How Tricky Got Her Groove Back
One of the main reasons I am an effective dog trainer and have strong mechanical skills when teaching and handling dogs is because of my many years as an student of agility. This dog performance sport takes the science of behavior and learning and puts it into practical application. I am regularly challenged by the sport and by my own dogs to be clearer about the information I am giving and how I am communicating.
Here is the first article I wrote for a three-part article published in the magazine:
“HOW TRICKY GOT HER GROOVE BACK”
Life events happen that can interrupt our plans, even in the game of agility. I experienced a very difficult period after my marriage ended three years ago. I was not motivated to do anything. This included activities that normally brought great joy to me, such as agility training with my dogs (Tricky and Charlotte). More importantly, when I did train for agility I was a lazy dog trainer. I took for granted the solid foundation I had built with Tricky’s early training and wanted to focus on the ‘sexy’ handling skills. As a result, Tricky’s once sharp skills dulled and her desire to play the game of agility with me waned. As we know, every interaction with our dogs make a difference in the kind of athlete and agility partner we have—it’s truly about the relationship we develop through training. It was clear that my motivational issues were impacting her as well.
After a year of her behavior deteriorating and six months of my being in denial about it, I finally accepted some serious coaching from my instructor and began repairing my relationship with Tricky. Of course, at the same time, I continued my own process of recovery from the ending of my marriage.
This three-part article is about the journey back, including the game plan I made and the training exercises and techniques I implemented to recreate an awesome teammate. Tricky turns five years old on January 2 and we are tighter than ever and will be strong competitors. The best part is that we are enjoying our work together and enjoying the game of agility.
THE DOWNWARD SPIRAL
One of the things I let go of during ‘the dark times’ was Tricky’s tug drive. I knew Tricky’s highest value reinforcement was a ball so when I trained, I used it in our training sessions. It created the most drive and therefore more speed. Because Tricky was more motivated to work with me when I had a ball in my hand, it allowed me to practice sloppy handling and poor dog training. I often didn’t plan the details of my training session: I did not walk and mentally visualize the sequence with the same kind of intent I did at trials; I wasn’t sharp with my transitions from point A to point B, allowing Tricky to rehearse sniffing and leaving even before we started the sequence; I didn’t prepare the with right tools, such as sneakers to properly run and pants with pockets to hold treats (I was that lazy). So I used a ball. And all the while, there was a nagging voice in the back of my head that kept telling me this was all going to catch up with me at some point.
At the same time I was concerned with looking good, so in class under my instructor’s watchful eye, I didn’t use a ball nearly as much as I did when training alone. When I did pull out a tug toy, Tricky was no longer diving on it with the same intensity that she used to as a puppy when driving out of the crate. When I threw the tug toy to reward Tricky on the line during sequencing, she sometimes wouldn’t go for it. She clearly told me she didn’t find the tug toy reinforcing at that moment. I switched back to a ball, fooling myself into thinking I was slick in making the switch from tug toy to ball mid-training session. I often felt as if every tug session was a negotiation where I had to work hard to convince her that the tug toy was fun. Not only was I frustrated with my dog for not tugging the way she used to, I was also inadvertently rewarding her for not tugging! Every time Tricky refused the tug toy, I would bang it on the ground and move it around even more, to make it more enticing. It was usually after this Tricky would show interest in the toy, so I was actually rewarding the initial disinterest. Basically, my actions in classes and clinics were inconsistent with how I was training at home and Tricky was totally ‘ratting’ me out on that. She was probably thinking, ‘Dude, where the heck is my ball?!’ What a good dog!
