Creating & Sticking to a Dog Training Plan
In the sport of agility, as well as other dog sports, we often hear the word ‘drive’. Sometimes we hear that a particular dog has a lot of drive or could use more drive. Sometimes we hear that a particular dog has increased drive or lost drive. When I attend agility training camps, the registration form asks about the level of drive in the dog: low, moderate, or high. So what is drive? It’s simply the dog’s desire to perform a certain behavior. In ethology and behavioral ecology, “fixed action patterns” which were renamed “motor patterns” as they can be modified, have been in the scientific literature way before dog trainers used “drive” as a way to define a dog’s personality and behavior.
In an article written by Daniel Estep, Ph.D. and Suzanne Hetts, Ph.D., they say: “There is no scientific evidence that dogs have traits like prey drives, pack drives, or defensive drives. The studies of dog temperament that have been done have not identified such simple and all-inclusive traits… Drive traits are often used to make predictions about the later behavior of dogs.
Some puppy tests and adult temperament tests are used to identify certain drive traits and then to predict the abilities and future performance of the dogs. None of these tests has ever been shown to identify these traits and to predict future behavior. In fact, at least two studies have found that puppy tests do not predict later behavior of adult dogs.” This is actually very good news because it creates freedom in training with your dog. What we call ‘drive’ is more fluid than we may realize. It is not fixed and can be modified. This means that training can create the agility partner you want in your dog. Defining your dog’s drive is not meant to be a limitation or a lid on what’s possible in your dog’s agility career. In agility, handlers channel a dog’s drive into the game using various forms of reinforcement, thereby creating enthusiasm for the game.
By recognizing your dog’s level of drive, you can look at what’s missing that could make a real difference in how you train. That’s what I did when I accepted that Tricky has moderate drive. It actually freed me up so there was more space to be creative in how I trained with her. Tricky needs 110% from me, whether we are at a Regional trial or we are training the backyard. What that looks like is being totally present, goofy, loud, playful and on the ground with her tugging like a fool. I learned what she needs through trial and error, along with lots of coaching from instructors who’ve been there, done that.
A dog’s drive tells you how motivated the dog is to play the game with you in that moment. If the drive is there that means the dog is in the perfect state of arousal for him, and therefore more focused on you and what you’re asking versus possible distractions in the environment. There have been countless Clean Run articles addressing arousal and drive so I am going to bring the focus of this article back to what I did with Tricky, my Terrier Chihuahua cross. Yup, there’s Chihuahua in there!
I spent the first two articles of this three-part series talking about Tricky’s drive, what I did that caused her to lose it, and the things I did to build it back. Now I will talk about what I’ve done to keep it and suggestions to help others to do the same.
Part of any good training plan includes a strategy to continue to move forward and prevent the same issues from developing…again. It’s about catching yourself before you find yourself at the “bottom of the ravine.” In this third and final part of the article, I will share the aspects of training that helped me catch myself. These ideas also helped set me up for success when training Tricky, allowing our sessions to continue to be effective and fun!
In this shot, Tricky received a reward after wrapping around the wing, as was planned beforehand.
Look for Opportunities to Reward
Sexy handling is always more fun and getting through a challenging sequence is a huge reward for the human. But there is our canine counterpart to think of too. I fell short as Tricky’s teammate when I didn’t look for opportunities to reward Tricky within the sequences. All I cared about was the end goal, missing all of the glorious accomplishments along the way.
Two and a half years ago Tricky’s drive was already faltering, but I still wasn’t paying attention. I would work her through challenging sequences, only looking to get it done right, saving the reward for the end. I was focused on working out my own timing, getting in and out of position, and giving Tricky information on where she had to go next. I remember a seminar where I was struggling with a particular part of the course. After several attempts Tricky just left the course and started running around, sniffing. At the time I totally missed the training breakdown. While I repeated the sequence again and again, just thinking about my job, I was also inadvertently withholding reinforcement from Tricky. I was so busy thinking about ME I didn’t take the time to plan opportunities to reward my canine partner.
When building drive and value for the game it is important to plan and execute rewarding the dog for areas on the course that are challenging as well as areas that seem more simple. Plan on rewarding points along the course where you KNOW the sequence will go right. As an example, one easy reward point is on the opening line with three straight jumps in a row. By surprising the dog with a reward it increases their desire to keep playing. Tricky taught me this even though my instructors had been saying this all along.
The instructor is explaining how to best handle a course.
