One of the common challenges that exhibitors encounter is dogs that refuse to “set-up” for work. Maybe they have just finished the heeling pattern and are moving to the start of a recall and…the dog stands there, looking everywhere but at the handler….waiting. But not sitting. Not setting up.
This is an extremely common stress response. Akin to – “If I don’t sit then I don’t have to start.” Which is technically true.
When a dog fails to set up, there are two things I look at; one is what happened immediately before and the other is what is about to happen immediately after.
If the last thing that happened was a fantastic play party with food or toys and now the dog won’t set up, then I suspect that the dog finds playing/working and time between exercises a whole lot more rewarding than work. If that is the case, then consider either carrying the party into the start of the next exercise (reward the set-up and then release – do that several times and make it a habit for life) OR after your play party, offer your dog a break. Then restart engagement at Stage 4 (search this blog for info on that). Both of these will prevent the dog from developing a bad habit of setting up slowly and painfully.
But what if the dog does this regardless of what happened immediately before? You certainly don’t want to stand around waiting – that’s going to create a really bad habit.
That’s when I look at the actual training. Is something about the work not much fun, so my dog is avoiding starting or continuing? Is my dog only showing this behavior in a ring, and is a ring the only place that I ever go from exercise to exercise without reinforcement? Fix that – train for it! Simply end one exercise, praise, go to a new one, set up – and reinforce there instead. Then randomize it – sometimes you reward parts of exercises or finished ones. Sometimes you reward after play. Sometimes you reward at the set-up. And other times you don’t reinforce with food or toys at all; you just keep going. Maybe for two exercise or maybe for an entire run through.
When in doubt, it’s pretty safe to assume that the dog is avoiding work, so make that set-up worthwhile for your dog! You can do that by decreasing the value of whatever happened immediately before, increasing the value of the work that is about to follow, or acclimating your dog to continuous chains before reinforcement happens, but regardless, listen to your dog, because if you’re seeing this in training you’re likely to see it in the ring. And while you can ignore it in training and talk the dog into cooperating, that doesn’t work nearly as well within a competition.