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