How To Build Drive In Your Agility Dog

BorderCollieWBallOne of the greatest aspects of the sport of dog agility is that pretty much any dog and handler team can participate and gain benefits in their relationship from doing so.  But not all dogs show up to class that first day tugging at the leash to get to the equipment and in fact they may be tugging at the leash to go back to the car!  So what do you do when your dog shows the classic signs of avoidance such as yawning, looking away, laying down and other obvious signs if disinterest?  Or your once happy, fun loving dog has quite suddenly lost interest and motivation to do anything with speed and interest.

It can be hard for us to believe that sometimes our dogs don’t want to do the activities that we think are fun.  We are focused on the end results, knowing that what we are starting is going to provide us and our dogs with a great way to have fun together and build a lasting bond and top notch communication system.  The dog, however, lives in the now.  Once you rule out the obvious causes such as illness or a previous bad experience it is time to go to the dog’s level and start with finding what makes your dog happy.  Like it or not your dog will feed off your emotions.  So the more excited and happy you are the more excited and happy your dog is likely to become.  You have to become the most exciting thing in their world.

You also need to find what “pushes your dog’s buttons.”  This may be a really delicious treat, such as cheese or hot dogs that they doesn’t get on a regular basis. It can also be a toy they really love to play with or a game, like tug, they love to play with you.  Now here is an important note:  Be certain they only get that toy or treats from you during agility time.  You want to associate the experience with doing agility and not “wear it out” by using it in daily life.  Keep that toy or treated “loaded.”

Many people who use treats will find 3-5 different treats the dog loves and interchange them to keep that drive fresh as well as use one or two Super Yummy treats for “Jackpot” rewards.  The dog only gets that special treat, cooked chicken or liver for example, when they figure out a request or have a “light bulb” moment.   When it comes to toys you may have to try a number of different toys to find which one will cause her to drop everything and come running.  A tug toy, squeaky ball or plastic bottle are some examples.  Take your dog to the pet store and shop until you find the magic toy or toys.

Once you identify this toy, play with your dog with it for just a few minutes and then put it away. Do not let them have unlimited access to it.  Keep it out of sight out of mind when you are not playing together.  This will keep the newness of the toy live and helps to build desire for the object. Then for the first few days, take the toy out of its special place and play with your dog.  As Susan Garrett says, you will now become a bad trainer.  Act like it is a really big deal when you are getting out the toy.  Toss it, tug it, squeak it, really get your dog wound up playing with it.  After a few minutes, while the dog still wants to play, put the toy back in its special place.  Then take a few minutes to pet your dog and praise her.

If you have a dog with low drive you will have to get a bit “stupid” with them.  Do whatever it takes to wind your dog up, focus on you and your dog.  Sometimes it helps to have another dog play with the toy while your low drive dog is made to wait and watch.  Then switch and make a big happy deal when playing with your low drive dog.

After you have built the excitement for playing with the toy, you can then use the toy to reward your dog’s behavior. You can go out to your yard and practice your jumps or your obedience lesson and use the toy as a reward for the correct behavior.  Because your dog has a low drive you do not want to scold the dog on the agility course or do anything to lose their enthusiasm. If they do a behavior that is incorrect they don’t get the toy.  You just happily ask them to repeat the desired behavior, ignoring the incorrect responses and then exploding with happiness when they get it correct.

Another important factor is to keep lessons short and upbeat.  Stop when the dog is happy and excited.  You should end your sessions before you see those telltale signs of avoidance creep in.  Remember, you are focused on the end product and have no way to tell the dog where this is all going.  Refocus yourself to you dog’s level of the right here right now.  You are selling your dog on the idea that this is fun as well as teaching them a new game.

Be careful because once you decide you must have something right now is the very moment you will lose everything.  It will take as long as it takes, but it will come as your dog builds confidence.  The longer you work on the foundation the stronger it will be.  The stronger your foundation the easier it becomes for your dog to learn and better they will be under pressure.  So relax and enjoy the ride.