The most difficult part of this journey for me was accepting the current situation, letting it go, and then accepting the coaching without taking it as a personal failure. My other suggestion: Take the emotion out of training—literally emotionless training. Yes, celebrate when you execute a difficult transition on course or your dog finally weaves 12 poles, but don’t let yourself be bogged down by negative emotions. That negativity clouds your mind and interferes with your ability to be successful. It is difficult to accept coaching and adjust accordingly when your mind is not clear. It’s human nature to get caught up in the negative. Believe me, I’ve been there! I used to compare my dogs to others—wish my dogs were faster, wish I was better, wish I had more time to train, wish I had more money to attend workshops and compete in trials. I wasn’t paying attention to what I actually had in my life so I wasn’t able to hear and receive so much of the coaching that was given to me. This wasn’t fair to my dogs, to me, or my very patient and persistent instructors.
Sometimes a little tough love is offered by your instructors because they can see the dog training deteriorating long before you can. I suggest that you accept that ‘tough love’ and let yourself get back on track and play the game. Our instructors have our best interest at heart, pulling for us to be the best team possible. We handlers can become emotionally attached in a way our instructors may not be. That ability to be a little less emotionally invested is what gives our instructors the ability to give helpful feedback on how to move forward. In my case, I needed the proverbial butt-kicking to sharpen up my training. My instructors were “kicking my butt” for about 8 months before I finally heard them. I had to check my ego at the door and recognize that it’s all just a game. As one of my instructors often says, we’re not curing cancer.
Three years ago because of my pending divorce, walking away from a business I spent ten years building, and starting over financially, my life felt heavy and even unbearable at times. Two years ago, I began participating in a personal development program, giving me the ability to be coachable. It was truly a gift. I learned to be present, to let go, and most importantly lighten up. Life began to occur to me as one big game and I was glad to be playing again. I learned that being coachable means understanding that you don’t have all of the answers and you’re never done learning. And sometimes doing things that are out of your comfort zone—because that’s where you stretch and grow! Agility is always evolving. That requires us to evolve as well as dog trainers and competitors. We can even learn things from those folks who handle or train differently than we might. Sometimes it’s about trying a new handling move or training our dog in a different way. Sometimes it’s about just doing what the instructor says because as humans, we can get caught up in the ‘weeds’. Being coachable means being open and taking action.
Dog Training is NOT a Checklist
I remember teaching a pet manners class years ago and on graduation day, a student came up to me at the end to thank me. She then asked me if she was done training her dog since she had graduated from Basic Manners II. I smiled and said you’re never finished training because your dog is always learning! She was initially crestfallen at this news. After we discussed this a bit more, she better understood what I was saying. She recognized the opportunity she had to continue to build a relationship with her dog through training. But that’s just it, isn’t it? Every interaction with your dog is a learning opportunity. I knew this conceptually, but I really got it in my bones during this journey with Tricky. Just because I taught a solid sit stay with Tricky as a puppy didn’t mean I would always have one if I neglected it. It wasn’t a task to be checked off the “training list.” The way to keep a solid sit stay was to continue reinforcing it in a variety of ways, in different contexts. Sounds so simple and yet so many handlers lose that sit stay once they start competing.
I now think of each behavior I’ve taught Tricky as a precious commodity. I honor each one by treating it accordingly. For example, we recently moved out of New York City and into a house in New Jersey on a lake (hooray for backyards full of agility equipment!). Tricky hasn’t had the practice of being off leash around critters in a yard in almost two years. She’s been off leash in a variety of settings, but not this particular context. During our first week here, she twice ran to chase geese in the neighbor’s yard when I let her out for a quick bathroom break. I’ve been down this road before so I knew exactly what to do. After figuratively kicking myself in the bum for allowing it to happen twice I implemented my game plan to set Tricky up for success. For the next month, as the snow and ice begin to melt, Tricky will be on leash at all times in the back yard. I will take her off leash only when I know that she is ready to play with me. I will know she is ready by playing the various relationship games with her that I described in Part 1 and 2 of this series, BEFORE I unclip the leash. When I see that Tricky is once again choosing to play with me rather than chase geese, squirrels, and rabbits, I will start to give her more freedom in the backyard.
We’re never done training our dogs—and I’m not just referring to new handling and obstacle skills you might learn in a class. I am also talking about the day-to-day interactions that support your agility dog in being an awesome family companion, because that’s the way to create a solid teammate.
Create a Training Plan
It takes time and planning to create workability. Like many agility competitors, I have a very busy life, so making the most out of my training time is important. When one of my instructors told me to create a training plan for Tricky after losing her drive, little did I know at the time that it would turn into a three-part article in Clean Run.
Perhaps you’ve lost some drive in your dog or perhaps you want to build more drive. Here are some of the things to think about when you create your plan:
• What does your dog love that you already know about?
• What are some new things to try to see if your dog loves them (new treats, new toys, new games)?
• What does your dog look like at his/her peak of drive? What is he like now? What changed?
And most of all have fun with your dog! Each of them teach us valuable agility AND life lessons. All we have to do is pay attention.
Originally published in "Clean Run."
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