Category Archives: Agility

Is it really disobedience?

It was our seventh rally run of the day. Layla and I waited patiently at the start line, her eyes bright as she gazed up at me. When the judge gave us the okay to start, we began the course, my dog’s tail keeping time with the beat of my feet.

Photo by Robin Sallie

Photo by Robin Sallie

 

When we hit the third sign, I asked Layla to stay in a sit as I left her, and she popped into a stand. I asked again, and she went into a down. We circled away from the sign, then came back and she held her sit-stay as I walked away.

I had already noticed that Layla was striding short in her right rear leg earlier in the day, especially when she first came out of her crate. I had a friend watch one of our runs, and she noticed the same thing. She also wondered whether Layla’s left hip could be sore.

It was clear that Layla wanted to keep working. We had two runs left, both in our favorite class, Level 3. Not knowing whether she was sore from an old neck injury or something new, I decided to scratch those runs.

Because of our history and relationship, it was very clear to me that my dog wasn’t disobeying in the ring, but rather communicating. Sadly, this is not always the case, and I see many dogs who are corrected for “disobedience” when they are really trying to tell something to their people.

Remember, your dog cannot tell you where or why it hurts. He can’t choose which sports or activities he participates in. That’s on you, and it’s on you to make sure that your dog both enjoys and can physically do anything you ask of him.

If you use any compulsive training, you need to ask yourself very seriously whether pain or discomfort could be contributing to your dog’s behavior before you correct him. If you use motivational training, you better be damn sure that your dog isn’t hurting himself in his efforts to earn whatever reward he loves so much. Much like Layla will push through pain for the joy of working with me in rally obedience (and for the lamb lung she gets to eat after she’s done!), many dogs will ignore their physical discomfort in order to get a treat, toy, play session, or other valued reward.

Physical limitations can cause a whole host of problems that masquerade as behavior or training issues. Two of my rally students have discovered that their large dogs had hip issues after I pressed them to see their vet. One of these dogs would sit more slowly and reluctantly the longer he worked, and the other tended to “puppy sit” to one side rather than sitting straight. Had we approached either of these issues as a training problem and started drilling sits, we would have been causing unnecessary pain to these lovely, willing dogs. Putting these wonderful dogs into conflict by asking them to do something that was uncomfortable over and over would have been cruel, but knowing that they could have pain issues allows us to focus on working with them in such a way that we build their muscles and make the tasks we wish them to complete doable for their physical limitations.

Outside of the sports community, many behavior problems are caused by pain. Recently, I worked with clients whose elderly dog had begun growling at their toddler. The dog was clearly in conflict, eager to interact with the child but concerned about being hurt. The child would crawl on the dog, and he would turn away, lick his lips, and eventually growl. Once the parents took their dog to the vet for pain medication and started providing him with a safe place to get away from the toddler when he was sore, he stopped growling. He wasn’t aggressive, just arthritic. Growling was the only way he could communicate how very much it hurt him when the toddler climbed onto his inflamed joints.

When I consult with pet or performance dog owners, I frequently ask that they see their vet before further appointments. A cracked tooth, thyroid disorder, ear infection, or back pain can and will cause changes to behavior, and all the training in the world will do nothing if the physical problem isn’t addressed. I see a much greater number of allergies or GI issues with my anxious and reactive dog clients than with the dogs I see in regular training classes (and if you’re a researcher who could help quantify this, please contact me – I’d love to work with you!). Physical stress causes behavior changes: just think of the last time you were sick or hurt.

We need to be our dogs’ advocates. We need to give them the benefit of the doubt. Dogs are rarely lazy or disobedient or stubborn, but are frequently unmotivated, unable, or unsure about the task in front of them. Don’t be afraid to seek a second or even third opinion, either. Many of my own and clients’ dogs have been diagnosed only after seeing a specialist or sports vet who had more experience with the problem. Vets are only human, and no vet will get every diagnosis right every time. If you think something’s going on with your dog, keep pushing until you get an answer. You’d want those you love to do the same for you.

Have you ever had a physical problem masquerade as a behavior or training issue? How did you discover what was truly driving your dog’s “problem” behavior? Please share your stories in the comments below!

