2-minute dog trainer, Phoenix at 5 months

Phoenix occasionally joins my beginner agility class as a demo dog. His drive is lovely, though his youth is evident in his desire to visit with the other friendly handlers and dogs.

Phoenix has a bro-mance with “Bear,” a 7-month-old Aussie, and an affection for “Lisa,” a sweet little Icelandic Sheepdog.

He’s starting to attend my recall faster and faster, and we continue to work on recall skills for 1-2 meals a week.

In addition to his mealtime training on the contact trainer, and on the 30-foot dead-away send through hoops and jumps, Phoenix has begun three new training protocols.

Start-line stays

First, using the same line of hoops and jumps where we practice our “send,” we’re practicing start-line stays.

I believe I’ve created a unique start-line stay philosophy and training protocol — I’ve seen no one else addressing it in the following manner.

My philosophy is that dogs generally do not “break their start-line stay.” Instead, what they actually do with great frequency, is “anticipate the release to do agility.”

If I examine my dogs’ behaviors at the start line, and compare it with training for an obedience recall, I see two ways a dog may fail the exercise: 1) breaking the stay, leaving the task, putting nose down and sniffing, wandering off, and losing interest, OR 2) anticipating the release to follow me, or simply “jumping the gun.”

As a trainer using positive reinforcement, my responses to these two failures are distinctly different. If I treat anticipation the same as I do lack-of-interest, my training will be the biggest failure.

My training for “jumping the gun,” or anticipating the release to do agility, involves three elements.

I wish to reward the dog for staying, and will reward tiny stay performances at first, building consistently and in tiny increments with each training session.

My negative punishment (removal of reward and attention in order to extinguish behavior) for anticipating involves the absence of the reward, and having to return to the original position.

The third element of the start-line stay, and one I believe is unique to my start-line stay training, is the idea that the dog learning to stay in front of a jump, tunnel, dogwalk, whatever, must NEVER be released to that obstacle during start-line training.

Instead, I cue the “stay,” leave the dog, walk around the jump (or tunnel, or dogwalk, whatever), return to my dog’s side, reward the dog for the stay, and then release him to another, nearby, obstacle.

I want to establish in my dog’s mind the tiniest doubt that the course is going to progress in the direction of the obstacle in front of which they’re staying.

I want my dog to look to me for direction always, not assume and anticipate.

He’s able to stay while I leave his side, circle one jump or hoop, and return to his side to feed him his dinner. At first he was quite distracted and hyperactive but, once he was successful on a couple of short stays, he started catching on.

With stays I try to remind my students constantly that dogs learn through their successes so, the more successful they are, the faster they learn.

Retrieves (formal and play)

I must admit, I LOVE, LOVE, LOVE training retrieves, both play retrieves and formal (aka obedience dumbbell) retrieves.

When I started training Banner (my Novice A obed/agil dog)  to retrieve in 1998, I met Sue Sternberg and was introduced to her inducive retrieve methodology. She left me with a charming self-published training brochure, with hand-drawn pictures of the trainer and dog.

Banner picked up on the training so quickly I swore I’d never use another method for training the retrieve.

Last week Phoenix started learning the inducive retrieve. The methodology is to position a treat behind the bar on the dumbbell, and the dog has to “go through” the dumbbell, touching or grasping with teeth, in order to get to the treat.

In his first 5-minute session Phoenix showed me he’s a fun guy willing to offer all sorts of behaviors which make no sense to him. He quickly started putting his teeth on the dumbbell, then grabbing it out of my hand, staying engaged and focused the whole time.

In his second 5-minute session he progressed to picking it off the floor and swinging his head, with the dumbbell still in his mouth, toward me.

In his third 5-minute session he progressed to chasing it when I tossed it 4-6 feet away, picking it off the floor, and returning partway to me with the dumbbell.

Tonight, in his fourth 5-minute session he progressed to sitting while I tossed the dumbbell 10 feet away, going after it when I said “get it!”, picking it up and bringing it all the way back to my hand.

