Weaves - Such a great obstacle, so many challenges!
A different perspective.

“My dog keeps missing the entries!”
”He keeps popping out after number 10!”
“Why is he avoiding the weaves in trials when he does them perfectly well at home!”
”He seems to be slowing down in the weaves!”

When done well, this obstacle creates one of the more spectacular elements of an agility course, loved and appreciated by competitors and spectators alike. Weaving is a complex behavior, however, and so many things seem to be able to go wrong!

So, where should we start?

Obviously, we need to look at such things as:

  • Physical problems - Is your dog hurting when doing the weaves?
  • Reinforcement - Are you reinforcing enough, with high enough value, and in the right place?
  • Trial stress - Is he very distracted by his environment? Are your nerves affecting his performance?

Of course all these things need to be examined and ruled out first and much has been written on the subjects of physical conditioning, rehabilitation, working when aroused and dealing with ring nerves.

However, these are not the subjects of this article.

Let’s look at some science!
Behavior chains!

Once all the above have been ruled out, what else might be happening when weave performance in the ring begins to deteriorate?

Before we go too much further, let’s use what we know about behavior chains to help us break down the problem.

  • All dog sports are made up of behavior chains.
  • For any chain to remain strong, each link must be very strong.
  • Links in the chain (behaviors) are made strong by pairing them with lots of reinforcement. (treats or toys).
  • Within a sports performance chain, the cue for the next behavior acts as a reinforcer for the previous behavior.
  • In order for this to work, the cue for the next behavior has to be given as soon as the previous behavior is completed (for those who click, that is at the moment you would have clicked the previous behavior).
  • If the next cue is late, then the previous behavior goes unreinforced.

Wait! If the next cue is late, then the previous behavior goes unreinforced!

So, in the ring, if we are late with our next cue after the weaves, then the weaves are not being reinforced in the ring. If a behavior goes unreinforced enough times, it will begin to extinguish! If this happens enough times in the ring, this could be one significant factor in the deterioration of weave performance.

(The same is true for all other obstacles and handling maneuvers by the way. How often have you been told that you are “late” cueing, but maybe not appreciated the whole significance of this seemingly simple and, usually pretty obvious statement!)

For a behavior chain to remain strong, each link must be strong!

Imagine for a moment, being asked to do something pretty challenging such as climb onto a chair. But you know that each time you do so, you will be handsomely paid with a $100 bill. Then imagine being asked to do that same thing, but instead of receiving the expected $100, you are immediately asked to perform a second challenging behavior, maybe kneel down on the floor and get back up, for which youve also reliably been paid handsomely each time in the past.

Chances are you would step up on the chair and then kneel down and stand back up pretty fluently one after the other and look forward to a handsome reward on completion of both. That is how behavior chains work.

The opportunity to do the second behavior (the cue) reinforces the first behavior as it gives you another chance to win big!

Imagine, however, that kneeling and standing is not such a favorite of yours. (Maybe you have not consistently been given the $100 or that you have bad knees!) How long then would you be willing to climb up on the chair with only the offer of kneeling and standing as the reward?

(I deliberately chose rather obscure behaviors as human examples to exemplify what we habitually expect our dogs to do in many of our sports. For instance, how often do you see pet dogs race across a room to wiggle in and out of a set of upright poles, climb over a moving plank or run into a hole with no apparent exit?)

So let’s get back to the weaves and behavior chains for a moment. Does your dog truly love all the behaviors in the agility chain as much as the next? Would he be happy being reinforced for brilliant weaves only to be asked to stay on a table for five seconds (if the table is not such a hot favorite?)

Lots of implications here - not only for the weaves!

With a greater understanding of how the strength of other behaviors in our agility chain may be affecting weave performance, we might have some clues as to why our weaves in the ring are not as strong as we would like them to be. For some, this might provide the complete solution.

For others, however, it may not be the whole story.

So, what if you have considered all the above? You understand behavior chains and you are pretty sure that none of this applies to your particular problem. You know that you always reinforce well in practice. You know that all of your agility cues (for obstacles and handling) are of equal importance to your dog. And you are positive that you are always on time with your cues in the ring. Could there be something else contributing to the challenges you are currently facing with the weaves?

I think there could.

See Part Two Here