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!!! :)

Reply

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!

Reply

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.