When Tricky was really young, one of my instructors told me that being a good dog trainer includes being a student of your dog’s behavior, meaning being totally aware of how your behaviors influences your dog’s behavior at that very moment and then adjusting your behavior accordingly. Unless you are keeping this in mind, it can take some time to realize you aren’t paying attention to your dog and you have a problem. That’s what happened to me. Tricky’s behaviors deteriorated, plus I was in denial about the downward spiral. How could a then two year old dog make it to Steeplechase finals at 2011 Northeast Regionals if she were not a brilliant dog? Unfortunately, 5 months later, Tricky could not even stay in the ring with me: if I made a handling error, Tricky had no tolerance for it and left the ring; if she caught a scent of something more interesting than agility, she left the ring; if she saw a person she knew, she left the ring. That was the reality. But I didn’t really take responsibility for it until March of 2012. Taking responsibility of the breakdown of Tricky’s behaviors meant no longer being in denial about it. I stopped kicking myself for allowing this to have occurred and for allowing it to continue for so long. I was done making excuses. I was now completely committed to creating the partnership that Tricky and I deserve.
BACK ON THE (RE)TRAIN
Of course I wanted to get started ‘doing stuff’ as soon as possible, but I forced myself to first spend time thinking through our goals for us and developing our re-training plan. While I knew that our long term goal was to get us back into competition, I realized that the first and most important goal was to reignite her enthusiasm for high intensity controlled activities with me. ‘With me’ was the key component. After all, agility is a team sport and I needed us to become a team again. I selected several games to help us accomplish that.
Good Ole’ Restrained Recalls
The first thing I started doing was practicing restrained recalls everywhere, pretty much every day. It only took me a few minutes each day —it wasn’t about drilling the dog, but rather rebuilding value in the dog wanting to play with me, no matter what. I initially played restrained recalls with Tricky leading out only a few feet so as to build value for her to chase me and play with me. What I wanted to recreate in Tricky was the look on her face of ‘let me at her!’ as she is fought to get out of my training partner’s hands holding Tricky. Once I saw that she was really amped about playing the game again, I varied the recall games by starting at different distances from Tricky, working in different environments, and throwing in some front crosses or pivots on the flat once she caught me.
This next game built upon playing restrained recalls with Tricky. Tricky already saw the value in racing to me when I ran away and called her. To really rev her up, I took Tricky by the collar, talked ‘dirty’ to her, pushed her back, and ran away from her. Tricky then raced to me, slamming into me when she caught me. I played this game a couple of times per day inside and outside. I often chose to play the game at random times, such as in the middle of folding laundry in the bedroom or setting the table for dinner. I turned to Tricky, said some key words to cue her that I was about to take off running, and then ran around the bedroom or dining room table. Tricky ran after me, excitedly barking the whole time. It was a blast! And made remedial tasks like laundry folding more interesting! If I played outside, I made sure her leash was dragging behind her just in case she chose to run off. Again, it was all about using interactive play to rebuild our partnership.
Tricky weighs about 13 pounds so I was careful not to shove her back so hard that she tumbled tail overhead, thereby possibly shutting her down. I chose to let Tricky slam into me when she caught me, but because she weighs 13 pounds, it didn’t feel like much. If she were a 60-pound dog, I would likely still let her slam into me because I was working on building drive, but that was my choice. I varied how I rewarded Tricky by engaging with a game of tug, feeding super yummy treats, or sometimes I just ran away again. I chose to vary the rewards to spice up the game and keep it interesting for Tricky.
Another important part of the mechanics of these games is to stay connected to the dog the entire time you are running away. I did this by looking over my shoulder to give Tricky eyeball-to-eyeball contact. This rehearsal of connection is so important for handler and dog because not only does it build drive in the dog, it also carries over into the ring once the dog is sequencing. Connection with the dog will allow you to give timely information on when to turn, how to turn, and where to go because you are actually watching the dog as she approaches each obstacle.
Tag! You’re it!
We played our version of the classic childhood game of tag where I had to ‘tag’ her. As soon as I did, I ran in the opposite direction until Tricky ‘tagged’ me. I played this game in a small area, such as the family room, so as to not rehearse too much of the keep away game that could have gotten me into trouble. This game is not a good idea for dogs that absolutely will not come when called—it only works if the dog enjoys chasing YOU.
