Why Lil does those funny little head bobs and nose touches while waiting to be released.

A while back I noticed that Lil was doing a little head bob or quick nose touch to the ground now and then at the start line when training. I also noticed that I often inadvertently rewarded those behaviors by releasing precisely at those moments. While that was unintentional on my part, I didn’t see any harm in those quirky little behaviors… until recently at our first trial in an active horse arena, a couple of times nose touches morphed to sniffing at the start line, which certainly caught my attention.

Once head bobs and nose touches were on my radar, I started noticing how often Lil “offered” quirky little head movements in her day-to-day life.

When I ask Lil “Where is Jake?” She whips her head quickly in Jake’s direction and then whips it back again (and I reward her for that). She also whips her head to the Right and Left in response to those verbal cues. She offers quick nose touches when she is waiting for me to put on my shoes and knows we are going for a walk. I suspect those nose touches are the equivalent of twiddling her thumbs in situations like this one. I also think the quick nose touches morphed from a slight lowering of her head when I added the duration to Forward Focus while Lil was looking out into space… at nothing in particular.. which I inadvertently rewarded her for doing.

So I had to ask myself: “Where did this come from?” My first thought was that they morphed out of Forward Focus games (examples in earlier blog posts).

(above) a little head bob at 0:46 but overall nice forward focus!

While I still believe those games contributed to her offering head movements more frequently over time, since I have been rewarding Forward Focus when she offers it on walks or when standing in front of agility obstacles, I never thought I needed to put Forward Focus, a seemingly benign behavior, on stimulus control.. until recently. And when I looked back even further… all the way to puppy hood, I realized Lil played a lot of “Look at That” games which create the ultimate foundation training for head whipping.

Once I recognized that head bobs can lead to nose touches which can lead to sniffing when a little trial stress is added to the mix, the next obvious question was how to remove them from Lil’s bag of tricks. My plan is to approach this training puzzle in terms of process… a long-term goal.. not an OMG I HAVE TO FIX THIS ASAP.” Afterall, for Lil, head movements have been part of her life since puppy hood and they are not an indicator of stress for her so I don’t feel a huge sense of urgency to get rid of them. Plus I think they will always be somewhere in her…lurking under the surface… and I’m OK with that. I also love her cute head whipping tricks like “Right,” “Left” and “Where is Jake” head whips.

My current plan is:

1) Reward only when Lil’s head is not moving in her day-to-day life. In other words, put all head movements on stimulus control….. if I don’t ask for it, I won’t reward for it.

2) Change Lil’s start line position from standing to sitting (at least for the time being).

3) Change Lil’s start line routine to avoid the behavior chains that currently include head bobs.

4) Make nose touches nearly impossible for her to do through the use of position and a perfect prop I happen to have (more on this prop below).

5) Maintain steady eye contact when leading out. Pause when Lil bobs her head when practicing. Start moving again and praise when her head is still. So far, this has been working very well because when I look at Lil, she looks right back at me which tends to keep her head still. My current plan is NOT to pause at trials because I do not want to cause any stress related to the start line since I think Lil’s head bobs are just a habit she has formed over time vs. an indication of stress.

6) Ask Lil to SIT a lot in day-to-day life (and reward sitting) since she has been heavily rewarded for standing (my personal preference to date but that may change) but not for sitting. Mark and reward SIT before she has a chance to move her head, then gradually add duration. This is working very well too!

7) Sometimes ask for a quick Sit Pretty (begging) when Lil is sitting then go back to another quick sit, which positions her front feet deeper under her body so her sitting position is more tucked vs. slouchy. Release quickly to start.

And now back to the PERFECT Prop. I personally love using props because learning takes place so fast with the right prop…. faded quickly (I’ve never had a problem fading a prop). The perfect prop which I happened to have on hand is a rubber feed bucket turned upside down, which Sharon Nelson uses for training foundation skills….brilliantly!

So why are feed buckets so perfect you might ask? When Lil places her front feet on a Mark bucket, the angle of her body is like a “standing sit” (HA HA but true) plus she is able to push off from her rear legs with a lot of power, due to her weight being shifted back, which is great for punchy/ fast releases. The other BIG benefit is that Lil’s head and nose are farther from the ground when she is standing on a Mark bucket. One more benefit is the behavior of front feet on a Mark bucket (or front feet on anything for that matter) is a new behavior for my dogs so they are both starting off with clean slates.

Lil standing on the Mark
Jake standing on the Mark
Lil sitting with front feet on the Mark
Lil sitting with front feet on the Mark

A couple of days ago, I decided to take the “Mark Show” on the road and took both dogs to an active livestock barn. We started off with some easy reps, sending the dogs back and forth between 2 Marks (like in my last post). Later in the session, I mixed in some SITs (in the dirt) and the first couple of reps were great.. head perfectly still and really nice punchy releases. After couple of reps she started doing a little head bob as soon as I took my first lead out step. I said a very happy WHOOPS and paused for a moment then continued leading out, praising as I walked or ran… and her head (and body) stayed perfectly still and then I released her. I ping ponged back and forth between starting her on the Mark and on the dirt (already starting to fade the prop). Her speed was best when we were both running. Her speed dropped to moderate but still respectable when I added 15′ or so of lateral distance or sent her to the far bucket which tells me something for sure.

