R Dog vs. E Dog

Are you creating an R dog, or an E dog?

Emily Hurt — January 2014

In my observation there are exactly two kinds of green dogs.  There are R dogs, and there are E dogs.

R dogs are the ones who turn around to look at their handlers a lot.  They will stick closer to their handler, and sometimes take much encouragement to take the obstacles.  This can be a slow dog that paces the handler, or a dog much faster than the handler, but without the ability to take obstacles without prompting.  These dogs will receive refusals (R’s).

E dogs are the ones who carry on unless prompted not to (and sometimes even if prompted not to!).  They do not pace their handler.  If not given cues in the proper time they will take what they see fit.  It might be what’s right in front of them, or it might be their favourite obstacle located halfway across the ring.  Timing is critical with these dogs, and they are the ones that will receive off course Eliminations (E’s).

>> Let’s not get hung up on semantics like three R’s equal an E, so then the R dog would E.  Or that in AKC there are not actually E’s for off course.  Or that not every course will end in an E for an off course.  These are just the terms I use to explain my position, so let’s press on.

Think of the dog as a balloon.  The balloon’s ultimate destination is to fly free, to float among the clouds (and nevermind the environmental effect releasing balloons has – I’m not for the practice, I’m just using it as a visual).  If you fill that balloon full of helium, just as full as it can go, that balloon will fly as high as it possibly can.  It will reach its full potential – its maximum altitude.  This is an E dog.

If you fill that balloon with oxygen it will just sink right to the ground.  No matter how hard you try you will never get that balloon to float in the clouds while filled with oxygen.  This is an R dog.

Now, if you start letting the oxygen out, and putting helium in its place, the balloon will start to rise little by little.  This is a process that takes much more time than starting from scratch and filling up with helium to begin with, but it can be done.  I call this: there is always hope.

Filling your dog full of “I’m a Champion!” attitude from the beginning will get you much further in the end.  It might take a while to learn how to control your E dog (floating balloon), but once you get a good handle on the string that keeps you in sync, you two can fly together…up, up and away!

Which kind of dog would you prefer to run?

I have run both, and without hesitation I will say I much prefer to run the dog the E dog.  I much prefer the dog that always thinks knows she is correct.  I never want my dog to second guess herself, or me.  Does that mean we never get R’s on our scribe sheet?  Absolutely not.  I can absolutely mis-cue something and send her past an obstacle, or over handle and pull her off of something.  Absolutely, that can and does happen.  What it means is we are a “go blue or go home!” kinda team.  I have never once worried about making course time (we have, a number of times, taken extra obstacles and still had the fastest time in the class).

Does this mean the only runs worth running are winning runs?  Definitely not.  If I only found the joy in winning and Q’ing, I’d have quit long ago!  What I find amusing is there are many people that think I Q a lot.  I have gone weekends without a single Q, especially with my young dogs.  But you’d never know it based on our post-run celebration.  The day someone can tell we faulted by how I’m behaving after a run, that’ll be a sad day indeed.

How do you make an R dog?10704335_10152758744791563_4765121668381534126_o

This is simple – it’s what most people do!  To create an R dog you introduce doubt, and remove trust.

Let’s start with the basic fact that everything that happens on course is your fault.  Yes, yours.  You haven’t trained, proofed, conditioned, cued, or handled successfully.  You are always at fault.  The sooner you come to appreciate that fact, the sooner we can get down to the business of taking the burden of perfection off your dog’s shoulders.

If in training, your dog is doing a pinwheel, and pulls off the middle jump, but successfully completed he first jump of the pinwheel, you know full well the dog can jump.  So stopping the forward momentum, putting them back over that 2nd part of the pinwheel (often accompanied by a sigh and even an eye roll, or a very stern voice), what have you taught them?  You have taught them not to trust you.  You have removed the trust from that run.  What will often happen is you will send that dog over the missed jump, then just continue on.  What has the dog learned?  The dog has learned you cannot be trusted, and they better keep a real close eye on you and second guess what you are telling them to do, so as not to make a mistake.

What should you do instead, you ask?  If my dog pulls off the 2nd jump of the pinwheel, I continue through the last part of the sequence, then make my way back to the place where we “failed” in the sequence.  This time through I make sure to support the jump my dog missed the first time, and *when* she is successful, I mark it with a “YES!”/”Super!”/”Good Girl!”, and either reward right away or an obstacle later, whatever feels right in the moment.  What does the dog learn in that situation?  She learns that you’ll always reward what you cue, and that she is right and good and *this is awesome and fun*.

To that end, you should never correct your dog in agility.  That does not mean you let them do whatever they please and just run amok.  That means you ignore what you don’t want, and heavily praise what you do want.  Dogs do what works.  If every time they shoot across the ring to the off course tunnel, you walk the other direction and ignore them, and every time they come with you and take this jump you’re cueing, you have a PARTY, what will they choose to do the next time?  They’ll probably come to the party with you.

