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.
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.
- Let the Treat Meet the Feat: Real World Application
- Summer Learns an Alternative to Being the Fun Police
- Unsung Summer
Copyright 2018 Eileen Anderson