September 24, 2020

Episode 261: Does Your Dog Head Check?

In this episode (23:21)

In this episode, Jennifer, Sarah, and Esteban explain why dogs head check when they run on course, and how you can eliminate this problem.

You Will Learn

  • Why your dog head checks on course.
  • When a head check is not a problem.
  • How to eliminate problematic head checking.


- You're listening to Bad Dog Agility, bringing you training tips, interviews and news about the great sport of dog agility. (upbeat, jolly music) - I'm Jennifer. - I'm Esteban - And I am Sarah. And this is episode 261. Today's podcast is brought to you by has the innovative training tools you need for agility. Having problems with the dog-walker A-frame? The hit it board can fix that.

Your dog doesn't like tugging? They'll love the tug-it. Can't move your A-frame around by yourself? The move-it can. Go to and use discount code BDA10, to get 10% off your order. That's Today we're going to be talking about a very common phenomenon in dog agility, and that is the head check. So this is what we call it at least, when the dog looks at the

handler, while they're in the middle of running, we call that a head check. The dog is checking in with the handler. - Yeah, so let me start with the question, is it ever acceptable to have your dog head check? - Well, I think that the dog is telling us something and 99 times out of a 100 what the dog is telling you is I'm not sure where I'm

going, and so I'm going to look to you to tell me, and since we always want our dogs to know where they're going, because that's how we're going to get the fastest time when they know where they're going, and they can go as fast as possible. Then I'm going to say that the majority of the time head checks are not desirable. They indicate that your dog has some

confusion and confusion is also not desirable. - Mmm, I mean that point is, oh sorry, go ahead. - So I, I'd like to think about it as you know, you're going on a road trip with a friend and you know, you know where you're going or you've looked up the directions in advance, head check is like the moment you have to slow down or you have to pull

over and confirm with your partner, well was that the right turn? Is that where we're going? You know, that, that checking in and it's going to do nothing but delay progression, to your final destination. You want to know where you're going, what you're doing and be able to get there in a nice efficient manner. - Yeah, so I think both of you have hit on the two elements

that make head checking bad in general, right? So number one is that it's going to slow the dog down in some way, right? Instead of running as fast as they possibly can, they're slowing down. The second thing, which I think maybe you, you guys weren't explicit with is that as the dog slows down and they turn to look at you, their bodies often follow their heads, and so

instead of running the line that they were on, they now create a new line, right? And it's often the inappropriate line, it takes them off an obstacle, and now you have a refusal or you run by that obstacle. So before we get any further, let me say that I think there are times when head checks are okay, and it's related to these two problems, right? It's whenever you

don't have these two problems. So if you have a dog and they're running all out on a straight line and they look at you, but they do not slow down, there's no stride checking here, they're running in full extension, they're going forward, and they don't deviate from their line, they don't curve in toward you, they don't turn away from you, then I'm going to say, head checking is

okay. To me it's like barking, right? When is barking a problem? When do we want to get rid of barking? Well, when it's causing problems in your handling, they can't hear your cues or they bark and do something else, like check stride, like turn to bark at your face, right, and they're not looking at the obstacle anymore, but if they're the kind of dog that, you know, they're

still weaving at full speed, even though they're barking their heads off, I'm okay with that. - Yeah. I like to think of that as the confirmation head check. The dog is just giving a little glance at you, sees that yes, what I thought I was doing is the correct thing, and then, you know, they're right back onto their line. They're going all out. And you know, that's kind

of how I would categorize that, that style of head check. - Well, I love what Jennifer was saying about driving in the car, and now I'm thinking I'm putting myself in a car and I'm thinking, okay, I don't really know where I'm going, I'm on a highway, I'm just going all out, but then I see a sign coming right? And then I slow down just a little bit,

so I can read the sign, you know maybe I'm going a couple miles over the speed limit and the sign would normally blow past me, but I'm going to slow down maybe to the speed limit so I can get a good look at the sign. And so that's what's happening there. Okay, so I think we kind of understand what it is. We know when it's okay, and we

