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Finding the Joy in Agility

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

Is That Zooming Agility Dog Stressed or Happy? Wrong Question!

Is That Zooming Agility Dog Stressed or Happy? Wrong Question!

Brown, mixed breed dog zooming

Auf Deutsch. (German version of this post.)

There’s a video going around (there always is, right?) of an agility dog getting the “zoomies” and taking off on her own, running and jumping all over the ring without her handler.

As usual, there is plenty of discussion about it. Is the zooming dog stressed out? Or is she expressing fun and joy?

I think these are good questions to ask. For what it’s worth, I’ve seen far more stressed dogs zooming.  I think it’s rarer to see dogs who are suddenly possessed with an urge to run around joyfully by themselves on an agility course.

I’m going to talk just a little bit about what can prompt zooming behavior. But I will focus on an issue that I believe is much bigger than speculating about the dog’s inner state. Because in one important way, it doesn’t matter whether a dog is running from joy or stress.

How Zoomies Often Start

I have never seen, in a video or in person, a dog leave her handler to go running around by herself when the agility run is going well and the dog and handler are connected. I’m sure it happens—everything happens in agility. But the more typical time for it to happen is after a handler error. If you’re not familiar with agility, this can look like the dog is in error. After all, we spectators can usually tell what the next obstacle is supposed to be, and the dog is going somewhere else. But often when the dog “runs off,” she is going exactly where the handler (accidentally) sent her.

I can hear Gerry Brown, whom I was lucky enough to have a private lesson and a seminar spot with, saying, “Look at your feet!” When I looked down, they were pointing in the direction my dog was dutifully running—the “wrong” way. And I can hear my own teacher saying many times: “You sent her there.” For whatever reason, it’s hard for us beginning agility folks to grasp that the dog is often doing exactly what we indicated when they make this kind of “error.”

So zoomies often happen after we send the dog off into no man’s land. Our moves can result in the dog going off-course and then taking off like a rocket. Zoomies can also start when we ask too much of a dog. They can start when the dog is generally stressed out. They can start when we keep asking the dog to repeat an obstacle that was executed incorrectly or avoided the first time. Or sometimes they happen because we have not worked at transitioning to trial situations well enough. If the dog is not used to running without added reinforcement, she may already be suffering from lack of positive feedback and will seek alternative reinforcement.

It takes some experience, good instruction, and good observation skills to see when we made an error. We often don’t realize it in the middle of a run, especially in competition. We think the dog made a mistake.

Off-Course Example

Here’s what it looks like when a dog goes where the handler directs her instead of where the handler intended. In this photo sequence of some backyard practice, I accidentally send Zani into a clump of weave polls in the flowerbed instead of sending her over a second jump. Yes, this was a real practice.

I have marked on the first photo where I intended for her to go. Agility folks can see that I am not positioned well, there’s not enough room, and Zani is not facing the jump.

Eileen and little black hound dog Zani at the beginning of an agility sequence

The subsequent photos show what happened when I didn’t turn tightly or soon enough to send her over the second jump. Miraculously, she made the first turn, no thanks to my handling. But what’s going to happen next?

Eileen and little black hound dog Zani turning in an agility sequence

Can you see that she now goes exactly where my gestures indicate she should go?

Eileen and little black hound dog Zani in agility sequence with Zani zooming away

My turn is way too late!

Eileen and little black hound dog Zani during agility training, with Zani zooming into a flower bed

Into the flowerbed!

Eileen and little black hound dog Zani during agility training, with Zani zooming into a flower bed

I was trying to cue a hard right turn but didn’t turn quickly enough or sharply enough. Not to mention I would have been in her way. Being an honest and truehearted girl, Zani went exactly where I asked her to!

I offer these embarrassing photos to show how common it is for the dog to be doing exactly what we asked, whether we think so at the time or not. Once they learn the basic language of agility, they speak it better than we do. If there had been no flowerbed, I would have sent Zani off into the wild blue yonder. And if this were in a trial, depending on our connection and both of our stress levels, I could have had a heck of a time getting her back.

What’s Happening If the Dog Gets the Zoomies?

So, back to the latest zooming dog video. After some consideration, I decided not to link to it here. You can easily find several on YouTube that feature what I’m discussing.