WHEEEEE!!!   Awesome.  Mommy is VERY pleased.

For his play retrieve I began with generally conditioning him to put his mouth on various toys. When he brings the toy back to me I immediately toss it again. When he fails to bring the toy back I follow him, take the toy, put it away, and end the game.

Now, a month since I began this subtle training, I try to not over-do the play retrieve because I want to end the game while he still eager and willing to play.

Now that he’s mostly conditioned to the play retrieve, I can begin using a toss of the toy as his reward for agility performance, knowing he’ll return to me with the toy.

Sequencing (running with me)

I’m incredibly excited about Phoenix’s temperament and biddability. He’s learning everything very quickly.

But the most impressive thing about Phoenix is the calm intensity with which he follows my movement between agility obstacles.

He doesn’t bark or carry on. He leaves the start line focused and in high drive. He turns on a dime whether presented with a front cross, back cross, blind cross, whatever.

My beginner class is made up of three dogs, including Phoenix. We have plenty of time to put together and practice rather long sequences. The equipment is jammed pretty tightly into the 30×60 space.

My students are GOOD students. They try to do their homework, they listen to instructions, they watch me demonstrate, they absorb the philosophical discussion, and we progress quickly.

Four weeks ago, Phoenix was coming out of his crate for a couple of 2-minute demonstrations each class.

Two nights ago he spend nearly 45 minutes out of his crate, engaged in agility play (and flirtation).

His ability, at 5 months, to follow my movement on sequences, is breathtaking for me. Couple that with bold, fearless, obstacle performance, and you can imagine the fun I’m having.

I often think fondly of Tempest, and miss him every day, but Phoenix is providing me with a new agility life.

I would love to get comments from my regular readers! Tell me how your training is going, what suggestions you’ve tried with your own dogs, or how you’ve modified a protocol to suit your needs. Comments please!

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4 Responses to “2-minute dog trainer, Phoenix at 5 months”

  1. Linda Stutz Says:

    Hi Marsha-
    I love reading your blog. I am reminded each time of how important it is to think carefully about my attempts to train something new, or to change a problem behavior. When I think through a plan, I’m much more likely to see the changes I want than if I just rashly forge ahead. (Same with the tutoring work I do with kids )
    Dixie and I are training at ARF for Rally Obedience. She continues to to be shy and to worry about various “scary” things, but is now able to focus on me for the Rally courses, and she enjoys training. Most important to me, she walks confidently with me in most situations, and I can take her just about anywhere and she behaves beautifully. (The recent exception was in Colonial Williamsburg where we were surprised by cannon and musket fire-even Sherman was freaked out by that.)
    So thanks for the blog- it’s a good influence on me.
    Linda

  2. Linda Says:

    Marsha, when you have an opportunity, could you explain how you train a dog who has a lack of interest at the start line. My young Cairnboy and I are having that problem. He seems revved up before entering the ring, but often doesn’t do the first obstacle. Or, he goes wandering after a few obstacles. When I get him back on track, he finishes the course quickly, without any problems. Thank you for your advice to not release the dog to the obstacle in front of it during training the sit/stay. I’ll add that to my practice sessions.

    Linda in WNC

    • 2mindogtrainer Says:

      I believe, Linda, that I see your question as a 2-element problem. “Training” teaches a dog a behavior and addresses confidence, while “motivation” addresses lack-of-interest and stress responses. A dog who loses interest at the start line needs confidence-building exercises, de-stressing skills, and focus work. When I train a dog I’m not always assured that dog will perform that skill in all environments, at all times. Some breeds are less likely than others to have stress reactions, or to lose interest in an activity. That’s why a lot of us have gravitated towards border collies and shelties. Build your dog’s confidence — with instinctive or self-rewarding behaviors (like earthdog or scent work) — and you may find him enjoying agility more.

  3. Linda Says:

    Thanks so much Marsha.

    Linda in WNC

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