What to do when it falls apart on course
Ideas for getting reconnected and reorganized with your dog after a whoopsie.
I wrote this for my novice students and then it sort of morphed so I thought I would share it with all of you. It’s long – but then I am often not succinct.
When it falls apart on the competition course you need a plan and some skills in order to get reconnected. Whether you have a young dog or a fully trained one, sometimes things just fall apart and you need to get reorganized/refocused/and reconnected in the middle of a course if you want to stay in the ring and finish the run. And sometimes you may WANT to leave the ring but your dog has other ideas, like randomly doing obstacles, or barking and jumping on you, or even biting at your clothing. Some dogs really struggle with moving around a course while NOT doing obstacles.
Even getting reset at the poles after having your dog leave early or miss an entry can be a nightmare if you don’t have some reorganizing skills. Don’t wait to practice these until you are in the middle of a competition run that has gone south, you should practice and reward these during regular training sessions even when your dog is being perfect.
Here are some reorganization skills that should be in everyone’s toolbox.
• Recall directly to you-Call your dog to you, and teach them to stay attentively at your front or side until you give another cue or release word for them to move forward towards an obstacle. You should have a specific recall cue that your dog recognizes as a handler focus cue and one that is trained well enough that you get a really fast and happy response to come into you and will keep your dog’s total attention on you. This needs to be trained well enough that even when you do not have toys or cookies with you on course your dog will still quickly and happily respond and stay attentive once he reaches you and will continue to stay connected to you until released. Work hard to earn your dogs respect and attention so he happily will wait for the next direction from you all the time making eye contact and staying engaged with you.
• Recall and heelwork. Have your dog recall to your side and heel with you somewhere so that you can get reset. Practice at a brisk pace so you can get back to a specific spot on course very quickly.
• Controlled position- Have your dog sit, down or stand stay quickly at any time while on course. This is not giving your dog a position cue as punishment for misbehaving, but asking them for a controlled and well taught cue which has been rewarded many times and proofed until your dog will cheerfully do the behavior without the bribes of toys or cookies.
• Tricks or hand targeting. If you have a non-qualifying score and need to give your dog something specific or fun to do when he gets to you, teach hand targeting and have your dog come to your side and touch your hand, or do a high five or other trick. However touching your dog is an elimination for most organizations so I would only use this if you are not qualifying or don’t mind the judge calling a fault for touching your dog. During training hand targeting and little tricks that engage your dog while staying close to you are great reorganization skills.
You should practice these skills away from agility training and then morph them into your daily practice or in the middle of training during class. Help your dog at first by being lavish with the rewards for them ignoring agility obstacles and taking a position like sit or down or lining up at your side and staying close to you until released. These kinds of skills should be rewarded as often as you would reward contacts, weaves or jumping/handling efforts.
Ask for the behavior and once you get it take the hidden cookies/toys out of your pocket and reward, or use the skills to run all the way off the training field and having a fun party rewarding your dog off of the course instead of out in the middle.We don’t have material reinforcements for our dogs while on an agility course but we have ourselves, our enthusiasm and our praise which take the place of those other reinforcements when they are not available. I personally like my dogs to think that at all times I have a cookie in my pocket and a toy tucked down my pants. I work hard to transfer the value of the reinforcements to the cue and subsequent behavior. I want the values to be equal whether my dog is recalling to my side, doing independent weaves, or staying on a contact till released without the necessity of physical reward being present and visible. Balance what you reward. Contacts, weaves, tight turns, come to heel, threadles, lie down, go-ons’ at the end of the course and recalls in the middle. Don’t over reward the obstacles and under reward the handling and handler focus cues. Randomly reward all of it!
Try a couple of the following exercises at your next training session or class.
• As your dog exits a tunnel call him to heel, and turn a tight heelwork circle with him, pull a cookie out of your pocket for him, then send him back to the tunnel and proceed with your drill.
• After a short sequence of jumps, ask your dog to lie down and praise and reward him very quickly for doing so. Run a short distance away leaving him in a down and then call him to you to restart your drill.
• After a set of weaves that your dog successfully completes, reward with lots of praise then walk or run with him at your side back to the beginning of the weaves for a restart and reward that second set of poles or go right back to your full sequence.
During training sessions
While your dog is in an agility training/competition area he should at all times be doing some kind of specific behavior which you can put a name to. That could be actively running agility, playing with you and a toy, doing a behavior or trick for cookies, or hanging out in some kind of controlled position like sit, down, stand, or heeling with you. He could be waiting attentively on a table, chair or mat. If he is not doing “something” you should likely have him tied up or in a crate so that he can rest without being “on duty”.
If you need to talk to your instructor while training you should also have some skills taught for those events as well. Calmly tugging while chatting with someone; nibbling on a large treat you which you do not completely relinquish; controlled with your hand in their collar; in a position close to your side; jumped up into your arms; kneeling down next to your dog with an arm wrapped around them; these are ways to gently control your dogs’ location rather than always relying on a sit or down stay.
Train don’t complain.
PS: At trials you should also have a plan for broken start lines, busted contacts and early table departures. Plan ahead of time for how you might address each of these errors while you are in the agility ring.