I teach an online class called Worked Up for Fenzi Dog Sports Academy, and I teach a two-day workshop of the same name as well, all over the world. This course is all about dogs spin/bark/bite or just plain can’t think in a working environment. They are overstimulated, highly aroused, and outside of their own control, much less their humans’. And there is one easy way to avoid landing yourself in that class: quit doing too much too soon with your sport dogs.
Now, since I like to be clear with my humans as well as my dogs, this blog can’t end with a directive of what not to do, can it? So let’s get clear on some real ways that we can avoid this “too much too soon” trouble:
Build Reinforcer Skills
Rather than teaching things like wing wraps and tunnels, start by teaching reinforcer skills. That means toy skills, food markers, and the ability to switch reinforcers in a variety of contexts should be first on the list. Before my dog can effectively do these things, I don’t ask for much more.
Test Reinforcer Skills
Once my dog is fluent in his reinforcer skills I test those skills. I add discrimination (can you take the food and not the toy even though they are both available and vice versa?), and I test the skills under gradually increased arousal states. Think of it this way: if my dog can’t discriminate markers ringside with a dog running agility, I don’t even want him in agility class.
Find the Love for the Simple Stuff
You have a puppy, and you want to start! Training is so fun! Time to find the love for the basics, and not rush into sequencing. There’s a puppy foundations class, but your dog can’t pay attention to you around other dogs yet? Skip it. Work on that, not the class material. Do not be trapped into thinking your only training opportunities are group class, and do not allow yourself the excuse of “he will only learn this IN context.” Hogwash, all of it. You are your dog’s trainer, and he is learning all the time. The most important work I did with Felix for his future agility career was in a feed store parking lot, all by myself.
Accept the Dog’s Timeline
This is a big one, friends! Some dogs will follow your plans and your timeline and I don’t honestly know where people get those dogs. The healthiest thing I have ever done for my own brain and my experience of dog sports was to accept that there is no script, there is no rule that states my dog has to qualify for Cynosport his first year out, and no reason for me to compare my training or my progress to anyone else’s.
And here’s a video, over two years old now, of Felix and I figuring out his intense desire to chase other dogs. I knew he couldn’t attend an agility class, seminar, or trial with that behavior still intact.
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