A few weekends ago at agility class Rio had a bit of an accident. We were just working on a simple circle pattern with a crazy entrance/exit from the tunnel (from the back of the curved tunnel). There was a tight-ish turn after a jump to the dog-walk. I don’t exactly know what happened (once he hit the dog-walk I looked forward) but from what I heard he hit the ramp at a funny angle, but got up the ramp no problem and then just lost his back foot off the plank. He tried to stay on but fell off–gave a little yelp on the way down. Inside I’m freaking out but on the outside I’m calmly picking him up and looking him over and reassuring him a bit. He was a little dazed and gave a big shake-off. I took him over the jump and tried him on the dog walk… this fearless boy took the dog-walk at top speed as if nothing had happened (well not completely he was fast but was being more sure with his footing).
It was at that moment I realized the importance of the confidence building work we worked on. Through all of our training he had learned to not shut down if a mistake was made…but to get up and try again. He was accustomed to working on unsure footingand learned … and had tumbled from the balance ball, tumbled off my back, been dropped while doing dog catches. Each time he lost his footing we’d start a party and reward the heck out of the experience (after checking to make sure he was okay) and then go right back to the scary thing and reward both the effort and successful attempts at the trick/behavior. Part of it is certainly just who he is as a dog… but part of it I think is the confidence building work and …. clicker training.
What is so interesting to me are the changes I’ve seen in Shayne over the years. Rio started out a pretty confident little fellow, Shayne, on the other hand was extremely timid, anxious and completely lacked any confidence. Four years later and I have a dog who is willing to try new things, who will offer behaviors, who isn’t afraid to fail, and one who bounces back quickly when rattled. She’s not quite the same “oozing with confidence” type dog as Rio but she is a completely different dog from when I first adopted her.
So where does Clicker Training fit in this whole scheme? I think clicker training played a huge part in Shayne gaining confidence. Due to Shayne’s food aggression issues, when I first got her she was hand fed all of her food–which meant she was clicker training for all of her food. She was clicked and rewarded at least 200 times a day. We as humans often go an entire day without any sincere positive reinforcement–Shayne had 200 “Really nice job on that project Bob,” “That was a stellar pitch Jan,” “I really liked the way you refocused that meeting” type reinforcements each and every day. Just take a moment and think about that…200 pieces of legitimate positive reinforcement from people around you. Truth be told, I couldn’t even imagine that quantity. Essentially, I was telling her “Excellent work!” for nearly everything she did and worked hard to avoid telling her she was wrong (and “no” was not in my vocabulary with her). Instead of telling her she did something wrong, I waited until I could tell her she did something right.
Eventually I could see her becoming more confident in the house… in her mind she could do no wrong and that she would always succeed… and that’s the root to confidence. Since Clicker Training is truly about telling the dog when they are right and “ignoring” (*we’ve talked a little about this, ignoring is way too simple but it’s the most concise) the wrong behaviors, she just continued to build the confidence. She learned to try things without the fear of repercussions if she were wrong, she continued to learn that she could do almost anything and in her mind she could do no wrong (since wrong behaviors were not punished, they were either redirected into a reward-able behavior or I waited until she offered a reward-able behavior).
So how do I really know? Besides all the little things she does differently, besides the body posture, besides her outgoing-ness, the best example is agility. When I first got Shayne, I was desperate for an agility dog…I wanted to be able to do that and have one of those dogs. Well, after two months, I took her to a local facility that has a dog park with agility-like equipment (jumps, low a-frame, tunnel, tire jump, a low dog walk, and this weird playground like structure they can climb on) and let her explore the equipment and play near it. I was hoping that this time to explore it on her own and play near it would get her comfortable enough to try some. When we went back, she did one jump before saying, “this is too much.” She wouldn’t leave my side to do a tunnel, she put two feet on the a-frame but didn’t think she could make it over so she froze, the 2-ft dog walk was only a little better–she got four feet on. I wasn’t pushing her, no force, LOTS of food for attempts and even MORE for successes. She didn’t know she could succeed or that she would be safe so she wouldn’t try. I went back a few more times to both play around the equipment and try and work on some but she wasn’t having it.
At some point a year later, I was able to get her over the A-frame and through a tunnel at an agility school (where I was teaching a frisbee class) with some yummy hotdogs (and after she watched other dogs do it). Another two years after that, we were volunteering at a dog camp and they had an agility course set up. Without even hesitating (and with no prior work) she took the a-frame (mid height), dog walk (full height), jumps, tunnel (“U” curve), and table. She didn’t even hesitate on the curved tunnel (she’d only done straight before), didn’t even pause on the full height dog walk (when the 2ft one was impassable), flew over the a-frame, and took the jumps like a pro. To say the least, I was incredibly proud of her… she was willing to try scary things and had the confidence that I’d keep her safe, that she could succeed, and that she really couldn’t fail.
Jump to this year, Shayne is taking an agility class. She has done ALL the obstacles (even the teeter) like the incredibly confident dog she is. When I see her run agility, even when she does the course she wants to do and thinks she knows the course better than I do, I can’t help but feel so proud of her. She went from a dog too insecure to even try something new, to bravely interacting with the teeter (slam-it game) and going over it even though she wasn’t sure what would happen. We aren’t perfect; for now she just does what she wants half the time, but she’s loving it and when we are “on” together, it can be pretty amazing for a dog who’s now had 9 classes LOL! When we are running nicely, you’d never know that she’s only had nine classes even though we are in a class with dogs who’ve been in agility classes for many months or even years.
The confidence to even try the obstacles is so firmly rooted, I think, in our Clicker Training work. Seeing the power of Clicker Training in the way of building confidence makes it just that much more appealing!