Jake does not head bob or nose touch so his reps were all about focus in a new and highly distracting environment. He totally ROCKED.. running full speed ahead between 2 Mark buckets placed as far as 30+ ‘ away.

The following text is worthy of a separate post but since it is also about Mark buckets I decided to combine it with the text above.

The next day I found yet another amazing benefit to using Mark buckets when I met a friend at a local outdoor facility where she practices. $50 buys a 30 day unlimited pass (when classes are not in session) so I signed up for a month. Even if there are some snow days, it’s still a great bargain and only a few miles to drive. Thank you Julie!

The ring has a sandy dirt surface and SURPRISE SURPRISE there were sheep and horses in 2 adjacent pastures. Jake goes totally bonkers when he sees sheep and freaks out if a horse looks at him so I thought OK THEN this will be an opportunity to see what Jake can do surrounded by HUGE distractions. As it turned out, he never even glanced at the sheep or horses. I attribute a lot of his total focus on teamwork and a total lack of interest in the sheep and horses to my having the Mark buckets in my car, which I had brought primarily to use with Lil at the start line.

But once I saw the sheep and horses, I decided to start by warming up each dog’s brain by running them back and forth between 2 Marks (started 10′ apart and increased the distance to about 20’). Then we took a short break and started up again with a Mark, then 3 jumps followed by another Mark. I gradually increased the number of jumps in the sequences, while also expanding the area we were working in. Neither dog had ANY issues with distractions in any part of the ring. I think starting and ending most sequences on the Mark buckets worked incredibly well with Jake. It really kept his head in the game, even when driving straight towards the horses or sheep with me behind (and thus out of sight). His focus never wavered.

Then 2 BC teams showed up and I realized one handler was going to let his dog run around unleashed with a ball between reps. But after observing that dog interact with a less social dog who approached him, I felt this BC would be safe IF Jake ran up to him (Jake is not aggressive).. but I also asked the handler what his dog would do IF… and he said “nothing”. The other BC was being micro managed but I also asked his handler what her dog would do if approached by a YAHOO terrier and she said her dog would run away.

Now with 2 BCs off leash in the same ring, with pastures with sheep and horses on 2 sides of the ring, each of my dogs had one more very long turn consisting of a mixture of short and long sequences. Both dogs had unwavering focus, really nice drive and confidence, even when running straight towards the BC practicing running DWs. They drove hard and landed on the Mark buckets wherever I placed them… or came running back to me when I ended sequences without the Marks. YEY JAKE! YEY LIL!

For Jake in particular, finishing sequences on a Mark appeared to have a very positive influence. I think it was because he always had something visual to drive towards and he always knew where he was going next, even when working at a distance or driving ahead of me. I think it kept him from even thinking about looking to see what else might be going on. YEY Jake again!

The Marks were also great for practicing independent weaving. I placed one mark at each end of the weave poles and alternated sending, recalling, running along side close and with lateral distance and Lil ran fast and confident every rep. I didn’t get around to working on weaving with Jake but plan to do that next time.

Marks are incredibly versatile training props. One more advantage I’d like to share before signing off is that Mark buckets are helping Jake transition from 2o2o to 4on the dog walk naturally. No retraining needed! I can say with 100% certainty, the reason he is now often stopping with his front feet an inch from the bottom edge of the dog walk ramp is because of all the reps he has done with his front feet on the Mark.. while also learning how to drive fast and then shift his weight back enough to stop on the Mark bucket and not knock it over. These are important skills to have in terms of contact performance. The best thing about is, is he is learning all of this away from real contacts minimizing physical stress.

It’s amazing to me now much one training prop can do. Sharon Nelson is one smart cookie and very generous to share her training “magic” with all who are interested.


Great New Game to Play with a Manner’s Minder

MM behind BarrelsThis morning, I set up an 80′ long loop of obstacles:  5 hoops, a short tunnel (because I only have 5 hoops) and a barrel at each end with a Manner’s Minder behind each barrel.   I drew a red line around the far barrel so it is visible in the photo).

I had 3 goals in mind.   The first was to create massive acceleration away from me (and back towards me) without the use of a visible lure.   The second was to build more value for seeking out and running around barrels.  The third was to have a massive amount of fun.  This set up worked splendidly for all three goals!

With Jake, I focused on him running a super fast line along a curved path vs. skipping obstacles and running straight towards the MM hidden behind each barrel (something he will do sometimes).  It was also great to practice Jake’s start line stays with him being totally amped up due to using a MM and him knowing the path ahead.   I also did some big sends and recalls with Jake and he aced them.

