This blog will consider the issue of behavior chains, Classical and Operant Conditioning and Conditioned Emotional Responses (CER’s) with a dog who runs off in the middle of training for agility competition.

Here’s the scenario:

Your dog has been in agility classes for one year.  He started at 6 months and worked his way up through all of the classes.  You did a puppy class, a foundation class, a class on equipment and a class on basic sequences that pulls together handling skills and basic sequencing.  You’re now in a class that does longer and more complex sequences.  Many of your classes mates are beginning to compete.

Your dog, however, runs off.  A lot.  Maybe 25% of the time, your dog is heading for a tunnel and….keeps on going.  Past the tunnel.  Past the jumps and straight out to the dogs waiting outside the ring.  Fortunately your dog is friendly, so after wiggling around for awhile outside the ring, he is easily caught and returned to you.

Now what?  Let’s start with the issue of behavior chains, classical conditioning and CER’s.

For a change of scenery,  I want to talk about you for a bit.  Yes, you.  The handler.

Let’s talk about YOUR behavior chains, YOUR operant and classical learning, and YOUR Conditioned Emotional Response.

When you set up for your run, you are beginning a behavior chain; a way of handling and interacting with your dog.  What does it look like? Has your dog trained you to stay close?  To feed constantly every time he looks around or shifts?  To monotone “stay stay stay” with an outstretched hand on the start line?  And…if your dog breaks that start, has your dog trained you to simply turn and start running the course?  Does your behavior chain include feeding your dog every time you stop for a contact to prevent him from looking around?  Do you start running towards your dog, frantic when he looks away, even if the course goes the other direction?  And if your dog runs off, what do you do then?  Do you take your dog back to the course and continue on?  Do you crate your dog?  Take out another dog?  Go home?  Yell?  Throw up your hands in despair?

What has your dog trained you to do?  Have you been operantly conditioned to hover, feed excessively, stay in his line of vision and handle to maximize your presence rather than for the flow of the course?  If yes, then you’ve got a classic behavior chain; you’ve learned to handle to compensate for your dog’s behavior rather than adjusting your training to change your dog’s behavior.  And my guess is that it’s not pretty.

Now let’s consider your CER; your Conditioned Emotional Response.  How do you FEEL when it’s your turn to run?  Are you nervous about what your dog might do?  Are you concentrating on your dog or on evaluating the environment for the places you are most likely to lose your dog? Is your heart pounding?  Are you embarrassed about what your class mates are thinking about you?  Depressed  about your lack of progress? Irritated with your dog, who doesn’t seem to do what the other dogs do?

That’s classical conditioning at work, and you haven’t even left the start line.

How does that make you feel about your dog?  It’s likely that all of those negative feelings have also affected your relationship with your dog.  It’s easy to become angry and resentful, which of course will make your dog want to avoid you.  Uh oh.

Do you see how your behavior chain begins to intersect with your dog’s behavior chain?  You’ve trained your dog and your dog has trained you.  You have feelings about your dog and your dog has feelings about you, and those feelings impact your training. Both your conscious choices (operant) and your unconscious (classical) ones are involved, because nervous handlers are in no better a position to train than nervous dogs are in a position to learn.  Of course, learning is taking place, but it’s likely the exact learning that got you into this mess in the first place.

If this is you, then there is a problem and the problem may, or may not, involve the dog.

What has happened is that you and your dog are over faced.  You are in a situation that neither of  you can handle, and the longer it’s been going on without intervention, the harder it will be to fix it.  All teams make errors, but when you no longer make training decisions to further your sport interests but instead to prevent disaster, then you’ve crossed the line from an error to a problem.

Well trained and prepared dogs will mess up and may run off on occasion.  That’s ok because it’s part of the learning process, but it should be relatively unusual, and it should not impact your basic handling decisions.  If it does happen then you’ll want to take a moment to figure out what triggers may have occurred in the environment to cause your dog’s behavior.  Was there a dog unusually close to the ring?  Did you ask for work that was harder than usual?  Did you change your reinforcer?  What factors may have existed that caused this result?  Once you know that, you can either use it as an excuse (and change nothing), or you can set up scenarios that allow for a “miniature” version of the same situation within a more controlled environment, so that over time your dog can learn to work in spite of his triggers.

