Sometimes we hit a plateau in our dog agility training. This often occurs as we start doing sequences and no longer reinforcing the first jump or the second jump. The dogs learn that rewards only come at the end. For those that are not yet motivated by doing agility itself, this means they only really get motivated during the last half of a course when they know they are getting closer to the reward. For dogs that are rewarded by simply doing agility, they’ll get faster at this point, because they are stopped less often and that makes it more fun for them.
Dog training isn’t so much different from our own behavior. Studies have demonstrated that attendance at work, on the Monday after payday, is down dramatically and tardiness increases. This used to be blamed on people getting plastered over the payday weekend, but it’s equally true, statistically, among teetotalers. It is because they know they have to work another two weeks before the next reward.
If you pay attention to your own habits, you will discover that you tend to work faster on projects, and work on them more, as you get closer to finishing them. That’s because, for humans, finishing projects is rewarding. I think the solution, for a dog like this, is to start rewarding just getting up out of the stay when the handler says “okay”… then for the first jump, and again for the second.
The thing with agility dog training, with a dog like this, is that you still have to be careful to not do a steady incrementation toward the goal of a whole course. You know, one jump, two jumps, three jumps, four. If you do that, the dog quickly learns that it always just gets harder and harder and harder – which is demotivating. Instead, you want to reinforce randomly around a mean, fifty percent above and below, and gradually increase the mean.
For instance, you start reinforcing one or two jumps and you get the dog to where it is quickly leaving the stay and taking the first and second jump… so the second jump becomes your mean (average) on the schedule. Now add and subtract fifty percent of that… which gives you your reward range of first jump through third jump. And you reward anywhere in that range in a random fashion. This results in the dog getting rewarded sometimes for working harder, but sometimes for really easy stuff – which keeps their motivation high and disguises the fact that, overall, it is getting harder.
Then when the dog is consistently getting to the third jump without slowing down, you can move the mean to that point. Now fifty percent above and below becomes a range, starting halfway between the first and second jump (1.5) and halfway between the fourth and fifth jumps/obstacles (4.5). You reward randomly, anywhere along that continuum, and when the dog is getting to the fourth obstacle without slowing down, you move the mean again.
Another part of the equation needs to be what/how the dog is rewarded. Too often, I see people giving their dogs the same reward for a fifteen-obstacle sequence that they would have given for a three-obstacle sequence. I don’t accept the same pay for 15 hours as I did for three hours and I don’t see why dogs should either. Likewise, I pay better for tougher parts of courses. I have my students employ the party concept at the end of long sequences.
When you go to a party you expect food, fun and for it to last awhile. If the host met you at the door with two cookies and a glass of pop, patted you on the shoulder, said, “It’s nice to see you” and then sent you packing, you would think that person had no clue how to give a party and never go again. Yet, that is what we do to dogs, give them a perfunctory treat or two or tug with our attention elsewhere, and then wonder why they aren’t motivated to come to our party…
It takes time to commit to rewarding a dog well and truly – but yet we expect it from the dog, to commit to our lousy “parties” over and over again. I instill in my students the habit of rewarding sequences with thirty seconds of partying… treats, play, attention, goo goo eyes… anything and everything. The pay needs to be as huge as the effort was.
I think if you use this approach the dog will improve. But its crucial that you take your time and slowly increment to a greater number of obstacles. And be sure to jackpot when the dog does an exceptionally fast part of the sequence. You get what you reward, you lose what you stop rewarding.