Running Aframe Training: Target/Box Method

How I train today is an accumulation of everything I’ve learned over the last 22 years about strides, extension, collection, shaping, targeting, placement of reward, and layering in different distractions over time. 

This page will outline the prerequisite skills of training the Running Aframe. 

 

Target Option 1:

You can use either of these targets: 

Non-slip mat that can be placed onto the contact zone. The mat needs to be at least two thirds the size of the contact zone. I personally use non-slip shelf liner, or a yoga mat. 

Target Option 2

PVC box that is 30”x36”, so that it fits nicely onto the edge of the aframe. You can make these yourself out of ¾” pvc and some elbows, or you can purchase it from Clip & Go Agility (shown below).

Not sure which one you want to use? Keep an open mind – your dog may have a preference! Here are some questions to ask yourself and your dog before you make a decision: 

  1. Which will be easier to see on your training surface? If you are using the box, you have the ability to raise it up and therefore make it more visible. 
  2. Does your dog already have a well-known behavior associated with a mat? If you have a solid “go to bed” type behavior on a mat, it might not be super easy for your dog to learn a “running through” behavior. While dogs are masters at context, if you believe this will confuse them, I’d go with a box. But the same goes for the box, too. If your dog has already a well known behavior for “get in a thing and _____”, then I’d suggest trying the mat. 
  3. Extension vs Collection. In general, I feel like the box produces more collection and the mat produces more extension, but I don’t have any hard proof or data on this; it’s more of a feeling. I’ve used both with all sorts of dogs successfully, so take that one with a grain of salt. 

If you still aren’t sure, try one for the first week of class, and if your dog isn’t getting it, swap to the other. I’ve also worked with dogs that have learned both by having a mat inside the box, and then as they progressed, they were able to fade one and then the other. 

 

Reinforcer Skills

 

In this class, we are going to use several different reward strategies. Clean mechanics within these strategies will make learning more efficient, and it will make optimal placement of reward so much easier, which means your dog’s behavior will be more independent from your motion & position. 

Your mechanics should be mark then deliver. You can practice this timing by yourself with two bowls and some treats (or some paper clips!)

It is important for the dog to learn the following verbal cues, as it makes marking the correct behavior so much easier if you have specific cues that mean, “that was right, find the tossed treat” vs “that was right, take the treat from the bowl”.

Tossed Food

We are going to use a lot of tossed food in this class! One, as a way for getting our dog in the correct starting positions without the use of our bodies/physical presence. Two, as a way to create forward focus in our dog’s behavior, before adding the distraction of a zen bowl or food robot. 

For this to be an effective way to reward, the dog needs to understand to listen for the appropriate marker word, watch your hand for the toss, track the cookie, eat the cookie, and return to you. In the absence of another cue, the dog should return to you and offer eye contact. 

Stand with your hands in neutral position, and cookies in hands. Say your marker cue (mine is “get”). Show the dog the cookie. Toss the cookie 4-5 feet away and wait. The dog should run out, grab the cookie and return to you. When they do, mark again and repeat. 

Room Service 

To build value for the target, we are going to use “room service” food in the beginning stages. It will all make sense when you get to it – trust me 🙂  This means that the dog should hold the position they are currently in (standing on the mat) and you will bring the food to them. Here is a video of my border collie, Shock, learning about staying put. I begin by saying “good” once, and feeding her multiple times in position. She’s got dancing feet, but over time, it is less and less, and I can begin to space out the cookies:
 

The goal is to have a dog that takes a position and stops moving, and when you say “good”, holds that position while you deliver the cookie to them.

Dish/Zen Bowl/Food Robot 

You will need a way to pre-place a reward ahead of the target in Week 2 Lectures and we will continue to use a pre-placed reward throughout the training. You can use a dish/zen bowl (or food toy) and/or a food robot.
The robots are great for reducing “reinforced” errors, but if your dog is running to the robot, it is still rehearsing the unwanted behavior of skipping the target behavior for the robot. The zen bowl adds in a layer of fluency: the dog *choosing* to not take the zen bowl even though it is available: that the food robots just do not create.

