We ask our performance dogs to cope with a lot of things that qualify as “hard stuff for dogs.” Being calm while another dog runs full speed through an agility course, waiting quietly in a small cage while the world buzzes around them, and staying focused on their human while other dogs and people come unnaturally close, often in high-states of arousal are just some of the things agility dogs are asked to do. Dogs are amazing, a lot of dogs wind up pulling all of these things off even with very little dedicated training in these areas.
But what happens if your dog struggles with one of these things? Then you’ll have to dedicate some training to them, and it would be smarter if we all did that up front.
Too Much Too Soon
The culture around agility is all about throwing puppies right into the thick of things. Ten weeks old? Ignored ringside. 14 weeks? In a crate right in the middle of a busy trial. 16 weeks? Expected to walk like an adult through a busy area; blamed for jumping on people or other dogs. I have seen puppies physically corrected for barking ringside. I’ve seen a person beat the top of a puppy’s crate because she was vocalizing inside of it. I have seen puppies ripped off their feet when they attempted to practice normal greeting behavior. Again, because dogs are incredible, most of them will not go on to develop career-altering behavior problems. But some of them will, and we can do better, so why don’t we?
A lot of these mistakes come down to people ignoring the concept of emotional or mental maturity. We have all had puppies who seemed to be adults right away; capable of learning complex tasks, coping with tough environments, and never quite acting like puppies. On the flip side we’ve also had puppies that were the clumsy, hyper-social, zero attention-span, adorable balls of mush that puppies ought to be. Paying attention to our pups’ mental maturity and adjusting our plans accordingly is a smart move. Some puppies won’t be able to ignore social enticement until they are over a year of age; and shouldn’t be asked to. Quite a lot of puppies will be unable to relax in a crate while a noisy trial buzzes around them; they should be provided a quiet space. More puppies still will struggle to be calm ringside while dogs race through an agility course, adrenaline bursting from both dog and handler. They may refuse food or toys in that moment, and should not be pestered to ignore what seems pressing to them.
When things don’t go as planned…
…it’s time to make a new plan. The instant you see your puppy’s behavior looking anything other than what you’d like it to be, it’s time to adjust. A smoker doesn’t quit smoking while smoking, and yet too many trainers still insist that puppies will learn to stop vocalizing by being allowed to vocalize. Create a picture of how you’d like your adult performance dog to behave, and then actively set out to reinforce those behaviors. If those behaviors aren’t present in the agility context, it’s time to remove the dog from the environment for a time. Allowing our dogs to dictate the timeline of their own training by observing their behavior and adjusting accordingly is one of the smartest moves we can make.
Training a Feeling
Too often when we learn the supreme science of operant conditioning we forget about its powerful cousin, classical conditioning. Understanding the principles, strengths, and shortcomings of each is vital to nurturing a behaviorally sound dog. Dog trainers too often refer to operant and classical conditioning as “methods” when the truth is that they are forces; laws, always at play. Whether we choose to employ them or not, they will be doing their work at all times. When we teach a puppy to be quiet in his crate by reinforcing silence we may be successful in creating a quiet puppy; but we may also produce a keen and sharp emotional state, the kind we’d like to see during training but not during crated downtime. Likewise, distracting a puppy ringside with high-intensity toy play may create a dog that will latch onto a tug while another dog is running but will fail to produce one that can lie quietly near his handler while he waits.
My little man Felix is 21 months old. For the first time since he was about 12 weeks, I asked him to hang out with me ringside while another dog was running. The gap of time between then and now showed me a dog that was both thrilled by dogs running and incapable of containing himself, so I didn’t ask him to. Instead we worked on our working relationship and his ability to cope with adrenaline rushing through his veins, and I have to say I am really excited about his progress. He isn’t ready to do this in a trial yet (we were training) but he has been walking through trial sites without leaping all over every person and dog he sees, which is another thing I haven’t asked him to do for the past several months. He will play in a couple of seminars this summer, and pending those we will look at entering some trials. It’s an exciting time, and it’s so important that I adjust my plans based on what his behavior tells me, not based on my eagerness to play the game.
If you’d like to know more about behavioral wellness for performance dogs and what you can do to help nurture the kind of sport companion you want, join me in BH 305 The Whole Picture: Behavioral Wellness for Performance Dogs at Fenzi Dog Sports Academy! We will be discussing everything I touched on in this blog and then some.