With Lil, after a few rounds of full-out running around the loop, I started mixing in WAITs, redirects, and 90 degree turns off the path with me in various positions.  She was also very amped up yet aced every challenge I presented her with.

The thing I like best about this set-up is even after I removed one Manner’s Minder early on (because it stopped working), both dogs continued to drive full speed ahead towards that barrel and continued driving hard back towards me… and this was after only a rep or two with a MM behind both barrels.

I am definitely going to use barrels and MMs like this in other types of sequences in the future.  What Fun!

Improving my handling mechanics for GET OUTS and TURNS

The snow finally melted on my doggie luge, so I got to see how well Jake and Lil understand my new ways of handling GET OUTS and TURNS.

Above is a video from Day 1.

This following text is from an email I sent to a friend who has been helping me understand how and why NADAC-style handling and training differs from USDAA / AKC-style handling.  I’m finding it all very interesting and fun to incorporate.  Plus  Jake and Lil are responding beautifully and quickly to my new way of doing things, which makes me think this style of handling is easy and natural for dogs to follow.

I am starting to get the feel for using more dramatic body movements, like stepping forward to push my dog’s line, or pulling my dog towards me by rotating my body and  shoulders away and stepping away from the line to increase the strength of the pull when necessary for discriminations.   Its starting to feel a lot more natural and I can see how well it works for pre-cueing TURNs and GET OUTs when my dogs are out in front of me with forward sends.

Lil seems to have totally figured out when I  pre-cue a turn before she gets to the obstacle, it no longer means to turn NOW but rather to turn after taking the next obstacle.. and to not necessarily turn tight.. but to base the tightness of the turn on my motion…. and to look for the next obstacle in the direction I am supporting.   Jake is also figuring all of this out… but not quite as fast as Lil is, which is totally fine with me.  The biggest improvements I’ve seen with Jake since adding hoops to the Doggie Luge this season, is that he is driving well though hoops and rarely  jumps them like they are 8″ jumps anymore.   GO JAKE!

Above is a video from Day 2:  I think both dogs are doing a super job running through various hoop sequences without snow barriers to help them stay on course.

In my opinion, the biggest difference between NADAC-style handling and USDAA / AKC style handling (and training) is that in NADAC you want to be able to pre-cue much earlier, especially when working at a distance. And earlier cues appear to increase a dog’s speed and fluidity of motion since the dog know where he/she is going with enough time to take more gradual turns, which has to be easier on a dog’s body.  I think it was pretty clear when I was late with a couple of cues, that my dogs changed directions abruptly rather than turning in a natural and fluid manner.

I think this year’s addition of hoops to the doggie luge really helped with training both dogs (and the human) by allowing me to pre-cue earlier than I knew I could without pulling my dogs off the next obstacle…while the dogs continued running on the grass path towards the next hoop.  It didn’t take long for them to begin to shift from what they were originally trained to do, which was when I cue a turn, to turn NOW.  That was a necessary skill to have for USDAA and AKC courses, since what looks to be the next logical obstacle to the dog is often NOT the correct obstacle. Plus the ability of a dog to turn NOW comes in very handy for playing Snooker, since success is often based on a dog’s ability to bypass numerous obstacles while running fast.

Below is a link to the January 19 post with a video of Jake and Lil running the 2013 Doggie Luge:


A note to subscribers: WordPress emails no longer contain links to videos for some strange reason.  Click on the Title to go to the blog site if you want to watch the videos.

Thoughts about jump heights plus new videos from last weekends trial

For me agility is the most fun when my dogs are running courses super fast and like most dogs, my dogs can run faster with lower jumps.   I am not suggesting speed is what makes agility the most fun for other teams.  I also must admit that I enjoy getting Qs but I’d take a fast and fluid NQ over a jerky Q any day!

I recently learned that AKC is now allowing the transfer of points to Preferred so teams don’t have to start all over again in Novice if they want to lower their dog’s jump heights.  YEY for that!   I hope this results in more people moving their dogs to Preferred if they feel their dog’s current jump height is too high based on either structure or age.

I have given jump heights a great deal of thought over this past year and over the past 6 months, I have only been competing in NADAC, where my Australian Terriers can jump 4″.   I may never raise their jump heights back to 8″, even for Lil who looks quite good jumping 8″.  My thinking is that when Lil jumps 8″ she often does a little butt flipping action over jumps, which a lot of BCs, who barely skim over bars, also do.  Granted it looks a lot more elegant when a long-legged BC butt flips, compared to my long-backed Australian Terrier, but regardless I suspect any repetitive motion like butt flipping could cause discomfort or undue wear and tear if done repeatedly for many years.  This thought is based on what I learned from an orthopedic specialist, whom we took Jake to see in July for an on-again, off-again NQR issue.  The vet didn’t find anything wrong with Jake but said that he had a little arthritis in his lower back which was VERY NORMAL for an agility dog to have at the age of 7….and he sees a lot of performance dogs.

