Bending Poles and the Clicker

Agility – a combination of speed and accuracy where handler and dog must work as a team.

So much time can be wasted or gained at the bending poles, so it is well worthwhile ensuring that your dog truly understands how to perform this obstacle. Basic principles include rhythm, keeping the dog’s head facing forward, and ensuring that the dog is used to being handled on both sides.

It should be borne in mind that dogs spines do not fully develop until they are about 2 years of age, and excessive wiggle training before that age can be detrimental to the animal and could potentially cause long-term damage. Bending repeatedly through a series of poles is not a natural behaviour for a dog and could quite easily compromise the growth plates if performed too vigorously or repeatedly at an early age. Such injuries might only manifest a couple of years later, which might make diagnosis of the initial cause of the injury difficult.

There are many varied ways of teaching bending poles, such as placing restricting wires between the poles, targeting, using a leg to force the dog into the correct gap, weave-o-matics, etc. To my mind the best way (and the one that will cause least injury) consists of two elements:

Firstly, it is imperative that the dog understands the correct entry point. The dog must enter the obstacle with the first pole at its left shoulder, irrespective of the angle of approach, which side the handler is on etc., etc. To ensure that the dog truly understands this, I would train each little variation of the entry with a clicker.

Secondly, the dog needs to understand that it must run as fast and as straight as possible. In order to achieve this, two sets of poles should be set up parallel with each other, with a gap large enough between them for the dog to pass easily between them. The dog is then clicked for running down the channel created by this double row of poles. This keeps the dog’s head straight and gets a good turn of speed. The poles can then be gradually moved closer and closer together and eventually moved in to one straight stripe and voila! the dog is weaving.

In order to make the bending behaviour even stronger, and to ensure that the dog doesn’t lose concentration and so pop out of the line of weave poles before completion, the dog needs to be consistently reinforced for those last few poles. The easiest way of doing this is to make use of backchaining. This is a technique used by clicker trainers to encourage and reinforce behaviour chains. (a behaviour chain being a number of different and often unrelated behaviours in a certain sequence which need to be performed in a continuous flow. e.g. enter the poles with the first pole of your left hand side, bend to the right, turn and bend to the left, etc.)

Basically what one does is train the last behaviour first – in this case the last three poles only. Put that little sequence on cue. Then add the three poles before that so that there are now six poles in the sequence. Then the three before that, etc. Once the dog understands this, as he commits to the poles (presuming that all the above criteria – correct entry, head pointing straight forward, rhythm etc. – are understood by the dog) you can give the cue for the last three poles. The dog will change down a gear and zip through those poles so that he can do that last little wiggle which he knows so well will earn him his reward.

Voila!! you have a dog that not only understands the various concepts of wiggle poles, but a dog that is really motivated to get to the end of them.

And so the time arrives to consider entering a show and seeing how your handling skills will stand up under pressure……

In The Beginning…

When I was a child, my parents allowed me to keep all sorts of animals as pets. My dad used to make me special cages in which to keep the caterpillars I found. I would feed these caterpillars on carefully collected leaves from the shrub or tree on which I’d found them on, and wait anxiously to see what sort of butterfly or moth would emerge. I had guinea pigs and rabbits, gerbils and lizards. I had a very long-suffering snow white cat named Pinkle, who had to endure damaged animals wandering around “her” house until they were fit enough to be released. My mother had a rule which I never transgressed. She said that I could keep any pet within reason, but the first time she found it in an unclean environment and without fresh food and water, it would have to go. I cleaned and fed religiously – none of my pets was going anywhere!!

One of my favourite creatures was a young fruit bat that a friend found and gave to me. This bat was too young to feed itself and was a long way from being able to fly. I named him Sir Lancelot Gudge (children have such funny imaginations, don’t they?). It was fascinating feeding this young animal, and to feel him scurrying around my shoulders. Teaching him to fly was quite a mission – I would throw him off my shoulder and he would zoom in a tight circle and clamp himself back on to my shoulder again. A boomerang couldn’t have done better. However sometimes he’d get a bit confused and land up in the wrong spot, and I’d have to inveigle one of my brothers to drag a ladder out so that I could reclaim him. Eventually Sir Lancelot got the message and one night flew off into the darkness and never returned. I hope he had a happy life.

I had many aviaries full of birds, both purchased and rescued. Cockatiels, red rumps, bourkes, finches, and singing quail, etc. gave me endless hours of pleasure. They reproduced at an amazing rate, and dad used to drive me to the pet shop so that I could swap the extra birds for food to feed the remaining ones. People constantly brought in birds that had fallen out of nests and needed hand rearing, or that they’d found with a broken leg or damaged wing. I’d fix them up as best I could and then off they’d go back into the wild. A lot of them chose to use our garden as nesting areas, and so the same semi-tame birds could be seen year after year. Some of the doves (not the brightest of creatures) would even fly down when I was feeding Pinkle and peck at her food whilst she was trying to eat it. Poor cat – what she had to endure. She never did kill one of the tame birds, which will always surprise me.

As I grew up I became bolder in my choice of pets. Living in Durban we had our fair share of snakes, and these I used to catch and try and identify. Mom soon cottoned on to this and asked to be included in the catching expeditions. I initially believed that I’d swung her around to share my interest in all things animal, and only as I grew older did I realise it was in an attempt to try and prevent me from getting bitten. She always insisted that we take my slithery captures to the local snake park and hand them in. It was then I discovered that some snakes eat eggs!! Well I had lots of eggs from all the aviary birds. Soon I was supplying the snake park with eggs for their egg eaters, and became a regular sight there on a Saturday morning. I became besotted with a pair of girdle tailed lizards, or sungazers. Eventually I managed to persuade the snake park manager to swap me these lizards for a constant supply of eggs.

