05 November 2018

Finding Ready Face


I could spend all day looking at my dogs' cute faces. Banksy has perfectly round crazy eyes, Gustavo’s tongue flaps out of his mouth sideways, and Otterpop looks like a manic landshark on crack. Dog training nerd that I am, my favorite face from them is their Ready Face. It’s their own personal game face, the one that says, “Oh YEAH. Let’s DO THIS NOW!” Not to be confused with a poker face, nothing hidden in this expression, Ready Face lays it all out on the line. When I see it at the start of a training session, or on a startline, I have no fear. It’s my dog’s way of telling me that life is good, and no matter what else is going on around them, they've made the choice that they're ready to run.

So, what if you don’t see a Ready Face? Instead of that excited, intense, happy look, maybe you get something else. Sniffy face. Nervous face. Squirrel face. Mopey face. Anything but Ready Face.

Not Ready Face isn't limited to dogs. Maybe you're this person. Maybe you know this person. Maybe you’re married to them. Keys in hand, coat is on, one foot out the door, you call out, “Ready to go?”

There’s no answer. Or the answer is faint and coming from somewhere that is nowhere near the back door. You notice a shadowy figure moving across the hall, perhaps muttering to themselves about just five more minutes, and they're not wearing pants. Perhaps they're just about to start a plumbing project under the kitchen sink. The plan of leaving on time, or maybe leaving at all, has been foiled.

You can nag. Beg. Cajole. Yell. Remind them of how late you are. There is an excellent chance that doing any or all of these things won’t actually help move things along, and will probably make it worse. Too much pressure. And boy-oh-boy, loves being pressured?

Reasons For Not Ready Face

I bet your dog loves agility. Why wouldn’t they? Chasing you, jumping over things, climbing up stuff, fantastic rewards awarded liberally for zooming around with their very best person. But maybe it’s harder for them to do it around (pick one or as many as you want from this list) a bunch of other dogs, beeping noises, score table snacks, nervousness exuding from your pores, gophers in the grass, squirrels in the tree, growly ringside tuggers, timers placed in front of the first jump by the devil, an evil teeter totter in plain view, weird ring fencing, weird handling, a pole setter in an ugly hat, a leash runner with no personal space boundaries, hot weather, cold weather, a flapping tent, no toy in your hand, no cookies coming along for the ride, not understanding the earth shattering importance of this Q, the potential of alien craft landing while they’re in the weave poles, and oh, so many more. Maybe your dog just has a sensitive soul. But no matter how good those contacts or weaves are at home, it’s going to be hard to ace them in the trial if your dog can't tell you they're ok to run when they're heading to the start line.

Instead of being ready to go, they might lay down and roll around. Give you a blank stare. Sniff around the dirt. Look backwards instead of forwards. Bite a mouthful of grass. Get up. Wander off. Run away. Doesn’t matter so much what it is, just matters that they’re telling you they’re not ready to go. And in that moment, whatever you do to try to get them going puts more pressure on them so they can't move off the start, which is a key component for an outstanding agility run.

I think the first biggest thing to do is what not to do. Not plead. Not scold. Not shout at them to “Hurry Up You Lazy Jerkface.” If your dog is having an anxiety fueled moment, likely all that's counterproductive. Just picture using that line at your significant other who's carrying around a detached kitchen faucet 40 minutes before your plane is leaving. Righty-o. A history of this happening over and over and over just makes it worse. Instead, wouldn’t you rather set up a new pattern, an improved dynamic, that helps them make their own choice to put on their very own Ready Face? One they bring to you, how cool would it be to count on that every time? At least for your dog. As far as changing your significant other, you're on your own for that.

Here’s some suggestions for Finding a Ready Face:

It's never supposed to feel icky.

It’s your dog! They love you! They've been there for you through thick and thin. And I just bet, that if they were feeling ok, they really would want to run with you, but some missing piece of confidence is holding them back. Agility's supposed be fast and fun for the whole team, not just half. It should be light. It can even be funny. Tremendously humbling humor can be found in an ill timed blind cross or wrongly screamed directionals. If your dog's lost their sense of humor, maybe yours can help them bring it back. Does your dog need to laugh? Look silly. This is not a job for the grim and humorless. When they start to expect something they think is fun, they start to show you a Ready Face.