know basically the two reasons that it's bad right? It's going to slow the dog down or change your line. Okay, so now how do we fix it? - Right, so I think. - Oh wait, maybe before we fix it, we need to talk about why, why, why do some dogs do it and why do other dogs not do it? And do we as handlers, bear some responsibility for

that? Or is this a breed thing? Can we say that there are certain breeds that head check more than others or certain personalities? Jennifer, what do you think? - Well, I think absolutely it starts with the why, why are the dogs doing it can then lead us to what we can do to fix it. And the number one reason that I see dogs do it is lack of

information. So late cues, right? So when you're driving on the freeway and you get to that sign and you slow down, you would not have to do that, if Sarah was in the passenger seat saying, hey, at this merge, you're going to stay to the left and then you go, okay, got it, no problem. So it's our responsibility as a handler to tell the dogs where to go,

to give them that information, to prevent them from needing to turn back. So most of the head checking that I see whether it be from my own dogs or, or working with students, is when they have completed an obstacle, they are past the point of commitment and information about the next obstacle is not yet given. So the dog has landed off of a jump, the handler has not

cued them where to go, and that's going to happen with the combination of verbals, excuse me, a combination of cues, not just the verbal, so the dog basically turns and says, where are we going? What are we doing? Now, you do have a percentage of dogs that, you know, maybe play a little bit less of a team sport (laughing) and are going to ask where we're going next.

They're going to make a decision and say, Oh, you haven't told me they might be the type that says, well, I'll go straight until you tell me otherwise. So there are certainly will be types of dogs that may be less inclined to head check, and I don't necessarily can think personally that it's a breed thing, but I do find some dogs are very driven by eye contact. They

really want to look at the handler. They really have a strong eye back towards the handler. So the dogs that want that eye contact tend to want to curl back more and it's even more important for those handlers to keep their eye contact forward, they need to be looking at the line, they need to be looking at the obstacle that they want the dog to drive to. -

And I think that there's also a pretty strong correlation between a dog that head checks while they're jumping and a dog that drops bars while they're jumping. So head checking while jumping, and when the bar, like if the bar comes down and the dog is head checking to me, that's a huge red flag. That's a head check that I'm going to immediately notice when I look at a

video and I'm going to say, how could we have eliminated that head check? Because it gives you a couple of pieces of information. It tells you the dog didn't know exactly where to go next, which probably contributed to the bar. And then the physical act of turning their head while also doing a very complicated task like jumping is going to also contribute to the bar coming down. I

think of it like like trying to walk when, when your head's turned, you know, like every once in a while you stumble on something or you misjudge, or you bump into the wall in the hallway because you happen to glance over, you know, to see what, what, what your child was doing when they were yelling in the other room and you like run into the doorway inexplicably, right,

that happens to people all the time, So I think that can happen to our dogs when they're dropping bars. - That's a really good point. I think that's a really hidden head check that a lot of people don't think about it because it happens over the bar. Everyone thinks, well, the kind of head checks we're talking about if, when you're running on a straight line, you want the

dog to go straight and then they crawl towards you or they, or they look at you, but the ones coming over the bars on turns, I think that's a really, really good example, solid example. And also, you know, the body follows the head, you know, they're up in the air. - Yeah. And not only, not only that, but I think that the, the reason we get a lot

of head checks over bars is because handlers, I think too often handlers, and maybe especially less experienced handlers, they're going to view the jumping as done after the dog lands, right? Like the jumping, the dog is not done with the obstacle until they have landed. But that is way too late to be giving the dog information on what's coming up next because how the dog takes that jump

is going to completely change their jumping mechanics. And so really the dog needs to know what's coming up next as the dog is gathering to take off so that they can make all the adjustments that they need to make on takeoff. And so I think we see a lot of head checks over bars because the handlers are waiting to tell the, to tell the dogs what to do.

