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The Cost of a Fix

February 28, 2012

When something goes awry on a run, our instincts are to fix it. If the dog misses an obstacle, we might go back to the missed obstacle and have the dog take it. Doing so is understandable if it is a question of qualifying or not in some particularly important run. Perhaps you traveled far at great expense to get that Q.

But, step back and think about what going back to the obstacle means for your dog. Did he understand that something went wrong, and does he believe he caused it? Very likely. Why did he miss the jump? 9 times out of 10, it was because you didn’t position him to take the jump. So, in his mind, he now thinks something like “Oh, I was wrong. When she slows down, I shouldn’t turn into her”. This is how we create confused, insecure  or guessing dogs. If this is something that happens at very rare occasions in trials, perhaps the dog dismisses it as just something that happened. But be aware that there is a cost to doing this. Every time you interrupt your flow and go back, you are training your dog to distrust your cues and/or distrust his own instincts. If you do go back to rescue that Q, at the very least do it in flow as much as possible. If the Q can’t be rescued, there is absolutely no reason to to fix it.

I have adopted a set of rules for myself, and I try hard to follow them. One of the most important rules is to NEVER “fix” a missed obstacle, or an off course, in a training run. Unless the dog for some reason wants to avoid the right obstacle (injury, fear, etc), the fault is either a training error, a cueing error, or – most likely – the handler’s failure to shape the dogs path such that it leads to the right obstacle. In either case,  I do my best to finish the sequence in flow. Afterwards I try to figure out why it happened and form a plan to train that aspect. Remember – in training the objective is to learn and develop, not only skills, but also the relationship with your teammate. The objective should never be to do a “clean run”. If you do, cool, but if not – so what?

Every now and then you hear comments like “you can’t let the dog get away with it”, or “he must learn to follow my cues”.  Think for a moment about the “… get away with …” comment. It assumes that the dog doesn’t want to do what you are asking him to do. If that really were true, then why on earth are you making him do it? Agility is a team sport. It assumes that the game is rewarding and positive for both team members. If the dog doesn’t like it, forcing him will not make you a team. If you truly believe the dog is trying to “get away” with an incorrect behavior, form a plan for making the correct behavior desirable for your dog, or stop forcing him to play a game he doesn’t enjoy.

The other comment about following the cues is usually misapplied as well. In all likelihood, the dog did follow your cues. You just expected him to do something different than what you have trained him for that cue. The only other possibility is that you haven’t trained a behavior for that cue. If that is the case, punishment (interrupting the game) of the undesired behavior is a very weak training tool. Instead, develop a plan to train the behavior you want and link it to the cue you want to use.

So, remember: “Fixing it Doesn’t

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