Training to Video Trial

Melissa Chapman ABC for Pets 17 March 2019

ABC 4 Pets Website

Wag It Games Shadow Skills

One game section of Wag It Games is Shadow Skills. Teams perform a course with the dog shadowing its handler. Exercises test heeling skills incorporating a variety of twists, turns and side changes. Each month the Wag It Games association, which is American, runs video trials through the website which gives everyone opportunity wherever they are in world to compete and earn qualifications towards titles. I started entering the Shadow Skills Video trials with Frodo back in June 2017 to give me something to train and aim for and something to gauge personal progress on. This month we will submit our 18th video. My Wag It Games students are all also welcome to enter if they wish, we meet once a month for full course running usually on a Sunday, all WIG's students are welcome whether for competition or not for competition.

At class we can practice the heelwork, the individual exercises and short sequences but the training shed isn’t big enough to fit in a full course, 16 to 18 exercises, so our videoing needs to take place in a different location. Previous locations have been, the car park outside the unit (Frodo's first entry was filmed in the rain in the car park outside the training shed!), Brynn Beacon Lake Field, Polean Farm indoor riding school, and Jeans agility barn at Bodelva. This significantly adds to the challenge of entering a video trial, that it will likely be either in a location which is brand new to your dog or in a location that after a few trials they recognise as somewhere they will be asked to do a lot of work for very few treats, more about this ahead.

A full Shadow Skills course is certainly a test for dog and owner. A typical Novice course (the lowest level) is 16 exercises all linked together with heelwork. That is a long way for dog and handler to concentrate and focus, plus the dog must work mainly for verbal praise as handlers may not run the course with food anywhere except concealed within their pockets and those rewards can only be removed from the pocket and delivered to the dog.

- prior to the start

- at the completion of a stationary exercise where the handler has come to a full stop before reaching for the reward and the dog remain in the location and designated position whilst the reward is delivered. There will be a minimum of 2 stationary exercises in a Novice course which is the lowest level.

- after the course is completed, including the bonus if you opt to do a bonus.

 That’s a lot of work for very little physical reinforcement other than verbal praise. Looking at the times for each of Frodo's entries so far an average course time is 1 minute and 57 seconds. Nearly two minutes focus, attention and work for two possible treats before reinforcement at the end! I know we can say 'good boy' as many times as you like on the course but is that reinforcing enough for most dogs?

Contrary to the thread so far, the idea of this article is not to put you off video trialing but rather to point out the challenges and look at some solutions. If it were too easy it just wouldn't be the same.

Set Up For Success At The Trial

Are you prepared? Has your dog had time to go to the toilet if they need to? If using food reinforcers then you don’t want your dog too hungry or too satiated. Do you have high value reinforcers? Only your dog can decide what is high value remember. Have you done your preparation? You will have the course in advance, there’s no need to learn the whole thing off by heart but make sure you understand each individual exercise, this is what class time is for pre-trial. Have you walked the course without your dog? It pays to walk the course on the day without your dog to get an idea of how it flows, practice your verbal and physical cues even with an imaginary dog, in fact some people borrow a person to walk beside them in place of their dog. When running the whole course your dog needs you to be clear and confident, if you’re having to think too much about what’s next you will remove your focus from your dog and likely your dog will lose focus on you. If entering the video trial, have you entered online before the day (ask for information) and have you brought something on which you can video your run for later uploading on the Wag It Games website?

Acclimation and Engagement

Now we add the dog. Acclimation is a term coined by Denise Fenzi, “acclimation means allowing your dog to become familiar with an environment” and this should take place before asking your dog for any work in said environment. Don’t nag your dog to interact with you, don’t even waft those treats or toy at them until they have taken in everything else. Give your dog time to walk around, explore, sniff, sightsee etc. “Just let your dog breathe, settle in and enjoy the general working environment without interruption” is how Denise Fenzi puts it. Given acclimation time rather than you having to try and be more interesting than the environment your dog should be satiated with the environment as long as it doesn’t significantly change and be more focused on you and eager to work. We are time limited when we meet for course running but there is always time given to each team to get settled, use it how you wish and if you need more time don’t be afraid to say so. Read more at

The goal of acclimation is that then your dog asks you for interaction, kind of “I'm bored, can we do something?” After acclimation to the environment, when the dog is ready, the human starts the engagement by showing the dog a combination of personality and classic reinforcers. When Frodo offers me attention I usually say something like “Are you ready?” excitedly and I will build up anticipation for the reinforcers available by letting him watch me load my pockets or the reward station where the treats will be until I want to give them to him, he will get some free samples and chatter from me whilst I do this. If your dog at any point during engagement opts to leave you for the environment, that engagement process pauses and when they re-engage it starts again from the beginning. If your dogs stays focussed on you whilst you prepare treats in your pocket or at your reward station than you can ask them to work for you. That work gets them access to those anticipated rewards. Practise exactly how you will trial, with treats in your pocket or at a reward station rather than always in your hand or in a treat pouch, and then it won’t come as a nasty surprise to your dog on video day.

