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Agility training, overcoming our dog’s genetic reluctance

Training our dogs for agility, we need to know how they view obstructions or obstacles. Genetically they will try to avoid them because anything that they are unsure of may cause them harm. Any such harm or injury would be detrimental to the pack. Should a wolf sustain injury it could reduce the packs ability to hunt or that an injured individual could fail to keep up and being a lone wolf would lead to its certain death. A dog’s natural law is to avoid unnecessary risks.

If wolves are hunting and come across a ravine where a fallen tree has bridged the gap, wolves would rather travel great distances in either direction in a search for a safer crossing than use the tree. If unable to find an alternative, the leader will gingerly test out the tree until it finds it can cross in safety. Having learned that it is safe, the others in the pack watch and learn to use the makeshift bridge with ease and without fear.

This shows us that though genetically they will naturally avoid obstacles it is possible for them to learn to use obstacles if they have a good reason and they can acquire the skills to navigate them easily.

We know that puppies have the same wariness but programmed to copy from their elders. This means elders do pass on learned skills allowing them to learn faster than when they are older.

Winston is four years old and teaching him to navigate an obstacle is much harder to teach than Trufa who is only 12 weeks old. Trufa will follow me over all sorts of obstacles because she needs to stay with me in a need for safety and to survive. It was easier to get her to walk over the high beams or the seesaw than it would be to teach Winston. Trufa simply followed my fingers walking along the obstacle easily and without fear.

One other problem is that most dogs do not like humans manhandling them. Winston for instance does not like me lifting him up by the back legs yet my previous dogs never minded because I did this from when they were pups. It is important to teach dogs that humans can handle dogs in all sorts of ways. Vets must be able to touch our dogs during examinations so having a dog fear such contact and possibly using aggression is not an option. We have to teach them not to fear any human handling as it is important for us to touch or guide them as we teach or help them to navigate an obstacle.

The way dogs learn is to store all situations with elements of is it good or is it bad. If you show, a dog a small jump and it refuses the handler may then grasp the dog to force it over the obstacle. Doing this the dog will not only be wary of the jump it will also be subjected to human handling that it naturally dislikes and it will remember this for the future.

We now have a dog that is storing bad memories. Seeing the same type of jump again and having two memorised dislikes, it will naturally refuse again. Added to this the owner becomes stressed in wondering why the dog is refusing adding yet another memory trigger. Normally if the leader wolf shows concern, the rest of the pack will react in the same way even if they do not know what the problem is. They must assume the leader knows what he is doing.

When first training our dogs we initially use large body gestures along with words or other types of commands like clickers. Over a period, we reduce these to smaller movements or signals. Dogs soon learn to pick up the slightest body movements for it to obey our command.

In training where we would initially put our arm straight up high to signal the command for our dog to sit, after many weeks all we need to do is simply nod our head upwards to achieve the same result.

Dogs learn to watch our body language, tones of voice, and even our emotions. As I wrote last week that whilst we can train successfully when we enter a competition we become stressed or tense. Our dogs read this making them apprehensive because they believe you know something they do not. They worry there is a problem so they become reluctant to follow our commands. It is for this reason we must learn to appear to be happy and enjoy all that happens treating everything as fun.

Because I know, stress appears in my voice I try not to use verbal commands or cues at all except in the early training period. However, I may start with the command “Sit” along with a body gesture. As the training progresses, I retain the gesture though it may not be as large a movement as when I first started.

We know most dogs learn about 100 to 150 verbal commands. Some highly trained dogs have learned up to 300 individual commands like the Boarder collie that could pick out hundreds of toys by command to each toys scent signature. It therefore follows that if you think of all the words you use with your dog 150 words does not give you a lot to play with.

One thing we have learned is that though the dog can learn a one-word command it can learn to follow different actions depending in which environment it is working. For instance if my dog is searching for articles in a square indicated by 4 poles at each corner he will simply search for articles within that area with my command “Seek”. On the other hand, if I enter a field without any poles and I still use the command “Seek” he will know realise he is looking for a hidden criminal or injured person. The verbal command is not the only memory trigger that tells him what it is I want it to do.

This means that we do not need separate commands for every different reaction. A good example is the command “Over.” If the dog is standing in front of a hurdle, it will jump it. If it sees a long jump, the same command will indicate to your dog to jump this as well. If you are to jump, a ditch whilst out walking the command “Over” will produce the same result.

Knowing the ways dogs learn and how they react to different stimuli, we can formulate a suitable method of training for our dog aware of the following points.

We must play with our dogs and handle them in all sorts of ways so they enjoy and trust our touching them.

We have to choose commands or body signals that we can apply to other obstacles. If we are using verbal commands, we must not let stress influence the way we express the command.

We must try to approach all obstacles in a similar way so that our approach indicates to our dog what we want them to do.

Obstacles need teaching in a way that they have no alternative to navigate around them so they must succeed every time and receive lots of praise.

We must try to keep all our training happy and full of fun otherwise neither you nor your dog is going to enjoy Agility work.

Ok how do we start?

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