have on film: a run we did in 2014 at an agility field (with distractions). Finally, I show some messing around we did at home in 2016, just to share how delighted we were to be playing with one another. She was 10 years old then, and that winter was the last time shared the joy of agility together. (She passed away in August, 2017.)

Link to the agility joy video for email subscribers.

My teacher, and other great trainers who have influenced me, have taught me to set the bar (ha-ha) high. It’s not enough that a dog can do the behaviors. It’s not enough that they can qualify. It’s not enough that they can get ribbons. It’s not enough that they are happy to get their treat at the end of the run or get to go explore the barn area at the fairgrounds.

What’s enough is getting the joy.

*If you allow your dog to play in water, especially with a hose, make sure she doesn’t ingest too much. Drinking too much water can be deadly.

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Copyright 2018 Eileen Anderson

17 thoughts on “Finding the Joy in Agility

  1. Thank you for this! I am passing it on to all my students. So often I have seen a so-so agility dog completely transformed with the “right” reward. But it is always an uphill battle convincing people that dogs need to be rewarded for their efforts. So many think that agility is intrinsically rewarding for every dog.

    1. Yes they do think that, don’t they? Thanks for your kind words. I hope Summer’s story can help!

  2. I would have said that the first photo was of an intensely focused dog, but in comparison to the later photos you’re right – what a difference the addition of joy makes. The idea of using water spray as a reinforcer is brilliant, and as a proofing aid is beyond brilliant. Love it!

    Our dear departed Pica loved agility, but we only ever entered one trial. She actually won her novice class, despite slow speed, because she was error-free. But did she enjoy it? No (for all the same reasons Summer had). I listened to her, and we never competed again. Your approach – of changing the conditions – never occurred to me, so thank you for opening my eyes to how to go beyond the “now”. (I’m still glad we chose not to trial again; at that time in my knowledge it was the best decision for her).

    So nice to see happy video of dear Summer! The bond that you and she had shines through all of them!

    1. Good assessment–yes, she was focused. But for all the reasons I mentioned she was having to focus too much. I know you get it.

      Not trialing is another great option. Far too many of us get seduced by the ribbons, and yes, the fun of it. I probably wouldn’t have ever again except my teacher, who never recommends trialing if she doesn’t think the dog is ready in all the right ways, gave the go-ahead.

      Thank you about Summer. I have so enjoyed watching these videos. I miss her.

  3. I love that you’re willing to discuss that just because you *think* you train with R+, the learner isn’t necessarily happy. I just had a similar “aha” moment with my horse. He was doing the behaviors, and stopping at the click for a treat, but looking rather blah. It turns out that the new cookies I’d gotten for him were not as delicious as the package claimed, and he was letting me know, as politely as he could. I wrote about that here, if you’d like to see:

    1. Oh, so good that you noticed! And I didn’t know that horses might like peppermints!

  4. First of all, thank you so much for sharing this information and especially the videos of you doing agility with Summer. My eyes leaked and heart melted in a joy puddle. How you must miss this little girl! Macy and I do agility for fun here in Seattle. I have worried that I enjoy it more than she really does, although she is always game for doing stuff with me that earns reinforcement. I loved the creative idea you had of rewarding Summer with the water play that she loves and I started thinking how I could creatively make reinforcement more of an event for Macy without disrupting our class (we do some practice in the yard, but not that much).

    I have always been a bit jealous of those folks whose dogs seem super happy to be doing agility for a chance to play tug. I have lamented that in my inexperience training I didn’t make better use of play as a reinforcer. I do have some tug toys that have a food pocket and I suppose I could work harder to transfer value to the toy, but in the mean time, how to use food more creatively?

    Macy really loves peanut butter cookies, so last night in agility I had a few little chunks of left over peanut butter cookie that I took with me to class. But I also wanted to do something more or different than just give her a piece or two as a reward for her run. So, after each agility run and a high-five, we would race back to our mat and I would crumble some cookie crumbs all over her mat. She LOVED it! Each little piece of cookie turned into an event that made her so happy! She loves scatter feeding and finding food. This also gave her something more to do while we were waiting for our next turn on the course. And it helped to keep her engaged with me for our whole turn rather than thinking she might like to nose around and find the treat crumbs dropped by others after getting her reward.

    Thanks again for sharing this — it inspired me to think creatively to create more joy!

    1. Oh thanks, yes, I do miss her so much. Watching these vidoes was bittersweet. That was a great idea you had!

      Summer and I used to practice running back to our crate for a treat as preparation for competing, but it’s a great idea in a class situation, too. And you spent those cookies well!

  5. Insightful, and really applies to anything we do with our dogs. Shouldn’t all of our training be joyful? Though I appreciate that when it comes to anything competitive, like agility we’re even more likely as pet owners to overlook whether our dog is really enjoying what they’re doing, or just performing.
    The “before & after” photos of summer are wonderful visual representations of the difference!

    1. I completely agree—all training and executing trained behaviors should be joyful! Running into those early photos is what made me realize I could show before and after for agility. And I do think the message is important for anyone who wants to compete. It can be SO easy to lose track of whether the dog is having a good time. Thanks for the comment.

  6. Thanky you so much for sharing! I absolutely love the video of Summer doing agility! My Happy has ony been with me for a month and when she’s settled down, I want to start agilty training with her as well. I hope she will like it and that she will be just as joyful as Summer when doing a run!

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