Speed: Confidence, Joy and Stress

(Original post on May 26, 2017)

In the sport of agility, speed is usually seen as something desirable. We would like our canine teammates to be able to hit the course with great speed, safely. We would like them to be able to cover ground quickly and efficiently, which requires a lot of power, proprioception, and control. It also requires a lot of communication and trust between handler and dog, and the dog must be confident in their task at hand to be able to maintain high speeds. As an instructor, I often see dogs start off with a lot of speed potential, but then they slow down over the course of training. With Kelsey, I saw great speed potential in her as an adolescent, yet over the years she slowed down to pace herself to me. On the flip side, I have Jenga who, like Kelsey, had a lot of speed potential in his youth and when he hit his adolescence, his speed demon side exploded in my backyard. Fast zooms was his name and slowing down was not part of his game, but then again, focusing and working with me were also not on his agenda despite all our foundation games and recall training.
So why did both dogs have speed potential, one slowed down and the other zoomed away? Both experienced stress and lack of confidence. With Kelsey, I returned to basics, increased her reinforcement rate, and ensured clarity and consistency in the training. We did Handling 360, and the introduction of verbals for her, that made a massive difference. The final piece of the puzzle was addressing physical pain and tightness. Once those were addressed, she hit the 4.5-6 yps speeds on courses! 🙂 It was a pure delight!
Jenga has been a different journey. For him, frustration and need for exercise were his nemeses. Back in the mid to late 90’s, I watched a brilliant handler (Linda) out in Edmonton, Alberta handle and train sight hounds. She had a word that could put her dogs into high gear. I also have seen others with sight hounds who would disconnect and race off in the zoomies, return and continue on course. Back in 2013, I started to wonder about the role of Premack Principle, and harnessing the joy of the zoom into the arsenal of reinforcers, although I didn’t have a student with a dog that could use that as a reward. Then in 2014, I also started to consider the role of zooms, sniffs, bark-fests as physical releases of the negative energy associated with frustration. In addition, these “bad behaviors” were an excellent signal of poor mechanics (insufficient reinforcement, lumping the behaviors, over-facing the dog). Yet, it was commonly held that these were bad behaviors and needed to be controlled and stopped.
Yet I began to wonder with Jenga. Was this really something that should be controlled and managed and squashed? When I initially attempted, I could see the result definitely increased his frustration and arousal level to the point where learning was simply not going to happen. It only took me two sessions to realize that wasn’t going to work – at all. It also increased my own frustration, which made the training sessions unpleasant for me as I wanted to have my own zoom or scream of frustration. 😉
So, in May 2016, I decided to break the rules. I put my faith in the following principles:
  1. Put the behavior on cue: I paired the word “ZooooooOOOOooom!” with his racing around the yard while I cleaned the yard. I wasn’t training him or asking anything of him. I was simply pairing a word with his behavior of choice (racing around the yard).
  2. Premack Principle: If I can get him to do something I want, I can amplify the reinforcement by letting him do something he wants. (You look at me, and I will say, “ZooooOOOOOooom!”)
  3. Shaping – Average or Better: Once I could get Jenga to check in with me for a Zoom, then I’d up the ante… give me a hand-touch, and I will say, “ZooooOOOOOooom!” Then, give me two hand touches…. Then a control behavior…. You get the idea.
  4. Contra-Freeloading Principle: Dogs find food/reinforcement that has been earned to be more valuable than free food/reinforcement. I have been relying on this principle to offset self-initiated (or stolen) zooms.
  5. Invigoration is an indication of frustration, lower confidence, and likely poor mechanics: When Jenga is learning a new behavior, he is more prone to stealing zooms. I have learned that he needs a release more frequently when we are learning a new skill; however, when he is confident with a learned behavior, I can’t get him to zoom at all! He wants the work!
  6. Cues reinforce the current behavior: If Jenga steals a zoom, I prefer to not recall him. I prefer simple no-feedback for the possibility of extinguishing the behavior. This is perhaps THE hardest part of all of it, especially when I’m in a group training setting. The perceived social pressure to control my dog and not waste group time is HUGE! There are times I fail on this one because I succumb to my own inner-voice of judgement. Yet, how many times do others eat up class time with repeated mistakes, or lengthy routines of some nature? We all have our own journeys and class time challenges. That’s my issue, not Jenga’s.
  7. Start in a smaller / contained habitat, then start to generalize to other habitats: I started working in my yard (May-September 2016). Then I took it to the arena. Then to other venues. Each new venue we would experience a set-back, but with each subsequent new habitat, it is getting better.
One training principle which still makes me worry at times is the Rehearsal Principle (behaviors that are rehearsed become more engrained). However, what I have noticed over the past year is the following.
  1. Jenga has maintained, if not increased, his speed!
  2. Jenga has massive love for the sport and finds it extremely rewarding!
  3. My relationship with Jenga is strong and has not been diminished because I have not punished him or amplified his frustration / stress. Instead, he is confident and has some “very serious skills” for a young dog!
  4. We have accomplished these skills in fewer repetitions, in fewer hours, and starting much later in his life.
  5. His “stolen” zooms have decreased significantly and are shorter in duration when they do occur.
  6. We are still generalizing the Zoom to other habitats, and I suspect we will have to work through wrinkles in the show ring. But until then, I am tickled with his speed, focus, confidence and joy! He loves to run, and I have infused that into the sport with interaction with me.
I can’t say with 100% certainty that this is THE answer and this isn’t the only thing in our training regiment that is on the To Do List; however, I can say that we have had massive wins since last year, when I couldn’t even get him to focus for a sit or a single jump in my yard without racing off. There is the possibility that the Rehearsal Principle will come and “bite me in the ….” I know there are venues that would not welcome his zooms, so until we have them phased out more, I’m not exposing us to that habitat which would amplify my stress (and in extension, his zooms). There have been times people have said nasty things about his running around, calling him unkind names; however, I don’t hold those names in my heart for him and for now, I’m holding course on this approach.
We have come along in leaps and bounds, with JOY, CONFIDENCE while dealing with frustration and building our relationship even further. Plus, I’ve timed our turns in group classes…. We don’t eat up any more time than others… I hate wasting time. We are fast and efficient with the exercise, which gives him a bit of time available for a victory lap or two! 🙂
%d bloggers like this:
search previous next tag category expand menu location phone mail time cart zoom edit close