If every time your dog goes around an obstacle, you go back and have them do it again, and their only “reward” is getting to continue on…how fun do you think that is for that dog?  It’s not the performance of each individual obstacle that the dog struggles with, but the obstacles in that particular order on that particular day.  If you really want to do the 10483309_10152537082596563_7764105944689835711_osequence “correctly”, start from the beginning (rewarding/praising all the way there!), as the entire sequence was the fail, not that one omitted jump in the middle.  You know your dog can jump because she just jumped the rest of the jumps in the sequence fine.  But she knocked #4 down…hmmm…how can we fix that?  That doesn’t mean we stop and “correct” for knocking the bar.  That means we do the sequence again, set her up for success, and praise like mad when she keeps the bar up.  THAT is how we make forward progress with any dog.

So, you create an R dog by punishing, correcting, and not rewarding.

1979672_10152796696276563_579697915019572957_nHow do you create an E dog, then?

Why, the exact opposite, of course!

I want to instill confidence and speed from the very beginning.  It is so great to have a blank slate – a totally new dog – to train.

I always start with very short sequences in training.  Keeping reinforcement high, and the rhythm very go-go-go, are keys to convincing your dog that playing this silly game with you is the best idea ever, and nothing will get in the way of the fun!

So you wanted a backside, and you got a beautiful slice instead?  Circle back around on other obstacles and re-approach the jump you wanted a backside on.  This time support it more.  (It worked!  Magic!  PARTY!!)  If you fail at the same skill two times, you need to find some way to make the dog successful.  Re-attempting something the dog clearly doesn’t know how to do (just because she did it once does not mean “she knows it and will never make a mistake again because she will generalize perfectly to every situation”) just creates frustration and breaks down trust.  Go back to basics of the skill you’re looking for – go back so far that you can reward over and again and insert the JOY back into the skill.  If you video your training sessions, you should have more time rewarding on camera, than working on camera.  If the ratio swings the other way you’re doing it wrong!  You cannot hurt anything, or reward too much.  You can absolutely hurt everything by rewarding too little.

On course, you’ll hear me praising my dogs.  A lot.  Every nice turn, every skill I tested and wasn’t sure they would perform, you’ll hear me telling them how awesome they are.  It happens a lot.  My dogs impress me all the time.  Just because we go off course or knock a bar doesn’t mean the run isn’t worth running.  There are still plenty of other skills you can praise on that course, and that’s just that much more fun you two get to have together!

The Q’s will come when you’ve experienced enough together, as a team.  The joy will happen when you get there together, as a team, not as a dictator and a follower.  This is a TEAM sport, and I for one respect my teammates above all, and if they’re not having fun, I am doing something wrong.

That’s my take on it, take it or leave it :)

My one and only goal is to have fun with my dogs, and show them a bang-up awesome time.  It’s my decision to play this game.  They’d be just as happy with hikes and Frisbee and swimming and…well you get the idea.  I doubt any of them would miss agility if we quit playing, because their lives are so full of other fun activities.  Let your dogs’ lives be so full of awesome that agility is just another element.  Don’t sweat the small stuff.  Their life is so short compared to ours.  When they’re gone, you won’t remember if you Q’d in Grand Prix in January of 2014.  You’ll remember the sweet kisses they gave you every morning.  You’ll remember that look of “this is SO AWESOME, MOM!!” they gave you every time you brought out their favourite toy.  You’ll remember that deep down feeling of joy you get every time you cross the finish line with your best friend.  THOSE are the things that are important.  Take the time to stop and focus on those, and you just might find yourself with an amazingly willing E dog living in your house, too. Three pillars of a well-trained and successful E dog include, for me:

  • Independent Obstacle Performance – the dog performing the obstacle the same regardless of the handler’s position
  • Verbal Obstacle Recognition – recognizing the obstacle, and committing to take it based on a verbal alone.  We use this skill in “lawn chair agility” while sitting in a chair playing fetch they will perform obstacles with absolutely no handler position.
  • Directionals – Left/Right, Wraps, Backsides, should all be able to be cued without position.

A note on teaching distance: I never “teach distance” to my dogs.  Yet they are very successful in gambles, and when I cannot run as fast as them on course.  For the past 4 years I have trained 99% of the time in a space less than half of a full size agility ring.  Somehow much dogs have overcome that “handicap” and been very successful.  Rikki has Q’d and placed in the last 6 Masters Gamblers we’ve run.  For a young dog trained in a tiny space where “teaching distance” doesn’t happen, I find that defies the common misconception that lots of space is required to gain crazy good distance skills.  It is also a testament to my 3 pillars above. 

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