Sunday, January 27, 2013

The "Agility" part of Agility for Reactive Dogs class

Last week I started telling the story of Bella's "Agility for Reactive Dogs" class focusing on some very basic considerations for handling reactive dogs in a classroom setting. Today, I'm going to talk about the first steps of the agility part of the class.

The class breaks down into two sections: reactivity training and agility training. But the agility training part, at least for us, breaks down into 2 further areas of concentration: the reactive part and the scared-y dog part.

The "reactive" part:

In the very earliest days of the class, we handled the reactivity part of our training in one of two ways. We'd click and treat positive interactions with the other dogs (and by interactions, I'm just talking about a glance or vague interest in the other dog.) And we'd divert and distract when the interaction was not so positive. If Bella "reacted" to another dog, we could retreat from the scene (divert) or throw a handful of treats on the floor in front of her (distract).

Initially, each dog worked on an obstacle at one end of the room while the other dogs wait calmly, or not, on their "mats". It's one thing to be calm and composed when in the same room with another dog but staying that way when they're running and jumping and making noise is a much more difficult task to achieve.

Baby gates covered with sheets provide a means of shielding the dogs from one another entirely if tensions erupt. But the classroom is very large and the dogs generally remain far enough apart to keep them under threshold for most of the time.

If the dog on the mat begins to get too aroused, click/treat or divert/distract. The dog learning the obstacle is generally too involved in what they're doing to pay a whole lot of attention to the other dogs. That's what makes agility such a fabulous tool for teaching/training reactive dogs.

The "scared-y dog" angle:

It can be argued that most reactive dogs are scared-y dogs. They are "reacting" to something that frightens/bothers/distresses them. But there's another kind of scared-y dog like Bella whose MO (modus operandi) is run first, ask questions later. She's pretty much afraid of everything new and teaching her not to be afraid is an art and science unto itself.

While some of the other dogs worked on mastering their reactivity by learning new obstacles, we worked on Bella's reactivity while trying to get her to just be comfortable near an obstacle.

One of the easier obstacles for most dogs is the jump. Dogs generally like to jump, they instinctively know how to and it's something they've probably encountered in their world outside of class.

Except for Bella. Luckily, we had anticipated she might have some issues about sticks and poles and other agility stuff so we had begun working on the "jump" obstacle months before we signed up for the class. In fact, we started by simply placing a stick on the floor and asking her to step over it. Yeah. For realz.

Learning as we go.

One of the first things we learned about agility was the difference between "luring" and "shaping".

When you lure a dog to do something, you're tempting them to perform a behavior they may or may not want to do with the reward of something they really desire. It works with lots of things, especially things that aren't terrifically scary.

Alternatively, shaping a dog to do a particular behavior involves rewarding them whenever they do something close to what you want them to do. Where a lure instigates a specific behavior, shaping reinforces a behavior offered by the dog. As such, there's less pressure and the dog's focus is more on the behavior you want them to learn than on the reward.

With shaping, the dog is trying to figure out what you want them to do, they are engaged and thinking and that makes it especially useful when trying to work with a dog on really scary things.

Luring a dog on a particularly intimidating obstacle could have the dog so focused on a reward that they don't realize where they are. And if they suddenly 'notice' that they're on something really scary, it could frighten them to the point of sabotaging the reward entirely. They could associate the reward with the big scary. They could also associate YOU with the big scary. Not cool.

Shaping a dog on a really scary obstacle allows them to focus on the obstacle and learn how to approach it. If they choose not to approach it, there is no punishment but if they do choose to do so there is a reward and therefore, a positive association is made with the obstacle.

Luring and shaping both have their place in agility training at least for us. But we stick to shaping for the scariest of obstacles.

The anatomy of a jump

The video below probably shows a lot of the wrong ways to do things. Much of it was shot before we started class and learned the correct way so you'll see luring and a pretty stressed out dog in some parts. My aim with Bella is always to make a 'game' of things and that's what I was trying to do with the jump. It worked and it's not the worst mistake I could have made but I've learned better ways to do things since.

Here's a quick recap of what it took to teach Bella to "jump".

The clips used in the video span the date range of 3/2011 to 8/2012. That's a year and a half. Working with fearful dogs isn't glamorous or exciting and it doesn't happen overnight. But I think you'll agree, the pay-off is spectacular. I've never been more proud of what we have all accomplished.

The music used in the video is "Trip the Light" byt Garry Schyman. I loved it, bought it and hope no one arrests me for it. If you like it, you can purchase it on Amazon or iTunes.


  1. Woof! Woof! I was very treat oriented since I was a pup. Learning agility was fun (knowing that i do get a good treat (different from what I usually get)). That's how I differentiate it and it was never scary.  Good Bella ... Looking forward to hear more about your agility class. Lots of Golden Woofs, Sugar

  2. Good for you Bella and humans!  We have a cautious pup (blind Breeze) and a couple of nervous boys (Bill and Forest) but the rest of them are the jump in with all four paws types!  Initially blind Hiker was very nervous of most things but quickly relaxed and is now the most social and most daring.

  3. You know, while she did seem a little stressed in the beginning of the video, she didn't seem terrified and it's not like you forced her to jump. Personally, I think you did an awesome job, especially taking it so slow. By the end of the video, not only did she look confident, but she looked like she was having a lot of fun too! :-) Nicely done.

  4. Yay! Go Bella! I love, love, love the video. You can really see her confidence increasing as the time elapses. And her joy.

    I always joke that I am "cheating" whenever I lure a trick instead of shape one. It's not really true and I don't think there is anything wrong with luring but shaping teaches a dog how to think independently and, as you said, is even better for building confidence. It's also fascinating to watch. The very first behaviour we shaped was laying on her mat. It was so cool when I watched Shiva's brain figure out what it was I was asking her. It was like this whole new world opened up. There was no going back for either of us. :-)

  5. Awesome post! I wanted to do agility with Trinity but she, like Bella, was scared of all the obstacles except for the jumps, ladder, hoop & a-frame (which was her favorite and would make a b-line for it when she could). I gave up on her chances of doing agility after 12weeks worth of classes. It was quite scary for her & we didn't have enough time in the class for her to get comfortable with it. I do think she would do better at it if I took my time with her. Objects are pretty much the only thing she is scared of so agility seems like a no on our list of dog sports.

  6. Excellent post.  Thank you!

  7. Yay for Bella and you guys - what a great team, it sounds like an awesome class and there's lots of teaching whilst having fun, which is always the best way!!

    Big wags

    Your pal Snoopy :) 

  8. This was wonderful, it's great to see her becoming more and more comfortable as time goes on. You guys have all done a great job!

  9. Wow! She has come a long way. Good job Bella! 

  10. You all deserve to be proud!  I admire the patience and perseverance it must have taken to get to where you are today.

  11. I haven't been following your blog very long, just long enough to know Bella's back story. I started to tear up watching Bella's progress. What a beautiful dog, and you are beautiful people for loving and teaching her.

  12. It's so awesome to see her come so far! Wonderful post and beautiful seriously gave me tears :) Congratulations on doing all that you are doing for her...she's super lucky to have you!

  13. Oh! That was a GREAT video!