But once you’re at the point where it’s a routine happening, then the dog is probably training you rather than you training your dog.  The dog has set your handling and your reinforcement schedule.  And it’s likely that your CER towards training in general and your dog in particular is miserable.

You have to regain control of your training.  That means you need to forget about what the rest of class is doing and create a plan for how you are going to get your training back on track.

Where did you go wrong?  Is it a foundation issue?  Is your dog clear on each single behavior, and properly proofed for various distractions when only ONE obstacle is being considered?  How about your start line?  If  you cannot leave your dog, lead out and know that your dog will still be there, then you should NOT be running the course unless you had already planned on a running start. Get that foundation first.

Or maybe it’s a problem with your dog’s emotional state.  Is your dog nervous?  Scared of the other dogs?  Unsure of your expectations?  Avoiding you or the pressure that you represent?  These are not “agility” issues but they will sure cause you grief in agility.  Study dog behavior and learn how to make your dog emotionally secure.

Is your dog more excited about the world than whatever you might have to offer for motivation?  If your dog isn’t able to focus and stay engaged before you take the leash off, it’s over before you’ve even started. Focus and impulse control are trained behaviors!  Work hard on impulse control exercises in well managed environments until both you and your dog can handle just about any temptation thrown in your direction.

Or maybe your dog’s foundation is excellent, impulse control is perfect and your dog’s emotional state is also fine.  Maybe your dog is simply multitasking.  He likes to run agility and he also likes to visit other dogs, people, etc, so he leaves and then comes back to continue with work.  If that is the case then you have a classic behavior chain issue; your dog has learned that there is no real consequence to adding his own personal twist on the courses.

To be honest, I find this to be the least common scenario, but if that is what is happening then your run must end.  Every time.  Have the person who catches your dog put him in the crate while you continue the run without him.  Yes, you heard me right.  You will continue the run – having as much fun as you and your imaginary dog can muster.  While another person crates your dog.  No reason for you to be the bad guy.  And anyway, you’re busy on the course having fun with your imaginary dog.

With my young dog Brito, I have a pretty good chance of keeping him engaged under some, but not all, circumstances.  I know what motivators work best (high value food) and what surfaces he can function best on (concrete or indoors).  I know his best training times of day (morning or evening) and I know when he’d prefer to sniff and wander (afternoon).  I know which environmental triggers are deadly to our engagement (squirrels).  I know which exercises we can practice in public (easy ones where he is mostly facing me) and which ones need to be worked at home (working at a distance or independently.)   I know how long he can work before he gets tired (about fifteen minutes split into two sessions – shorter outdoors) and I know how being tired affects his behavior (sniffing and wandering)

I can manipulate these factors to allow him to succeed and if that is not possible then I can choose not to work him at all.  Every management decision I make is designed to further our long term goals; none are designed to “keep up” with a class.  I don’t care if the rest of the class can do scent articles facing a field of cows.  We’ll practice our articles in the bathroom so we can have lots of success.  We’ll join the class when we’re ready.

If you recognize yourself in this blog, then here’s what I think you should do at this point.

Go talk to your instructor and start an honest conversation.  You need to know exactly what has to happen at this point to get you back on track.  You need to know if your dog’s behavior is disruptive to others in class or is being perceived as dangerous in any way.  You need a plan.  And then you need to listen to what your instructor has to say. If she says that you’ve got a great big mess, then hear that.  If she says that you need to take your 18 month old dog back to a puppy class, then do it.  If she says that the other students in class do not feel comfortable with you and your dog, then hear that too, even if it makes you mad.  If your instructor says that she can create a plan for you, but it will require private lessons, remedial training or working on foundation skills on the sidelines, then give it some thought.  Most of us professional trainers are loathe to bring up these hard conversations with our students, so if you don’t ask outright then you’ll find that the conversation is not likely to happen.  What you do with that information is up to you.

If you are the instructor, then this is the time to be both honest and kind.  Create a plan to address their issues.  If you cannot or will not do that, then refer them to someone else.  And if you don’t think the dog’s circumstances can be helped, either due to the seriousness or complexity of the problem, then now is the time to put it out there.  There is no shame in admitting that you’re in over your head too.

If I could, I would lay out a plan right here, but there are thousands of reasons why dogs and handlers find themselves in this situation.  You need to figure out the root issue and then work to address that.

In the next blog in this series, we’ll look the main reasons why I’ll risk an undesirable behavior chain in order to further another interest.