In the latest one I’ve seen, a possible handler error of judgment seems to prompt a disconnect between dog and handler. (The error was to repeatedly ask the dog to make another attempt at a failed obstacle.) You can see the connection starting to break. Then the dog takes off, circling the ring and doing these stupendous jumps over non-jump obstacles. Most discussions I have seen about the video are about whether the dog is zooming out of stress or just having a good time. It does appear that at times she is enjoying herself.

But I put it to you that “stressed-out versus having fun” is not the question we should be asking.

Operationalizing Zoomies

Humorous picture of a woman holding an agility tunnel with a small black dog sitting inside it
Nothing to see here, folks, move along

What if we look at what the dog is actually doing rather than trying to assess her demeanor? What if we operationalize the zooming, try to describe it exactly? In the videos I have in mind, there is something most dogs are very obviously doing while also running and jumping.

They are avoiding their handlers.

The handlers beckon and call, trying to get connected enough to resume the run together. In the video I saw recently, the handler either called or beckoned to the dog 10 times during 56 seconds of zooming by my count. Unsuccessfully.

I have all the empathy in the world for that handler. I’ve been there. But not being able to recall your dog who is running around at full speed is not a joke. It’s not cute. It doesn’t need to be published as a video with cute background music.  It’s an issue of safety.

During part of that video, you can hear someone on the sidelines warning the stewards to watch the gate. That’s an excellent idea.

So as we discuss and play armchair quarterback about whether the dog is stressed or not, we are perhaps not perceiving the bigger issue. We are so comfortable speculating about a dog’s motivations. That’s familiar ground. But we are actually watching a video of an off-leash dog not responding to being called. We are seeing a failed recall cue. Repeatedly. In an environment that is not completely enclosed.

And that’s the problem with zoomies and zoomie videos. Trying unsuccessfully to get our dog’s attention in a public environment is no joke. The dog’s safety, that of other dogs, and even of people, are at risk.

Copyright 2017 Eileen Anderson

Ant-Sized Treats

Ant-Sized Treats

No tiny treats for my dogs!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Note: there exists research regarding the effects of using multiple smaller treats vs larger bites (aka magnitude reinforcement) when training.  But the basic premise that there exists a size of treat that is “too small” for an individual dog also holds true.

How often have you read the following words? “For clicker training you need some tasty treats for your dog. We recommend treats about the size of your pinky fingernail.”

If you Google “clicker training treat pinky nail” you will get page after page of hits with variants of this advice. Except some of them caution that the treats should be no larger than the pinky nail. Some say half the pinky nail. I saw one that said a quarter of the pinky nail.

If you spend any time on the clicker training Yahoo or other discussion groups, you will read conversations about treat size in which people practice one-upmanship regarding how many tiny pieces they can cut out of a single hot dog.

Guess what? This advice negatively impacted my training for years.

Many people have legitimate concerns about their dogs’ weight. Also, I think there is a bit of sensitivity in the clicker training community to criticisms by trainers who use other methods. I think some people want to minimize the whole treat thing.

At your peril.

Here is my story about treats. Summer, my crossover dog, borders on hypervigilance and does not appear to have been selectively bred for an abundance of the “joy with working with humans” genes. She is very environmentally turned on and it is very, very difficult to get her attention outdoors. So naturally, I decided to do agility with her. An offleash sport often pursued outdoors. In fields often bordered by wildlife habitat or in rodeo arenas loaded with animal smells.

For our first year or two, I didn’t have a private teacher, so we just struggled along. I did learn to use high value treats, but I cut them up nice and small as directed. Still, I doled them out fairly generously.

Summer and I got a great agility instructor after about two years. She encouraged the high value treats. I used higher value treats than anyone else in my class, and doled out more of them. Yet after about another year, I was still struggling to get Summer’s attention. My instructor started talking to the class about giving treats generously enough. I listened but I was sure she wasn’t talking to me. As I said, mine were better and I was giving out more.

Then one day in a private lesson, my teacher remarked that the treats I was using were pretty small. I immediately said, “Oh, those are my pocket treats. I have bigger pieces in the food container that I throw at the end of the sequence.” She didn’t say anything else that week. But the next week she took another look and said, “These are just too small. These are ant-sized treats!” I didn’t ask whether she meant they were the size of ants or or appropriate to feed ants. It didn’t matter. Both were embarrassing. I was still a little resistant to her comments since I always passed out several of the small treats. But I did as she suggested and started cutting up much bigger treats.