The Allure of Luring

Luring is sometimes frowned upon by clicker “purists,” but it can be one useful way to help a novice dog figure out what you want or to get to the end goal faster with any dog. A lure is a small reinforcer, such as a toy or treat, that is used as a “magnet” to position the dog. Many trainers use lures to teach position behaviors, such as sit, lie down, or heel. While I rarely use luring with my own dogs, I certainly think it’s a useful tool to keep in your training toolbox.

Photo by niXerKG on flickr

Photo by niXerKG on flickr

Luring is quite straightforward for both dog and handler. The dog knows right from the start what’s at stake if he can figure out what you want (whatever’s in your hand at the moment), and you can easily show your dog what to do (by using the magnetic properties of the lure). When your dog gets it right, you simply click and give your dog his reward. Easy!

As straightforward as luring can be, it can also cause some problems down the road. In the beginning stages, some dogs become too focused on the toy or treat to think about what they’re doing. Especially for food- or toy-obsessed dogs, you may find that your dog is blindly following the lure without a clue as to what behavior earned him a reward.

Another potential problem with luring is that some dogs become dependent on the lure. They become “show me the money” dogs, not performing until they know what’s at stake. This is easier to prevent than it is to fix, but it’s certainly not a deal-breaker if it happens.

Preventing lure-dependency is as simple as not letting the lure become a pattern. Use your food or toy to help the dog get into position 3-5 times, then get the reward out of your hand. Make the same hand motion you were doing with your lure, and when your dog does the target behavior, click and produce his reward from a hidden place such as a bait bag, pocket, or from behind your back. You’ve now switched from bribing the dog (showing him what he could have ahead of time) to rewarding him (surprising him with something special after he does what you want).

If your dog has already learned to wait for a lure, this is a bit trickier to work through, but still not the end of the world. In this situation, we need to reverse expectations. Many dogs learn (rightfully so!) that if you’re not holding something in your hand you’re not planning to give him anything when he complies. Your goal at this point is to change your dog’s expectation by teaching him that he’s more likely to get a reward if you don’t have anything in your hand than if you do.

Start by putting a very valuable reward in your hand and showing it to your dog. This could be a favorite toy, a hunk of roast beef, or anything else that will really get your dog excited. Ask your dog to do the behavior you’re working on. When he does, praise and pet him enthusiastically, but do not give him the reward.

Now, take that tempting reward that’s in your hand and put it away nearby where your dog can’t get it but you can still get to it quickly. Perhaps you might set it on the counter, tuck it in a bait bag, or store it on top of a nearby bookshelf. Make sure your dog sees you put it away and knows that your hand is empty. Ask for the same behavior again, and wait. Don’t repeat your cue, and don’t be surprised if it takes the dog a few moments to comply. Wait him out. At this point he’s likely to very slowly do what you asked. The second he starts to comply (before he’s even completed the behavior!), click and give him the reward (pulling it out of your bait bag, sweeping it off the bookshelf, etc). Repeat this exercise several times a day until your dog starts to get the idea that an empty hand is likely to predict great things for him. And hey, remember to be fair, okay? If you ran into this problem in the first place you were probably being a bit stingy about rewarding your dog for listening, so spend a little more time proofing that behavior before asking your dog to do it for “free” again.

Luring can certainly be a useful way to teach your dog, as long as you do so thoughtfully. Just remember to switch from luring (showing the reward to the dog ahead of time) to rewarding (producing the reward after the dog has done what you asked) quickly so you don’t become overly dependent on it.

What behaviors has your dog learned through luring? Have you ever run into any problems with this training technique? Please share your thoughts and stories in the comments below!

High Drive Dogs

“Drive” is a highly desired aspect in most dog sports, whether your area of interest is agility, flyball, herding, hunting, coursing, or something else. Sport and performance dog handlers specifically look for “high drive” puppies and work to build their puppy’s drive further through tug, chase, and other games. Arousal and excitement are considered signs of a talented dog who will go far.

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But there’s a dark side to this drive building, one that negatively impacts the performance of many otherwise talented dogs in their chosen sport. Here’s the thing: arousal and drive are not one and the same.

So often, I’m told about a “high drive” dog who is in actuality just frantic. “Drive” refers to focused commitment to a specific goal. A dog who ping pongs from one distraction to another without truly “locking on” to anything is not in drive, she’s simply distracted. Arousal is not drive, and high drive dogs do not necessarily show high arousal or excitement.

