Lorrie’s Agility Dog Blog

Musings on Dogs, Agility, and Being an Instructor

Determining Performance Criteria

Before you train any behavior, you have an important decision to make.  What are the criteria going to be for correct performance?  Having a plan and end criteria is similar to having goals.  You have to know what you want in order to know what to reinforce.  Also, what you are asking must be something that is understandable to the dog.  Too often, we start training a new behavior without knowing exactly what we want.  The end result is often a confused, frustrated dog and a discouraged trainer.

Your plan will vary depending on your training method.  If you are shaping, you need criteria for each step along the way.  If you are luring or targeting, you will need to know what the end behavior should look like and what variations you are willing to accept to get there.  Either way, your criteria must be clear, enforceable, and you must be able to easily determine whether the criteria have been met.  Make sure that the reinforcement rate can be kept high with the criteria you choose.

A good example is teaching a dog to perform the table.  The steps for shaping a table performance might be broken up as follows:

·         Dog looks at table

·         Dog moves toward table

·         Dog touches table

·         Dog puts a paw on table

·         Dog puts two paws on table

·         Dog jumps on table

·         Dog enthusiastically jumps on table

·         Dog enthusiastically jumps on table from 5 feet back (10 feet back, etc.)

·         Dog lies down on table


·         Dog runs full speed, jumps on the table, lies down immediately, and stays until released

Each of the steps has black and white criteria that can be understood by the dog and easily determined by the trainer.  The behaviors are broken down enough that the reinforcement rate can be kept high, but aren’t so subtle that the dog will be confused.  

Every behavior can be broken down into several steps like those above.   The key is determining the end result so you can map a plan to get there.  Do yourself and your dog a favor and decide on criteria *before* you train, and you’ll be surprised by how easily your dog learns.


April 21, 2009 Posted by | Agility, Communication, Training | , , , | Leave a comment

A Hierarchy of Cues

A couple of times per year, I pick a free weekend and present my “Gambling is Addictive” beginning distance workshop.  The workshops, unlike our weekly classes, are made available to people not enrolled at Friendship Academy, and so far, they have been very well received.  Oddly enough, although everyone so far has shown measureable improvement in their distance skills at the workshop, I don’t think the immediate improvement is due to what I teach regarding distance.  Instead, I believe that the distance they gain during the four-hour session is mostly a by-product of people understanding the principles behind better communication with their dogs.  True distance (the 20-40-60 feet kind) requires practice.  It is a skill just like any other skill, and can’t be learned in one four-hour session.

It’s unfortunate that reading and thinking about something is not the same as learning, practicing, and understanding it (and seeing it demonstrated).  Thanks to magazines like Clean Run, we would all be perfect trainers and handlers if that were the case!  However, I thought I would put some of the basic principles I teach in the workshop out there for you to read and mull over.  Maybe it will inspire you to attend a workshop, or maybe it will just help you to better understand what you are telling your dog without being conscious of it.  I teach these principles in bits and pieces during my classes, but because of the typical 1-hour, once per week format, there really isn’t time to explain them in depth like I do in the workshops.  Bear with me if you have heard some of them before.  My hope is that by putting them all in one place, you will increase your understanding of how they integrate into the bigger picture.

I think one of the most important things I present in my workshops is what I call the hierarchy of cues.  To understand what you are communicating to your dog, you have to first know what cues they pay attention to the most.  After thinking about it, observing, and testing some of my theories, I came up with a list of cues ranked by their importance to the dog. 

Number one on the list is body motion.  Whatever direction the handler is moving in, the dog will move in as well.  Here is a fun example.  Maxx looovvveees the weave poles.  Katrina once challenged me to teach him to weave while I was walking in the opposite direction (toward him so I passed him going the other way).  Over and over I set Maxx up on one end of the weaves, walked to the other end, and then told him to weave toward me.  As long as my motion wasn’t significant, he finished them every time.  The instant I passed him walking in the opposite direction, he popped out to follow me.  Now Maxx has been known to perform weaves 60’ away at a trial, so this is NOT a dog that doesn’t know his job.  I can sit on the ground and he will weave, and even laid down on the floor once when someone dared me to (yes, he finished the weaves then too).  That tells me that my body motion is an extremely strong cue, and my observations of other dogs have strengthened that perception.

The second item on the list is body position.   Generally, the direction you are facing is the one the dogs will travel in.  How many times have you done an exercise in class, gotten an off-course obstacle, and heard your instructor say, “Look at your (feet, shoulders)” as an explanation?  We teach dogs early on not to go behind us to take an obstacle.  We are trying to instill the concept that whatever we are facing and/or looking at is the obstacle they should perform.  The importance of body position is why one of the frequent mantras during my distance seminar is “Face the Path”.  Envision a situation where there is a discrimination between a tunnel and an A-Frame.  If you are facing out, the dog should move away and take the tunnel.  If you are turned forward, the dog should come closer to your side and take the A-Frame.   Your body position dictates the direction of travel.

Next on the list is position relative to the obstacles.  The Masters gamble at the most recent USDAA trial in Loveland was a perfect demonstration of this principle for many teams.  The gamble involved a U-shaped sequence of jump, tunnel, weave poles, jump that looked something like the picture below. 



If the handler had a strong push to the weaves coming out of the tunnel (using body motion and the direction they were facing), or if they were able to get far enough toward the finish that the first jump was “behind” them, they were generally successful.  However, handlers who were behind on the send to the tunnel or got stuck flat-footed were positioned where the dog saw them on the other side of the jump when they exited the tunnel, and there was virtually no way to successfully redirect the dogs to the weaves.  The handler’s body position relative to the jump almost guaranteed that the dog would come towards them over the jump or incur a refusal if they were redirected to the weaves.

Hand and arm cues are next on the hierarchy, but they are not very powerful signals.  One of the distance “tips” I give is to stay off the gamble line.  How many handlers have you seen standing right up on the line, ineffectively flailing their arms in a misguided attempt to get the dog to move away?  Without body motion, the hand being up doesn’t give the dog very much direction.  I do like the “bowling motion” when sending a dog ahead, like into a tunnel, but only because it accentuates or adds to your body motion, not because it is an effective cue on its own.

Last on my list is verbal cues.  Interestingly, the importance of verbal direction is somewhat dependent upon the dog’s experience level.  I think inexperienced dogs pay almost zero attention to verbal cues, which is why we can call a tire a tunnel or an A-Frame a Dogwalk and the dogs will still perform the correct obstacle as long as our motion or position supports it.  As the dogs become more experienced, and we as handlers quit giving a command for every single obstacle, verbal commands start to mean more.  An experienced dog faced with four jumps in a row will normally continue to the end of the four jumps if the handler is maintaining their momentum.  The experienced team has no need to use a verbal cue for the dog to continue on a forward path.  If the experienced dog is told “here” or “out” at the third jump though, they will pay attention to the cue because they have learned that a verbal cue means change.

Hopefully I’ve given you some things to think about regarding how dogs prioritize the cues we give them.  Remembering these basic principles can vastly improve the communication between you and your teammate.

Next up – what skills DO you need for your dog to successfully work at a distance?   That blog post will be coming soon!!!


April 14, 2009 Posted by | Agility, Communication, Distance, Training | , , , , , , | 6 Comments