Wednesday, March 7, 2012

If I Knew Then What I Know Now - The Stress In Training Dogs

The topic of "If I Knew What I Know Now..." is one that many bloggers are writing about today as a topic for agility bloggers as part of a Dog Agility Action Day. Thanks to Steve Schwartz for organizing this great group of bloggers and this topic.

There are so many others that have more experience than I have in training agility dogs. I have only been in this particular sport for a little more than 10 years, so I have not seen the trends and changes in the sport over the years. However, I have been training dogs since the early 1980's and I have lots of experience training dogs in other performance areas - especially in obedience where I was an obedience judge for over 20 years (judging many national tournaments) and put OTCH titles on the first 4 dogs that I trained for competition.

Coming from an obedience background, it took me some time to learn the handling involved in agility, but what took longer was to make the gradual change in how I actually taught my dogs the different behaviors that are needed for agility or obedience from the traditional/correctional training to reward based training. For a long time, I actually resisted the change myself - getting caught up in the "you can't train a reliable xxxx without corrections". What I have learned is that you can not say "never" or "can't" or "won't" when it comes to accomplishing something. There is always a better way to do things as it proven continuously in our world as athletes become better trained, products become more creative, technology becomes more amazing, so why wouldn't training dogs be the same way?

My first dogs were all taught by luring with food to get behaviors and then gradually trained to know the behaviors in both obedience and agility (Reason was the only dog trained this way in agility). What happened to all those dogs is that the "proofing" or "distraction" phase cased the most stress for them and the most mistakes. The learning came easy as there was always that helpful lure to keep them working properly without mistakes. But struggles started happening when they were required to understand what they were supposed to do when that went away. Don't get me wrong, my obedience dogs were amazing working dogs. I motivated them and rewarded them for good choices and they looked wonderful in the ring when they trialed. I was a very good trainer and understood what I wanted in terms of performance, so I got it. However, there are definite phases of training - with corrections - that I never enjoyed. I can admit this now, but I absolutely never enjoyed correcting my dogs for their mistakes. Even though I was never unfair (although I might disagree now) with them, they always responded in a way that caused me to be able to reward them. The more I trained dogs in agility and the more I did my private obedience lessons and saw the meltdowns and stresses that were being caused by corrections from my students, the more I was inspired to do things differently to help make it more fun to train and for the dogs to learn how to actually think through mistakes, rather than being helped or corrected by the trainers.

Reason was an amazing obedience dog and he was my first agility dog. By the time I trained him in obedience, I was very experienced and knew exactly what I wanted in the obedience ring. I think I got pretty much what I wanted as he is the epitome of a cute heeling dog, with great drive and amazing speed into fronts and finishes. He qualified for the 2009 AKC Obedience Invitational when I was rarely doing obedience trials because I was trialing so much in agility and in herding with him. I had a weekend off and trialed him in a 3 day local obedience trial, which without my knowledge was an AKC Obedience Invitational Regional Qualifier. He was the top dog out of the 3 days which allowed him an invitation to that prestigious event. I was never really inspired to campaign him for an OTCh, since I was just more drawn to herding and agility being those activities were juicing me up because they are ALWAYS different and required me to learn knew things.

Before Reason retired, he did accumulate a bunch of OTCh points and also 9 UDX legs. I loved trialing him when I had a few weekends off, but as I started to train Score differently than my start with Reason, I started to recognize some of the stresses that Reason actually had while trialing in both agility and in obedience. When he would get stressed (because of a mistake) he would freeze up or when he was moving in agility, he would go around obstacles because he lost focus on his job. He would also do that in herding, when he made a mistake - he would start looking at me and he would lose his sheep. I was able to solve this issue in herding because the reinforcement is so much greater, but I was never able to fix it in agility and obedience. Probably no one, but me saw this side of him. He didn't act stressed because he was still speedy and still seemed like he wanted to work. But now I know better and he would have probably finished his MACH (he was retired with 19 QQ's) if he would have been able to handle the stresses of making mistakes and recovering. The stress issues caused me to get frustrated as well, which also contributed to more stress and focus on me in the ring.

Score was trained mostly with reward based, but I was still in a phase of trying to figure this all out. My obedience training with him was very minimal because I was doing so much herding and agility. Most of my learning and skills using reward based training was done with my students as I started making changes and seeing some really amazing results. Both in the dogs and also that people were actually having so much more fun training their dogs.

Enter Schema. Schema changed my world dramatically as I was committed to training both agility and obedience totally with reward based training. I have learned so much with her with the foundation Crate Games, circle work, and other games which taught her foundation concepts where she could learn how to struggle and make mistakes while dealing with stress issues away from the bigger picture of training. We learned a better communication system that probably seems very complex, but is actually very simple because it is built on very simple foundation games that she knows and understands. As more and more complex tasks are learned by her, if something breaks I know how to get her to understand what I want. She has learned to focus under extreme distractions and she is probably the most distracted dog I have ever worked with, since she has so much prey drive and she is so reinforced by motion. Her obedience training has been done completely by reward based, including her retrieve which was done totally by shaping and rewarding. She will eventually have BETTER heeling than Reason and her retrieve will be just as nice. But what she will have that Reason did not have, is the confidence to make mistakes and reconnect and refocus, which is very different than most dogs that trial in obedience (including my own).

The one thing that I know now, is that I had to go through this entire process of trusting my instincts and desire to train differently. Many people have quit training dogs - especially in obedience - because they don't enjoy it. And some people still do enjoy it, but get frustrated because of the issues they have in trials. I wasn't really enjoying the entire training process either, but that has changed. I enjoy EVERY aspect of training my dogs now and I love working with my students that trust me in creating a different approach for training. I think they enjoy training more now than ever. 

What I also know is that while I feel strongly about this, others will feel just as strongly opposed to it. I know that I was at that point in my history as a trainer and I have great respect for trainers that feel comfortable in how they train. It is a journey that we are all on and everyone is in a different place. 


  1. Wonderful post Nancy! I've said it before and I'll say it again, I love watching you run with your dogs! You are always so in tune with what THEY need from you it really is inspiring to watch! I can't wait to see what path Schema has in store for you, because I don't think the Agility world is ready for you two!

  2. really great post and gosh I just am with you-I do not know why people would not learn to enjoy training-it is just so fascinating and the bond you get with a dog that you really work with-how rewarding and fun!!!

    Kathy with Liz/Breeze/Cricket

  3. Great post! Brave and amazing of you to put it out there and talk about your own journey in crossing over. I think so many people are afraid of being judged for their training mistakes or regrets, but in reality, there are always things that each and every one of us would do differently. My "If I knew then..." post echos this idea of putting it all out there... the good and the bad, the failures and successes. Refreshingly honest post! Thank you!

  4. I agree. More and more I see people going through the process, but not having fun. For goodness sake, we have our dogs to have fun! Thanks for the post.

  5. I hope you stay in obedience - we need more people who think like you.