Building Speed thru Clarity

I hope everyone has enjoyed their time off!  I know I have… I had a fun week visiting with my brother from Montana and my niece and nephew, eating a lot of good food (elk from Montana, the Feast of 7 Fishes at my sister & brother-in-laws house), watching old Wonderful World of Disney movies with my nephew, lots of walks in the woods w/ the dogs, and even a little nose work w/ my nephew.

I heard from a few of you over the break, mostly regarding nose work, but one agility / nose work student, and there seemed to be a common theme:    How do I keep my dog motivated, and How do I get them to pick up their pace?

Here are some thoughts on this.

Speed, in tricks, agility, nose work, rally, really, anything you are doing with your dog, comes with confidence.  If you are clear in what you are asking, and your dog understands what is expected of them, and has practiced to become fluent and smooth, you will see their speed pick up.

Well, but, I thought it was pretty clear when my dog has the harness on that we are doing NW?  I thought I was being clear when I gave directions to my dog to follow on an agility course?  My dog did have confidence, but the more they slow down, the less confident they seem… what’s happened, and how can I fix it?

So,  if I’m looking for my dog to have speed… they need to have  confidence… behind confidence is clarity.  So if I work backwards, and start with clarity, I’m going to keep things short and simple.  I’m not going to look for anything fancy from my dog, and I’m not going to set up anything tricky.  So no “I want him to look at me / paw / freeze / sit / lick his lips while he looks at me and wags his tail” – nothing fancy is expected of the dog!  And don’t set up an agility course with blind / rear / front crosses every other obstacle – nothing tricky in your set up!

I’m going to keep my exercise – either nose work or agility – straightforward.  That means the hide might be paired w/ a good treat in 1 box out of 5 in my basement or living room, and if it’s agility, it might mean 2 jumps and a tunnel. Short, sweet, simple. Then, I try to let them know we are about to work – which means we’re about to do something FUN.  I don’t have to rev them up and get them crazed, I don’t have to get crazy and look like a lunatic, but I do have to have a slightly different demeanor on the start line than I do when I stand in the middle of the living room or training room.  It’s a slight vibration, I bring some excitement with tension in my body and engagement with my dog, making eye contact and saying, “Re-e-e-e-a-d-e-e?”  I sometimes hold them back by the collar (you could use a harness), and I release them when I feel them pulling forward.  If I’m doing nose work, I restrain them and wait for them to be looking and pulling slightly forward, I watch their nose, and when I see it twitching and see that they are focused forward, I release them… “Search!” (Although the word command is somewhat redundant, because they are already focused on hunting)  If I’m doing agility, I might restrain them every so often before a jump, tunnel or the weave poles, give them the same “Re-e-e-e-a-d-e-e?” Cue, and release them when they are pulling slightly forward.  I am NOT releasing them when they look up at me, I am not setting them up like we are doing Rally or obedience. I’m not doing a lead out – having them sit/stay while I walk to the first agility obstacle, and I’m not releasing them once they sit and look at me to go hunt. I want a calm focus – although, with Coach, it’s not exactly calm, but it is an intense focus forward.

When doing nose work, and the dog has started off hunting the boxes I’ve set out, I don’t worry too much if they stray from the boxes.  I try to look at the environment, and read why my dogs might be ranging… is the heat on? Is there a draft in the basement? As soon as my dog does a head snap, double back, spends some time sniffing the hot box, I move in and reward.  Again, I’m going for clarity, I want the dog to be clear about the object of what we are doing, and what they are getting the reward for.  I want to be sure the dog does not think it’s a sit, or a look, or a down or a paw that brings the reward.  It’s the ODOR that brings the reward.  If I rush in too soon (oops, I don’t think the dog even realized there was odor there, and here I am treating him) that’s ok once or twice.  I’d rather be too quick than too late, if I am building drive and speed. Being late with your reward, whether in agility or nose work, creates a gray area for your dog – which is not the clarity we are looking for.

When doing agility, I’m not going to mind if the bar(s) get dropped the first couple runs, I don’t want to do anything to flatten the dogs enthusiasm. I may try to think about WHY the bar dropped – was he set up too close to the bar? Does he not have the experience of jumping? Do I need to lower the bar? Do I even NEED a bar up higher than 2”? If I am doing obstacles that are fairly simple, jumps and tunnels, not poles or teeters, I will toss a treat or toy AS MY DOG is DOING the obstacle.  So the toy / treat is NOT a lure – ie, tossed before the dog does the jump – it comes AS HE’s IN THE AIR. I’ll toss it / bowl it – practice without your dog or without the obstacle to start.  You want the treat to be visible against the black mats, and you want the toy or treat to continue moving ahead of your dog when they are in the air. If it drops too close to the jump, they will stop short / land hard to get it. I want them striding over the jump, focused forward on the moving object, so they are gliding thru the air and not pausing or stopping hard when they land.

