Buy In

Maplewood Dog

Last night I taught an agility workshop, kicking off the start of agility lessons here. It was a nice small group of competitors preparing for this weekend’s trial. I had a lovely time with them all and we had good discussions. One of which involved the concept of buy in.

Dogs generally repeat behavior that works for them. That from their perspective meets their need for that moment or makes the most sense or sometimes is simply all they know.

Black lab cross rests his head on persons lap
Tom feels I should buy into petting him, now

So when we want to change that behavior, usually because it isn’t working well for us humans, or in some cases is harmful to the animal, we have to present the change in a way that gets the dog to “buy in.” In other words present a situation where the new behavior will work for the dog, from the dog’s perspective (that’s key), better than (or at least as well as) the behavior the dog already knows works for them.

Now sometimes this is pretty simple to do, and some dogs are easier to get to buy in than others, but often it takes some creative thinking and conscious practice. Especially with it comes to behaviors that happen at times of high emotions. Like in agility. When dogs are amped up and want to MOVE.

When what we’d like the dog to do is counter to what the dog really wants to do, we have to get buy in. We have to make it worth it to the dog. Now there are plenty of ways to do that, but I prefer approaches that avoid escalation, intimidation or fear and ones that foster teamwork and enthusiasm.

So back to the workshop, I love smart intense dogs, they are such fun. One student and her dog were having some challenges with start lines in the trial setting when the dog was amped and wanting to RUN. The dog found no benefit to a lead out. From the dog’s perspective waiting for her handler to lead out and release her, brought the dog nothing more than frustration of having to wait longer for the fun parts to begin! She didn’t want treats or toys or praise, she wanted to run the course! And because the verbal release and movement of the handler occurred simultaneously, the dog also wasn’t really clear on the cues. By separating the handler’s verbal cue from her movement, by a mere tiny pause, the dog released appropriately on the verbal cue then found, “Hey wait, I need more info!” Since the handler was no longer racing to catch up. Bit by tiny bit, the dog began the early stages of realizing her handler leading out even an extra half step had benefit to her, if she waited as her handler got into position, she’d actually get faster, cleaner, clearer information to run the course, something this dog really likes.

Hopefully over time, as waiting bit by longer bit for the handler to get into progressively better positions on the lead outs, the dog will reach the point of embracing that waiting as her handler leads out is a really useful part of the agility game she so loves to play. Fingers crossed, lol.

By thinking about what function the behavior serves to the dog, we can then effect change and get the buy in that equals its working for the dog too.

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