And the dog is saying, well, I, I need to know now I actually needed to know a stride back, and I still don't know. - So there's a lot of responsibility there on the person driving shotgun in the car. So when I'm driving and you're in the front seat and you're giving me the directions and we miss an exit. - Yes. - Jennifer is pretty much saying it's

your fault. I think you just sided with me, Jen. - Yes, yes - Every argument we've ever had. At that point, as long as there has been a clear conversation with regard to who is navigating the trip, then it would be the navigator's fault. I think often that's the conversation that's missed is who's in charge of directions and in the case of agility, it's much easier to determine

it's the handler. - That's right, that's right. - There you go, there you go. I do want to talk about handler reinforcement of the behavior. So an interesting thing can happen with head checking and that is this. Let's say you want the dog to run in a straight line, the dog turns her head towards you to check in, they slow down a little bit, the line gets a

little crooked because they're now curving in toward you, okay? And they're going to miss the next obstacle. You see that happening and you provide the dog with a new cue. So you maybe re-cue the jump, if it's a jump, you're gonna say jump over whatever your word is, and a lot of people tend to give a strong arm. So if they normally handle with the arm nearest, the

dog they'll do that. But I see it in a lot of spots, especially because they're curling towards you and you kind of want to turn them away from you, people will throw up the opposite arm. - I call it the panic arm. (laughing) - Okay, sure, sure. The panic arm, right. And so it may or may not fix it. Sometimes it does, sometimes the dog spins in the

wrong direction, you know, sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn't. Regardless of whether it works or not, a very important thing has happened in basic dog training principle here is you have reinforced the behavior, right? - Of head checking, - By providing them with the cue because each cue that we provide for the next obstacle reinforces what happened right before that, right? A dog successfully takes a jump, they

get the cue for the next jump, and that queue reinforces the jump that they just took and so on and so forth until we have this behavior chain, this chain of behaviors that we do on course, and so now if you're a dog, think about it from a dog's perspective, you're getting new, valuable information that in many cases is different from the information you got before. So you

are highly incentivized to check in and check in more often, at any time you encounter the situation, right? The handler starts to fall behind. Let me check in. They're definitely going to let me know for sure if I need to go straight or if I should start coming in toward them. Right? And so I think handlers accidentally totally without knowing it reinforce this behavior, right? And so I

think that's a little trickier to get rid of. Let's, well, I mean, I'll, I'll go ahead and move into the solution now, and then we'll talk about all the different ways that other different ways that we can fix this issue. But for I, in my opinion, this is my opinion now, for this specific problem, you basically don't want to reinforce it. So what does that really mean? It

means do not provide the dog with a re-cue. All the information the dog had needs they already have is the case that I'm going to make. So say for instance, you know, I got a three jumps sequence, they're all in a straight line they take the first jump, the second jump, but after the second jump, I fall a little behind, they started curving toward me, they're clearly going

to miss the third jump, that's where a lot of people would re-cue. I would not. I'm just going to keep running straight, I'm gonna ignore the dog, its like, hey, I don't even see you dog. I'm just running my straight line and. - And you should be too. - And the dog is going to figure it out or run it, they're either going to get it right or

wrong. I don't care which of those it is. My only concern here is that I don't reinforce that behavior by re-cueing it, so sure they're going to miss it a couple of times by the third, fourth, fifth time, they're going to be like, hey, I can kind of look at him out of the corner of my eye, I know he's never going to give me the, the new

cue or an opposite arm or yell jump jump jump again. It's on me. And the last information I had as I was taking out for jump number two was this guy said jump and he was running straight, that is where I need to go. They're going to figure it out. So in, in a way, we create the very problem that we're trying to get rid of. What do

you guys think? - I had the same scenario happen recently, not on a straight line of jumps, but very similar concept with regard to sends to a tunnel. So we were working on building distance to sending to a tunnel. So I told the handlers that they could take one step, one hand signal, and then their verbal needed to be the same as normal, whether they say it once

or say it three times, but what was happening is when they would send a dog to the tunnel and the dog would jump out a few steps and turn and look back at them, so basically get the refusal, the handler would call the dog back into heel position, reset, and then try to send again. And I kept saying, the moment you do that, the moment you call the