Consider Layla, a dog with high prey drive. If Layla finds a chipmunk in the backyard, she chases it up the downspout of my rain gutter. If I don’t interrupt her and bring her inside, she then pulls that chunk of gutter pipe off the house and carries it into the center of the yard (chipmunk inside). She stands or crouches, staring intently at the gutter pipe. This can go on for hours. If she moves at all, it will only be slight muscle trembling in her back legs. When the chipmunk inevitably ventures out, thinking that the coast is clear, Layla grabs it, quickly killing and eating it.

No one who watches Layla catch a chipmunk could have any doubt that she is intently focused on her task. When she’s working a chipmunk, she has laser focus on catching and killing it, and the rest of the world fades into the background. She doesn’t allow herself to become distracted by my other dogs, people walking past, or even other prey, such as the squirrel in the tree or the bunny outside the fence. This is an example of true drive.

Trying to build your dog’s drive by increasing her excitement may work really well if she’s naturally focused on and motivated by the task at hand. However, getting an excited but distractible dog further aroused is not only unlikely to make him more talented at the sport of your choice, it’s likely to make matters worse. The more aroused and frantic the dog becomes, the harder it gets for him to think.

If you truly want to increase your dog’s drive, work on his focus and on making the task at hand highly motivating. While Layla and Dobby came to me naturally motivated by toys and play, my youngest dog, Mischief, had very low drive for these activities. Now a year old, she will work very hard with intense focus, heeling for the chance to play tug or chase. She does this because I’ve made these things very fun and rewarding for her. Getting her excited without giving her something to focus that excitement on just results in a frustrated, bitey, barky dog and does nothing to increase her drive.

The take home message, regardless of which sport or activity you do with your dog, is clear. Select a dog who will naturally want to participate in your chosen sport. Whether you go to a breeder or rescue a dog, don’t confuse hyperactivity or franticness with drive. And once you bring home your new partner, nurture that dog’s focus and make working with you fun.

What activities does your dog have natural drive for? Do you agree with my definition of “drive,” or do you have a different idea of what this term refers to? Please comment below!

The Cortisol Vacation

We’ve written about how stress impacts your dog, as well as the dangers of chronic stress. But what do you do if your dog finds daily life stressful? How can you reduce your dog’s overall stress level to keep him under threshold?

Photo by Liama Hal

The first thing to realize if you have a chronically stressed or anxious dog is that your dog cannot help being this way. It doesn’t feel good to always be on edge, and if your dog could develop coping strategies on his own he would have already done so. If this has been an ongoing problem for your dog, he’s not just going to get over it on his own. Chronic stress is both a physical and mental problem, and we need to treat both your dog’s body and his brain to help him overcome it. Today we’ll discuss the first step in helping your dog heal.

Remember that stress causes physical changes in the body, including an elevation in certain hormones that can last two to six days. When I work with a client whose dog is chronically stressed, this is the first area we need to address. Every time your dog has a stress reaction, those hormones spike. This means that one of the first things we need to address is how to avoid or minimize the things that trigger such a response.

For most dogs, we need to temporarily change their environments and routines to avoid common triggers. This could mean changing the time of day you walk your dog, covering or blocking access to your fence or windows so that your dog can’t bark at people or other dogs going past, or avoiding visitors to your home for a period of time. It oftentimes means taking a break from dog training classes or dog sports competitions and avoiding travel. We may need to change your dog’s exercise from exciting ball play to leisurely “sniff walks” on a long leash or increase mental exercise by feeding out of puzzle toys.

Many trainers call this period of trigger avoidance a “cortisol vacation,” referring to one of the common stress hormones. If your dog has been locked in a destructive stress spiral for awhile, it’s going to take time for him to return to a more balanced state: four to six weeks is common for many of my clients.

Many owners worry that their dog will be unhappy during this time, but after about a week of adjustment to the new routine, most dogs appear quite content with their new, calmer way of life. Remember, stress is hard work, and it feels better not to be on edge all the time. Sometimes I need to work with owners to help them learn what a relaxed and happy dog looks like. Some people are so used to seeing their dog in an aroused state that they mistake high arousal and stimulation for happiness, not realizing that their softly napping dog is actually in a better (happier!) place.

