You're running a course, you start to cue a turn, and your dog turns with you, just before taking off for the jump. What are the reasons for a dog pulling off of a jump?
- dog never committed to the obstacle
- dog broke commitment to the obstacle
- handler's timing did not support commitment to the obstacle
These are the most common reasons, I believe.
What we want our dogs to learn is that they can trust us to point them in the right direction. We want them to learn that they are allowed to take obstacles that they are looking at, because we pointed them towards the right ones!
A handler's job is to handle the space in between the obstacles and train the dog to complete the obstacles independently. By handling the space (or lines) between the obstacles, the handler can communicate to the dog how to get to and from each obstacle. By training the dog to complete the obstacles on his own, the handler can feel confident to move ahead on a course to the next critical position.
How can we do this? Build obstacle focus.
- Offering the jump: let the dog learn that when the handler is near a jump or facing a jump, they should think about taking the jump. Add distractions, like moving away or dropping a reward on the line.
- Use pre-placed rewards: if the dog gets a refusal, on the very next repetition, use a pre-placed reward, to make sure that the same mistake doesn't happen again, and that the dog gets rewarded for following the handling and also staying committed to the intended obstacle. Additionally, if already during a walk through in training, the handler doesn't feel confident that the dog will take something, proactively pre-place the reward. This boosts the handler's confidence that the dog will take the obstacle, and makes it more likely that the handler will cue the turn in time, rather than waiting for take-off.
- Teach independent obstacles: If the handler knows the dog won't complete an obstacle unless the handler is right next to them, there is more pressure on the handler to be very fast in order to direct the dog from one correct line to the next. Teaching them obstacle independence frees up the handler's movement so that is easier to be in a good position on course and give timely cues to the dog.
How can we break this? We provide mixed signals.
It is never our intention to let a well known behavior deteriorate, or to be unclear with our dogs. Here are some common mistakes that I observe in training and how we can fix them:
- Reactively calling dogs off of the “wrong” obstacles: a late turning cue sends the dog barreling towards an off course tunnel. The dog is certain that the tunnel is the intended target. Handler calls dogs name, loudly, maybe even with some panic in her voice. Dog either responds and gets rewarded or doesn't respond and doesn't get rewarded.
The problem with this is the dog thought the tunnel was correct for some reason and the dog isn't reading the numbers. The dog is only going in the direction you point it. If we want our dogs to commit to obstacles confidently and stay committed to obstacles, we need to let them commit to the “wrong” ones as well.
How can we fix this? Reward the dog for the wrong course. Then, handle to the wrong course on purpose. You can then try to determine if your handling was similar in these first two attempts. Decide from there if your cue needs to change or if your dog's response to the cue needs to change.
In a competition, there isn't all that much you can do. If your dog is confident when he commits to something, you likely won't be able to pull them off of the obstacle. 🙂 If your dog is struggling with commitment, you need to try very hard to not react to the dog going off course. You need to focus on building trust within your communication system.
- Rewarding the dog for breaking commitment: your begin to move away from an obstacle you've cued your dog to take and he comes with you. You decide your timing was too early and you reward the dog before trying again.
The problem with this is it isn't realistic. If your dog requires you to be 100% perfect for him to complete the obstacles, that is a ton of pressure! I really like teaching dogs that human imperfection is their reality, and that we can still have fun anyways 🙂
How can we fix this? If a dog has done jump offering in it's past, I use that to my advantage in training. If my dog breaks commitment to an obstacle, I try to stop my movement and wait for the dog to offer the obstacle. When he does start to offer it, I start moving again and toss the reward back to him near the obstacle. If my dog doesn't offer the obstacle within about 3 seconds, I will help him over the jump before rewarding. In both cases, I am likely to try the sequence again with a pre-placed reward before moving on.
- Telling yourself that you were “too early”: This classic line is how this blog got its title. Dog turns off of jump with handler. Handler says “my bad, I was too soon with that turn!”, and tries it again, but this time, waiting until the dog is jumping, or even landed, to make their move, and reward the dog.
The problem with this is… yep, you guessed it; if you always wait, you'll always be waiting. Your dog will take a lot longer to learn to deal with the distraction of your movement away if you always help him deal with it by removing the distraction.
I'm not saying that “too early” is never the problem, but I am saying it's rarely the problem.
How can we fix this? Make sure your dog has the individual skills before asking him to sequence. Make sure you have the proper mechanics of the handling techniques without your dog before trying them at speed with your dog. Never be afraid or discouraged with returning to foundation skills or behaviors. Without those solid basics, running an agility course is really, really hard.
Want more help with any of these steps listed above? Leave a comment below to share your thoughts, ask questions, and inspire my next post!