Here are a few of Lil’s runs at a NADAC trial, December 15-16, 2012

There are two reasons I may not raise Lil’s jump height back to 8″.  The first is because she can run agility courses faster jumping 4″ and appears to be having more fun as a result.  The second reason is that she rarely butt flips over 4″ bars and I’m guessing that will be better for her long-term well-being.   I am not suggesting that everyone should lower their dog’s jump heights.. but just hoping to bring awareness to the choice we all have to jump our dogs lower in the USA.  Plus as far as I know, dogs don’t care about titles or jump heights. 🙂

The reason I will not likely raise Jake’s jump height back to 8″ is because of his rather unorthodox style of jumping, which I suspect is caused by his tendency to run and jump with his head held high.   I think it will take many months for him to fully adjust to jumping lower bars but at home he is now able to jump 4″ bars with ease so I know it is possible for him. I anticipate that over time, he will jump with more and more ease and  consistency at trials too.

Here are a few of Jake’s runs at a NADAC trial, December 15-16, 2012.  Unfortunately, what may have been Jake’s best run of all times, Touch N Go on Saturday, was not video-taped.  😦  It was super fast and super fun with awesome NEW running contacts!

I suspect there are other obstacles like weave poles and contacts that could contribute to the development of lower back arthritis, as well as day-to-day activities, but it also seems logical to me that the arching of the lower back to flip rear legs up high enough to clear bars over hundreds of jumps every year could result in arthritis or perhaps soreness at times, since there are so many jumps on most agility courses.  ps– One of the many things I am loving about NADAC is that many classes don’t have jumps and even Standard courses have a combination of jumps and hoops, so by the end of a full day of trialing (even running 6 classes) my dogs have jumped far less than they would have in 2 classes in other agility venues.

Regardless of the validity of my previous statements, why would I not want to lower my dogs’ jump heights if I have the option to do so?  All of the Australian Terriers I know are great agility dogs but agility specs are not designed with this particular breed in mind… and why would they be?   That said, I know several great running ATs who jump 8″ with  ease.  All of these dogs have good ground speed and good handlers and they look totally fine jumping their current height.  I am certainly not trying to suggest all ATs jump 4″.  It’s just a choice I’m making for my particular dogs and who knows, I just might end up raising their jump heights back to 8″ over time.

I do think there is a reason so many BCs and Shelties compete and win major competitions with full-height jumps though.  I will go so far to say that I think obstacle specifications suit these two breeds particularly well.  YEY for most BCs and Shelties out there!  GO GO GO!  As far as dogs whose structures are not perfectly suited for current obstacle specifications or jump heights, why not jump your dogs lower for a while and see how they look (and feel) if you have the option to do so?

And how about this radical thought? Imagine what agility trials in the USA would look like if a huge number of people decided to lower the jump heights for their dogs.  I’m guessing YPS would grow exponentially and make agility far more exciting to run AND to watch.  And perhaps American agility enthusiasts would start to feel better about what the USA has to offer in terms of competitive agility vs. always comparing our courses to European style courses and feeling that we are falling short!

Awesome hike this morning!

For the first time in months, I took both dogs for a hike in the woods early this morning.  I had been avoiding the woods due to so many ticks earlier in the summer but yesterday, I ran into a “tree guy” and he had not seen ANY ticks lately so I figured I should take advantage of the timing as I’m sure the ticks will be back in full swing any day now.  I don’t know if it was the crisp fall air, or the fact that my dogs have not been for a hike in the woods for a few months, but they had such a blast, racing full speed ahead and back to me, again and again.  It was truly magical to see them so alive and happy!

I kept Jake on a long line, but Lil continues to have such a great recall, even with a bunch chipmunks chirping their heads off :),  that she got to run off leash.  I made a concerted effort to run as fast as I could whenever Lil was running ahead, so Jake was able to run with quite a bit of freedom and speed but I definitely could not keep up with Lil.  🙂  I don’t think I’ve ever seen Lil run as fast as she ran today, and I was stunned to see how effortless her jumping looked over various-sized logs, gulleys, and other natural “agility” obstacles.  Since I didn’t have a camera with me on the hike, I inserted a series of photos of Lil jumping at camp last week.

I cannot imagine a better way to start off a beautiful, crisp, fall day!  It was totally exhilarating for all three of us!  Now, I’m hunkering down to work for the next few days in order to meet a pressing deadline.

Lil takes a ride on her new “magic carpet”

This is Lil’s second day running on her new “magic carpet.”  It is different from a typical magic carpet in that the “magic” of this carpet is that it encourages Lil to run more and fly less!  ps–Silvia recommended I switch from a board to a carpet to get rid of the bounce Lil was taking onto the board sometimes.   This detail is important to me because Lil currently leaps onto the A-Frame sometimes and hits it harder than she would if she just strides onto it.

