Day 12&13: Why Are Whippets Fast When Running, But Slow In Training?

Today I was reminded of something I read a long time ago on a blog:

In my experience Whippets can suffer a bit from the ‘good dog’ syndrome. (disclaimer: of course there are exceptions to every rule!) It’s really easy to teach a Whippet to be well behaved, and I think that might be why one occasionally sees slow-ish Whippets in agility. Unlike some dogs who can take constant reminders not to go wild and act like heathens, Whippets seem to take the lesson to heart too quickly and once they’ve been convinced not to go wild, it’s hard to convince them that sometimes wild is appropriate.
Frankie Joiris

For those who don’t know her, Frankie is a remarkable animal trainer. She has trained several breeds of dogs, cats, birds (sorry I forgot which kind) and turtles for film industry. Heck, she taught her dog to tightrope walk! So when she talks I sit up and pay attention.

You know how with some whippets the handler says “Sit” and a whippet takes like 5 seconds before their butt finally reaches the floor? Are those ‘good dogs’? Sure. Are they well behaved? Possibly. Would I like my dog to sit like that? Hell no! If the butt is not on the ground within 1s (and that’s on a bad day) I’m seriously reconsidering my training session.

I don’t think Ruby was ever in danger of being one of those whippets who slow down because their owners want them to. He had another reason to be slow: he just didn’t care about what I wanted and about my stupid training ideas. He was fast and crazy when doing the things he wanted to do (usually mischief) and slow when it was “training time.” He was one of those 5-second-sit dogs. Well, maybe a little less, but he was sloooow. I don’t think anyone who sees him work today suspects how slow he really was.

Puppy Java in playtraining (c) Yinepu

Puppy Java in playtraining (c) Yinepu

Java is different, she definitely cares about what I think and though she is naturally fast it would be easy to make her slow down so she would be more user-friendly for slow human reflexes. That would make it easier to teach her precise heeling because she wouldn’t be so all over the place from guessing what I want. It would be easier to click at the right moment. But the downside would be that the resulting heeling (or sit, or down, or retrieve, or recall, or tunnel,…) would be slower and less intense.

The thing is, it can be difficult to get a fast, enthusiastic performance of a behavior that was taught in a slow manner. In that case you say “sit” and the dog hears “sloooowly move your butt to the ground”. Whereas if you teach sit in an enthusiastic way then you say “sit” and the dog hears “the quicker you sit, the sooner I’m gonna throw this ball!”.

If you want to see fast, energetic responses you have to train your dog when he is in the fast, energetic state of mind. You want to see sparkling eyes and wagging tail every time you train, so first play, then train. If your dog doesn’t like toys you can play with food, too. Just run around and give him food when he catches you, or roll it on the ground.

Also, try to remove “no” from your vocabulary. “No” is slowing the dog down, decreasing the energy and doesn’t actually tell the dog what to do instead of the “bad” behavior. Instead of saying “no”, teach the dog what it is that you want. Don’t want the dog to jump up to get the food? Teach him that all paws on the ground make food appear. Don’t want him to bolt out of the door? Teach him to automatically sit when you put your hand on the handle and wait while you open the door. Don’t want him to pull? Teach him that only loose leash moves forward.

Whatever you reward is what you will get more of. So if you want to see excitement, reward excitement. Don’t tell the dog “no” when he jumps up. Instead, if he’s jumping up because you’re holding a toy and he’s not usually totally crazy about playing with you (I’m going to contradict my advice a bit…) REWARD that energy by playing with the dog. Don’t say “no”, “calm down”, “feet on the floor”. Just play. Jumping up is energy, so if you want more energy, then jumping up in a training situation is your friend.
Yes, that means he will be more likely to jump up on you next time you’re holding a toy. BUT it also makes it more likely that he will show more excitement and energy when you play. Sometimes you must temporarily sacrifice one goal (your dog not jumping on you) to get another goal (sparkly eyes when playing and working).

Does this mean I let my dogs do whatever they want so they will work with excitement? No. Well, I let them jump on me, that’s true. I find it useful to see when they are at the right level of excitement and ready to work.

