I love teaching agility to both my two and four legged students but some days I want to bang my head against a wall over the issue of reinforcing the dog. Every day I hear some version of “I don’t want the food to distract them from running the course.” or “I don’t want them to do it just for the food.” So here are four reasons to reinforce your dog in agility.
Because science says so.
Often people come to agility with this romanticized belief that their dog just knows how to run agility. They are natural agility dogs – they know what to do. Well no they don’t naturally know what to do. There is nothing in your dog’s genetics or life experience that has taught them to run blindly through big tubes or across a narrow board that suddenly falls out from under them. These are skills we must teach and reinforce. Surprise! agility is really about dog training. Just as we teach our dogs to sit, down, stay we must also teach them to navigate jumps, tunnels and teeters and we must reinforce the behaviors if we want them to occur again. That’s science – what we reinforce will happen again.
We want them to LIKE agility
Not every dog wants to run at height over a narrow tippy board or charge blindly through a large tube. Many dogs can be nervous or afraid when first encountering these strange items. Here we default to science again: in a process we call counter-conditioning we set up situations where the scary thing predicts great stuff (high value food reinforcers). We repeat this process over and over until the dog develops a positive response to the scary obstacle because it predicts great stuff. Throughout this process we never put the dog in a position where they are afraid and we never pressure them (please people stop luring the dog across the dog walk with a food treat that you never actually give them)
We need to teach them where to show up.
Most dogs come to agility with training that encourages them to stay close and focus on their owners. But in agility we need them to drive away from us, to run at a distance and to take obstacles independently – especially those of us with bad knees and fast dogs. This is a big shift in behaviour for a dog.
We can show our dog where we want them to go by using position feeding ie. we strategically deliver the reinforcers where we want them to show up. For example, if we send the dog over the jump ahead of us we can deliver the reinforcer further along the line, building independent distance ahead. If we consistently throw the reinforcer further ahead of the dog will learn to drive forwards independently. Toys/balls make great reinforcers if your dog will bring them back to you but not every dog works for toys and often it is easier to position the food exactly where you want the dog to show up.
We need to thank them for putting up with us.
The human handlers quickly learn that agility is a lot more difficult than they anticipated. It involves a lot of multi-tasking as we try to remember where we are supposed to go while coordinating our body parts and verbal instructions so we can tell our dog where to go as well. We do not look confident or competent to our dogs and this can be tough on them psychologically as they rely on us for direction. They can get stressed – some engage in displacement behaviours (sniffing, scratching) others bark at their handlers in frustration. If YOU make a mistake don’t give your dog grief – instead own up, apologize and offer them a cookie. Then instead of repeating that activity find something easier that you and your dog can complete successfully and for which you can reinforce your dog.