The carpet seems to be working beautifully!  I am also finding it easier to see what Lil is doing on a 12′ carpet vs. an 8′ board.  It’s also easier to “see” when I focus on just one aspect of Lil’ performance: running vs. bouncing.

I am surprised that Lil  only takes 3 strides across a 12′ carpet.   I would have expected 4 strides but I’ve seen several Australian Terrier do lure coursing and they all seem to run this way when running full-out.

My questions to Silvia were: Do you think I am “calling” the leaps accurately? After watching the playback, I wonder if some of the reps that I called “perfect” had slightly elongated strides on or off the carpet. Or is it OK when Lil takes a longer stride on or off the carpet?  And when should I be throwing the ball? I sometimes threw it after she was already running and sometimes before…

LoLaBu’s avatar


Not so easy to decide with this style of running yes… But I pretty much agree with your comments, just that last one doesn’t look all that good to me. My favorite try was 1:34. Ideally, she runs with equal strides the whole time. You need to throw a toy early enough that she sees it well in front when nearing the carpet.

Lil running on a flat board as part of Silvia Trkman’s Foundations Class

Lil currently has a solid 2o2o on the dog walk. She started running over a board when she was 12 months old for a running A-Frame.

My concern about training a running dog walk is that I cannot see if her legs are together or separated in “real time”. I have been standing directly behind or in front of Lil and I also can’t seem to see which hits are closer to the end either… it all seems to be happening too fast for my eyes and brain to grasp.

My question to Silvia: Its seems so clear in slo-mo, but how can I train myself to see the important details in “real time” so that I can jackpot Lil’s “better” performances?

ps– The board is 8′ long x 14″ wide.

LoLaBu on March 15, 2012 at 11:37

To me, the easiest to see is when I’m a bit behind and a bit to the side. For now, you would be focusing on a form of running ie. is she extending well forward instead of going up in the air. Once I get all running and start focusing on the hits, I just stare at the contact area and wait for the paws to fall (or not fall :) ) into it. You can then show where you saw feet to a camera and then check if you were right, to check your decisions. It does get easier&easier, but it’s definitely harder with short little legs as with longer legs!

But if she has nice DW, you can keep 2o2o there and just focus on running AF. OR, you can play some with a plank and decide later if you can see it well enough and how she is doing and if you want to proceed or not.

Devorah Sperber on March 15, 2012 at 12:59

Thanks Silvia, I like the idea of playing around with the plank to see if I can learn to SEE whats happening and then confirming it by playing back the video.

ps– I have seen professional photographs (shot continuously like stop frame animation) of Australian Terriers doing lure coursing and they all tend to flip their rears up a bit when running at full speed…. I assume it must be a structural thing. I hadn’t realized that Lil did that until watching the video in slo-mo. The last time I ran her over a board was a long time ago and she was not running as fast or taking as long strides back then.

ps–I can’t believe how much faster Lil is doing EVERYTHING after just a few weeks of starting this class. I’m thrilled.. and so is Lil.. whose official AKC name happens to be “Just for a Thrill” :) How perfect is that?

TIP FROM ANOTHER STUDENT: …when you think you got a leap, wave to the camera! that way you’ll know what you were thinking in full speed once you get to the slo mo

ST FEEDBACK:  Different breeds run differently, so I always recommend taping a dog when running full out on flat, studying it frame by frame and comparing to running over the board. And yes, some board running certainly can’t hurt her current performance on DW, so it’s no problem to play with it some – AND, it’s great for their overall speed too!

DEV: One more thing….What, if anything, should I be doing when Lil leaps ONTO the board? She does a similar thing sometimes on the A-Frame, which can’t be good for her body in the long term.

ST: I think you might be able to get rid of that if you started with a carpet, then go to a plank with a carpet on it etc. – to make it as “normal” and uneventful to run over something as possible. Ideally, they don’t even change their stride when getting on a plank – that’s why I promote carpet and very thin planks so much. Thick (or with some dogs even thin) planks often affect their stride some.

Weave pole entries, sends to tunnels, and a lot of fast running

Below is a video of Lil’s 4th session working on Silvia’s weave pole challenges and I am amazed at how much she has improved!  Using channel weaves makes so much sense.  Lil did more reps in this one session than she normally does over a 6 month period with no strain on her body whatsoever.

We also did SENDs and GO ONs with a tunnel and mixed in some weave poles.  My matting is too slippery to work on tight turns to FCs or post turns but that is OK because GO ONs are just what both of my dogs need right now to find a better balance between handler and obstacle focus.

Throwing a ball as a reward has increased Lil’s speed and drive considerably.   Lil has always loved to chase balls and fetch.  I can’t believe I had this “speed tool” in my tool bag all along and wasn’t using it!

