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Benefits of Agility for the Sensitive Dog

For many years I've enjoyed the sport of agility with my rescue dogs. I've found that the skills associated with agility can be adapted for life skills, those everyday behaviours that allow me to live in partnerships with my dogs. I'm lucky enough to belong to a training club that employs positive training methods and many rescue dogs that were written off as having no future have blossomed with time and careful teaching.

One thing I have learned is that dogs and people get more from their agility classes if there are some foundational behaviours in place beforehand. To meet this need I began offering classes to teach these behaviours, in person pre-pandemic and online during lockdown. The classes have always been great fun to teach and I love to hear how much people enjoy the changes in their dog's behaviour following the course. Adjusting to meet the changes imposed by Covid 19 the lessons are now available as a self paced online course. The following is from lesson 4.

What have we learned?

How to use our body language and hands to direct a dog.

Teaching a dog how to stop

Teaching a dog to follow us.

Teaching a dog to stay connected with us on the move.

You have started to build skills in your dog:

Proprioception and physical fitness.

Your dogs have been lifting and placing feet to go over poles, stopping, and changing direction.

Mental fitness. Developing memory skills, building up repetitions, listening and responding to cues.

Energy management. Changing speed, responding to cues under competition from distractions.

Motor skills. Combining information from the eyes with body placement and gait.

These are life skills, skills for life, and worth practicing even if you have no intention of completing an agility course in the future.

I would expect the process of building a mentally and physically fit dog to take approx. 2 years, longer if your dog has some extra challenges to overcome.

Self-Control, Calm Behaviour, Impulse Control

These are big topics in the pet dog world and agility is a sport that if taught carefully, will help a dog achieve these.

What are your thoughts on these topics? Do you think they can be taught? Have you tried any training for self-control or impulse control? Have you seen any changes in your own dog’s behaviour that make you feel their self-control is improving or deteriorating? Have the restrictions around Covid made things better or worse for you?

We rarely plan how to teach this before bringing our dog home, but we do seem to be aware that it isn’t present and self-control from our dog is hard to live without. The recent trend has been for teaching ‘impulse control’.

Some examples of ‘impulse control’ training:

Reverse luring. Leave it. Doggy Zen

‘Wait yer turn’, ‘It’s yer choice’

Loose lead walking

Feeding of hotdog (or similar) in highly arousal environments

What has become clear to me is that people have a problem with saying ‘no’ to their dogs, the act of putting up a boundary, saying ‘you can’t do that’ is seen as negative, I feel these protocols serve to make owners feel they are doing something positive, but I'm not confident that they are of benefit to the dogs.

In my experience most people sign up for training looking for obedience and control. This can be translated as ‘I want to keep my dog safe’. You can add your own desire to this statement

…safe from harm or causing harm to others

…safe to enjoy activities with family and friends

…safe from complaint or prosecution

Your dog will be looking for safety with you. Regular meals, vet care, appropriate activities. Safety for dogs and safety for us comes from the connection, evolves from the bond between human and canine not the obedience.

The fallout of impulse control protocols for the dogs is confusion often paired with anxiety and stress. It may look like obedience, but this type of training can break the connection, leading to a relationship with a dog that feels much less safe. Safety can only be created by applying rigorous management.

Here is an example of one such protocol, how it was of its time and from my experience of little benefit to the dog.

Loose Lead Walking

Loose Lead Walking (LLW) became popular with the growth of using a clicker for dog training.

LLW sought to resolve the issue of dogs pulling on lead. For its time it was so much kinder than the more common methods of jerking dogs with a chain collar. The dog pulled forward, person stopped and waited until lead was loose (hanging in a loop), clicked, gave dog a treat and walk continued. At the time it was the best alternative to the aversive training.

The problem was that

  • It took a long time to work, leading people to conclude that ‘life was too short’

  • Walks required that we load up with treats and clickers

  • The dogs didn’t always learn what we expected them to

LLW relies on an extinction process, and these can be hard on the dog, very often there is no information to help the learner know how to change their behaviour.

The dog sees an opportunity to move forwards, to sniff, approach another dog, or visit the grass. The dog sees no reason not to do this and makes the ‘error’ of moving to the end of the lead. The person tries to correct this by standing still, arm extended. In my experience the outcome is a frustrated dog, and bored owner, neither of them enjoying the experience of a walk very much.

The plan is that the dog ‘gives up’, making the lead loose, at which point dog is clicked and reinforced. But clicked reinforced for what? There are many behaviours that will create a loose lead, stepping backwards, turning, a weight shift, what exactly is the dog being clicked for, what are they learning to do when they find themselves in this ‘end of the lead’ situation again? I do not believe that a dog out for a walk can assess whether their lead is loose or tight and if we reward many behaviours that create a loose lead, then we are at risk of embedding confusion and causing a rift in our relationship.

Build new learning

For a strong, connected relationship with our dogs, let’s focus on teaching dogs what we want them to do and find lots of different ways to reward them for doing these things.

Let’s build foundational skills that will benefit dogs throughout their whole life, on lead or off.

Before we even place a lead onto our dogs collar, we can reward them for following us, trotting or running alongside us, changing direction when we change direction. We can build an understanding that humans sometimes move slowly, even though squirrels are in the trees.

We can set up games and learning activities that teach dogs to switch their focus from one activity to another, teach them how to offer connection back to us without needing to be ‘commanded’ or managed.

We can also teach dogs that sometimes we will say ‘you can’t do that’

This is about training and teaching not Loose Lead Walking.

Teaching protocols for on and off lead connection are covered in this course Walking Together.

Can I help?

Think your dog might be struggling with their emotions, a 1:1 session would give us time to talk about what is happening and put some tailored strategies into place. work-with-me

Not sure if a 1:1 is for you, get in touch to discuss further

For a supportive group of people and more hints and tips join our Facebook Group, The Dog Learning Space

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