Stacy Winkler's Keen Dog Blog

Finding the fun in creating great dog agility behaviors




Did you ever stop and really take a look at how we often struggle when trying to learn something new? How about trying to retain something new? How about just trying to remember someone’s freakin’ name five seconds after it’s been given to you?😇

I know that when I’m learning something new, like settings on my camera, when I use it a bunch I’ll get the settings totally clear in my head. I mean seriously, I’ll have that sh**t down. Then I won’t use it for three weeks, and when I go to pick it up again I am like “How the heck do I make the blah, blah, blah, blah work again?? “ Sheesh. It sucks. But it happens all the time.

What about when you try to learn something as seemingly simple as footwork in a new agility maneuver? Ever feel clumsy? Inept? Or, as is the case of many, ( I know this being an agility instructor for around 15 years now) you need something repeated or demonstrated over and over and over and over and over again? Sure. Of course. Happens all the time. We forget stuff, need to be reminded, start over from the beginning. We may laugh at ourselves or just feel stupid🤪.E2047D3C-BEE2-42EB-B079-F98AF70EA758

Fact is, having a difficult time learning some new skills and remembering things is a constant challenge for most everyone. So this being the case, don’t you think it would be very fair indeed if we gave our dogs the same understanding and leeway we give ourselves? They are dogs after all.

While learning, dogs can grasp some physical or mental concepts very quickly while others will be like pulling teeth. Once again, just like us!

If you asked me to learn the dance steps to a country song, I would be a serious disaster. I’d be uncoordinated, forget the steps, it would take me forever. But if you asked me to learn the lyrics to a song? No problem. I’m on it! In the same vein, some dogs are extremely verbal, others not so much. My dog Keen was a superstar at verbals, but teaching him to turn tightly, not as easy. Some dogs are exactly the opposite, It’s not that they can’t learn the skills, it is just that they may have stronger aptitudes for grasping some aspects of training over others.

So…..don’t you think it would be very fair indeed if we gave our pups the same understanding and leeway that we give ourselves? We all have our strong suits and our weak ones. And remember, they are dogs🧐. So maybe they should be given a little more forgiveness, don’t ya think?

And as amazing as they are, and they are amazing creatures, we have such high expectations for how quickly they are supposed to learn, retain and reproduce behaviors that we often forget that they aren’t little machines with perfect mental recall. It is just amazing how quickly we can get frustrated, give up, get angry…. while training or at an agility trial. “ What the heck??? They know how to do that!!” is a commonly heard, oft repeated lament.

Don’t you think that if you step back a second and really consider the intricacies of what we expect our dogs to learn and perform and then ask ourselves if we have truly given them enough of an education in that behavior, i.e. understanding, reinforcement, review, generalization……. Is it really that far fetched to realize that they may not be clear about their job? Have questions or misunderstand our directions? Keeping in mind that it is entirely possible, although we may not have realized it, our directions may have been faulty or late? AND keeping in mind that while trying to disseminate and follow said directions and requirements, the dog is also running as hard as they can???

1FF13206-4CFF-4EBB-A388-42664AB10A18Ultimately it ain’t like we can sit them down and have a conversation about exactly how they are supposed to perform these skills. Well, I mean………many try…. but seriously…. THEY ARE DOGS. THEY DON’T SPEAK ENGLISH. I know, I know your pup is super smart. You’re right. Sorry😉.

Add to that, just like us, dogs may have good days and bad days. Sometimes my tummy may hurt and I may not feel like running a course, and sometimes their tummies hurt and they might not feel like running either. Difference is, when our goals for the weekend are on the line, we HAVE a choice whether to run with the tummy ache. Not trying to be an a**hole here because we may not know they are not feeling well. But whether we realize their physical state or not, it can definitely affect performance.

I wrote a blog awhile ago about the history of rewards and it’s applicable here so take a look if you haven’t read it or want to review it again. Understand that as much as we need concepts repeated many times over to get them cemented into our brains and bodies, so do the dogs. And since they are not intrinsically motivated to do these things, we also need to give them some very solid reasons to do as we ask. For most of us that means creating understanding and value for these behaviors through a reward-based system.

If you believe in the old adage that dogs do what is reinforcing to them, then that goes beyond what we personally need to create skills for ourselves into a whole other realm for dog training. We need to frequently revisit our dog’s skills not only for retention but also to continually build and reinforce excitement for the task. Regarding history of reward, most trainers don’t grasp how much value for behavior needs to be created and maintained to bring and keep these behaviors as fluency.

Lastly, some more food for thought. Before you judge your dog for failing a task at a trial, take a look at what you are practicing and be realistic. There are many that think that going to a weekly class or two is enough practice for you to teach your dog and maintain their skills. And that they should, by gum, be able to do their job at the show. Well I call bulls**t on that.

When I give a class, although the student is learning and reinforcing their skills in class, my hope is they will take the drills I give them and think of them as food for thought. Taking the skills they learned and practicing them when they are home.

As I am often heard to say, for example, “Yes, I can fix the issue you are having with your weave entry during class, but that will do nothing in terms of your dog’s overall understanding of the weaves.” Look at the big picture not the small one. Fixing an issue in the moment does not solve your dog’s lack of understanding. If you need to work through a skill in class because your dog is struggling, it means that you have work to do to create more understanding and value for the skill. One correct repetition won’t make the problem go away.2CAC98B7-E990-47D3-9F79-25BDC30DF6B3

Let’s not expect our dogs to be super human. Their struggles should be accepted and understood as easily as we accept our own. Rarely is anybody, no matter how skilled, flawless. Mistakes are made, there are struggles in learning as much as there are triumphs. If you can keep these things in perspective as you train and run your dog, I would be willing to bet that you will have more success in your training. And by not judging your dog and yourself when there are struggles you will both certainly have way more fun!!