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Spy

Teaching Engagement

Teaching Engagement

In training my dogs for sports like agility or obedience, there is one thing that is my priority above and beyond everything else: My dog should always ask to work and always want the training more than I do. Let’s call it “engagement”. If I don’t have that, I’ll always have to make huge compromises in training, and it will probably not hold up for competition anyway. I will therefore always work on this first and put other things on hold.

There are two components to teaching engagement. First, you need to develop great rewards. If you don’t have a reward that your dog is really excited about, he’ll probably not get excited about training either. But remember: A reward is not a thing, a reward is an event that creates feelings of joy and excitement for your dog. If your dog is not excited about food or play in itself, you need to figure out what brings your dog joy and associate rewards with those feelings.

Second, your dog needs to learn that he is responsible for making rewards happen. He needs to do in order to get. There are a lot of dogs that aren’t engaged even though they actually really enjoy the rewards. We can easily create a disengaged dog by poor timing and bad training choices. So many dogs have learned that the best way to get engagement out of their humans is to disengage, run away or show signs of frustration. Timing is everything! There is truth in the saying that you need to be “more fun” in order to get your dog to engage, but it is crucial that the trainer brings the fun when the dog is bringing engagement, not the other way around.

I’ve probably written about this many times in the past, as it is such a key element in my training and teaching. The reason I wanted to bring it up again is that it’s what I’m working on with Spy. She is now 15 months old and she’s been with me almost half a year. Creating a driven agility dog out of an adolescent dog brought up in a shed on Ireland has been a longer process than I imagined. I still think we’ll get there, and I’m learning so much in the process, but I have to be very patient. To me, patience means that I think much more about creating that perfect training flow than I think about specific skills. She does know a few skills – she can sit, do a jumping stand, circle a cone, get in a bed, do a nose touch – if she is motivated and nothing distracts her.

Spy really likes to play with me, which is great! It took months for her to be confident enough to play, but now she’s just getting more and more excited about it. Treats are not important to her at all, she’ll only work for them if absolutely nothing distracts her (and it helps if she’s hungry). I try to use a lot of praise, social interaction and play to increase the value of food rewards, and we’re making progress, but it will get much easier once she understands to be really engaged in our play sessions.

Although she really likes to play, she isn’t really engaged. She is very easily distracted and will often disengage within seconds after I take the toy away. It’s much easier if I keep moving, and harder if I stand still. I try to mix it up in our sessions: Sometimes I’ll move away from her after taking the toy away and she has to do a little more to get the toy back. Sometimes I’ll stand still and wait for any kind of engagement – a glance at my face for example – before I initiate play again. Timing is of course really important: Me moving away makes it easier and more fun for her, so I do that while she is still engaged, not when she’s sniffing the grass or staring into space.

I videotaped a session today (I actually video most of my sessions, it helps me with structure and evaluation) for you to see. I should probably have kept the session a bit shorter. She starts to disengage at about 1:20 into the session, and she takes off from me at 3 minutes. I’m not sure if it’s best to keep her sessions really short so that she never disengages, or if it’s actually a good thing for her to check out and then come back to work. I lean towards now stressing about the checking out, because she got better after a few repetitions where I had to wait a little. I definitely should have ended before she took off, because 3 minutes is more than enough for any dog. Notice that I am calling her back once she’s left, but only as she has turned around and is headed back to me. I reinforce that decision with a game of chase and play, and also build value for her name/recall in a situation where I know she’ll be successful.

Questions? Leave a comment and I’ll answer as soon as possible!

If you want to learn more on developing rewards, building engagement and teaching skills, you should check out our Foundation Class starting on August 14

Spy herding

Happy Birthday Spy!

Today is Spy’s first birthday. We’ve celebrated with our first successful play session outdoors and our first ever session on backwards heeling. I teach heeling by walking backwards and having the dog follow me. One of the things that I love about this method is how it can be modified for any level, and how it encourages focus and engagement in training. I was very happy that Spy stayed with me through the training session, and that she was happy to switch between food rewards and play.

We started Foundation Class Online yesterday, and I have decided to follow the lessons with Spy. She’s definitely ready for it now and it will be great for her to try all the different behaviors in class. It will also be great for everybody in class to see how I work with her and what we’re struggling with. You can still sign up if you want to join the fun!

Spy herding

Right now we’re waiting for Squid to start whelping. She’s been restless and focusing on digging in the whelping box (although she also tried a tunnel and under the playhouse in the garden). It’s going to be a long night… Bet’s puppies are two weeks old today and have opened their eyes. We’re also in the middle of lambing and have gotten 10 lambs so far. All the babies are keeping me very busy.

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Irish Spy

A few weeks ago, I got in the car and drove, drove and drove some more. Drove until I ended up on Ireland and met Spy, whom I previously only had seen in a shaky 90 second video. I randomly found Spy on YouTube one day. The video was recently uploaded and it said she was for sale, but there was no contact information or location. It was love at first sight, and I spent hours doing detective work until I finally found the ad on an Irish site.

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Spy on an agility field in England

Epic and Bud joined me in the car and we did some sheepdog training on Ireland before heading back to England where we took some pictures for my upcoming agility book (in Swedish, sorry). We watched a sheepdog trial and trained some more before we headed home. My car broke down in Germany on the Autobahn between Bremen and Hamburg. I had to stop, call for assistance and try to find a place to stay with three dogs within walking distance from the auto repair shop. Spy had probably never been indoors before and it turned out she was in heat. Dragging all my luggage plus handling two male dogs and a bitch in heat through the small German town wasn’t easy. Spy got to sleep in the bathroom and handled it well. I thankfully got the car fixed in a day and we returned to Sweden on the Tuesday night, nine days after leaving Sweden.

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Spy and Holly in the woods with Thomas

Spy has now lived with us for two weeks, and we’re still getting to know her. She’s 10 months old and hasn’t lived inside a house before. It amazing how quickly she has adjusted to life in our pack. She seems housebroken, which is remarkable considering how she’s lived before. Developing a good relationship with her is a work in progress, and very different from starting with a young puppy. I hope to make an agility dog out of her – in addition to sheepdog of course – but right now we’re just focusing on becoming friends and to even take food from my hand. It’s such a simple thing for a small puppy, but so hard for her. She enjoys food, but eating it from my hand is not very interesting and she doesn’t do it in all situations. The step from taking food to actually working for it seems even more difficult.

I bought her because she looked amazing when working sheep, and she does that well in Sweden too. She isn’t trained, but has a natural and mature way with sheep. I think she’s ready for training despite her young age. Our relationship will be the most important thing around sheep too. She needs to trust me and want to listen to what I have to say.

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We got some more snow the other day… Spy herding sheep outside our house

It’s very exciting to get to know a new individual. There are new sides to her to discover all the time, as she gets more comfortable here. Right now, I realised that she gets very excited when Thomas is training and playing with Holly in another room. We might have to work a bit on staying calm when others are working. I hope that we can start to train and play together soon. She seems to be interested in toys, but I haven’t dared to try to play with her just yet.

Have you got experiences with starting to train an older dog that hasn’t been exposed to family life and training before? Maybe a rescue? Please share your experiences in the comments section below.