So, you may want to utilize both, but please do start working on zen bowl if you do not already have this skill. I am happy to help you with it in this class.

There are many ways to teach the zen bowl, here is my (current) favorite: 


Prerequisite behavior: a nice loop of eating food from hand – offered focus – eat food from hand – offered focus. Because we are using offered focus to tell if our dogs are ready for the next rep or not, they need to be able to reset to offered focus after eating. 


If they do have offered eye contact, and an “eat from hand” marker, you’re good to start “dish” training. Here are the steps of the first session.

  1. Dog on leash
  2. Hold dog’s collar 
  3. Load bowl 
  4. Wait for focus/offered eye contact 
  5. Mark “yep” (food from hand cue) and feed as you move away from bowl (you can let go of their collar and just hold the leash now) 
  6. Mark “yep” several times for focus/offered eye contact 
  7. If the offered eye contact loop is clean, then mark one of the eye contacts with “dish”, and then move together with the dog to the dish. 
  8. Repeat this 2-3 times. 

If you are using a food robot like a Manners Minder, Treat & Train, or Pet Tutor, you still want to teach the dog that access to the MM is through you. 

Many dogs love the food robots because of their consistency to produce food in the exact same way every time, but I still want my dog to have skills surrounding the robot and to understand what makes the robot produce food, so I introduce the robots similarly to a zen bowl:

Toys
I will not specifically cover the use of toys in this class, but if you have the toy-equivalent skills to the strategies above (tossed toy, room service toy, and pre-placed toy), it may be possible to incorporate those strategies into your training once the reinforcement history is strong enough to withstand the added arousal that toys will bring to the table!
You need to train the skills to fluency with food first, and then layer in arousal with toys. 

 

Assignment: I would like to see your reinforcement skills! Show me a clip of each of these strategies. Work on one marker cue at a time, so I can observe your mechanics and your dog’s reactions to each verbal cue individually.  I don’t want to see multiple marker cues in one session until later. If marker cues are completely new to your team, show me your training of these cues. If you have the toy-equivalent cues and want to show them to me, now’s a good time! 

 

Clean Loops & Responding to Errors

Loopy training is a term coined by Alexandra Kurland. You can read about that here.

Loopy training refers to the order of events in a training session:
Cue – behavior – mark – reinforce – cue – behavior – mark – reinforce. 

A clean loop is what we are after, and that refers to no unwanted behavior(s) within the order of events.

When you give a cue, you want the dog to immediately offer the correct behavior. When you see the correct behavior, you will mark and deliver the appropriate reinforcer. We’d like the dog to respond to that marker and collect reinforcement, and then immediately reorientate to the handler to set up for the next repetition. 

Unwanted behaviors might be: 

Wandering off 

Sniffing

Refusing to return

Visiting people/dogs 

The list goes on – short story is: we want to avoid these issues!

Here are the pieces of a clean loop:
A starting point & a cue: This is your antecedent arrangement of your A-B-C loop. When we begin target training, you will need a way to control the consistency of your dog’s starting point. We will be using tossed food for this, so plan accordingly for using treats that the dog will be able to see on the surface you are training.
In the beginning phases, we will be allowing the dog to offer the correct behavior, so the cue will be your proximity to the props and the props themselves.
Once we have the dog consistently offering us the desired behavior (4 feet on target), we will add a verbal cue to this behavior. I like using one verbal cue for the entire obstacle that will come to mean “run up the ramp, down the ramp, hit the target, and exit to the handling”, so for when we add the verbal cue, think about what you’d like to call the aframe.

The wanted behavior: Each training session, you will need to define the behavior you’re looking for, in details that can easily be observed, so that as we are record keeping, we can identify any pieces that may be more or less difficult for your dog. 