Here’s an example of how I teach them my rules AFTER I taught them that working with me is fun and exciting: Yesterday we had a Rally Obedience class after another class where one of the females was in heat. For Ruby this was the first time of doing RO under this particular distraction. He can do agility without a problem, but he would sell his soul for agility, so that makes it easier. We were getting ready to begin and Ruby found a particularly nice sniffing spot. I asked him “Are you ready?” He just chattered his teeth at me, no doubt still very interested in that female’s smell. I smiled and thanked RO gods for a wonderful opportunity to make a point. I could have asked him “Are you ready?” again and then kept correcting him every time he would drop his head down to sniff during RO sequence. Instead, I didn’t say anything. I took Ruby back to the car and got Java out. She was more than willing to take his spot in the class and within 2 seconds Ruby knew that he just lost his opportunity to work. (Java did great! But sorry, no video 😦 ) During next round I let him have a go again and he was a superstar. “Smells? What smells? I don’t smell anything, just don’t let that black bitch take my spot in the class again!” Much, much more effective than saying “no”. And the best part? If done correctly it increases dog’s energy instead of squashing it. With enough practice distractions become cues for the dog to focus on the job more intensely.

Training, communication and building a relationship with your dog is a wonderful, positive, HEALTHY thing to do. And if the dog isn’t having a total blast while you’re doing it, you’re not doing it right.

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7 thoughts on “Day 12&13: Why Are Whippets Fast When Running, But Slow In Training?

  1. MaryHope Schoenfeld

    I love this post! I’ve been very spoiled by Shela (just turned 9 years old), who loves agility so much & is always the same dog, regardless of weather, site, distractions, etc. Enter 22-month old Orla, who is much more environmentally & socially sensitive. Fast as a speeding bullet training at home, & sometimes at class or run-throughs; other times she is too much in her own head & pokey when out in public. Time to put my thinking cap on & see how i can increase her arousal level — enough to overcome her anxieties — when we’re out in the world.

    • They are so different, aren’t they? I agree that increasing arousal levels is the way to go (with possibly some counter-conditioning if there is a specific trigger to anxiety?). Silvia Trkman told us in Agility Foundations that she tries to change dog’s natural response to stress. You know how some dogs shut down and others become even more energetic? She tries to teach (I guess classically condition) them to respond to stress with energy. She starts with small stuff like clipping nails: clip the nails, then immediately follows it up with a very arousing activity. I actually did this stuff with Java for a little bit because clipping nails got her down and it really worked! So she starts with small everyday stresses, whatever deflates dog’s energy a bit. Then I assume she tries to play those same arousing games in more difficult situations. She also figures out what sort of stuff the dog is doing when aroused and puts it on cue (she calls it “happy tricks”). For us it’s barking. She uses those tricks to get dog happy before a run. Oh that reminds me, I should put Java’s chattering teeth on cue if I would ever need it 🙂

  2. Frankie Joiris

    Excellent! This reminds me of teaching people to teach their dog a fast drop on recall. If you teach the dog that the down in the drop on recall is a fun, fast and dynamic position, they boas through the whole exercise. Sure, sometimes they screw up and end up in a play bow instead, or some such silliness, but who cares? The end result is a dog who not only really enjoys the game, but does it brilliantly well.

  3. Linda

    Great post Andreja.
    I’ve also tried that “your going back to the car and I’ll take out your brother” trick with Lacey one day. Well, she didn’t like it at all and took out her frustration on the car roof and door coverings. Within a few minutes she tore into them and pulled out lots of the stuffing. It looked like it had snowed in my car. When I got home my husband took one look and did an about turn no words spoken. We didn’t mention it again and it cost me a small fortune and a few days in the repairs shop to get it sorted out. That’s the last time I tried that method with her! Little devil 🙂

    • Haha that was quite a job! But at least you know that she cared about training – that’s a good thing 🙂 I put Ruby in his crate in the car so he would have a really hard time destroying anything 😉

  4. Pingback: Day 15: To Publish Or Not To Publish | Ruby The Whippet

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