2-minute dog trainer – a day of firsts!

Bud and I have taken all four dogs to Dayton Dog Training Club’s 2-day AKC trial. We both entered everything, of course, including “Time To Beat” on Saturday morning.

First first was our Time To Beat class. Neither of us had run it before and it was lots of fun.  Bud’s going to document it on his blog, probably, but certainly it will be included in the soon-to-be-published electronic Houston’s Book of Agility Games.  Points are awarded to dogs for qualifying (must run clean, refusals are not faulted), with additional points awarded to the fastest qualifiers in the class.  Ten (10) Qs and 100 points earns a title.  When a title is earned the slate is wiped clean and you start from scratch.

Second first was our Novice JWW run where Tempest ran clean (yikes! we scared up some off-course jumps) with no off courses and no bars down.  The ring crew had forgotten to set the electronic timer at the final jump so Tempest’s time didn’t get recorded properly.  I was given the opportunity to accept SCT or re-run for time.  Well, of course I re-ran for time.  Our second run wasn’t nearly as clean as the first but it was fast, earning Tempest ….

Third first was the blue ribbon Tempest brought home for his first Novice JWW qualifier.  These two runs took place within minutes of each other and left me with a slightly over-stimulated youngster.  I put him in his crate and waited for the crew to build Open Standard, a tiny class with only about 15 dogs entered.

Fourth first was Tempest’s approach to the start line for Open Standard.  He was still over-stimulated from his jumpers’ run and I should have seen trouble brewing. He held it together through 75% of the course, hitting his contacts and holding them, nailing his 12 weaves, performing an automatic down on the pause table and holding it, though dropping 2 bars in a long line along the back wall. The closing line began with a really tight pinwheel and I was providing limited motion when everything went pear-shaped.  Tempest started to the first jump, turned to look back at me and, when I said “go jump!” he darted in and nipped me so hard and so quick that I yelped “Ouch!”   The judge didn’t see it, but I asked to be excused.  Tempest’s first “BC walk of shame” occurred after that nip.  I got a blood blister the size of a dime on my thigh and he listened to me repeat “no biting!” all the way to the ring gate.

Let me reiterate that I train with positive reinforcement and negative punishment.  Positive reinforcement is the application of reward for wanted behavior that you want the dog to offer again.  Negative punishment is the removal of reward for unwanted behavior you don’t want the dog to offer again.

Positive reinforcement trainers and force-based trainers often get into arguments about which system is better. When the argument degenerates into “I love my dog too much to hurt him” the language becomes a barrier to further discussion. I don’t think force-based trainers love their dogs less, they just don’t trust that the dog will offer behaviors consistently without being required to.

Positive reinforcement trainers often lack the training consistency to build behavior consistency in the dog. And, regardless of the quality and quantity of the reward system, you must have a response when the dog performs incorrectly.

I’ve practiced a “no command response” to errors in performance. Often the positive reinforcement trainer is caught out with no prepared response, and their disappointment is evident to all (including their observant canine partner, of course).  Disappointment is counter-productive, and is enough to shut down the softest dogs. The response to incorrect performance has to be neutral, the removal of all good responses.

On the other hand, when the dog does bad things (i.e. “bites the momma”) the response has to be immediate (i.e. “Ouch!”) and have an effect on the dog.  If the dog continues to smile and play, if the handler continues with the course thinking “I need this Q!”, if there is no immediate negative result from the bad behavior, the dog will be confused and unable to process the results of their behavior.

If we consider that dogs are constantly calculating “when I do this A happens, but when I do that B happens” then we know what we need to do.

Our response must be black-and-white.  “This is my response when I like what you’ve done (over-the-top praise, treats, tugs, toys, continuing with the course), this is my response when you’ve made a small error (removal of all positive reinforcers, allow the dog to try again), and this is my response when you’ve crossed the line into bad behavior (no attention, no continuing with the course, no praise, no tugs, no treats).”

A trainer cannot be too obvious with these cues. We get confused dogs when the handler’s positive responses are quiet and subtle, and their negative responses are big and pronounced.  The dog may think, “Well I know I did something wrong but I wonder what the right thing is.”

I’ll be interested to see if Tempest learned a lesson with Saturday’s standard round.  Our courses always end with over-the-top praise, tugging, lots of attention.  Small errors on course earn a neutral request to try again. His bad behavior was followed by no praise, no tugging, a “lie-down” for his leash, and no attention afterwards.

Today will be a little test.  His novice jumpers’ round will be quickly followed by open standard, and I’ll watch for over-stimulation at the start line.  I’m going to keep him out of the room as long as possible so he doesn’t get jacked up, and I’ll try to keep moving on the course in order to not incite his inappropriate herding behavior.

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One Response to “2-minute dog trainer – a day of firsts!”

  1. Marsha Says:

    Thank you for the thorough explanation of of positive reinforcement and negative punishment. I often see people run their dogs on an course, and barely give a response to a dog’s good performance. On the other hand, they scream at their dogs on the course for taking the incorrect obstacle. I am surprised dogs will even run at all with that behavior from the handler. I see so many dogs that shut down – I can’t blame them.

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