As trainers, we often use labels to define behaviors:  enthusiasm/speed/confidence are some that come to mind for agility! These are things that you need to know about your dog, and how they learn, to accurately observe and respond to.
Is it typical for your dog to start out “slow” or “thoughtful” and then gains “speed” and “confidence” with experience? Is it typical for your dog to go one speed “very fast” no matter what?
Understand your dog’s “normal” as a baseline, and we can use that information to make better decisions during training sessions. 

Reinforcement Strategy: After the dog has offered the correct behavior, you will need to mark and reinforce the dog. Depending on the stage of training we are in, this may be with tossed food, room service food, or pre-placed food. We’d like the dog to collect reinforcement and then reorientate to you so that you can transport them back to the starting point for another repetition, or so that the next repetition is easily available to them. 

Transport: You need a way to move the dog from the point where they collected reinforcement to the point where they will begin the next repetition. The easiest transport is a cookie magnet!
In this video, is an example of three different types of transports:
1) tugging 2) leash on 3) cookie magnet + send to station 

Practice clean loops with the following session structure:
Two Cookie Back & Forth Loop:
Toss a cookie to set the dog up
When the dog lifts their head and begins to return to you, mark and reinforce in front of you. Encourage your dog to stay facing the direction they are heading.
Mark and toss a cookie in the direction they are facing and repeat.

You should create a back and forth loop. 

Once Cookie Back & Forth Loop:
Toss a cookie to set the dog up
When the dog lifts their head and begins to return to you, mark and toss a cookie in the direction they are facing and repeat.

You should create a back and forth loop.

Large Loop: 

We won’t use the back & forth loop for long, so your dog will also need this Large Loop:
Cookie toss or Stay/Station Behavior
Offered Behavior
Reinforcement ahead of them on their line
Transport back to starting point

The following video also shows the offered behavior being reinforced. You do not need to practice that for the purpose of this class.

 

Assignment: Show me your loopy training. Getting the mechanics of the training down first is critical to fast success with the target training.

Responding to Errors 

If you’ve taken any of my webinars, workshops, or classes, you know I can’t talk about teaching any skill without talking about responding to mistakes. 

In putting together your loops, plan to pay for the target behavior and the transport behavior. This not only keeps your transport behavior strong, it also gives you a great way to keep the rate of reinforcement high during a session even if an error occurs. 

Depending on the type of loop I am in, I will react to the mistake in different ways:

Two Cookie Back & Forth Loop: If the dog does not offer the target behavior, then I do not pay the dog in front of my body, and I go directly to the next tossed cookie in front of them. 

One Cookie Back & Forth Loop: If the dog does not offer the target behavior, then I repeat that rep by tossing the cookie in the direction that the dog came from. 

Large Loop: If the dog does not offer the target behavior in a large loop, I will cue the dog to come to me for the transport. They will not receive the reinforcer intended for that repetition, and we will go directly to the transport (that is rewarded) and reset for the next rep.

Within any type of loop, If the same error occurs a second time, call your dog back to you/the station, pay them, and let them take a short break. You’ll need to decide how you will ensure success if you’re going to continue the session, but it’s 100% ok to end the session and try again another time. It could be that something unperceivable to you has changed that is keeping your dog from accessing the correct response. Be a compassionate teacher! 

Sometimes, the dog will make a second mistake, but it will be a different mistake. I typically pay this effort, because they are thinking. Almost always, they land on the correct behavior on the third attempt. If they don’t, take a break and return to the drawing board. 

 

I do not get too worked up about reinforcing the incorrect behavior on occasion because it is a numbers game. If you reinforce the correct behavior 100 times but the incorrect behavior 5 times, those five times are a nothing-burger compared to the robust reinforcement history you have for the correct behavior. Reinforcing the wrong behavior only becomes problematic when the scales start to tip in the other direction, which is why we end training sessions when we start to see more errors than we should. 

 

About Synergy Dog Sports

Committed to providing a supportive learning environment for learners at both ends of the leash, Megan works with each team as individuals, bringing them to the next level no matter which path you choose to take with her: in-person classes, seminars, online classes, or 1-on-1 coaching.