How Clarity Can Make or Break Your Dog Training

agility dog training weave poles in grass
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I hereby declare that clarity is queen when it comes to training our dogs! No matter the breed or temperament of your dog, or what behavior you’re working on, we all need clarity.  It will make your training smarter, get you to your goals faster, and build an understanding between you and your dog.

Before we jump into value of clarity in dog training, let’s first consider this example from a human experience.

Imagine you walk into a store you’ve never been in. You need to buy a gift for someone you kind of know. Maybe it’s a co-worker or an in-law. You’re not sure what to get them, but you hope something will jump out at you. You wander around this big unfamiliar store and start asking yourself some questions. “What does this person like? How much should I spend? What if they have this already? Where is the bathroom in this place?” I don’t know about you, but for me, this is a very unpleasant situation. I’m feeling stressed out, lost, unsure, tired. I’m waffling between options while I try to find a salesperson for help, and I regret stepping foot in this store. 

What makes this scenario so unenjoyable? Complete lack of clarity. You don’t know how to navigate this store, you don’t know much about the gift recipient, you don’t know what you should buy, or how much you should spend and now you have to pee and don’t know where the bathroom is located.

Lack of clarity produces those same yucky feelings and question marks in our dog training. Confusion, frustration, apathy, stress. For both the human and the dog. 

Lack of Clarity for the Trainer

Let’s start with our own species. Here are some examples of how lack of clarity can look like for me as a trainer/handler, taken from my real life.

  • I am unsure about my footing for this front cross.
  • My instructor is telling me to repeat a sequence but I can’t hear what she’s saying from across the ring.
  • I have no clue how I’m going to get my dog from one side of the building to the other without her visiting every dog and human we pass.
  • I start my training session by delivering treats from my hand. But then I unthinkingly toss a treat on the fourth rep. Hmm…maybe a tossed cookie is actually better for this exercise. But since I started with treats from my hand, should I just stick with that?

What really sucks is that our own lack of clarity and the bad feelings it carries can easily transfer to our dog. So we can honor our dogs by doing our best to gain clarity ourselves. Practice the front cross before you get the dog out of the crate until you feel comfortable with the footing so your dog doesn’t have to endure four awful front crosses before you figure it out. Put your dog in a down stay while you talk with your instructor so they aren’t wondering why you suddenly walked away from them. Envision how you want your dog to move through hectic spaces and then teach those skills to your dog. Be okay with ending a training session (in a positive way) so you can think through your mechanics, or even better, consider reward delivery before you even start. 

Lack of Clarity for the Dog

Now let’s consider what lack of clarity can look like for our dogs. Here are some examples from my own experience.

  • My dog took a jump that was off course, but my body language was cueing it. Then I turn away to talk to my instructor for 30 seconds. My dog did the right thing by taking the jump and now I’m ignoring her, which is punishing. 
  • During a training session at home, I stop to refill my treat pouch and move the dog bed to the other side of the room. My dog is following me around, unsure if this is an opportunity to earn rewards or not.
  • I repeatedly reward missed running contacts by accident because I can’t see if she’s hitting the yellow. My dog now has no clear criteria for a running contact behavior.
  •  When I say “yes” to mark a behavior during training, sometimes I toss the reward and sometimes it comes straight from my hand and other times I grab it from a jar on a chair 5 feet away. My dog doesn’t know how exactly where the reward is coming from.
  • My dog always gets treats in the ring during agility training. Then I do a trial and suddenly the food is gone. My dog performed perfectly, but is wondering where the treats are.
  • I unknowingly paired my verbal release cue with a step forward. Then I leadout a step while working on a weave exercise, my dog releases before I say “okay”. I pause to reset the dog. Now my dog is whining and jumping on me because I gave the perceived release cue and he didn’t get a chance to weave. Much frustration.

Do any of those sound familiar?

The Fallout

Some dogs manage fairly well despite murky training, and others find it extremely aversive. Depending on how our dogs deal with lack of clarity, the fallout can vary. With my own dogs, I have experienced two main consequences: shutting down and frustration. 

My female starts to move more slowly, she becomes hesitant and she may just opt out entirely. She has even left the ring on one occasion. “I know the treats aren’t coming out, so I’m out of here.” Her lack of clarity around delayed reinforcement had a significant negative impact on her ability to perform.  

When my male is confused, he gets frustrated and starts ramping up. He is whiny and antsy. He may even get a little bitey and jump up on me. And because he likes to work so much, he will usually keep trying, but the attempts get worse and worse until it completely devolves. I broke his weave skills this way and had to start over.

Another common symptom of lack of clarity is when dogs are offering behaviors frantically. Though it can be interesting to see how creative our dogs can be, they throw out ideas because they really don’t know what you want. I used to let my dogs do this, but as clarity has become more important to me as a trainer, I don’t like them to feel desperate or unsure during work. 

The Benefits of Clarity

On the flip side, when both handler and dog have clarity, training becomes so much easier. Things flow. You feel good about your training sessions. Your dog knows what to do and is confident in their behaviors. They understand where and when and how reinforcement will appear. Your dog knows when it’s time to work and when it’s time to chill. Training is efficient and your dog learns new things more quickly. You and your dog are communicating with each other in ways you both understand. You and your dog get your questions answered promptly and without conflict.

Regardless of how a dog deals with lack of clarity, we owe it to them to get clear. 

Check out this post to learn about ways to help increase your clarity in dog training.

Is clarity in dog training a new concept for you or something you think about often? Can you see ways that lack of clarity has sabotaged your training? Or do you have a story of how clarity elevated your training? I’d love to hear!

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