LoLaBu on March 8, 2012 at 13:08

Silvia’s response to my video: That’s sure really great progress already! Looks like she figured out what this game is about! And yes, I also think go is more important as come at this point. And she sure seems to like it! Really great distance skills with tunnel sends and some really cool entries!

ps–I am only uploading videos of Lil right now because I am posting them as part of Silvia’s Foundations class.   But I am also video taping and reviewing Jake’s performances.  He is not being neglected and is doing very well too!

An another note, I am I am taking a few days off from training “Loop and Wrap” since my yard is now thawing out and very wet.  Plus I think taking a few days off from working on any skill is good especially if a snag occurs.

A couple of days ago, I had a brilliant idea….or so I thought at the time.  I would do a short “Loop and Wrap” session in the bedroom to provide a new environment and I would rig up an impromptu jump with a tiny base so Lil wouldn’t have to hop over long support bars.  The new jump consisted of a 2′ tall PVC pipe that Lil would wrap around, a partially deconstructed wing on the far side, and a 2′ long PVC bar set at 4 inches.  I think the combination of a new environment and the strange mini-jump opened up a can of worms.  Lil started hitting the bar with her back legs so often that I wondered if she thought we were playing “touch that object with your back feet” game which she likes to play.  She even tried stopping while straddling the bar once and looked at me with an expression of “Is this what you want?”

OMG.  How did this happen?  Well, I have been saying YES when Lil approaches the wrap, thinking I was marking the commitment point and the set-up step.  But I think my timing contributed to Lil’s confusion because I was saying YES before she cleared the bar, so I was marking both clearing the bar and hitting the bar.  I play a lot of shaping games with my dogs and so when Lil happened to hit the bar a couple of times in a row and I had already said YES, I think that she thought she was supposed to touch this strange apparatus with her back feet and proceeded to do so consistently for a few more reps.

Bob Bailey is so right when he said: “What you click (or mark) is what you get!”  Of course, at the time I didn’t fully recognize what was going on so I ended the session and brought Jake in for his turn.  Jake had no trouble generalizing that this was a jump and that he was supposed to jump it.  Whew!  Anyway, I finished by taking Lil out to a dry spot in the yard and did a short “Loop and Wrap” session around a pole to end on a positive note.  I think  taking a few days off from “Loop and Wrap” will erase Lil’s memory of that strange little “shaping” session!

Finding the balance

Over the past couple of days,  I have started working on improving my mechanics in order to reward my dogs by flinging a toy on a rope forward to initiate a game of tug.  Silvia Trkman makes is look so easy but there is a lot going on and it all happens while she and her dog are running super fast.  Based on my observations, here is a description of what I think she is doing:

Silvia drops the toy out of her hand at a precise moment to mark a behavior (such as her dog turning tightly while wrapping a jump at a distance).  She continues running with the toy flying behind her while her dog chases her and the toy.  The split second before her dog can grab the toy, she flicks the toy forward so her dog accelerates past her and grabs the toy as it flies forward.  Then they play a game of tug while walking back for the next rep.  Silvia’s timing is always perfect.  Her dog gets the reward while it is running super fast vs. the dog having to slow down to grab a toy dangling at her side.  It makes perfect sense to reward in this manner since dogs can run faster than people.

I have practiced the mechanics without my dogs for a few minutes here and there.  I run while glancing over my shoulder to see my imaginary dog, then I drop the toy out of my hand and let it fly behind me while I continue to run and my imaginary dog chases me and the toy.  Then I fling the toy forward so my imaginary dog accelerates to grab the toy.  After doing it a handful of times, it seemed to work well… but that was without a real dog.

When I tried it for the first time with my dogs, it didn’t work nearly as well. I thought the problem was solely with my timing and mechanics, but after a short session of just playing with my dogs and a toy on a rope yesterday, I realized that I had inadvertently trained my dogs NOT to run past me when I am also running.   Jake and Lil do a lot of freestyle tricks in heel position on both sides so they have been heavily reinforced for being at my side.  We also play “recall to side” games with distractions ahead (like the Manners Minder) and flat work where they know the game is to stay at my side no matter what I do, whether I am running fast and stopping abruptly, doing front crosses, post turns, or circling with my dogs on the inside and outside of the circles.  They both really enjoy these games, but I am fairly certain that when they are chasing me while I am running with a toy on a rope, they think they are doing the right thing by staying at my side vs. driving ahead to grab the toy when I fling it forward.  They are just being good dogs!

There are a lot of awesome dogs in Silvia’s Foundations class, including some amazing high-drive, herding dogs.  As I watch those dogs drive out of turns or tunnels in pursuit of a thrown ball, I am amazed at their speed and toy drive.  I suspect if I had a super high-drive dog, I’d make sure I played a lot of games that reinforced the dog for coming to side to keep the balance (like the games I have been playing with my dogs).

