Monthly Archives: November 2014

Use It Or Loose It

The popular saying holds true for play skills, too. For a while as I wanted to prevent Java’s wrist from swelling I didn’t dare to play much with her. I was afraid that movements from side to side and quick turns as she’s chasing the toy would put too much stress on her wrist. The vet told us that we should be careful with that wrist for four months and during this time we almost completely stopped using toys in training, only food, which is Java’s favorite anyway.

What happened? The same thing that happens to all dogs with whom their handlers only use their very best reinforcer – Java’s love for toys diminished and so did her play skills. She was still very happy to play outside (dogs can have different rankings of reinforcers depending on location), but not so much at home. If I initiated play in the living room she would grab the toy and tug halfheartedly and hope that treats are going to appear soon.

The solution for a dog who doesn’t like to play is simple: play more! Very short and fun sessions, ending in what dog likes the most. This is what worked for Java:

  • Playing before each food training session, therefore transferring value from food to play.
  • Occasionally reward the best play with food which I don’t have on me at the beginning, so the reward is a surprise. This is not the same as teaching play as a trick. I am just following what she already enjoys (play) with what she enjoys even more (food), as a surprise. Who doesn’t like a nice surprise? 🙂
  • Playing with two balls, teasing her.
  • Lots of toy chasing. This is the type of play she likes the most.
  • Restrains to a toy in which I pretend to race her. She gets VERY intense, speeds like a bullet and her turn back with the toy is just amazing. She would make a great Flyball dog.
  • She loves surprise downs and sits in the middle of Two Toy Game and she’s pretty darn good at them, too. Yes, playing becomes higher value if she has to work for the toy 🙂

I don’t have many rules as we play, but I do expect her to play with which ever toy I offer even though there might be more exciting toys within her reach. This rule is important to me, because it means that she is willing to ignore distractions while playing. In this case the distraction is a better toy than I have, some other day it could be treats in the grass or another handler playing with her dog nearby.

Here is a clip in which we’re brushing up on Play With My Toy and just building up the value of toy play:

It took a few sessions for her to stop hoping that I will play with The Beaver if she carries him around long enough. Now she will drop The Beaver immediately as I reach out for the other toy, even if it’s just old fleece.

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Cause Of Failure In Dog Training

I found this quote by Bob Bailey the other day and thought it ties nicely with my last post

CauseOfFailureInTraining

Photo credit: Stisnprtisn! studio

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Are Dogs Who Love To Train Born That Way?

Many people see my dogs perform tricks or see a video of them running agility and assume that they were just born that way. (My coworkers are convinced that whippets must be one of the smartest and most trainable breeds around.) That they were born loving tunnels, that they were born knowing how to focus on me and do tricks while there are a gazillion other tempting options around: other dogs and people, ground to sniff, birds to catch. They think their dogs could never do it because they are not like mine.

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard someone say “we tried agility one time, but she just didn’t like it”. Really? You tried one session and already concluded your dog doesn’t like it because she doesn’t run through tunnels when you ask her to?

Agility is something that dogs learn to love if you do it right. Sure, some dogs love obstacles from the get go, but not all of them. Most dogs start out liking some obstacles, but they only start liking the others once we build value for them. That means we find ways to make it lots of fun for the dog.

But not all humans want to do agility and that’s fine. Back to reasons why people think their dog wouldn’t like training. They say he doesn’t like to play so much or he takes the toy and runs away or he just can’t focus around other dogs or he doesn’t care about treats. Guess what? Ruby had all those problems (and then some). He loves training now.

My dogs like training so much because I take the time to observe what toys and treats they like, and what type of play. Imagine a special someone would observe your preferences for months so that they could arrange a perfect date for you, cooking the favorite meal for you, taking you to all the places and doing all the activities that you love the most… Would you be impressed? My dogs are, too.

Training in this way is not a duty for a dog, it’s a joy and a privilege. Something that they look forward to and they are disappointed when I don’t have the time to do it. I have never forced or begged my dogs to do agility. During first agility sessions my dog might work for 2 minutes and then have a break for 15 minutes or more. If they’re not interested in working, they don’t have to. Another dog will get their turn. Soon, they find out that I will not beg for their attention and that if they’re not ready when I am, they will loose the opportunity to have fun. However, if they do give me their attention, all their favorite treats, toys and games will rain from the sky and life will be AWESOME. We will go on that special date. Thus training becomes a privilege, not a chore.

Of course to prepare a perfect reward for my dog I have to do my homework before I ever show him agility equipment. I train tricks to see how he likes to learn, what treats he likes and what gets him excited during training sessions. I play with him several times per day. My favorite time to play is on a walk and just after the dog has come inside, which means that as I’m doing my homework we play at least four times per day. I teach him some toy games, such as tugging, Two Toy Game and retrieve. Now that we have some activities that my dogs loves to do with me we are ready to take that training in public, among other dogs.

I don’t start training agility until I know I have some reward that my dog will go ga-ga over. For many dogs that reward must be built through time, so the dog might start out just mildly interested in play, but as we play more and I learn to play better, it will become a better and better reward. So don’t worry if your dog isn’t already crazy about something. Just take what he likes the most and do short, fun session with it. Even treats can become more rewarding with time if used correctly.

After my homework is done we can start with agility, with no obligation for the dog to participate – but of course now they WANT to, because I know what makes them tick.

This is Aki. He likes jumps, absolutely loves the dog walk even though it’s narrow and high, but he says there is something sinister about those tunnels. And yet, from this video you would never guess it, because his owner took the time to bring out his playful side and to find the toy that is worth going through the tunnel for.

Does Aki love tunnels now? Not yet, but with patience and keeping it fun… he will 🙂

This is a wonderful read as well: http://stacywinklerblog.com/2014/11/02/take-a-good-look-in-the-mirror/

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The Aftermath

Stoned Ruby

Stoned Ruby


Anesthesia is a scary thing, but luckily everything went well, everybody at the vet’s office was very nice and Ruby is now completely back (also in his mind, not just his body 😉 ). He reminds me of this several times per night as he bumps into things with his Elizabethan collar. Thanks, Ruby. Can’t sleep? Yeah, me neither.

He was shivering this morning. I checked his gums and they seemed white to me. He was lying perfectly still. I got worried. I checked Java’s gums. They looked better than Ruby’s. Went to check Ruby’s gums again. They looked better this time. Then it dawned on me to ask him to get up. He looked at me like: “Are you sure you want me to get up? I thought I was in a stay.” Then he got up and was bright as ever, just a little cold. I put his Back on track coat on and was happy as a clam 🙂

Later today I took him for his first real walk and he was happy and pulling all the time. I don’t think I was ever so happy to see him pull on leash 🙂

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