You are running a sequence when your dog makes a mistake. What now? First, you need to know if your handling was correct. A training partner can help by giving you immediate feedback on your timing and position. If you don’t have a training partner, you should videotape your training session so you can review it later. Often, I will review the video right after a mistake, before I try again.
Let’s say that you review your handling and it’s well timed and well executed—it’s not your fault. Now what? Here’s where the majority of agility handlers struggle as dog trainers. Instead of fixing the problem, they change their correct handling to help the dog “succeed.” They yell louder, stand closer, and hold positions longer to help their dog, and when their dog “succeeds” the handlers feel good about what they’ve done.
Changing your handling helps in the short term but your dog has not learned what you intended to teach them. You’ve made things easier and your dog completed the sequence but there is no mastery.
What should you do instead?
Look for ways to help your dog without fundamentally changing the way you handle a sequence. Here are some specific tips:
Tip #1: Change the Distances
This is very helpful if your dog is taking off course traps or struggling with contact-tunnel discriminations. Move the traps further away and use patterning to your advantage. After a few successful repetitions, you can slowly move the trap closer. Eventually, I bring the trap ridiculously close so that my practice is far more challenging than what I might see at a trial.
For dogs struggling with threadling, increase the distance between the two jumps, giving your dog more space to come between the jumps. For serpentines, you should decrease the distance between jumps because they’re easier to do when jumps are closer together.
Tip #2: Reward on the Intended Line
Knowing where and when to reward your dog separates good trainers from great trainers. We use placement of reward to help our dogs succeed while we continue to show them the same handling picture. Simply handle as you normally would, but throw or drop the toy at the point where the dog is struggling to make the correct response. In this way, the reward functions as a lure, and over several repetitions you can delay the appearance of the reward little by little, until your dog can complete the sequence.
Tip #3: Make the Obstacles Easier
You can train on 6 weave poles instead of 12, or open them slightly. You can also lower jump heights and teach your dog your handling maneuver or sequence of choice. Then you slowly raise the heights. This is especially helpful for dogs that drop bars.
I put together a short, easy-to-understand video showing you exactly how to use these 3 tips in your own agility training. If you find them helpful, please share with your friends and students!