Tag Archives: troubleshooting

Solutions for the Ring Wise Dog

Ring Wise Agility Dogs
(Photo Credit: Katherine Martucci, Flickr)

Recently, I was asked for advice on dogs that shut down on the start line, or shortly before entering the ring, only at agility trials: commonly known as “ring wise” dogs. I think this is a topic worth discussing, so here goes.

Let’s start by assessing your dog’s behavior. You might observe your dog turning his head away from you when asked to do a cue that he “knows.” He might sniff the ground, lick his lips, pant excessively, get the “zoomies,” and/or whine.

Your dog is telling you that he’s not comfortable performing in a trial setting. The sniffing, yawning, sneezing, etc. is a stress response. These behaviors are often called calming signals.

It’s important to note that your dog is not “blowing you off.” Your dog either does not understand what you are asking him to do, or is too overwhelmed by the environment to respond. Blaming stress on the dog absolves the handler of her responsibility to improve the dog’s training level and/or work to make the dog more comfortable in a show environment.

(If there’s one thing I don’t tolerate, it’s blaming the dog for mediocre training. Around these parts, it’s “Train, don’t blame!“)

Now that we’ve taken a good guess at our dog’s internal state, let’s backtrack and try to figure out why he feels that way.

Considerations at the Trial

First, how is your dog outside of the ring at agility trials? If he will eagerly perform cues that he knows well, with few to no calming signals, right until you enter the ring, then your dog has made some sort of association with being “in the ring.”

From the dog’s perspective, “in the ring” might mean one of many things:

  • the physical act of entering the ring (generally marked with obedience ring gates or snow fencing)
  • lack of visible, available rewards from his handler
  • his handler acting strangely (generally because the handler is experiencing some ring stress herself)
  • leash/collar off, when he is generally not “naked in public”

If your dog has discovered there are no rewards in the ring, you have a couple of options. If your dog will tug, you’re in business – teach your dog to tug on his leash, and use that in the ring. If your dog is only motivated by food, clever use of matches, run-thrus, and drop-in classes can change your dog’s feelings about entering the ring.

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Distracted Agility Dogs: Environment Focus

Finch Distracted by Sniffing the Table
Finch sniffs the table during a training session. (Photo by Katie Rogers, Smiling Wolf Photography)

Is your dog too distracted by the environment during agility training? In my last post, I compared and contrasted handler focus and obstacle focus. But in a way, there’s a third type of “focus” to consider: environment focus.

In the context of training, dogs that are displaying environment focus are distracted by what is going on around them. They could be looking for birds, sniffing the ground, or leaving work to visit other dogs.

Just like the other two types of focus, this is a training issue. Our goal is to get the dog’s environment focus as close to zero as possible while he is working with us. We want the birds, other dogs, and squirrels to fall by the wayside because he is so focused on his task that nothing else matters.

If that sounds challenging, read on – it’s not as impossible as it sounds! In this post, I outline a few things that I would have loved to have known back when I was training my first agility dog, Tessie. She had a lot of talent, but also an incredibly high level of environment focus!

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Strata’s Contact Training Journey

Mr. Strata! (Photo by Katie Rogers/Smiling Wolf Photography)
Mr. Strata! (Photo by Katie Rogers/Smiling Wolf Photography)

In my previous post, I wrote about common stopped contact training mistakes and promised to share some of the errors I’ve made along the way with Strata. Learn from my mistakes! :)

Strata is my six-year-old Shetland Sheepdog. He’s earned his MACH and a USDAA Performance Tournament Master title, and has competed at two AKC Nationals as well as International Team Tryouts last year. So, he’s a pretty experienced competition dog.

I originally wanted to teach Strata a running contact using Silvia Trkman’s method, but after a couple of months realized that I did not have enough access to equipment to pull it off. (At the time, I was traveling 45 minutes each way to do ring rentals.)

Begrudgingly, I started teaching him two-on two-off for the dogwalk and teeter. He already had a pretty consistent running A-frame, so I didn’t need to change that.

Our first contact training problem had nothing to do with the end position. Strata is afraid of heights, and it took a lot of work to get him over his fear of the middle plank of the dogwalk. (Yes, really. Here’s a video of him trotting across the dogwalk in an Open Standard run. And this was an improvement over where he had been for some time!)

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Don’t Ignore Your Dog! 5 Ways to Receive Instruction Without Losing Your Dog’s Focus

Does your dog get distracted when you stop to listen to your agility instructor? This is a bad habit that can quickly become a part of your dog’s agility performance. Fortunately, it’s easy to prevent this from becoming a big problem. Here are five ways to prevent your distracted dog from rehearsing unwanted behaviors like wandering off, sniffing, or leaving you to play with other dogs.

#1: Pack a Snack

With a little bit of pre-planning, this is an easy way to keep your distracted dog from taking off. Prepare a Kong, or pack a bully stick, pig ear, rawhide, or other high-value snack for your dog to enjoy while you receive instruction or walk the course.

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Agility is a Behavior Chain

Do you know what a behavior chain is? All agility competitors should understand this concept. If this is unfamiliar to you, this will change your understanding of how dogs learn. Buckle your seat belts and enjoy the ride.

What is a behavior chain?

A behavior chain is an event in which units of behavior occur in sequences and are linked together by learned cues. -Karen Pryor

What does that mean in English? A behavior chain is a performance in which behaviors are strung together by cues the learner understands. Cue-behavior-cue-behavior-cue-behavior-cue-behavior, followed by a consequence at the end of the chain (reinforcement or punishment).

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