Your Outside-the-Ring Behaviors are Impacting Your Inside-the-Ring Behaviors
Everything about reinforcement does eventually get packed into the behaviors that you're teaching and your routines, both beginning and end of run routines, work similarly to that. How our dogs engage in those routines and how we engage in those routines is going to impact the performance inside the ring.
The point of training outside-the-ring behaviors is that I'm entering the ring with a dog that's in the optimal state of arousal.
So if your dog is hitting their optimal state of arousal when they're in the car, by the time they get into the ring, they are likely running out of good decision-making skills at that high arousal level. These are the dogs that typically struggle to stay on the start line, hold their contacts, keep the bars up, and follow the handling. Maybe they zoom, maybe they freeze and can’t move off of the startline. When dogs are hitting the optimal state of arousal too early, they're likely going to be mentally and possibly physically exhausted by the time you get them into the ring. Sometimes, if your dog is hitting their optimal state of arousal too soon, they are a little flat when they go into the ring. The sight of the obstacles isn’t what was spiking their arousal to begin with and so upon entering the ring, they drop way below the optimal level of arousal.
If your dog is hitting their optimal state of arousal too late, they probably start off kind of slow or a little bit distracted, but as the run goes on, they get more into it and get a little bit faster as they get closer to the end. These dogs have typically learned that there is a big payout at the end for them, but because it’s not ritualized, it hasn’t made an impact with the entire course. So we can take a look at that and build our beginning of run routine so that they are hitting that optimal state of arousal at the right time, and also build a ritual around exiting the ring and going to reinforcement so that the dog understands when, where, and how that reinforcement is going to be accessible.
Here is the list of skills that I focus on to optimize my dog’s arousal level for work.
Outside the Ring Behaviors:
1. Loose Leash Walking
2. Downstay, stationing, or standby behavior
3. Moving away from stashed reinforcement
Getting into the Ring Behaviors:
4. Ring Entry
5. Leash Removal
Exiting the Ring Behaviors:
6. Getting leashed
7. Accessing stashed reinforcement
Loose Leash Walking is the first way I ask my dogs to self-regulate around the agility competition because I want to be able to walk my dog without them assuming that work is coming right away. I don’t want them to spend the intense energy that I need for their performance on going for a pee.
Waiting Your Turn is critical for dogs outside the ring so that again, you’re not having to manage their behavior via food and behaviors. This means that again, they are self-regulating to save the intense energy for when they enter the ring, and if you have a dog that peaks too soon, it may be because you’re getting them excited (for food) outside the ring, and the food is no longer present in the ring, taking away the cue to get excited.
Before I move into a wait-your-turn behavior, I stash my dog’s post-run reward and ask them to move away from it. This tells me that they understand this trained reinforcement procedure and that those rewards will not be available until after work has been completed. Work always includes the ring entry and ring exit rituals, so this procedure is very predictable.
Getting into the ring is where I’d like to condition my dog to spike their arousal and get ready to perform. As they enter the ring and orientate to me to take their leash off, this is the moment that I’d like to see their eyes brighten, their body engages, and I can tell they are ready and pushing me to line them up and start the run.
At the end of the run, I’d like to see my dog start to come down, again self-regulating their arousal level for the next task: leashing up and exiting to their reward. When they understand this procedure, they understand that something great is coming, but that it doesn’t require the same level of intensity that the work just required.
All of these pieces are just as important as your obstacle and handling skills, and the sooner you build these habits, the sooner you’ll start seeing the impact!