Header photo credit: Heather Christianson
Ever see a high drive, small dog jumping up and down next to their handler/owner/trainer at an agility event? Sometimes they are bouncing so high they practically reach their handler’s shoulder.
Maybe if you look down the row you’ll see an equally excited border collie sitting at their handler’s side, vibrating in excitement as they chomp madly at their toy, staring wildly at the action or quietly ignoring what’s going on.
So why is the little dog allowed to bounce up and down like a jumping bean, nearly biting their human, while the border collie sits and waits?
Why are little dogs allowed to pull at the end of their leash like they are headed to a newly opened Ben and Jerry’s while the larger dogs are quietly walking like, “Meh, I was in one in Pacoima”?
It’s much easier for a small dog handler to ignore the fact that their dog is jumping up and down at their side like a crazed maniac because, hey, they weigh 10 pounds, so who cares? On the flip side, if my larger dog jumps up and down erratically at my side, he is likely to cause some damage to me, someone’s stuff, or a person standing close by. And people frown on that.
Now of course some little dogs behave perfectly and some big dogs are maniacs and not well-behaved. That is a given. But bear with me as I get to the point.
After teaching agility for over 20 years, and starting with small dogs, I know that small dog folks struggle more often with controlled behaviors than big dogs handlers, and I feel that much of that is due to consequences or the lack thereof.
When I can control my small dog on a leash with my index finger, no matter how hard they are pulling, it’s quite a different matter when a big dog isn’t under control. Faceplant anyone?
So the issue isn’t that training controlled behaviors is any more or less difficult depending on the size of the dog, it’s just that the consequences of the bad behavior in small dogs at first glance appear less relevant unless you look at the big picture (i.e. how it affects your agility). Behaviors that are a bit annoying for small dog folks can be dangerous or destructive when duplicated by a big dog. Sometimes small dog owners just let those annoying behaviors slide by “To be addressed at a later date” whereas the big dog owners are thinking: “Hell no, you are not going to be jumping up in my face!!”
The Bigger Picture
What is problematic in terms of agility isn’t necessarily the fact that their little dog is jumping at their side or pulling frantically on their leash at the moment. The biggest issue is that all that acting out can have huge fallout in your agility behaviors. The obvious problems are the struggles with controlled behaviors that manifest at the start line, table, and contacts. But they may not realize that many of their dog’s off courses are manifesting from a lack of general control and respect for the handler’s body language. If you are walking to the start line in practice and your dog is taking jumps, running over the a-frame, diving into a tunnel along the way, or taking obstacles you are not cueing – NOT GOOD!
Or maybe you finish a drill and when you go to repeat the sequence, your dog runs off with or without their toy, ducks into a tunnel or gets into end position on the contacts looking longingly at you for their treats. What then? All these things add up to the dog self-reinforcing and ignoring your body language completely to play on the equipment. “Who needs mom or dad??? This stuff is fun!! Where’s my darn cookie!!”
All this chaos can cause big fallout. Dogs are learning 24/7. If you stop dead and call your dog to you and they spin away to jump on the end of the dog walk, well heck, I imagine that that is something you would rather not have them perfect.
So how do we fix this stuff?
1. First of all you must realize that when big or little dog trainers have good controlled behaviors on their dogs, it’s because they have done a massive amount of training to create those behaviors. So expect to do a lot of work. Definitely easier to do when your dog is a pup, but it’s totally doable with an adult dog. But to be most effective, you need to have a picture in your head of what you want to accomplish and then put the work in. If you need help with the training you can always ask your trainer or contact me to help you out.
I do recommend my blog on “The Perfect Picture” to help you visualize the behaviors you want. If you do not know what you want your behavior to look like exactly, if you can’t picture it in your mind, then that is a big part of your problem. You have to know what you want the behavior to look like if you are going to be able to train it to fluency. Understanding what you want to train is a MUST!! Seems like a simple thing to say, but when you ask your dog to do a behavior, have you thought about what it should look like down to its minutia? If you haven’t, no wonder you are struggling. This blog will expand upon this concept and help you get a handle on what you want to train.
2. The other thing to keep in mind is that you will probably need to reward the behaviors you want much more than you think. I always tell my students; “By rewarding your dog a TON, what many would probably consider a ridiculous amount, coupled with being crystal clear, you will be able to train less and get to your goal much faster.
What you don’t want to do is start removing your reinforcement and making things much harder when your dog doesn’t really understand the behavior proficiently in the first place. This is common in pet dog training. Pet dog trainer: “Don’t reward your dog so much! They know how to do the behavior! Me: Ummmmm, no they don’t. Idiot.” (I didn’t really say idiot out loud).
Shocker, I happen to have another blog that talks about the importance of adding duration and huge value to behavior before you lessen the number of rewards in order to create strong behaviors and have them stick. It’s an important concept. Please give it a read.
3. You need to pay attention to what your dog is doing. Learn to really pay attention and be a great observer. Unfortunately, as we all know, it is quite easy to ignore bad behaviors like barking and jumping at some point they can become just like white noise. The problem is, the more your dog practices bad behaviors the better they will get at them. And at this point, I imagine they have been practicing those behaviors a lot. So let’s pledge now to get a handle on this stuff. You will be so happy that you did.
Wrap it up!
I could go on and on about the specifics of training these issues but this article would get insanely long. Like I mentioned earlier if you are struggling you can go to your trainer or you can contact me through my website www.stacywinkler.com. There are also a number of other free training articles on my website under “Blogs” that can help with all this training.
The moral of the story is that when you see larger high drive dogs that are under control, it’s not that you can’t have that same degree of control, it’s just that for the big dog trainers, having control is a necessity. They make sure they train their dogs to the point where they have the behaviors they need. When the consequences are higher you just have to get it done. So get it done my friends, and have fun doing it. You will be so much happier in the long run.
No dissing was intended for little dog folks. There are certainly tons of amazing small dogs out there with brilliantly controlled behaviors!