Friday, February 12, 2010

Start lines and queuing

I have met a few people now who are encouraging their dogs to go crazy barking and lunging at the ends of their leads when around agility. Not just for a few seconds while psyching the dog up to get ready to compete, but all the time they are anywhere near agility. The handlers tell me that they have been advised to get their dogs like this when near agility, because their dogs are not driven enough and this will make them faster. They must never stop their dogs from behaving like this for fear that it will damage their agility prospects. My immediate gut feeling was that this made me uncomfortable (apart from the discomfort of having to stand near them that is), but it has taken me a while to think about it and figure out why. If I’m truthful I guess I would love to find a way to get Zazzy more motivated. Because Becky was (and still is!) very noisy when working, that did make me think a bit harder about the correlation with barking and motivation. But I don’t think this is the way forward and these are the reasons why: 1). I don’t think that continuous hysterical barking can be good for a dog (and it's certainly not good for me!). Think of all that adrenaline coursing through its body, doing this repeatedly must be a physiological strain (on the heart, adrenal glands etc.). 2). I have seen this behaviour, if encouraged, escalate into nipping, chasing, charging, biting, and going for anything that moves if it gets too close. 3). It may be a short cut to getting a dog excited, but once you have your dog in this hysterical state, can it think straight? Can you get a start line wait? Will it leap off the contacts? Can it be directed accurately? The answer I have been given is that ‘I would rather have my dog going fast without a wait/contacts or going in the right direction, than a slow accurate one’. That doesn't seem like a solution to me, more an exchange of one problem for another. 4). Getting dogs into a hysterical over-reactive state is not training let alone good training. Good training would be bringing out the best of the dog using motivational confidence boosting rewards. Of course that is harder and will take longer, and you would have to find yourself a trainer who knows how to do that rather than one who can offer a shortcut that may or may not work, and also possibly leaves you with a dog with bigger issues and bigger problems to sort out later. 5). I have seen many dogs barking in different ways (flyball dogs are interesting to watch for example). I have seen dogs barking hysterically that are not that fast or motivated when working, and I have seen that many of the best and fastest agility dogs are silent. I am not convinced that encouraging hysterical barking and lunging behaviour will ultimately have an exact correlation with increasing speed. Dogs can behave like that and still not be terribly motivated doing the job that you ask of them. Getting excited about the movement going on around them does not automatically mean they will be fired up to work for you. That comes from what motivation you have been using for the actual training. Also a dog that has gone rigid with over-stimulation cannot move well or jump properly. 6). Look at the top dogs in the sport. How many of them are hysterically barking and lunging on the start line? If I think of the top handlers that I know and have seen in training, such as Dawn Weaver, Toni Dawkins, Natasha Wise, their dogs are the fastest around, but I have never seen them standing by the ring for half an hour making their dogs bark! 7).Even if this were a good thing for your dog, what about the rest of the people and dogs in the queue, and at training? My dogs have been intimidated on the start line, subdued in the queue and even bitten by over-hyped dogs. It is hard to concentrate standing next to a screaming dog (and sometimes the noise is painfully loud), let alone try to remember a course or run it well when you are trying to keep your own dog out of harms way. And what about my poor dog?! Surely all the dogs in the queue have a right not be intimidated, let alone put at risk of harm?

I have just found this on Susan Garretts’ website and it sums this subject up very well, from someone who knows a great deal more than me:

‘…. I am NOT in favour of allowing any dog to bark and go crazy while another dog is working. Geeez, aren’t these critters supposed to be our family pets first? How does that contribute to the behaviour of your family pet? And as Rebecca pointed out, the top dogs in any sport have a grace and fluidness rather than a franticness about them. Don’t allow displacement frustration replace good old fashion drive training. There is a MAJOR difference. One requires thought and a progressive training plan. The other only requires you tie a dog to a fence and let the chips fall where the may. You can see why some trainers will offer up that advise, it requires little effort on their part and it may create what you want (however beware of what else you get in the process!)’

There is a ton of really good advice on her website.

Crate games.

What can I say? Brilliant. I played crate games last year with my dogs, who had already been brought up a different way. I thought it was useful and valuable, particularly it helped with Kaydee who gets over-excited when I am getting ready to take them out for a walk. However Deece has been playing crate games from the start, and now I can see even more benefits. I am grateful that I have been allowed to take the crate to the end of the indoor training centre that is not being used for agility training, while Zazzy is not able to do her usual agility class. This has allowed Deece to play crate games with dogs working near by, and I have been trying to move the crate a bit closed each week as his focus improves (had to move it back away a bit this week as he kept looking at a excitable dog when it was near, and ran towards it once, but generally he is getting better!) I have been concentrating on 1) getting him to play, play, and more play with me! 2) a fantastic foundation for a start line wait: ready, focused, not moving! 3) he is quiet when working 4) building drive and speed when called to me (at the moment his return to the crate is slower, something to keep working on!) 5) He is being rewarded for having his collar grabbed 6) he is learning to go from a toy reward, to a food reward, to a toy again. Deece is very interested in all other people and all other dogs, at the moment they are of more interest to him than toys and most foods as well, so these games are really invaluable for him. It has been three weeks since Zazzy’s op so I also took her to play some crate games last night. I was really pleased with her speed, drive, and desire to play. However there was one really interesting moment. She left the crate before I released her, and at that point I stood still and did not get the toy out to play with her. Within no more than two seconds her face completely crumbled, and she sunk to the ground like her world had ended, it took a long while to get her happy and moving again. A timely reminder of how careful I need to be with her training, to make sure I only ask for small incremental steps of difficulty so she gets it right most the time, to try and keep the speed and happy demeanor that she had last night.

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