Wednesday, 11 June 2014

The Waiting Game

Start line waits can be a mystery and another one of those incredible gifts our dogs can give us. Being able to walk off confidently to get to a good position to help each other around the course has so much value.

I often compare it to going on a long car journey.
Everyone on the journey has things to do and important things they want to take. If no planning and agreement is made then things can get forgotten or not taken because there's not enough room or are packed incorrectly etc.

Everyone can have their own idea of how quickly they want to be off.

Sometimes people may even have a different idea of what is the best way to go.

Then there is the locking up process and not forgetting who needs to go to the toilet etc. Thank goodness for shotgun so there is no argument as to who sits next to the driver LOL

These things can be avoided with a clear plan or discussion of what each person is expecting to happen pre journey. With agility shows most weekends we have got departing off to a fine art now.

With our dogs it is important to consider if they understand their part on the start line and how it improves the game we play.

This weekend I saw an example of a lovely man with a lovely dog that clearly did not understand this fact. The more the man asked the dog to wait the more anxious it was to be near him to try to get something right. It didn't go off and take any obstacles just came off the start line with him. After the final warning the dog was taken off the course without them doing anything. I've seen this partnership work and they look well tuned on the course. I had not noticed a start line though so possibly it has been an issue.

The next day I overheard somebody - possibly his trainer saying that he should walk the dog back to the van and not say a word to it and eventually it would learn to stay on the start line. The lovely man was uncomfortable with this but agreed to give it a try.

This "training" method has been tried and tested. In inexperienced cases it has a high degree of failure. People that have had success with it with their own dogs is because they would only need to do it once, then rather than sacrifice runs/the season they would very quickly ensure the dog understands criteria before allowing it to fail again.

If it has to be done for a whole season then I am sad for both the handler and the dog and would love to hear from anybody who had success following this method when it didn't work after the first show i.e it took several shows and then suddenly worked.

Mark took Kodi out of KC competitions for a whole season to go to UKA where he was able to use training runs to reward correct criteria and build up a clear understanding for both him and Kodi to get their start lines right.

Hang on the regular readers of this blog will say I thought that was to sort his contacts out. Yes it was that as well. With stopped contacts there is often a clear connection with the dogs lack of understanding on the start line with it's misunderstanding of contact criteria.

When we do training days we can devote a whole hours session to wait training and then a totally different hour dedicated to how the make the most of the dog waiting and how to help the dog be confident in staying. We have even done a session purely on how to position yourself and your dog to have an effectual running start :)

Yes with many partnerships a running start is better for everyone. Mark got his dog Deacon to Advanced without a decent start line wait and even Kodi's was a little dodgy in the early days. Even at Crufts there were dogs who were a little wobbly due to handler nerves etc.

To me taking a dog off the line when it doesn't understand the situation enough is as confusing as putting some dogs back on the contacts.

I like to use the word WAIT to break down the elements of start line.

W is for willing.

By that I mean the dog has to have the will to wait. If in nowhere else in it's life it doesn't have to wait it will not have the will to wait on a start line. If you think of self control as a muscle then if it is not exercised enough it will be weak.

Look outside agility for fun ways to develop your dogs willingness. I like crate games, waiting to be let off lead, waiting for their turn to go through the gate or out of the door etc. Even a basic of waiting for the command to eat their food can help. Please keep these fun though. Keep everything a game/challenge. Dogs love challenges especially if they get to win by working them out and if they get good rewards after.

A is for able.

Some dogs lack confidence and seek reassurance from their owner. Reassurance usually comes with being close as that is were the treats or fuss or toy comes from. They are not able to have the confidence to wait and the more stress that is applied the more the dog will want to be near the owner.
Some dogs are environmentally challenged and are working really hard at concentrating on the handler when they would really like to join in the game behind or the young lady in the queue that may fulfil a basic need etc. Staying still is the hardest thing to do.
They may be concerned by the lead picker upper etc etc.

Loads of situation training to mimic these things will help strengthen the dogs ability with lots of opportunity for reward.

I = Interested

To me a dog that is interested in you on the start line is showing that it is fully understanding that it is you that holds the key to the release. I liken it to when dogs are playing and they are watching each other intently to see who is going to give the signal. There are so many other interesting things going on around an agility show that if you dog doesn't maintain interested in you they will lose focus and the easier more fun part of doing the jumps will take over.

Great games to play at club to make waiting more interesting is for one person to nominate how to walk out e.g skip, hop or mimic any number of well known handlers. This takes so much stress off the dog and it will be totally interested in what you are doing. Others include walking to position and scratching your head or other parts :)

If the dog is not able to cope even in training with you walking off then increase the length of time to stand beside them with things like star jumps, sitting on a chair and getting back up etc. Being near makes it easy to keep those rewards coming provided the dog keeps the criteria set.

Some dogs love the challenge of position change - sit down stand and release on a different position. Taking it further a sit to a stand can help the dog engage it's rear end ready for jumping.

Rhyme demonstrating position change in front of a jump

Games in training to keep you laughing and enjoying asking your dog to wait whilst increasing the challenge to the dog should help keep waiting fun so you are motivated to include it in every training session.

T = Trusted

Trusting your dog can wait, is willing and able to wait and you both find waiting interesting is so important to helping get the most of your agility run.

I also look at this from the dogs point of view in that I think it is equally important that the dog trusts that you are going to behave in a particular way. So along with the fun ways of challenging your dog to cope with changing behaviour as you move off I always ensure that the release signal is consistent.

My routine is to walk off, look around the course to check my position, look at Rhyme then as I raise my arm I give him the release command.

Mark's routine is to walk off, raise his arm and then drop his arm as the release cue along with the command.

As a young dog Rhyme occasionally lifted as I turned my head to look at him so I would go to position and as I turned I step back towards him to go and reward him without lifting my arm. This helped him distinguish between when I wanted him to stay or that I was going to call when ready. Until I could turn my head, praise and even count to ten before I called him.

When Torro was a youngster he could not understand me going back to him to be rewarded. He acted like he had failed at something so for him I would stay in place until I had thrown a toy for him and release him back to the toy. We had to work on loads of duration training with me next to him.

I have just tried to film this to demonstrate but obviously over the years he is now comfortable with this. I was hoping to show his ears going back and him licking his lips and scared eyes. Instead look at the high held ears, comfortable stance and relaxed eyes.

Torro relaxed on return to reward

Knowing your dogs body language is important so you can trust your judgement on whether your dog has actually got full understanding of what you want and equally importantly be sure they really understand what they are being rewarded for.

I am confident the man mentioned earlier will find a way to enjoy his agility with his lovely dog - with or without a wait. Meanwhile as instructors using reward based training, as we all do these days, please consider how taking a dog out of the ring, walking it to the car & not speaking to it for not understanding what is required comes within positive reinforcement.