Kay Laurence says that “long duration before the anticipatory travel can be taught gradually and successfully” ie once you have set up anticipation for the rewards you have available gradually ask for more work before providing those reinforcers. Kay even encourages that rather than simply delivering the reinforcers make it an event and if using a reward station make travelling to the reward station part of the reinforcement “Cue seeking > strong, stable behaviour > anticipatory travel > reinforcement process”. For success this cycle needs to be well practised, experienced and reliable. Practice the whole acclimation through to engagement, work and reinforcement in different locations then it will be familiar to you and your dog when you need it.

Remember how for Frodo's entries so far, a course averages 1 minute and 57 seconds, that’s how long we need to build up the 'work' between setting up the reinforcement and the dog getting said reinforcement. That said though I never practice the whole course before the day of videoing, the amount of work in rehearsals always varies from short such as just one exercise up to short sequences of 3 to 6 exercises. Ping ponging the amount of work builds reliability. Frodo knows he will always get to those pre-prepared reinforcers at some point if he sticks with me and I aim to only ask him to do a whole course twice maybe three times when videoing, more than that and I know he starts to see the reinforcement as less than minimum wage for the amount of work being asked of him. More on why practising lots of work between physical reinforcers may not be the answer next.

Behavioural Momentum

Behavioural momentum is a theory in quantitative analysis of behaviour. Basically it describes the general relation between resistance to change and the rate of reinforcement obtained in a given situation, how to avoid deterioration in the quality of the behaviour as perhaps the rate of reinforcement is lowered. As I've said above, when training we may use a lot of reinforcement (lots of treats) but then when it comes to video day we need to ask for lots of work with few physical reinforcers or at least very long gaps between reinforcement.

Researchers in Behavioural Momentum postulate that high rates of reinforcement and longer histories of reinforcement build 'momentum' and lead to behaviour that is resistant to change in the presence of disruptions (or delays ie more work) and distraction (a new environment). Essentially if you feel like you’ve been doing things right, you are going to be much more willing to keep trying than if you’ve had a lot of perceived failures recently.

You can build momentum for a behaviour in two ways, by training with a high rate of reinforcement (every successful repetition of a behaviour receives reinforcement or lots of them do) and by providing lots of reinforcement for the behaviour (every successful repetition of a behaviour or lots of them receives multiple reinforcers). Therefore be generous when training and practising before video day.

Behavioural Momentum and how dogs can be very environmentally aware may also work against us however. Once your dog has been to a venue for video trialling a few times, because it is not somewhere where a high rate of reinforcement tends to happen this could cause your dogs enthusiasm for work in that venue to deteriorate so they may blow you off or show frustration or stress behaviours. “Oh we're here again, I know I'm going to be asked to work hard for the sausages today. Ho hum.” This is the classic he can do it so well at class or at home situation. For these dogs perhaps plan to run short sections of the course before and after your full course run. Just be sure to make the set up the same, acclimation, engagement, set up anticipation for the rewards stored in your pocket or at your reward station whichever you choose, work and then reinforcement, regardless of whether you’re going to ask them to do one exercise, three or 16. Use the fact that unlike a real trial with a live judge when video trialling your first go doesn't have to be the one that counts, just don’t let your dog know which go is which! Also, remember you don’t have to enter every month, sometimes come along just to work short sequences as if for competition. If this resonates with you and you think I should allow more time on our video meet ups then please let me know. In the summer when the evenings are lighter we could even ask to use Jeans barn, our most used venue recently, for training outside of video meet ups, the barn is only naturally lit so available training time is limited during the winter.

In Conclusion

If you and your dog enjoy the Shadow Skills we do in Wag It Games class don’t be afraid to come along and try the full course when we get together each month. There’s no need to enter the Video Trial officially you can come along not for competition. It’s an opportunity to test what you and your dog have learnt and I'm sure you will be pleasantly surprised with what you can all achieve. Be prepared and set yourself and your dog up for success on trial day. Set your dog up for success by practicing as if you are trialling without food in your hand or whilst wearing a treat pouch sometimes. Set your dog up further for success by having a high rate of reinforcement during practice and also by giving multiple reinforcers per successful repetition and making the reinforcement an event. Know your dog and if they will easily spot that you are going to be asking a lot of them then prove to them that they are wrong and get that momentum up in the trial environment. Do your homework and know the exercises that feature in that months course, the better you know what you’re doing the better you can guide your dog. Above all, have fun! See you all next month.