Animal training – knowing when to take a step back

There are some days when I set out to work with one of the animals, and from the start I can just tell it isn’t going to work. It could be that they aren’t listening, they’re tired or just simply not in the mood for training – for example some days when I go into the aviary, Beaky (my cockatiel) will come over to say hello and will be very cooperative… whereas sometimes I simply get hissed at as he retreats into a corner. Recognising the signs and being able to take a step back for a little while is essential to successful training: to continue to push and ask the animal will only result in frustration, a loss of confidence and a lack of enthusiasm in the next session.

I would like to think that I am respectful of my animals’ feelings, and Rusty’s agility training is always centred around her having a good time. If I introduce a new challenge, I alternate between that and something that she finds fun and easy. If she starts to get tired, I get her to lie down and have a breather. We don’t train for hours on end: I always stop before she loses interest, to keep her keen for the next session.

Recently however we had one training session that really didn’t work out, and I thought that I would share the experience (and my mistakes).

Due to me being so busy, Rusty and I hadn’t practised agility for some time. This had been a recurring theme over the summer, and every time I had brought out the obstacles she had flown around them as if she’d never had a break.

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With this in mind, I set up a new challenge that would really require Rusty to concentrate and listen to me. I wanted (and still want to) teach her to differentiate between obstacles as she is running, so I placed a tunnel and jump side by side so that I could start teaching her to take the one I gave the command for.

Rusty was very excited to see the agility obstacles out again, and I noticed that once I brought a toy into the situation (as I always do – she picks up speed when I have it) she became very wound up, leaping up at me to grab it and not bringing it back straight away after it had been thrown.

To begin with I warmed her up with each obstacle and she did them perfectly. Then I took her through the weaves and then chose either the jump or the tunnel – making sure I was handling her from the side that the selected obstacle was on so that she took the correct one.

The next step was to stand in between the obstacles and call her to one of them (I chose the tunnel more often because she prefers the jump and will always take it if given a choice).

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Until this point things were working well, but it was at this point that I should have recognised that she had already been stretched mentally and would either need a break or something easier to do. Instead, I carried on and began to move further from the obstacles whilst giving the same commands. 

Rusty became very confused and after me asking her a few times she started to become a little demotivated. She was still very focused at this point, watching me carefully to try to figure out what I wanted – but she was still hyper from the excitement of it all.

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I returned to standing in between the obstacles but she was very worked up and would no longer run through the tunnel, instead flinging herself over the jump a couple of times each way!

Again, I should have given her some release here, but I continued to ask and this resulted in Rusty trying to jump over the tunnel, causing her to stumble over. I felt awful about this, but she was up on her feet again and coming back to me as if nothing had happened before I even had chance to do anything.

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I slowed down and asked for her to go through the tunnel one more time (with more of a run up and handling her from the other side to remove the confusion) and she went, earning lots of praise and treats from me.

I then lowered the jump and calmly walked her round an easy route through the obstacles, before calling it a day and taking her for a relaxing walk instead.

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Rusty and I have had some fun with the agility obstacles since this incident and it’s safe to say that she has not lost her enthusiasm for it. When I feel that she is ready, I will reintroduce the concept of differentiating between obstacles and will write about it here! 

This experience definitely taught me a lot – it’s not something that I ever want to repeat but I hope that sharing my mistakes will help other people in their training. Always listen to your animals and don’t go into training sessions with huge expectations – take each achievement as it comes.

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