But with Jake and even more so with Lil, their natural tendency (combined with past training) is to respond to my movement (acceleration/ deceleration/ shoulder turns) so instead of running ahead to grab a toy that I fling forward on a rope, they will pace themselves to stay at my side.  This tendency has caused us to almost trip over each other and get tangled up with the rope a few times when I’m forced to decelerate to avoid running into a wall or something.  Not a pretty site and potentially dangerous.

Now that I am aware of this, I am going to shift the balance by playing more “Race Me” games and GO GO GO games (which are already part of Silvia’s Foundation class) so I can reinforce my dogs for running past me until each dog has a good balance.  I’m not saying I want my dogs to think it is OK to run past me when I decelerate or stop when I am calling their names, but when I say GO ON, GET IT, or GO GO GO, I want them to know it is OK and GREAT to race past me to whatever is in front of them, whether it is an obstacle, a toy on a rope, or a thrown ball.  I can envision this being a lot fun for all of us!

In the mean time,  I will continue to reward mostly by throwing a ball, while I play with toys on a rope as a separate activity until my dogs figure out how to play this new and fun chasing/ tugging game.

Update: I just used a toy on a rope to reward Lil for a few quick Loops and Wraps around a pole in the backyard and she flew ahead of me and grabbed the toy every single time.  WOW!  That didn’t take long for her to GET!  Now.. onto Jake…

I am enjoying this class so much.  It is challenging and I love learning how to become a better trainer and handler. Plus Jake and Lil’s enthusiasm for Silvia’s games keeps going and going…. they are like Energizer Bunnies.

Below are Silvia’s responses to comments I posted relating to my dogs and toys on ropes:

My Comment:  Gosh! Sorry to be posting again about toys on a rope but I just successfully rewarded Lil with a toy on a rope doing Loops and Wraps around a pole in my backyard. While I was running, she raced by me and grabbed the toy every single time. This new game certainly didn’t take long for her to get! Then she tugged like there was no tomorrow! Her best tugging ever. She wouldn’t even drop the toy like she always does when I say drop it. I think this is a very good thing for my normally very obedient little girlie. Prey drive won out! YEY!  She did eventually drop it and I immediately flung it out again for her to chase.  Sorry if I’m being overly gushy here but I can’t believe Lil got so crazy (in a good way)! I promise this is my last post about Toys on Ropes!!! :)


LoLaBu’s avatar

LoLaBu on March 6, 2012 at 19:13

Yay for Lil! Not dropping a toy is always a good sign, I agree!!! :)

Very good observation, it’s probably in fact the reason why they won’t drive after a toy! But if they will drive after a ball, that’s a good start already. I never understood why running past me and throwing balls would be bad – only heard it’s a bad thing a couple of years ago anyway :) – I think it’s great!!! I want my dogs to drive ahead as hard as they can – and when I want them to stay close, I just tell them so :) I want them to really understand both, handler and obstacle focus. Works great for me!

My Response:  Silvia, One of the things I love about the way you coach your students is that you suggest different approaches for different dogs vs. sayings stuff like: “All dogs in this class must do X, Y, Z and if you cannot get your dog to do X, Y, Z, then there is something wrong with your training or (worse yet) you have a bad relationship with your dog…” which is so ludicrous!

I heard chasing a ball is a bad thing to do with agility dogs so I stopped playing fetch with Lil for about 9 months (and Lil loves to play fetch). Silly me for not questioning that statement!


LoLaBu’s avatar

LoLaBu on March 6, 2012 at 21:46

Very often, finding ways to work around NOT-having X, Y, Z builds the best relationship :) I noticed that with my dogs – letting them be who they are and working around their weaknesses, focusing on their strengths instead, makes us a real team. I think they really appreciate I appreciate just how they are.

A Fresh Start

I love fresh starts! There is nothing more exhilarating than letting go of the past and starting with a clean slate.  I’ve been feeling that way in my studio about my new series of work.  And I can now say I’m feeling that way about Lil and jumping too.

I  bought Silvia Trkman’s “Cik & Cap” DVD over the weekend and watched it uninterrupted from beginning to end.  The objective appears to be training tight turns and maximum speed coming out of the turns.

When I trained Lil to run around various objects when she was a puppy, I did not focus at all on speed coming out of turns.  Recently, I have noticed that Lil sometimes stalls out when jumping and wrapping tightly back towards me.  I thought I needed to train her to NOT turn so tightly, but after watching Silvia’s DVD, I now think the hole in Lil’s training is that I have never trained her to power-out of tight turns.  This insight alone was worth the $60 I paid for that video.

Over the past few days, I’ve been doing a couple of short sessions a day with my dogs turning tightly around a cone and powering out of the turns.  Since both dogs already know how to spin fast in both directions, they had no problem staying tight when turning.  But I felt my mechanics weren’t quite right in terms of how, when, and where I tossed the ball, so I watched parts of the DVD again, this time focusing on Silvia’s movement vs. her dogs’ movement.