Confidence building by playing

Dogs like patterns, they like to know what to expect. You go put on your shoes, it’s walk time. I bet you see some Ready Face then. What if their ready for agility pattern got messed up somewhere along the line? Learning some of the things got hard, maybe just hard enough that they lost a little confidence. Maybe their rewards got lower. Nobody meant for this to happen, but a little confidence lost along the way can add up, and if it got paired up with some outside stressors, that would certainly shut a dog down. Building up confidence can happen by messing around and having fun, just like you probably do every day at home, for no reason other than it’s fun to play with your dog. Maybe change the pattern by upping the proportion of play time to training. Snuggles. Toys. Ball tossing. Laughing. Lighten it up. Your dog loves being with you, and bringing the love back to the agility field is key. Ready Face is their choice, so you can’t force them to play or bite that tuggy. You just want to remember that playing with you is just as fun at training as it is in your driveway. When your dog expects something happy, they ask you to continue with it. Ready!

Dying bunnies.

You bring out the toy and your dog says, “Yuck, I don’t want to play with you and your stupid toy.” Can you change that pattern by getting rid of the pressure to grab the toy? A lot of dogs think a toy waving in front of their nose sucks. Do they like chasing bunnies? Especially wounded ones? Make like a maimed bunny who is desperately trying to get out of dodge. The toy runs away. It's low to the ground. The toy darts into a hiding place. The toy must get away from the dog to avoid certain death. Sometimes thinking like a bleeding, three legged rabbit can get your dog back to playing. Sorry, bunnies. When the game catches on, next time you hide the toy behind your back, do you get a ready face? Release them to the toy! Play again! The bunny is dying! Hide it in your pocket. Do you get a Ready Face? Release to the toy! Don't bring the agility piece in just yet, create a new fun pattern of wanting the toy first. Baby bunny steps.

Raid the toy bag.

Sometimes facing away from your dog, taking off, and dragging a new toy behind you is all it takes to get some interest. My toy bag has squeakies, balls, tuggies, long tuggies, short tuggies, furry things, things with pouches, things on long strings, things on bungie cords, toys tied onto toys, you name it, it probably lives in my toy bag. It’s huge. See if you can raid a friend’s toy bag and take a toy for a whirl. Just don’t start out with the front facing face dangle move that has a great chance of making your toy aversive rather than awesome. Think like that poor little bunny, and off you go. Make it YOUR toy, not theirs. The chance of something new and exciting might get your dog ready.

Play with your food.

Food toys where you can stuff the food are cool for the dogs that like their cookies, but just sticking a chunk of food in a furry thing and expecting miracles is the wrong route. Get it moving. Doesn't have to be fancy, throw the chicken in a paper bag and tie it to a rope, drag that stinky thing around while you’re singing your favorite Elton John song, see if your dog can catch it and tear it up. Your dog hates Elton John? Sing something they like! Your dog's love of chasing you is a huge part of agility, and bringing that back to your routine can help you get a quicker route to Ready Face.

The way your food gets delivered can sometimes shake things up. Do you always throw it in a food toy? Get them to chase it to your hand! Do you always toss the cookie in the grass? Toss it in the food toy. Put it in a box. Run away with a whole stick of cheese. Bring a pancake to the field with you. Food can be a whole game in and of itself. Move that food!

Comfort level building.

Belly rubs, pats, what makes your dog feel better? Some dogs just need to feel your hands on them again before you leave them. How does your dog like to play at home, in the house? Somewhere they don’t have any anxiety? Whatever has them too nervous to sit there alone while you leave and lead out can sometimes be relieved just by goofing with them on the start line the same way as you do in your own living room and nobody's watching. Maybe you’re sitting down on the grass with them, or laying in the dirt. Just the tiniest, littlest game. Does their comfort level start to come back? Observe closely. Was that a Ready Face? Quick, go back to playing! Rinse and repeat, tiny repetitions of tiny little play times can build a lot of confidence, and eventually start to not just condition your dog that play time building attention gets them more play time, but maybe more importantly, helps them feel better in situations that were causing them to be stressed out.

Everybody on the same page.

