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Ring issues? Stress? Lack of strength? Are these things impacting your dog in the ring?

We're in a time in agility where many of our dogs have a high degree of training, and our handlers have a signification amount of knowledge. Training has evolved significantly since I started agility 15 years or so ago. And you know what? It's changed for the better!

Brody my first agility dog!

But sometimes our dog's don't perform as well in the ring as we expect. Sometimes they are always much better in training. This is super frustrating right?

There can be many things that impact our dogs performance in the ring, including (but not limited too):

  • Skill understanding

  • Handling issues

  • Strength and conditioning

  • Reinforcement issues (your dog is only trained with a toy or treats on you for example)

  • Anxiety (e.g. about dogs around, people)

  • Environmental sensitivity

  • Arousal issues

Remember when I said that agility these days has progressed? That handlers are more knowledgable?

Well if your dog is having a ring issue, you have a decision to make. Many of the things mentioned above in relation to ring/competition issues can have a serious impact to your dogs physical or mental wellbeing. And as more knowledgable trainers and handlers it is your responsibility to make a plan. And if you don't know how to make a plan, then consult with someone who can help you.

Because we ask our dogs to do agility, it isn't fair to make them compete in the ring if they are not happy. And the issues above will not just get magically better with keeping putting them in the ring. In fact, they are likely to get worse. It's also going to impact their conditioned emotional response (CER) to the ring situation. Basically they're going to think agility competition = stressful. Or agility competition = sore and hard. Or agility competition = super scary.

We are currently working on Grid having success, confidence, and happiness with weaves in the ring. This is a skill that he finds difficult and stressful in the ring. I think this is because of a number of reasons, including him getting sore in the front at competition (he's a very small 500 dog, so a tiny boy jumping relatively big jumps), an unfortunate incident with a swallow darting about a foot in front of his face in the middle of the weave poles in one of the first competitions I asked him to weave in, and me putting too much pressure on him in the weaves in a seminar with another instructor.

Here's a breakdown of our plan:

  1. a break (about 1.5-2 months) from any weave training, including no competitions in agility only jumpers

  2. retraining weave poles with a very high reinforcement rate

  3. proofing to a high degree

  4. adding weaves to sequences with immediate reinforcement

  5. adding weaves to sequences and then delaying reinforcement

  6. doing steps 3-5 in different locations

  7. asking Grid to weave at a show, but not in the ring

  8. asking Grid to attempt weaving in the ring, trying a second time if he was unsuccessful

    1. If he weaved correctly marking and leaving the ring immediately to reinforcement

    2. if he didn't continuing the run and rewarding at the end as per normal

  9. when weaving the first time in the ring I would mark, and run out to reinforcement

  10. alternating running in to a course to do a jump, weaves, out, and doing the whole course and marking and leaving after weaves

  11. starting verbal marking (good my continuation marker) correct weaves and continuing through the course.

Retraining weaves in a new location

This plan is still underway, and to date we have spent around 6-7 months working on this!

Successfully completing weaves on his second attempt at Tokoroa in January!

It's important to note that this plan was primarily around reinforcing weave success in the ring, and changing his CER to this obstacle in this situation. It's also important to note that Grid understands, and has practiced the markers and delayed reinforcement needed for this approach.

I think the other thing to note is that if we were not making significant process, then I would likely have made the decision to not compete Grid in agility, just in jumpers. I NEED him to enjoy agility and be happy to be in the ring. Because it's already physically difficult for him, I don't need it to be emotionally difficult also.

So.... realise you have a problem in the ring? Stop, make a plan, make sure your dog is physically and emotionally happy in the ring. This must be your priority, your canine teammate deserves it.

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