I kept my lizards at the bottom one of the aviaries. It took quite some preparation as lizards dig, so first I had to bury some chicken mesh beneath the aviary to prevent my treasures from burrowing out. They became very tame, and would soon come when I called to take meal worms and other bugs from off my palm.

Possibly the strangest of all the pets I had as a young child (I was about 10 years old then) was my Whip Scorpion. These are not really scorpions, but spiders. They are very flat and can scurry through the thinnest of apertures. Their two foremost legs have been modified into long whip-like antennae, which the insect uses to test the ground before it, as well as a form of defence. When agitated, whip scorpions will flail the air in front of them with their whips, which can look very menacing indeed. Wilhelmina (for so she was named) lived in a forty-gallon drum on a bed of rotting vegetation, and had the most beautiful whips of about 5 cms long. She became so tame that if I tapped the side of the drum, she would scurry up to the rim and delicately accept a small slug or some other tasty morsel from my hand. She stayed in that drum until it rusted away. There was no lid, and she could have left at any time, but being a canny spider, she knew which side her bread was buttered on. I was enormously proud of Wilhelmina and remember time and time again taking my little school friends to meet her. I was constantly disappointed when my friends would run screaming as I lifted my precious pet carefully out of her drum to show them.

It took me many years to learn that not all people like the variety that life has to offer us, and feel that the world would be a better place without the creepy crawlies that I so enjoyed. I will be forever grateful for my family’s forbearance at letting me keep such a variety of strange and wonderful creatures. My mother for helping me catch the various snakes and creepy-crawlies, my father for making the cages and helping build the aviaries to contain them. And to my brothers for not minding too much when one of my birds flew into the engine they were trying to fix. What an incredibly interesting childhood I was privileged to have.

Chicken Clicker Workshop

In July 2012 a group of dedicated clicker trainers got together in a workshop to train chickens. Why chickens? It has been proven that with chickens, what you train is what you get. What you reinforce, they repeat. Can you think of a better, more fun way of learning the basic skills needed to train an animal? i.e. mechanical, observational, timing and hand/eye coordination? I have trained chickens in the past, so was quite confident that this workshop would be a roaring success, and would assist the attendees to better their skills. My previous chickens learnt within a very short space of time to offer behaviours such as a down stay, spin, jump, follow a target stick, colour discrimination, walk at heel, recall, go into a crate, retrieve, etc.

So I decided to put together a workshop in which folk could hone their skills whilst having a fun day, and on top of it, teach chickens to perform behaviours which they had never learnt before. Chickens are also a good choice of animal because they come with no emotional baggage. The handlers had no preconceived ideas about what their chicken would be able to achieve, so were open-minded and eager to experiment.

These particular chickens were hatched in an incubator and especially hand-reared for this event. They had not been clicker conditioned, so the workshop attendees had to start off with the very basics. They soon learnt that the chickens quickly learnt what they were reinforced for and not necessarily what the handlers were aiming to train them! Much laughter and enjoyment ensued, but by the end of the day, the chickens were offering (in varying degrees of success) the behaviours they had been trained to perform.

Timing is Critical

In my workshops I always make a point of emphasising how important timing is. One of the ways of improving your timing skills is to study music in any form. E.g. learn to play a musical instrument, join a choir, or take up dancing. Of course, one should always “put your money where your mouth is”, so here I am doing my Gold Bar Medal Test: Latin American. I am partnered by my instructor, Sandy Smuts-Steyn.

Clicker Workshop Module 1 : 4 December 2011

Lacey has the habit of “killing” her scent cloth in the scent discrimination exercise in “C” test obedience. Here Sue, her handler, clicks and treats her for carrying it calmly.

Carla teaching her Groenendael, Maya, for targeting a disk with her right front paw.

Maxine getting her volunteer, Retha Kruger, to demonstrate different ways of getting behaviours. Here Retha is being compelled to sit on a chair. You can see by her face that she is not enjoying the experience, which is one of the reasons why we do not use compulsion in clicker training.

Clicker Workshop Module 2 : 7 July 2011

Attendees and their dogs demonstration “101 things to do with a Box” – each handler was tasked to get 10 or more behaviours within 5 minutes. Sharon and Ashley (a dog she rescued and had only had for 4 months) demonstrate how easy this is.

Here the dogs had to perform a behavioural chain – in this case they needed to weave through the poles, go around the bucket and then return straight to the handler. The handler was not allowed to move forward. They had 10 minutes to get this behaviour on cue. Here Charles shows how he and Gaudy mastered it.

Some dogs were nervous of the equipment. Here Mariano rewards Ashley for moving towards the scary bucket. This is not his dog, and it was the first time dog and handler had met and worked together.

Clicker Workshops

Clicker workshops are designed to be interactive and fun for both you and your pet. Animals such as dogs, cat, horse, meerkat, parrot, rat, chicken etc. have participated in these workshops, so that attendees can see for themselves how this training method works for all animals.

The Module 1 workshop includes the following:
What makes a good trainer
What is clicker training?
How it all began
What is the difference between a primary and secondary reinforcer?
Conditioning your animal to the clicker
Timing skills

If you’re interested in participating in one of these workshops, e-mail me on Maxine@clickersa.co.za , and I will notify you of forthcoming events.
Some photos taken at recent Module 1 Clicker Workshops:

Maretha teaching her Pug to jump on cue