Around the same time I told her that I knew of something that Summer loved but I hadn’t ever tried. We had been struggling to get her attention for a year or two, remember. It was baby food. She asked me why I hadn’t used it and I said, and this is true, that I was afraid of “treat inflation” and that I needed to leave something at the top to use later. She kindly suggested I drop that concern.

I wrote about what happened next on a list in March, 2010.

But over the weekend, I tried something new. I took two dogs to our agility lesson. My highest value treats were pieces of commercial meatball, thrown in a food tube at the end of the run, and baby food in the jar for contacts. Even my
“pocket” treats were chunks (not little pieces) of chicken skin, hamburger omelette I made for them (just hamburger cooked with eggs), and hot dog. I know, horrifyingly fatty and gross.

And you know what: my dogs performed with the intensity and enthusiasm of my dreams. Like never before. Boy did I feel stupid. And I probably didn’t end up giving them that much more than usual in terms of calories, since one piece went a long way.

I had been like the proverbial frog in the hot tub, who ends up boiled since he doesn’t notice the rising temperature because it is so gradual. I have been settling for lackluster performance without even knowing it. Last week I would have called my dogs enthusiastic. Now I know better.

Dark meat chicken chunks for agility training

In addition to the very high value food treats, we also started reinforcing Summer in agility sequences by letting her play in water sprayed from the garden hose. It turns out she will do almost anything, with speed and excitement, for a chance to play in the hose. And the speed and excitement have “stuck” in her agility performance.

More than two years later, I still tend to use pretty high value stuff for training, but you know what? Summer gets turned on for training whatever I use. Indoors can be pieces of Natural Balance roll, kibble, goldfish crackers, or even bread. Outdoors, and for longer or more difficult behavior sequences anywhere, it is generally meat, fish, or purees thereof in a squeeze tube. And now even outdoors, my  high prey drive, curious dog keeps an eye on me all the time to see if we might do something interesting together.

Weaving for white bread

This is still a little difficult for me to admit to. It feels like I “bought” my dog’s attention. But either you’re a positive reinforcement trainer or you’re not. And if you are, part of the process is finding out what is reinforcing to your dog and using it. If you aren’t getting great results, you try something different. If I had had a typical border collie or retriever, I might have gotten equal enthusiasm from the start with something lower value. But I had Summer, and I (OK, my teacher did actually) figured out what turned her on.

While preparing this post, I needed some photographs. I cut up some hot dogs into “ninths,” then tiny pieces as in the pinky photo above. The dogs were excited by the smell of hot dogs, which they don’t often get. After the photo session I had a pile of tiny hot dog pieces, so I tried them on Clara.  But when I gave her the treats, even two or three at a time, she acted as though she wasn’t sure she had gotten anything. And this is a dog who will happily work for kibble much of the time. The pieces were just too small.

In some circumstances it seems to be very effective to dole out several treats over a time period instead of one big one. But I think even then, there is a minimum effective treat size. I’ve got two dogs (Summer and Zani) who clearly enjoy a nice big piece of good stuff for a difficult job well done.

I’m sure there are plenty of dogs out there who would be delighted with the hot dog treats I cut up today.  I’m not prescribing a treat size. I’m suggesting that we all listen to our dogs about what they want. Most importantly, don’t assume that the common recommendations apply to all dogs.

For two years now whenever I’m on a list and someone starts talking about tiny treats, I have a knee jerk reaction, and write a semi rant in response. Now I can just refer them to this post.

Has anybody else experimented not only with different foods but the size of the treats? Do your dogs like rapid fired smaller pieces or a big chunk?

Addendum, 8/24/12

Two astute readers have mentioned in the comments some things that I should have included. Pawsforpraise pointed out that you need to make sure not to make treats too large because of the danger of choking, especially in rapidfire situations. Good point. Marjorie M. also mentions pancreatitis and the dangers of too much fat in the diet. Also a very real concern. You can read the discussion in the Comments below.

Both of these points reminded me that I didn’t say anything about the need for balancing out the rest of the dog’s diet when they are getting some rich training treats. Summer and Zani, for instance, only get treats like the dark meat chicken above in one, maybe two (active, outdoor) training sessions per week. And I adjust their meals accordingly every time we train. I figured that to be self evident, but I shouldn’t have. My own problem with the tiny treats was caused by taking something too literally, so I sure don’t want to omit some practical concerns here and send anyone flying in the opposite direction!

Thanks for reading.

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