dog back into you, for the lack of the send, you reinforce exactly what they wanted, which was, they didn't want to go from you. So it was very hard to get the handlers to learn that when you've taken the step and you've given the cue, you know, you stand there and depending on the dog's level, we are either doing a little bit of like waiting on them to

then offer the tunnel, or stepping a step closer and staring at the tunnel and saying tunnel, but absolutely not calling the dog back in. And I see it all the time on sends, dog doesn't go, handler calls them in to reset them because now like presumably the dogs in front of them facing them. And as soon as you call them in, you are reinforcing exactly what it is

they want, which is to not go away from you. So 100% just keep running that line, they might miss the jump and that's okay, they might miss it a second time, but as you said, you cannot continue to reinforce that behavior, and I do think what's important to, to talk a little bit about whether it be in this scenario or others, is that some head checking is a

result of late handling and that's more on us, right? And our timing and our cues, but we also have the head checking that is a result of lack of understanding, meaning there might be times when your handling is perfectly on time, you were timely with your verbal, your shoulders were forward, your motion was doing what it was and the dog didn't respond, that's still on you to fix,

but it's going to be a fix through training versus a fix through handling, so when you're breaking down the head checking, you're looking at, okay, well, why is my dog head checking? You need to have those videos. You need to be training your sessions to look back on it and say, was my cueing on time? If the answer is no, then you need to give more timely information.

If your timing was good and the dog is still head checking, then you need to question their understanding of what it is that you're asking them to do. - Yeah, that's brilliant. Agreed, total. Totally. A hundred percent. That's the first thing I'd tell a person, hey let's work on your cue timing and then some people actually clean up their cue timing and they get it done and they

improve, and the dog still has some problems in some situations, generally when the handler's like really falling far behind. And so, yeah, so training. So without getting too much into it, let's just talk a little bit about the training. Like what's the quick broad overview of how we're going to train this. Cause I know that someone's out there listening right now, they're like, okay I'm gonna, I'm gonna

improve my cue, okay but then what is this training thing that they're talking about? - Well? I mean, every, you know, you can have head checks in, in all kinds of scenarios, so everything's different, but I guess broad categories we're really talking about obstacle commitment is probably the, the biggest number one thing, right, is when you give the cue, is the dog committed to the obstacle with, or

without a ton of motion from you. Like if you're able to be there with all of your motion, you generally don't get head checks because your emotion and your verbal and everything about the situation where they're headed anyway, they're all in agreement, right? The dog is headed for the tunnel. You're headed for the tunnel. And you've said tunnel, right? That dog is probably going to the tunnel and

is not going to head check. It's when the tunnel is not on their direct line and you, and your emotion does not 100% support it, but you're saying tunnel that's when you're going to get a head check, so having that, working on that obstacle commitment, and in general, you want to do it like anything else you want to start where they're comfortable, where you feel like they're going

to take that tunnel, and then back it up where, you know, there has to be a little bit more independence from them and then increase that independence, you know, bit by bit, you know, foot by foot. - I absolutely agree. Typically, it is lack of, you know, understanding, lack of commitment to that obstacle. And I think to even peel one layer further back and say, okay, well, what

do I do about it, rewarding off of you. If you're trying to get your dog to drive forward to an obstacle, go to an obstacle. I don't care if we're talking an independent obstacle, a tunnel, a jump. If you're constantly handing the dog cookies from the giant bait bag on your hip and pulling the toy out of your back pocket, you are one giant reinforcement. And so where

are they going to want to go? And where are they going to want to look? Right to you. So doing more reinforcing off of your body, either planting a treat or toy in advance rewarding on their line, throwing the toy in advance, using the manners minder. The dogs that tend to be a little bit more inclined to look back when it comes to obstacle training, we're not even

talking head check and handling at this point, are those who do so much reinforcing off of their body, compared to those who are willing to throw treats and throw toys. This is just in my mind, again, kind of going one step further, now I'm getting off topic, the benefits to throwing and being able to have toy drive. You know, I, not a lot of people don't bother, Oh,