While the cortisol vacation is a great place to start for chronically stressed dogs, it’s not a long-term solution. Rather, the goal of this break from life is simply to help the dog find a calmer place from which he’ll be better able to learn new coping strategies. This is a temporary respite from the craziness that he can’t yet deal with. Oftentimes a cortisol vacation is necessary before I can even begin working with a dog, since a dog who is too locked into a destructive stress spiral simply isn’t in a mental state that’s conducive to learning. During this downtime the dog’s owner and I will often start instituting other stress reduction techniques that will be more helpful long-term, as well as visiting with the dog’s veterinarian or veterinary behaviorist to rule out any medical causes for the dog’s behavior.

The important thing to remember here is that this sort of avoidance is temporary and is being put in place with the longer-term goal of helping the dog learn better ways to deal with life. Lifelong avoidance of anything and everything that stresses your dog is neither practical nor helpful, and may do more harm than good as your dog could lose the coping abilities he already has (limited as they may be). We cannot wrap our dogs in a bubble forever, much as we may wish to do so.

In future posts, we’ll discuss other tools to lower your dog’s stress level, as well as ways to teach him to cope with life. Have you ever adopted or worked with a dog who needed time to recover from high levels of stress? When do you think a cortisol vacation could be most helpful for a dog? Please comment below with your thoughts and questions!

Mental Exercise

As we mentioned before, mental exercise is every bit as important for dogs as physical exercise. Sadly, this basic need is oftentimes overlooked by well-intentioned pet owners. Relying solely on physical exercise is not enough. Many well-cared-for dogs nonetheless lead impoverished lives because their cognitive needs are ignored. We would never dream of starving a dog by withholding food, but by not giving our dogs the chance to use their brains, we are also withholding a vital ingredient to happiness. Research into canine cognition has shown time and time again the remarkable capacity that dogs have for problem solving, and by providing opportunities for our dogs to think and puzzle things out we enrich their lives and make them so much happier.

So, what are the best ways to provide mental exercise for your dog? Every dog is different, and it’s important to play to your dog’s strengths. This is such a complex topic that an entire book is in the works, but here’s a brief overview of some great ways to engage your dog’s brain.

It’s All About the Food: One of the easiest ways to fulfill your dog’s need for daily mental exercise is to simply throw out his food bowl. Whether you use his dog food as training rewards, feed him from a puzzle toy such as a Kong or Tug-a-Jug, feed him by hand, or scatter his kibble on the floor or in the backyard for a scavenger hunt, mixing up mealtimes will add an element of fun to his day.

The Nose Knows: Dogs have an incredibly keen sense of smell, which we largely ignore. Engage your dog’s olfactory abilities by having him follow treat trails, playing hide ‘n seek with yourself or a favorite toy, introducing novel scents into his environment (ask a farm friend for some used straw to put in your back yard, let a pal’s pet hamster crawl all over one of your dog’s toys, or dab a drop of essential oil on a tree or rock), or learning the fun sport of K9 Nose Work.

A Classy Dog: Training class is a great source of mental exercise! In addition to the weekly stimulation of class itself, enrolling in a class gives you motivation to work with your dog on new skills regularly. Whether you’re trying rally obedience, canine freestyle, agility, or fun tricks, think of class as date night with your dog. Can’t make it to a class? Try teaching new tricks or even helpful service dog tasks at home.

Change it Up: Dogs enjoy routine, and it’s important to stick to one. However, that doesn’t mean you can’t enrich your dog’s life by making little changes. Try a different walking route with new sights and smells, introduce your dog to new people or animals, play different instrumental music during the day (Mexican guitar? Celtic harp? Classical piano?), create an obstacle course in your backyard, or try a new dog treat recipe that you bake yourself (and don’t forget to let your dog lick out the mixing bowl). Think of new sights, sounds, scents, tastes, and textures you can introduce into your dog’s environment to engage his curiousity.

In future posts we’ll talk about some of the potential problems with exercise, as well as some of our favorite puzzle toys. In the meantime, please share your comments with us below! Do you provide regular mental enrichment for your dog? What are your pup’s favorite activities?

[Mostly] Wordless Wednesday

It’s impossible to watch Shalise’s German Shorthaired Pointer, Tori, fly around an agility course without smiling. What are your dog’s favorite activities?