My goal is not to try to replicate Silvia’s movements, but rather to modify my own movements in a way that gives the clearest message to my dogs.  While watching the DVD the second time, I noticed that Silvia often, but not always, uses an “early arm” to cue her dogs to turn in a certain direction (“early arm” is a term used to describe when a handler changing arms before they actually change sides, so the dog knows a turn and side change are coming).  I’ve gone back and forth about which arm to use for various cues and for the past couple of years, I have not been using an early arm to pre-cue turns or a change of side.  Of course, after watching Silvia’s video, I feel compelled to re-think that again (SIGH) along with the thought that if I start using an early arm to pre-cue turns, then to be consistent, I’ll also need to switch the arm I am currently using to indicate a change of lead is coming (which some people call “switch”).  Darn.  I thought I had this all figured out.  I am going to think a lot more about it before I change what I’m doing to make sure I really think it is worth while, since my dogs would need to relearn my “arm language.”

The other thing I noticed was that Silvia uses a great toy.  It functions as both a ball and a tug toy.  It is a “Hol-ee Roller,” which is an open-mesh rubber sphere that rolls when you throw it and stretches then you tug with it.  So it turns out that you can have it all, at least when it comes to dog toys!

I ordered a 5 inch  “JW Pet Company Hol-ee Roller Dog Toy” on Amazon.com for $6.53.  I hope it is not too big for my dogs.  The smallest sized Hol-ee Rollers looked like the rubber mesh would be too thick to stretch well enough for maximum tugging fun. I think Silvia uses a 6.5″ ball with her Border Collie.

On the topic of playing fetch vs. tugging, some agility people have strong opinions about why they think tugging is much better for motivation and relationship building than playing fetch.  Here is why I think playing fetch is great for motivation and relationship building.  As far as motivation goes, a ball that is thrown low to the ground will keep on rolling so the dog needs to run super fast to overtake the speed of the ball in order to grab it.  Compare that to a tug toy that is thrown and just plops down on the ground.  Dogs are smart enough to know it is not necessary to out-run the tug toy, since they know it will stop on its own.  Of course, some dogs naturally love to tug so much that they race ahead to get the toy in order to bring it back to play tug.  It took me a while to build enough value for tugging for my dogs to really get into playing tug, but based on my experience with my particular dogs, which happen to be terriers, they run super fast when chasing any moving object like a chipmunk, each other, or me, so getting them to run really fast in pursuit of a moving ball was effortless.  As far as relationship building and playing fetch,  I am fairly certain my dogs know that the ball is not throwing itself :).

So in keeping with Silvia’s thinking of agility as just another game, once I knew my dogs loved to chase balls, added a tight turn around a cone before throwing the ball was all I needed to do to encourage maximum speed out of the turns.

One more note about playing fetch with a ball. Jake plays fetch in a conventional way.  But with Lil, I have always used two balls so that she doesn’t stop in front of me with the ball.  She races around me, dropping the ball she has while I throw a second ball (like the way a lot of competitive disc dogs play with multiple Frisbees).  This way the fun and action never stop. The other game I mix in is to sometimes ask her to drop the ball, mid-way back to me.  And when she does, I throw the other ball, low to the ground, in her direction.  She gets very intense, crouches low, and gets very spiral eyed waiting for me to throw the second ball. I use this game to test her state of arousal and reflexes at trials, especially after she has been napping. She has to be very alert to catch a fast-moving ball that I am throwing directly at her.  This crazy game seems to reboot her brain if she is sluggish.  As fun as these games are, using two balls is not ideal for rewarding  tight turn around a cone, because it takes so long to go through the two ball routine, so I am hoping to transition Lil to chasing the Hol-ee Roller and fetching it in the traditional way, so I don’t have to change the current way we play with two balls.

So what does any of this have to do with helping Lil learn how to jump well when running fast?  In my opinion, everything!  This morning I transitioned to wrapping around two cones with a bar on the ground in between them and Lil looked great.  She had more drive with this set up than she did with a single cone.  I plan to switch back and forth between cones, wings, and jump standards in the coming weeks and to gradually increase the height of the bars when I feel Lil is ready.  I also plan to start integrating tight turns and powering out of them in sequences during agility practice (with bars on the ground to start).

I believe the main benefit for my small dogs will not be the tightness of their turns, but  rather that they are learning how to power-out of turns.  I think this will translate into better jumping in all situations because if they learn to power-out after all jumps, that should translate into a flat, extended arc over straight jumps, causing them to land further away from the jumps, which in turn will eliminate the need to over-jump, butt flip or jump early to make sure they clear the bar.

Of course, I know I could be entirely wrong about this.  But we are all having fun with these new games.  Time will tell if it ends up helping Lil learn to jump well when running fast.