If you’re taking an agility class, you’ve probably heard your instructor say “reward your dog”. Many times, this is because the handler has perceived an error (either our own or the dog’s), and the handler has momentarily forgotten that they have a dog with them, and the dog is just staring up at them, patiently waiting to be acknowledged. The instructor reminds the student to reward their dog, and they do. Everyone’s happy, right?

I don’t think so.

At that point, you are merely feeding your dog, or tossing them their toy. It was not contingent on anything observable or measurable to us within that training session. Sometimes, this reward happens after the dog has stopped paying attention to the handler, and gets called back from sniffing or wandering to receive their reward.

The problems that I see this causing are:

  1. Dogs that don’t like repeating
  2. Dogs that guess/change their behavior frequently
  3. Dogs that slow down, check out, or leave training sessions
  4. Dogs that ramp up, take random obstacles (aka tunnel suck!) spin, bark, and bite their handlers

I’m not saying stop rewarding when you have to stop mid-course and regroup. I’m saying that this should not be the main source of reinforcement during a training session. Because, reinforcement drives behavior. If the majority of the time, you are winging food or toys at your dog for random disconnects when mistakes happen, what are you teaching the dog?

At best, you’re teaching the dog to hang in there with you while you learn. At worst, you’re teaching the dog that they have no control over their outcomes (rewards), and that agility is frustrating and anxiety producing.

So, what can we do about this? We need to take a hard look at our criteria (for both learners) and clean up our loops in agility training.

  1. Have clear start/end points. This means that the days of “we’ll see how far we get” need to be over. If you are trying to run the whole course without stopping, then your behavior needs to be just as it will be in competition, where rewards aren’t present. Otherwise, choose the section of the course that you’d like to focus on first, and get your dog to that thoughtfully placed reward!
  2. Have a clear reinforcement strategy. Know how you’re going to reward your dog as he’s landing or exiting the final obstacle of the sequence you’ve chosen. From your hand? Tossed on the line? Pre-placed there already? Plan ahead!

  3. Have a clear protocol for handling errors within the loop. Mistakes are going to happen, but they shouldn’t mean disconnect and lack of thoughtfulness. Have a plan to either circle the dog around to reattempt, continue through the sequence to that planned reward, or ignore the mistake and continue to the planned reward.

  4. Have a clear way to take the dog to the start of the next rep and/or have an option for short amounts of downtime between reps. If you will be reattempting that same sequence again, have a plan for how to move with your dog while connected back to the starting point. If you are moving on to the next sequence, still have a plan for moving to the next starting point! And, if you are going to chat with your instructor about what to do before you start your next repetition, let your dog know they are on a short break; put their leash on, down stay, give them their toy, set them on a station/mat, or continue their reinforcement collecting 🙂

Keep an eye out for my next blog post when I explain in more detail about cleaning up our loops in agility!