For newcomers to dog agility, it is common to think that their dogs will just learn the equipment and their work is done, and they can enter a trial right away. Let’s think about this for a moment. Maybe you could be listening to what your dog is telling you.
Agility is a complicated sport. There is a lot more to it than most people realize. We are asking the dogs to run full speed over a 36 foot long, 12-inch wide board, and fly over a 5’ 6” high “A-frame” that, to a beginner dog, may look like jumping off a cliff!
Not to mention that there is a lot of strategy, twists and turns, and challenges in agility. Dogs don’t get to read the course maps and don’t know which obstacle is coming next. It is common for a novice dog to experience a setback on any obstacle if something does not go as expected.
Let’s look at our little Pomeranian, Izzie.
Izzie is a sweet, confident little dog. She loves agility, was learning quickly, and offering nice speed over the equipment. During one lesson she looked like she was ready to bail off the dog walk, which she always loved. It was unexpected – and startled her owner — but we supported her quickly to help her keep going. We used a target with treats to teach her to focus forward, and we had not yet faded the target.
Recently during practice, the teeter hit a little too hard and bounced up a bit when she hit the yellow zone. She did not act “afraid” (tail tucked and shrinking to the ground), but she clearly lost her confidence, and we had to go back to basics to build her confidence up again.
It is common for dogs to confuse the teeter and dog walk. From their perspective, as a novice dog, they look similar. It looked like Izzie was expecting the dog walk to fall out from underneath her and she was planning to exit before that happened!
So we “back chained” the dog walk to the target as we had when we first trained it. Back-chaining is setting the dog up just before the END of any given obstacle and letting her exit to a reward. Usually, it gets the dog quickly back to running, but not always. In this case, there was only a slight improvement, even from the low section of the dog walk.
How to help Izzie conquer her fear?
- Keep calm. If the owner acts upset in any way, the dog can sense it and the fear is supported. If mom is afraid, there must be something to be afraid of! So keep calm, try as much as possible to act as if it is no big deal, and make it as easy as possible for the dog to be successful.
- Use a reward with much higher value. To a dog, there is no point in doing something scary for a Cheerio. Bring on the teriyaki beef! Use a reward that is so high value to the dog that it is irresistible, to help distract them from the fear.
- Support the dog gently. Recently we went to a park with my granddaughter and we played on some exercise and balance equipment. I wanted to try walking on a metal pole that was between 1-2 feet high and about 4 inches wide. My shoes did not have good grip, and I was worried I was going to fall. I needed the support of my husband and granddaughter on either side to help me balance. I had to get on and off several times before I found my balance. When I did it, it was pretty cool! But it reminded me to understand what agility equipment must feel like to a dog. Sometimes just staying next to them temporarily can help support them just enough to gain confidence.
- Make it fun! If the dog feels it is a chore, rewards may not be enough. Play, get silly, applaud each tiny step, get your dogs tail to wag. When they begin to have fun, watch the confidence and joy soar!
- LOWER the dog walk as much as possible, and allow the dog to jump or fall off. Did I really say that? Yes, allow the dog to fall off a LOW dog walk that is safe. Think about looking over the edge of a cliff, and try to imagine what that feels like. There is a rush of adrenaline (fear) that is clearly noticeable. When you step back, you will feel a release, like a sigh of relief. Each time you try, you can feel the adrenaline, but with a little less intensity. If someone were to hold you there and prevent you from stepping back, the stress would be extremely high, and you might not ever want to go near it again. But if you are allowed to step back, you can gradually manage the fear until you build your confidence and strength. If you continue to try to force your dog to stay on, you may cause them to avoid it completely. Take the pressure off and let them figure it out at their own speed.
Pressuring a dog to do any equipment before they are ready can take the fun out of it and set you back months in training time. Take your time, enjoy the process, and try listening to what your dog is telling you!
Blog Post And Images (c) 2017 by Mikamar.net
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