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Operant training in agility

Jo Hayes is a ‘crossover’ trainer in every sense of the word. With every dog that she trained she improved her methods, forever looking for a better way to train. Two years ago she was privileged to be introduced to Clicker training in Obedience by Joanna Hill, one of the pioneers of clicker training in the UK. She soon discovered that this was a fantastic way to train, with huge implications to the world of Obedience. But how do you apply it to Agility?

It's known as Clicker training, operant conditioning or positive reinforcement. To me this means manipulating the situation so that your dog naturally offers the behaviour that you require without any assistance from the trainer. You then reward it, shaping the desired behaviour, and when the dog offers it voluntarily, you give it the command that you will use in the future. It’s as simple as that! 

Dolphins are trained with the same principal. How would you train a dolphin to jump through the air? You can’t shout at it and make it do it! However, if every time the dolphin jumped through the air as part of it’s natural behaviour you blew a whistle and threw it a fish, it would take a surprisingly short time for the dolphin to make the connection:-

  1. Whistle

  2. Jump

  3. Fish

Click those contacts!
My current agility dog, who wasn’t clicker trained for agility, slows down visibly when approaching the down contacts, especially on the dog walk when he has longer to think about it. He knows that I’m going to stop him or slow him right down, and he just can’t see the point at all. He sees the contacts as a
negative thing.

With my young dog I wanted to turn this around and make the contacts a very positive thing. I ultimately want him to run across the contact equipment with confidence and lay down on the contact no matter where I am. I know even at this point that I’ll mostly be behind him!

How to do it
The first step is to get your dog used to the clicker method. It’s amazingly easy to teach things such as sit, down, stand, wave, target an object etc. I decided that for my young dog Kyp I want him to lay down at the end of the contact equipment with his front paws just touching the ground. My other dog Woody stops half on/half off, but as I can already see that Kyp has a huge stride. This position would later cause him problems backing on to the equipment. The best way to teach a sequence, such as going over a dog-walk and laying on the contact, is to back-chain it - teach the end bit first so that the dog always knows what is coming next. This is an excellent way to build confidence and a positive attitude.

Having decided exactly what contact position I wanted from the dog, I set about achieving it. With clicker training you make it as easy as possible to begin with, and when the dog is doing that confidently, you up the criteria. To start Kyp off, I used a contact plank lying on the grass. I sat on the ground at the end with my legs either side of the plank I know it sounds a bit strange, but it works!.

Without any commands I waited for him to step onto the plank towards me. I then clicked and rewarded this. When this was being done confidently I didn’t reward him for just stepping onto the plank. I kept my hands low and waited for him to lie down, which he eventually did. Jackpot reward! And yes, my neighbour thinks I’m very strange when I run round the garden shouting yes, yes YES! My legs made sure that his body was straight on the plank and I gave him enough room so that his front paws were just on the grass.

I gradually upped the criteria until he was lying down on the plank with me standing either side. The hardest part for me is keeping my mouth shut and not giving any commands until the behaviour has been learnt! I then added my command ‘lay down’ with a release command of 'Kyp.' Eventually Kyp would run happily down the contact plank and lay down at the end. I then applied the whole procedure to the A-frame.

What next?
We both have a long way to go yet in our training. I need to train myself to make sure that he does the contacts exactly the same every time, even in the ring. I know I will find this hard, as I always want to go faster!

There are many other ways to train contacts with or without a clicker. I’m not saying that this is the best method only that it has worked for me, and I will definitely use it again. You could train your dog with a clicker to go to a send away mat and then place this at the bottom of the contact points. Apparently the Americans do this with a square of clear Perspex!

The main points to remember when doing any training are: -

  • NEVER loose your temper with your dog. The only thing that this teaches them is that you are unpredictable!

  • DON’T train your dog if you don’t feel like it! You will not be successful!

  • IF your dog doesn’t ‘get it’ go back a step and build the confidence back up. Your dog is never wrong. If he offers the wrong behaviour just say ‘no good – try again’. Think about how you are approaching the situation. Never be afraid to take a step back!

  • REMEMBER to always make it good fun. A positive attitude is the most important quality in your dog.

Clickers can be used for many other things in agility; Weaves, waits, recall, directional work, in fact the only limit is your imagination! If you hit a problem use a clicker and clarify the situation! Kyp may not end up with fantastic contacts, but then this will be down to me. All I know is that in training we have developed trust and confidence in each other and above all have had FUN!

GO ON, GIVE IT A GO! If I can do it anybody can.

You are the weakest link! Goodbye!

Jo Hayes first became involved in agility in 1994 with a local pet dog club with whom I was an obedience instructor. Originally I just did agility to occupy my mad red merle's mind, but soon my competitive nature took over and later that year I entered a few shows. My only achievement with this dog apart from staying sane was winning out of Elementary with his only ever clear round! Known locally as the ‘speckled torpedo’ Robbie was, and still is, completely bonkers!

I didn’t return to agility until 1997 after becoming a bit disillusioned with the obedience world, and the following year began competing seriously with a four year old red and white bitch, Maisie, and my first 'proper' agility dog, Woody. Within a few months, they both won out of starters on consecutive days!

Woody has since become Senior, qualifying for most Novice Finals on the way. He was third in the Agility Club ‘Novice Dog of the Year’ awards last year, which was a huge achievement as I broke my wrist last Easter (running at agility of course!) and spent the first half of the year competing with my arm in plaster! Woody was also a member of the Tunbridge Wells team that came second in the Pedigree Chum Team Relay finals in September.

The youngest member of our family, Kyp, will hopefully follow in his brother Woody’s footsteps when he starts competing later this year.

I admit to being a complete agility addict and long may it continue!

Photo of Woody jumping: Action Shots