Another game was Downward Dog, where I got down on my hands and knees to mimick a play bow. I then moved my hands from side to side, and bounced back and forth, engaging Tricky to play with me. This is the same way one dog will engage another dog at the dog park. I even rolled onto my back and wiggled around, arms and legs extended. I tried to be as silly with my dog as possible! Just play the way you might with a toddler.
I was slightly horrified when I was first told to let my terrier bite me. I had been working so hard on teaching her not to bite me since she was a puppy. Then I realized what the instruction meant—it was about building drive through interactive play and not having so much control over the dog’s life. Basically, let the dog be a dog. And for my terrier, that meant some play biting. I put the word in italics because I’m not referring to the kind of aggressive biting that require the expert support of a behavior consultant, but rather the inhibited biting you might observe when dogs are playing with one another.
So how do you get a dog to bite you, especially when they have learned teeth on skin is out of bounds? You bug the heck out of ‘em! It started with me grabbing at Tricky’s feet, swiping my hands underneath her. Initially she just kept stepping out of the way. I kept at it and eventually she put her lightly put her teeth on me. Score 1! (Disclaimer: I would never recommend any biting games with dogs who lack bite inhibition, cannot be told to stop on cue, or have aggression issues.)
Pits and Privates
Another game I played is something my instructor calls ‘pits and privates.’ This game is similar to the tickle games you may have played with a younger brother or sister—or perhaps an older sibling played with you! Ever been tickled until you literally can’t breathe and you’re kicking and laughing, trying to fight the other person off? And at the same time you are totally ticked off? That’s how ‘pits and privates’ works. To play the game, I got on the floor with Tricky and gently poked her under her front legs and then under her back legs (not literally her private area). I kept poking in the front and then again in the back, until Tricky finally became irritated enough that she put her teeth on me. Score 2!
These games continued to build to the point that now if I get into a specific stance, crouched down with my hands extended like claws about to grab at her; Tricky immediately goes into “game on” mode. I can now use these games at the start line if there are timer issues and I no longer have her leash to tug. Tricky will play with me. Plus all of the barking she does while playing with me this way gets her state of arousal up—which is exactly what I need before putting her over equipment. And the cool thing is I can turn it on and turn it off like a light switch so it never gets out of hand. Another benefit of these ‘biting’ games is that I was able to redirect that energy onto Tricky’s tug toy. But more on tugging later!
I will cover this in Part 2 of this series.
So what did I learn from this retraining strategy?
- Sometimes it’s best to let all reservation fly out the window when it comes to dog training.
- To lose myself in the moment and just PLAY with my dog.
- The more I energy I invested into a training session, the more the dog gave back to me.
- Getting down and dirty with Tricky is what turned her on to playing with me.
- Dogs have a so much more fun when things are not prim and proper.
- Whooping and hollering made the game more exciting for Tricky. If I wasn’t panting at the end of a game, I wasn’t giving it my all.
- Regularly revisiting all of the games I played with Tricky as a puppy maintains a higher level of drive throughout the dog’s life. Once a puppy, always a puppy!
And the biggest lesson I learned was that I was my biggest obstacle. Once I got out of my own way, I was able to create a training plan for my dog and execute it while having fun!
Read Part 2 and Part 3.
Advocating for Animals – Victoria and Holly are joined by actor and animal activist, Peter Egan to discuss dogs, moon bears and...
Victoria is joined by dog behaviour expert and a driving force behind the UK Dog Behaviour & Training Charter Andrew Hale to...
The rescue of 180 Chihuahuas sparks a larger conversation on how to transition dogs from crisis situations into homes.
Articles from Victoria Stilwell
- 2021 Dog Behavior Conference Announced
- Why I’m Not a Purely Positive Dog Trainer
- Becoming a Dog Trainer
- Social Bullying
- Does Your Dog Respect You?