I don't want to teach my dog, this breed doesn't like toys. Okay, throw your food. Well, I don't want to throw food. If I throw food on the ground, they're going to sniff. - Right. - Right? So now we get right back into, okay, well, I'm only going to use food and I don't want to throw food, So I'm only gonna use food from my hand, oh, now

my dog won't go away from me. So, you know, kind of going one step further, now you have a little more motivation to work on that toy drive, to have the ability to throw the reinforcement, You know and I know, there's a lot of solutions, the Lotus ball, the manners minder having really solid markers, but I think getting that reinforcement off of you is really key in getting

the obstacle performance and obstacle understanding, which leads to less head checking. - Yeah, I agree. I think that that would be my number one solution for sure. You said something very interesting, I think this was a couple of minutes ago, you said something about working with people and the tunnel. Looking, looking at the line or looking in a certain direction, tell me a little more about handler's eyes

and what they're looking at and how this kind of might play into this. - So I generally advise handlers that if you are trying to get your dog to go away from you, if your dog is driving forward and doing a send, to look in the direction that you want the dog to go. We know that indirect eye contact is a forward cue, direct eye contact is more

of a collection cue. So if I'm doing something where I'm doing a lead out and I want my dog to have really good collection at a jump, I might be more inclined to turn and look back at them or establish direct eye contact over the bar, and eye contact really is a pretty natural cue for the dogs, but it's no different than, than humans, right? If somebody makes

eye contact with you and they are having a conversation with you, imagine being in an auditorium and the presenter stares right at you, you're not going to while they're looking right at you, look down at your paper, they're looking at you, you're going to look right back at them. You're going to show that you're attentive, you're going to show that you're paying attention. Or if you are, you

know, say you're talking to someone and all of a sudden you can see their eyes drift to go over your shoulder, you will sometimes consciously sometimes not turn around and say, what are they looking at? Like, you'll look back to it, what's going on over there. - Yeah, yeah. Because you'll see as a teacher, you see this all the time, but you'll see all the eyes of the

students or the heads turn one particular direction, if something's behind you. - Yeah. And so you're like, what are they looking at? So you turn to look at what they're doing. It's the same way with the dog when you're staring directly at them, they're not going to be as inclined to break eye contact. they're going to return it right back to you. So looking at the tunnel then

makes it all go, well, what are they looking at? Oh, the tunnel right there, right? So it kind of works the same way it does for handlers, So the example that I had, it was actually very, very interesting. She was trying to send to a tunnel, she lined her dog up in heel position, stared right at the dog and then tried to send to the tunnel and the

dog would not go, and I said, put the dog in a stay, I want you to extend your arm, look right at the tunnel and then release. Absolutely no problems. Dog flew right in the tunnel. So it was like, even before the release, the dog saw the eye contact go to the tunnel and knew that's what was going to happen next and eliminated that hesitation immediately. - Yeah,

that's a real thing. So this is not some made up dog trainer stuff that people are talking about with the eye contact. The examples you gave are just fantastic. Yeah, I really liked that, and you're like, is there an asteroid coming from outer space? (laughing) All right. Well, I think we've just about covered everything. Do do either of you have anything to add to the discussion? - No,

I think the, the big thing is that, - Oh wait, which one of you emphasized videotaping? - I think we all did. (laughing) - Okay, because yeah, that's a, that's a, that's a big deal. - That's literally what I was gonna say in wrapping. - Yeah, what is nature of the head check here and what is the solution? Yeah, watch your videos and you'll be able to figure

it out. - Right, and I think that when you're watching your video, if you see your dog head check, that is a moment in your video that is probably worth evaluating. So that's kind of like a, a quick tip on video review is, is find those head checks and definitely look at those moments and see what kind of information you're giving your dog. And that's it for this

week's podcast. We'd like to thank our sponsor,, happy training. (upbeat music)

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