As your dogs start to flow and have fun with the games (NW or agility) you can add little challenges. Instead of 6 boxes scattered in the middle of the floor, place them on the edges of the room.  Instead of a simple jump – tunnel – jump line, put a curve in the tunnel and add a jump, so the dogs are doing a speed circle. Do it in both directions, so you work the dog on your right side and your left side.  Decide where your dog is slow – is it the tunnel? The jump after the tunnel? Time your reward so your dog is racing to get to it. You don’t need to reward after every obstacle, but decide strategically where the best use of your reward should be.  In nose work, you can race your dog to the hide – if they are about to dip their head into the hot box that is paired with food, race over and deliver treats one by one by one while your dogs head is in the box.  If the box is big enough, wait until their nose is on the tin before dropping / tossing your treat.  The object is that the odor brings reward – nose on source makes one treat at a time rain down.  Vary your reward from 5 to 3 to 7 treats delivered at source.

A lot of dog training (at least for me) is rewarding a good decision by the dog. So if my dog LOVES tunnels, but I want him to do 3 jumps first, and I see him look at the tunnel, pause, but continue on to a jump, I will stop and reward w/ 3-4 treats delivered one at a time, and not worry about the rest of the course. I’m rewarding a good decision, not trying to get him to do 4 obstacles before the reward comes.

If I’m doing nose work, and my dog has taken longer than usual to find a hide, that tells me that something about it was difficult for him. So AS SOON AS he gets to source, I’m praising him and rewarding him one treat at a time.  In the videos below, my poor dogs did not get paid / compensated for the extreme conditions they were working through at the time, as you’ll see  below.

Ok, here are two videos from Christmas night. Dinner was being made, and my 6 yr old nephew Marco wanted to do some nose work.  I had given him a treat pouch / bait bag filled w/ treats for Christmas, as well as 2 tins preloaded w/ Clove Qtips.  He has helped me do some nose work training in the past, but it’s been spread out over months, the last session being in July.  I **should** have given him some refresher instructions, and I **should** have had treats on me myself, to jump in.  Marco needs some coaching on treat delivery at source – he was a little afraid of my dogs being land sharks and grabbing at the treats, so that was a challenge, too.

This was before dinner after a long day.  My husband, the dogs and I spent Christmas morning w/ my in-laws in Gloucester, MA before driving up to my parents house in NH for Christmas w/ my parents, my brother, and my sister, her husband, their two kids, and my sisters mother-in-law.  Gifts were opened, toys were being played with, wrapping paper tossed around, dinner was being prepared… there was a lot going on all day for my dogs, and this was a particularly busy time of day!  This is what I meant by extreme conditions.  On the bright side, they were super hungry (motivated) and they are experienced searchers, so the flubs and mistakes you’ll see did not break my dogs.

But, these searches are extreme examples of how with a greener dog, late timing, not rewarding at source, only rewarding with one treat after a long delay, asking / expecting too many behaviors, moving around while the dog is trying to search and having 2 dogs in the search area could really confuse and demotivate a dog! Again, these are obvious examples of, uh, areas for improvement, but I think they give a good picture of what the dog may be experiencing!  Is there anything here that you may be doing on a much smaller scale? For some reason, Marco would pick up the tin while only rewarding one of the dogs, so there are times one dog got short changed.  Again, luckily they are experienced dogs, and we only do nose work with Marco about once every 4-6 months, so this session did not ruin them.  Plus, they got some good elk scraps for dinner that my brother brought home just for them – muscle meat and sinew.

Note how the Search cue comes while the dogs have already charged into the search area hunting. An example of dogs who know the task at hand and the only thing they are relying on the handler for is to open the door.  Poor Marco, I stepped on his heel coming thru the door w/ my wood soled clogs, which is why he screeches.  It doesn’t seem to phase the dogs. Can you tell someone’s had a few too many Christmas cookies and chocolates?

As you watch, think about the environment and what the odor must be doing, based on what the dogs are doing. Note where the odor is pooling and collecting, based on where the dogs are sniffing, and think about where / when you would have gone in to reward them.  Note how they respond when Marco points – I do not do directed searching, so they really thought he was assisting them when he pointed up at the patio umbrella.  Which, is not a bad thing – they learned from that exercise that a point does NOT mean there is a hide there… they are still responsible for finding odor on their own!  I think they all had fun burning off some energy, and I know my parents and brother were happy to have us out of the kitchen while they were preparing dinner.  I learned that Marco needs some work rewarding at source, and we can practice without the dogs with him just tossing treats at the tin.  And, one dog at a time!

Elk, it’s what’s for dinner

As you can imagine, the dogs were exhausted at the end of the day. We were watching Disney’s Shaggy Dog, the original black and white version







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