If your dog is really scared of something, your energy level might not help them out if it’s in a whole different universe than theirs. Probably it’s not going to help to be a jolly applause freaker, clapping and whooping it up for a dog who isn't ready or wanting to play. Make a quiet little game just for the two of you, right there on the grass, and see if you can quietly build their energy level back up to where playing might happen again. Finding a teensy, tiny Ready Face is the start to finding more of them.

Distraction refocus in little bits.

Using little pieces, go all the way back to rewarding eye contact, because who doesn’t like that in a ready face? When Gustavo was young, he was way more excited about the squirrel in the tree than training. And our training field is surrounded by great big trees. So I’d just put on his leash, sit there in a plastic chair and wait him out with a cookie in hand. The tiniest flick of his eyes back to me from the squirrel tree? Cookie. Repeat. So many times. Using this patience of a saint method, instead of the begging cheerleader method, eventually conditioned him that eye focus on me was more rewarding than the promise of the squirrel. Dog math says that more reinforcement over time is going to eventually win over a low probability chance of ever getting the squirrel. That turned into longer eye contact. Which turned into a stay. Which turned into a lead out. Which turned into doing an obstacle. And so on and so forth until there were whole courses with him chasing ME, instead of the critters running outside the field.

Making the whereabouts and reliability of the reward more easy to figure out.

Try backchaining with a magic box that can house whatever the very best reward is. Steak! Cheese bits! The very best tuggy! Whatever that very best reward is for your dog, stick it in a cooler big enough to hold a six pack. Let the dog attack the cooler, and reward. Repeat! Move it away. Attack cooler, reward comes out! Back chain this to a send. Then a jump. Then another. Try it at the end of the weave poles. You're just making it Extremely Obvious to your dog that there is reinforcement available to them. What starts as a dog who learns to drive to the cooler to find their reward you can chain longer sequences together where they see the reward. Then that cooler can start to move off to field in baby steps. Eventually moves to their crate. The sequences get longer. Eventually your dog gets it that their magic box is always going to be there, even if they can’t see it. Knowing for sure what's happening at the end makes it a lot easier for them to give you a Ready Face at the beginning.

Moving feet on dogs with stuck feet.

If you get that deer in the headlights look from your dog, get their feet moving with moving food or cute tricks that involve feet moving, not staying put. Do you have cute party tricks? Training tricks always cracks me up. Besides getting better at shaping every time I train a trick, I have an arsenal of things my dog can do that usually cracks them up too. Little spins, swirling around me, running through my legs, bouncing, backing up, revving up position, if your dog gets stuck on the startline in a freeze frame, practice these tricks in all the other places, and then move them to your start. Have you ever tried tossing a cookie, then running away to toss the new cookie? If your dog likes finding cookies, eventually your feet moving predicts, you got it, tossing cookies, easiest trick in the world! Prediction of a cookie coming is a great way to start a Ready Face.

Rough transitions from point A to point B.

If getting to the start is the problem, how about happy heeling, as opposed to sad heeling or dog dragging. This can set your dog up for a whole new pattern in that tricky transition from outside the ring where the treats are, to inside the ring where the agility begins. Use prancercise as your guide. You want your dog glued to your leg, bright eyes up, feet prancing like a pony in a parade. Lots of rewards for this in lots of places first, til it becomes a pattern that predicts the fun’s about to start.

Ready on the road.

If just getting your dog to engage with you and finding consistent motivation at your training field is tricky, a trial’s going to be even trickier. So don't do it yet. Have your bag of tricks ready, and start moving the games with baby steps towards the trial. Like from your yard to the driveway. With a squirrel watching! From the driveway to the sidewalk in front of your house. With neighbor kids on tiny pink unicorn bikes watching. To the nearby park. With the skateboard kids watching. To the grocery store parking lot. With bored security guards on a smoke break watching. To downtown. Where naked clowns on unicycles could be watching, depending on what town you live in. Move in little bits, til trials are just another spot where the prediction of fun guarantees you a Ready Face.

That's what you're making your new normal, they're bringing that face to YOU, so you don't have to ask for it. A Ready Face can't over ride all the stressful, scary things, but it's going to give you a lot better chance of your dog feeling good enough to pick playing with you when those things come up. Best of all, it should be fun to look for, because you're figuring out what the magic key is that makes your dog happy. Ready? Set? And go!

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